Zoetrope Interactive/Iceberg Interactive
Genre: Horror Adventure
Most horror fans of any medium have at least heard of H.P. Lovecraft in passing. If you haven’t read one of his stories, you’ve probably at least heard of “Call of Cthulhu” due to the tabletop gaming system or the number of video games that have been released with the name attached. Some others like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “At the Mountains of Madness” have seen references in film and games, too. Of his tens of stories that he wrote, only a handful have gained mainstream popularity of any kind. His style, however, is reference constantly.
“At the Mountains of Madness” is of special note here. During his lifetime, Lovecraft had a preoccupation with the idea of an expedition to the Antarctic and what could be found there. While most of the works that come out referencing his works take place in small towns with strange and isolated inhabitants- The Sinking City, Call of Cthulhu, and Dark Corners of the Earth, as examples- only a couple that I’ve run into have examined this setting in any way aside from a passing mention. Conarium is the most recent that I’ve come across.
I picked up the game as one of the Epic Games Launcher’s free offerings and if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across it in any way shape or form on my own. I’d never heard of Conarium, but I knew I was looking for some horror games for the Halloween season and found it a stroke of luck that this would pop up in my notifications. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect but as any hapless Lovecraft protagonist would, I steeled myself and prepared for a step into the unknown as I booted the game up for the first time.
Deep in the snow-covered Antarctic sits the Umpuat research station. A small team of scientists has planted themselves in the small cluster of buildings to study the boundaries of nature and how the intense climates can affect it. Having spent some time in the sub-zero temperatures and harsh conditions that area of the world has to offer, their research has seemingly been progressing without a hitch.
None of that seems to matter, though, when you wake up in the darkened halls of an inert research station. Your memories are foggy- and those are the ones that you can grasp at all. You can’t even be sure that you belong to the Umpuat team, let alone what might have happened to the researchers who may or may not have been your comrades. Whatever happened has left you absolutely muddled- and absolutely stranded.
It doesn’t take long to find a strange device in the room you’ve awakened in. Somehow, you get the feeling that this device has something to do with whatever happened to place you in your current predicament. Where is everyone, though? What does this device do? What exactly was the result of the research the Umpuat team was partaking in? As you piece together your memories and the events that are transpiring around you, your sanity and the bounds of what you know will be tested- and you may wish you had never investigated in the first place.
In basic horror adventure fashion, the game takes place in first-person as you explore the Umpuat station and the areas beyond to find out what happened. You can interact with a lot of the environment, picking up notes, letters, and other items to uncover pieces of the plot. By holding down the appropriate keys, you can sprint or crouch to either cover more ground quickly or to hide- the usual name of the game in Lovecraftian-style horror.
As you travel, you will find a number of puzzles that need to be solved. Some of these are vital to your progression and involve finding the correct items to utilize to complete them. Others are optional and will allow you to see deeper into the plot of the game, should you choose to take the time to solve them. Given that the game seems to have a number of endings, the amount of effort that you put into some of the optional pieces of the game may well lead to different outcomes.
That’s really about it for mechanics to talk about, though. The game breaks down into a few methods of movement being necessary- seeking out information to read and experience, solving puzzles, and one or two short action sequences involving stealth and running- but the game has a heavy slant toward exploration and interaction with the world.
The Good, The Bad, And…
Conarium has atmosphere and narrative in spades. Probably the strongest feature of the game, the story plays out through collecting pieces of the lost team’s notes and correspondence with very little interaction with other characters. This gives Conarium a feeling of isolation and a narrow perspective that resonates with the Lovecraftian style and mythos. Instilling fear into the player about what happened and what state the other members of the team will be in (if you even find them) is nailed home, even if it may not terrify you after the credits roll.
Like a number of games trying to emulate H.P.’s voice, though, it falls a little short in the categories outside of the twisting plot. The puzzles range anywhere from interesting to infuriating but there isn’t a ton of them so your mileage could vary in that regard. Some of them are genius in their frustration; one or two just feel oddly designed. The action sequences aren’t great, though, and feel like they were added just for the sake of having a variety of gameplay methods. Even though I’m not fantastic at stealth missions, the mechanics for hiding and escaping feel wonky and where I knew I should have been safe by a number of games’ standards, I found myself having to retry after being caught. When I did make it through, it felt like it was more by a mistake in the AI programming rather than my own (admittedly growing) prowess.
What Conarium does get right is that it doesn’t stick around for long, much like a number of the stories it draws inspiration from. The game clocked in at about five hours for me, creating a story that was interesting but left plenty of exploration for possibilities after the end of everything. Even the dreadful action sequences are short and easy to forget about if you aren’t studying the game too closely. Its pace is slow but it always feels like you’re finding something new to read or explore so the game doesn’t feel padded with unnecessary conventions, even if it can get confusing in spots.
Sound design in a horror game is important, and the developers of Conarium seem aware of that. There is an equal amount of ambient sound against silence and musical underscore throughout the game with just enough otherworldly echoes as you explore the game’s offerings. The voice acting is distinctly average, but there isn’t a ton of it to be experienced since you spend a lot of your time on your own. The attention paid to how the game sounded, though, is evident and pays off in the end.
Visually, the game has some gorgeous environments. From the mundane Umpuat station and its snow-battered footpaths to the caverns below and beyond, the explorative environments are broken up with some beautiful set pieces and slowly, more touches of eldritch horrors sneak into view as you push forth. While not every area is stunning, there was little to nothing in the way of graphical issues and the pieces that were meant to be admired are really well done.
Once all’s been said and done, Conarium isn’t a particularly deep game to play. There are very few mechanics to speak of and for the most part, it feels like you’re moving from place to place to read and be spooked- which while the game is steeped in spot-on atmosphere, it does little to actually invoke fear or fright for the player.
Like it’s source inspiration, though, Conarium is a slow burn. If you’re looking for a story that could conceivably have fallen right out of a Lovecraft anthology, you’d do well to look at Conarium for a quick deviation into the abyss. It still falls into the missteps that nearly every game in this vein does, usually when it’s trying to keep up airs about the mystery of the situation or forcing some hectic pacing for a chase sequence- but what it does do is tell a good story.
If you’re someone who can appreciate an engaging narrative and some mind-scratchers for puzzles, it could be worth looking out for a sale on your platform of choice since the current $20 price tag may be a bit much for most for a four-hour experience like this.