A copy of this game was provided by the developers for the purposes of this review.
Zoetrope Interactive and Iceberg Interactive bring you their Lovecraftian horror title, Conarium, this time on PS4 and Xbox One. In Conarium, you play as Frank Gilman, a member of an Antarctic Upuaut Expedition. You awake to find the entire area deserted and as you try to figure out what happened, slowly uncover an endless and confusing string of horrifying truths.
Lovecraft once wrote in an essay about horror literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” And being that Conarium draws heavily from, but takes place after, H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness, there’s tons of old-school horror buried within the game. And it seems like the game developer did a wonderful job given the limited scope of the setting.
There’s a real tension in this game, which is pretty surprising given the simple gameplay elements in Conarium basically boil down to a horror-driven “walking simulator”. The Cthulhu mythos is fueled by strange and mysterious powers that are completely alien to our understanding. And it’s pretty clear that Zoetrope understood where this ideal was best applied, within the game world, rather than built into gameplay. It’s a tricky balancing act to both create engaging gameplay, mostly in the form of puzzles, while also crafting an intricate and appreciable setting, and the devs seem to have succeeded in most ways.
The gameplay itself is a fairly standard for a horror game similar to Layers of Fear. Along the way across the Antarctic, Frank will encounter an array of increasingly difficult puzzles and a handful of actually dangerous foes that he must escape from or bypass. Conarium isn’t a full-fledged monster game, opting instead for a much more subdued tone.
Although the few scenes where dangers that can end your game show up are actually a lot less scary because of one major problem with the medium of video games and horror games, especially with something so esoteric as Lovecraftian fiction. The player always has a much more vivid imagination than the game can ever hope to realize. So taking these horrors out of my imagination and placing them on the screen made them tangible, and allowed my analytical side to gamify the experience rather than let me be immersed in the moment.
The lighting and shadow effects are next level and make the game so much more eerie than it would otherwise be without them. The stunning mix of music and sound effects adds to the tension as well. I was fully in horror game mode while playing this. So much so that I properly missed a few stingers because I immediately ran away from several scenes early on as I was expecting something more dangerous than a simple scare. There are a few moments where this attitude saved me though, but most of game is a passive experience. After all, when confronted with these kinds of unnameable horrors, you can’t even begin to understand them, let alone fight them.
It’s this combination of stellar environmental, sound and art design that helps really immerse the player. There are a few moments where I felt a bit lost because the amount of junk in the environment hid a vital object I needed, but a careful combing of the environment and the notes I had collected got me unstuck from these few moments.
The game presents much of the story that doesn’t take place in cutscenes through written words. Be they pages from a scattered notebook, notices or pictures pegged to a wall, the player will learn much of what happened at this distant research facility through text. It’s interesting that the game still manages to use this simple mechanic to convey such a complex web of intrigue, mystery and weirdness as one would expect from this kind of horror.
The Xbox One version of the game ran perfectly well in terms of framerate. The visual effects, especially the bloom effect on the flashlight can be a bit overbearing, but overall the actual story being told and the action playing out are aided by the lighting and shadows at play here. This game looks amazing, even on an original Xbox One.
So, is it good value for the asking price of £24.99/$29.99? I’ll leave that for you to decide. It’s certainly not the ideal game for those expecting sweat-inducing horror or adrenaline-pumping action. If you want to explore nuanced environs and unravel a complex web-like narrative, this game is certainly for you though.
It’s a fairly short game though, clocking around four to five hours in total. So the value assessment in regards to time played is a bit skewed as well.
As someone who personally doesn’t enjoy the more monster-heavy horror experiences, mostly because they feel more like action games to me, than the style Conarium opts for, I actually enjoyed the immersive and mind-bending experience in this game quite a bit more than I thought I would because of how much I just felt like I was long for the ride.
The puzzles and navigation are pretty simple, and the gameplay is equally simple, but the game really shines where it counts, in narrative and visual prowess. I would recommend this to any avid horror fan. Anyone looking to get into the genre could definitely do worse than this. And the easy pace makes it great for people who aren’t good under pressure.
Conarium is out now for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.