Review – Conarium
H.P Lovecraft has had a growing influence on gaming industries within the last half decade. More and more game designers have been pulling from Lovecraftian tales of beings from other realms. The most recent title to follow suit is the story-driven walking simulator, Conarium, that is heavily inspired by H.P Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness and follows the events from the original tale.
Originally published by Iceberg Interactive for PCs in the summer of 2017, Conarium is just getting it’s console release now, a year and a half after the original release. As a fan of the Cthulhu mythos under Lovecraft and what it’s evolved into over almost a century, I couldn’t wait to dive in.
Filling the role of the mysterious Frank Gilman, players explore an eerie research facility tucked into the peak of remote snowcapped mountains. After awaking from what can only be described as a nightmare, the first thing that Gilman sees is a strange device quietly humming as it fires energy spews from the center like a plasma ball. He knows little about the device or about why the rest of the staff has seemingly vanished.
Exploring winding hallways leads, as they are ought to do, to locked doors forcing Gilman to rummage through every possible drawer and cabinet to find clues and misplaced keys. As Gilman wanders through the halls and reads every one of his colleagues’ personal journal entries, a shadowy translucent figure catches his attention and leads Gilman blindly down new pathways, as if luring him to a certain fate. This is where I begin to have problems with Conarium.
Conarium‘s puzzle side only shows itself when it’s time to unlock a particular pathway and almost every puzzle’s solution can be solved by simply locating a particular object elsewhere in the area and returning to the location of the puzzle/blocked path. Puzzles are more like a series of fetch quests than anything else and it ends up feeling pretty tedious in the end. Worse, some of those puzzles just don’t follow a clear logic and requires you to trigger a brief cutscene by going to just the right location before a new path opens.
One of the most important aspects of the walking simulator game is the story. Conarium tells the best parts of it story through environmental clues and objects left for Gilman to ponder over. But there’s some pretty low hanging fruit moments in there as well. The shadowy figure that Gilman is following around will lead players through the earliest segments of the game, but equally as early, there’s a key moment that should have made Gilman far more cautious.
Because this horrifying automaton, complete with a third eye, has quite the intellectual conversation with Gilman shortly before it claims to be Gilman himself. Odd things happen around Frank yet he continues to blindly follow dark creatures even deeper into the depths. The why behind the plotline leaves a lot to be desired and Lovecraftian whispers and madness can’t be the only plot device.
Likewise, walking simulators that utilize audio recordings or NPCs are dependent on the quality of the performance as a tool to keep players engaged and unfortunately Conarium just isn’t there. With the exception of the aforementioned automaton, the voice work just isn’t that engaging. It’s not bad, but the final recording sounds more like an early reading with a good cast as opposed to a performance from voice over artists familiar with the script. Thankfully it’s not too dry and all of the proper inflections are in the right places, but it does lack a level of emotion that’s to be expected of a horror scenario.
Otherwise, Conarium is fascinating. Large set pieces and ancient beings steal the show. As Gilman dives deeper into the mysteries around him he encounters statues of Dagon towering over flooded trenches, powerful crystal fueled lights designed to signal things from the unknown, and ancient artifacts madness inducing artifacts clung to be rigor mortis riddled corpses.
Gilman’s journey is long, labyrinthine, and arduous as it takes him through a number of environments including the research facility, mountain tops, subbasements and ancient cavernous temples. Each of these have unique atmospheric tracks and sound effects that immerse the player. Scurrying in ventilation systems and loose pebbles kicked off cliffs; splashes in the water and whispers in the air keep players looking over their shoulder expecting to see something. But in the absence of a stalker, the repetitive sounds are ultimately reduced to exactly what they are, just noise.
Conarium is fairly short with the whole story coming to a close within about five hours, though I’ve heard others say it took them less. To its credit, Conarium delivers on its promise as the endgame approaches and Gilman starts to uncover the secrets of the new world around him, but it comes a bit too late to save the game. If you’re a fan of walking simulators for the sake of exploration and not narrative, you’re in good hands. But if you want a strong story or Lovecraftian horror, Conarium does little reach its potential and you’d be better off looking elsewhere.
Environmental details are one of Conarium‘s highlights and it’s worth exploring for the design alone.
Puzzles frequently resemble little more than reduced fetch quests with rare exceptions.
The immersive audio is easily the strongest aspect of the adventure.
Even as a fan of games about exploration and discovery, I kept wanting something else.
Final Verdict: 6.5
Conarium is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
A copy of Conarium was provided by the publisher.