Have you ever fallen in love with a game just because of its atmosphere? I wouldn’t say I’m head over heels for Conarium just yet, but I’m getting there. The only problem is that Conarium’s demo build leaves me wanting a lot more, and doesn’t offer too much of substance. Developed by Zoetrope Interactive and published by Iceberg, the game is most decidedly steeped in the trappings of H.P. Lovecraft. Not just influenced by Lovecraft like so many games before it, but genuinely set in his literary mythos. Conarium pledges to be nothing less than a sequel to Lovecraft’s groundbreaking novel At the Mountains of Madness, asking what would happen—physically and psychologically—to the survivors of that doomed expedition?
Like I said, Conarium nails its presentation, but its narrative is a bit more vague, at least based on its preview build. As far as I can ascertain you play as Frank Gilman, a character unrelated to the original story but nonetheless dreaming—or hallucinating—visions of the Antarctic base from the novel, and the accompanying ruins. You start the demo off in a submersible, then transition to the base, and then finally end up in the ruins. As you move along you can examine and collect important objects—books, tools, eldritch artifacts—which either flesh out the plot or act as crucial items later on. I have to commend Zoetrope on their graphical artistry; Conarium is no cheap asset swap or buggy alpha. The areas they have crafted possess the same foreboding, chill-down-your-spine quality as Lovecraft’s writing.
That said it’s the gameplay that leaves me wanting more. For starters, the controls are rather unconventional and you can’t rebind them, at least in the demo. Movement works like a typical FPS, but the spacebar is used to interact with the environment and the C key of all things manages inventory. Accessing items is a bit cumbersome, as I was never sure if I had something equipped long-term or if I could only use items in context. For example, you get a pickaxe pretty early on which is used to break down weakened walls and chip away at ice, but there was no indication that I could equip it persistently or use it as a weapon. There’s another item—an odd sort of artifact that can be charged by the many otherworldly lanterns in the ruins—that is used to push back vines that block your way.
The ruins contain a handful of puzzles that I could only half-solve. In one room an intimidating orrery of sorts dominates the center, and while I could manipulate its position I could never get it to activate. As I made my way through hallways of alien vines I eventually came across a sarcophagus, inhabited by a long-dead reptilian creature. Pushing onward, I encountered a tracing puzzle where I had to replicate a symbol that was supposedly scribed somewhere else in the ruins.
I recharged my artifact and doubled back to search, but before I could get much farther I was confronted by some kind of eldritch terror and the preview abruptly ended, suggesting that I be more cautious. Considering I hadn’t run into any other enemies or encountered any kind of combat or stealth gameplay, I was a little puzzled by this apparent admonishment. The preview build for Conarium sets up a lot of great tension and has some top-notch production values, but aside from some exploration and puzzle solving, it’s pretty light on gameplay.
I hope Zoetrope has a lot more going on than they’re showing in the preview. I’ve been hungry for a genuine Lovecraft scare ever since Eternal Darkness way back in 2001. Conarium definitely has the potential to deliver, but for now the only thing I’m afraid of is the possibility that this game will turn out to be another walking simulator.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Sean Colleli has been gaming off and on since he was about two, although there have been considerable gaps in the time since. He cut his gaming teeth on the “one stick, one button” pad of the Atari 800, taking it to the pirates in Star Raiders before space shooter games were cool. Sean’s Doom addiction came around the same time as fourth grade, but scared him too much to become a serious player until at least sixth grade. It was then that GoldenEye 007 and the N64 swept him off his feet, and he’s been hardcore ever since.
Currently Sean enjoys a good shooter, but is far more interested in solid adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda or the beautiful Prince of Persia trilogy, and he holds the Metroid series as a personal favorite. Sean prefers deep, profound characters like Deus Ex’s JC Denton, or ones that break clichés like Samus Aran, over one dimensional heroes such as the vacuous Master Chief. Sean will game on any platform but he has a fondness for Nintendo, Sega and their franchises. He has also become a portable buff in recent years. Sean’s other hobbies include classic science fiction such as Asimov and P.K. Dick, and Sean regularly writes down his own fiction and aimless ramblings. He practices Aikido and has a BA in English from the Ohio State University. He is in his mid twenties. View Profile