I’m a fairly devoted H.P. Lovecraft fan. I wouldn’t call myself a diehard fanatic, but I regularly page through my leatherbound collection of Lovecraft’s works and I enjoy picking up on all the influences he’s had on media in general and video games in particular. It’s not a stretch to call the man the father of modern horror, but strangely enough you don’t see a lot of horror games that are directly based off Lovecraft’s literature. It’s been a while since the last Call of Cthulu title, and longer still since the masterfully chilling Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. That’s why I was particularly excited to hear about Zoetrope Interactive’s Conarium, a direct follow-up to Lovecraft’s groundbreaking novel, At The Mountains of Madness.
Yes, the novel about a doomed Antarctic expedition that encounters the remains of a dead civilization, and something far sinister beneath. Zoetrope billed Conarium as a full-on expansion to that classic story, and their trailers and beta preview looked highly professional—a far cry from the many broken asset swaps on Steam that have claimed inspiration from Lovecraft. After exploring the all-too-brief preview build, I eagerly dove into the final version. The result is still something to behold, but unfortunately it’s not as fun to play.
Conarium presents itself as a horror experience, and at the outset it would certainly seem to be a horror game. You play as Frank Gilman, a member of the Upuaut expedition, who wakes up at the basecamp suffering from mild amnesia. The base is deserted. So far so good; this is the setup for a number of classic horror games. If you’ve read the book you have an idea of what’s going on, but Conarium starts with enough ambiguity to give you a mounting sense of unease. As you explore the basecamp you pick up a number of books, mementos and trophies relating back to the Cthulu mythos, implying that cult-like psychotherapy sessions are being performed on the base’s workers.
The first hour or so of the game is just exploring and solving minor puzzles. Thankfully it’s not quite a walking simulator, but if I had to put a label on it, Conarium’s base gameplay reminds me most of a classic- point-and-click adventure. You need to collect tape to repair a fuel line on a generator, grab a gas tank to fill up said generator so you can restore electricity to the base and access power-locked doors, and so on. There’s a decent amount of collecting key items to solve sequential puzzles, which is fine, but it started to make me suspect that there wasn’t a whole lot of horror in this horror game.
Once you access the base elevator and descend into the ruins, things start to get spookier. You start to have flashbacks into the minds of other characters, and there’s a particularly disturbing hallucination when you encounter a psychotropic plant specimen. This is also where the game’s visuals become very striking. Zoetrope has some incredibly talented artists and they’ve recreated the subterranean ruins exactly as I imagined them when reading the novel. They’re otherworldly, genuinely unsettling and masterfully crafted. The Upuaut base and the raging snowstorm outside are impressive, but the ruins feel truly alien. It’s just a shame that this incredibly evocative setting doesn’t have a whole lot of horror in it.
I don’t say there’s no horror in Conarium because by definition there is, it’s just not the kind I would have wanted. At a handful of points you get chased around a labyrinth of corridors by one of the eldritch abominations that destroyed the ancient civilization in the first place. These sequences are initially thrilling, but they involve breakneck sprinting and a lot of trial and error; not the spine-chilling cat-and-mouse with a monster that I was hoping for.
For comparison, I consider Alien: Isolation to be one of the greatest horror games of all time. That game had similar puzzle elements to Conarium; you basically explored a giant space station, collecting crucial items and fighting with the station’s obstinate, analog technology while hiding from an extraterrestrial terror that could kill you in an instant. What frustrates me is that Conarium’s setting and gameplay would work perfectly with this formula. There’s plenty of item-hunting and puzzle solving in Conarium, but once you realize there’s very little imminent threat, the horror falls flat. Why couldn’t I be solving all these puzzles and looking for important items while a hungry shoggoth was slithering around in the same environment, looking to do unspeakable things to poor Frank Gilman?
It’s a real shame that Conarium isn’t that scary, because it nails everything else. It recreates a Lovecraftian setting like no other game or movie I’ve ever seen. It’s steeped in the Cthulu mythos, teeming with references, items and lore to tantalize any longtime fan. It even has multiple ambiguous endings, but in the end it’s just too short—around 4 hours—and not nearly scary enough. The beautifully crafted setting almost feels wasted.
Zoetrope has some quality work on hand here, and some genuine dedication to Lovecraft’s prose. I’ll even admit that Conarium is a lot like their previous games, so if you’re a fan of the developer you’re probably getting exactly what you expect and enjoy from the studio. But if you’re going in hoping for the ultimate sanity-smashing, cold-sweat hide and seek with an abomination like I was, you’re likely to be disappointed.
* 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