If you’re reading this review, H. P. Lovecraft most likely needs no introduction. If he does, use the Google machine.
So, imagine living in H.P. Lovecraft’s time and having foreknowledge of his posthumous influence in the world of horror and pop culture. “Hey Howard, guess what? One day your mythos will inspire legions of nerds to create board games, card games, independently created films, and an interactive medium known as ‘videogames’, in which you control the actions of a fictional character on a screen using inputs from various hand-held devices. These loyal followers will call upon the rich fantasy world that you have conjured up and pay homage to it with countless titles of these videogames.” Howard might possibly have responded, “That is not a videogame which can eternal lie, something something Rhode Island. Also I really like cats.” Actually I have no idea what he would have said, but it probably would have been incredibly more memorable than anything I could come up with.
The horror game offering, Conarium, is indeed another one of those titles crafted out of a respect for Lovecraft’s contribution to the cultural world. Its events and setting are heavily influenced by the novella At the Mountains of Madness, a story of an Antarctic expedition gone awry. The player takes first-person control of Frank Gilman, a member of yet another failed expedition who wakes up all alone with no memory of recent events (natch). By exploring the Antarctic base and piecing together clues revealing the fate of the science team, you will join the Lovecraftian halls of fame by once again proving that humanity is a race of bumbling idiots, blindly groping their way through the muck of existence, poking at holes and tentacles that will surely be the undoing of their sanity and ultimately their meager lives. The Lovecraft fans knew that from the get-go though.
While the game does follow the general template of an H.P.L. story as outlined above, what it does with the source material is extremely high quality. From start to finish this felt like the unwritten alternate storyline of At the Mountains of Madness. The game hits all of the necessary notes of oppression and impending doom present in most of Lovecraft’s work. The story is a slow reveal of the events that transpired at the science station. Eventually the player will encounter ancient ruins built by alien hands. Jump scares are non-existent here, and all of the horror relies upon the unknowns that your character faces and the implications of what might be around the corner.
The Unreal Engine 4 is proving itself to be quite a capable beast, as the environments created here by a team of only three developers is at times very impressive. The in-game models are gorgeous to look at, with very detailed high-res textures. There are unsettling statues aplenty, many of which give you the feeling that they may spring to life the second that you turn your back on them. Much of what I really liked about the environments was the attention to detail, such as being in a dank cave, surrounded by eldritch coffins and glyphs, and looking up to see a hole in the naturally-hewn ceiling, light shafts shining through and loose snow blowing through the opening. The source of light can never be reached, and this felt like an appropriate metaphor for Frank’s situation.
The sound design is spot-on for me, with appropriately creepy sounds and music. The score is mostly ambient noises and keyboards, overlaid with an ethereal quality to it. Opening doors and manipulating machinery all have satisfying clicks and grindings, immersing the player in the world. Sadly, a low point for the game and sound overall is the voice acting, which is not very emotive in relation to the existential dread that is occurring around the player. Frank at times appears to be mildly distressed, as if he just found a stray hair in his soup, as opposed to having just discovered that humanity’s history is meaningless in the savage cosmos. But, being that this is an indie game and good voice actors are often one of the most expensive components of a game, it’s at least understandable. A later patch includes a “Silent Mode” option, so Frank can be switched off if you find his comments to be immersion-breaking.
Yes, the plot is unveiled via a series of found notes and the occasional audio log that the player consumes while exploring. While this is a common trope in this type of game, it has never bothered me personally. I became a Lovecraft fan because of my interest in reading, and that interest continues to this day. I enjoy being able to uncover the story at my own pace rather than having an NPC screaming orders into my ear. If you are burned out on this style though, this game will do nothing to reverse that.
In addition to exploring and reading, the other component to the gameplay is puzzle solving. Most of the puzzles are fairly simple, although not idiotically so. One or two of them did stump me for a bit. They are appropriately themed, with the puzzles in the science base involving human technology and the puzzles in the ancient ruins involving alien-feeling technology. There is an inventory system that never gets too bogged down or cumbersome. Some items can be equipped and brought into the player’s view in a traditional FPS-style, such as lights for illumination and an ax for breaking down barriers in your way. Hidden items are scattered around the world in areas that require a little more exploring to find. These items are not vital to the story, but are fun to locate and add a little more lore to the world.
This is a good effort that stays true to the Lovecraft ethos and sits at a reasonable price point ($20 as of the time of this writing). This being the Halloween season, it’s the perfect time to experience some eldritch madness.