Many horror games rely on gore and jump scares to “prove” that they’re a horror. They spray blood on the walls, have diabolical enemies waiting at every turn, and give you an abundance of weapons to send them back to their maker.
It’s very rare that horror games almost solely rely on a constant level of unease and personal confusion to make things scary. Conarium though, is just that game.
In a love letter to H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains Of Madness”, Conarium puts us in the position, right from the get go, of being isolated on an Arctic base during an expedition with no memory of where anybody else is, or why you’re here. That’s exactly what you need to find out.
In true Lovecraft style, Conarium is told in the epistolary form, which means you must piece together the story through searching for documents, files and papers. Throughout this Arctic base, based in Upuaut, you will come across numerous audio recordings, diary entries, notices on boards and flashbacks. These are definitely in abundance and you’ll find yourself reading, a lot, if you really want to understand everything that has happened here. This does get a tad draining at times as I kept wanting to explore but knew that slogging through page after page would be the key to getting the most out of the story. This can be viewed on either side as, yes it can be laborious, but the developers have really taken the time and care into creating a game which is full of lore and thick with intertwining webs of characters and ideas that make H.P. Lovecraft’s stories so rich and engaging, still to this day.
After searching around, you find out you are Frank Gilman and are in this Arctic base studying a strange form of energy. You’ll get these extreme, excruciating headaches that will vibrate the controller at an alarming rate and it’ll induce visions of figures and memories past. This is where the story takes a very sci-fi turn as you slowly start to discover caves and temples that once belonged to, what the game calls, the Deep Ones. You’ll need to find a submarine to enter this deep world, so be on the lookout.
As exciting as all this sounds, unfortunately, you won’t find yourself racing around and getting into all sorts of high jinks. It’s much more of a walking simulator; imagine games like Call of Cthulhu or Amnesia but with more puzzles… and a submarine! With that being said, you will start to come across numerous relatively simple puzzles, based around the typical symbol matching, inventory puzzles etc. etc. Some can be a little taxing as they involve you remembering texts you’ve read before and symbols you’ve seen in your surroundings, but overall they are a nice distraction from just walking around.
When you are walking around however, you’ll come across ghostly figures that guide you in the right direction; there is no map in this game. You’re left to your own devices when it comes to remembering which door leads where, and this can be frustrating at times as the entire Arctic base looks the same and you will get lost on numerous occasions. Without giving too much away, these ghostly figures and yourself aren’t the only things on this base; there are some other lifeforms that don’t want you there and yes, they definitely can kill you so be alert. As explained before, Conarium isn’t the sort of game where this is a constant threat, they have just enough inclusion to keep the game interesting and not just make it a walking sim.
Visually, Conarium on Xbox One is pretty good, but sadly that’s about it, pretty good. It can be bland at times, the main Arctic base gets pretty repetitive and it’s a very dull game – except when you have your visions and the luminous lighting really pops and definitely diversifies the game. The lighting, or lack there of, really sets the mood as through the majority of the game you are using your flashlight to traverse caverns and, again, the base. Unfortunately, the developers have made every damn surface as shiny as all hell and this means that when you’re using your flashlight and shine it at a point of interest, it reflects back, making that surface useless. If it’s metal it just looks white as the light drowns out anything on the surface, then when you try to read anything on paper it’s almost too dark to read without a light, but with a light it shines right through the paper making it unreadable. It is infuriating, to say the least, and an element that should probably have been spotted during production.
That said, Conarium is a fun game, especially if you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. The developers are clearly huge fans and you can tell by how much they’ve crammed into this 4/5 hour game. They’ve taken solid base material and made it their own, which is fantastic to see. Sadly, the game feels like a bit of a slog, even though it isn’t that long, as there is just so much reading and very little action. You’ll also find yourself getting constantly lost, not knowing what to do next, dying through an unjust series of events and then walking, walking and walking some more.
If Conarium ran at just a slightly faster pace I would have loved this game, but unfortunately it didn’t grip me nearly as much as I’d hoped it would.