GAME REVIEW: Conarium

For some games that are described as Lovecraftian, the link with the master horror writer’s tales might be a little hard to discern. Sure, they may have been influenced somewhere along the line, in the same way that the tenth cup of tea made with the same old tea bag might just create something approximating a “tea-like” beverage. Not so Zoetrope Interactive’s Conarium though, a horror-puzzle game that very much provides a strong and tasty Lovecraftian beverage. I fear I’m stretching this image beyond what seems sensible, so I’ll stop now. I’ll just have to put my biscuit jokes away for another day.

Conarium puts the player in first person control of Frank Gilman, a scientist taking part in an Antarctic expedition not far from the South Pole. After a trippy dream-like sequence, you awaken in a darkened room near a strange orb-like device that is giving off a sickly light. It looks like it is being used to manipulate the mind of anyone that gets too close to it. It isn’t long after this that you find yourself to be alone, with no power flowing in the building you’re in and a blizzard raging outside. So far, so At the Mountains of Madness (the inspiration behind the game), and this is a very, very good thing.

It is only a short time later that you’ll meet your first puzzle, a task that tests both your persistence with trying to open a stuck door, and your ability to get the power back on by way of getting the generator firing and the circuit breakers switched back on. Once the lights are glowing, the game only gets darker, metaphorically speaking. A half-seen figure walks the hallway, turning your viewpoint into a hot fuzzy mess as your character tries to steel himself. Don’t worry though, as even though Conarium is a horror game, it isn’t the “Run or they’ll get you!” variety, save for one small section later. In fact, the only way to progress really is to push forward towards those dark corners, shady characters and creaking spaces.

Speaking of creaking, I thought the sound design was really top-notch. From the ominous title-screen music and menu chimes, to the environmental sounds and other moments of melody, the sound scheme does a wonderful job of creating that weird and brooding atmosphere that seems to go so well with anything Lovecraftian. The other half of the equation of course are the graphics, and these are also suitably menacing. You spend a great deal of time looking at things highlighted by the corona of a torch beam, but when you do stop to take in the larger scenery, the architecture and geometry certainly creates a great feeling of other-worldliness. The eldritch objects that you can pick up and examine are also a real treat, the models both detailed and devilish in their design.

The back story of the game is provided by a host of pick-ups such as papers, reports and sketches. Some of the papers contain a fair amount of text, but reading them really adds some meat to the story. Each item collected gets jotted down in the character’s journal/notes, so you can easily refer back to them when needed. Along with the written discoveries, the player has an inventory where collected objects reside. You can only have one active object at a time, but items like keys are automatically used when clicking on the appropriate door/statue/whatever. Of the objects you find, the axe is particularly useful as it lets you chop your way through to secret areas. In these, you will often find strange relics that you can pick up and add to your collection. There are also audio logs to be found, and these take the form of wax cylinders. Popping these into the appropriate machine and listening to the unnerved voice of someone talking about their research is a particular pleasure.

As far as the puzzles, the majority fall into simple object-based tasks, from finding keys to searching for levers or clues. As the game progresses, there are a number of sigil-based puzzles, but with careful exploration and the character’s drive to sketch things that he feels are important, you likely won’t have gone too far astray before you find the solutions. There was one puzzle that did stump me for a while in the final third of the game though, one that involved numbers as part of its solution. I was on the right track with my initial thoughts, but it still took me awhile to solve that one. That was the longest period in which I felt properly stuck, but that puzzle did feel a bit more obtuse than the ones previously encountered. It took me around five hours to complete Conarium. Once finished, the game gives the player some stats relating to how many secrets they found and how they got on in general. I felt like I’d been finding a decent amount of secrets but there were still a few that I’d missed.

“Was it scary?” I hear you ask. On the whole, for me, not really. There was plenty of tension though, and genuine feelings of strangeness that were very enjoyable. The moment I came nearest to being properly goose-pimpled involved a sequence set in some ruins; the phrase “Tekeli-li” having a bearing on what I saw, which is a reference that will hopefully get any Lovecraft fan’s attention. This “unnerving but not scary” element is in part down to the way that the game lets you explore and read without being harried by monsters. The kind of dread it produces comes from the objects and vistas that you are viewing, rather than some beasty snapping at your heels. I very much appreciated being free to fully explore without the fight-or-flight kind of gaming mechanic that often comes with horror games. If you know that you enjoy the other kind, I think you will still like Conarium if you decide to try it. If you are like me and enjoy both styles of horror, you may find Conarium less intense than your usual fare, but no less interesting. It is well written, lavishly presented and steeped in the kind of atmosphere that a game of this kind should be. It is well worth a purchase for any fan of the dark.

Conarium is currently available for Windows PC on Steam for £14.99 but is set to release for Xbox One and PS4 sometime later this year.

As a small aside, a number of years ago, the BBC broadcast a fantastic radio production of At the Mountains of Madness performed by actor Richard Coyle. If you get the chance to listen to it, it is one of the best adaptations I’ve heard. The soundscape and distortions are used to tremendous effect, so keep an eye out for it.

Rating: 5/5

Reviewer: Casey Douglass

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