by Llewelyn Griffiths
reviewed on PC
THE CALL OF CTHULHU
Many games over the years have tried to encapsulate the weird and horrific nature of H.P. Lovecraft’s works. Conarium is another attempt to portray the Lovecraftian vision in all its terrifying splendour. The game takes place after the events of At the Mountains of Madness, you and a team of scientists have embarked on an Antarctic expedition, for reasons that begin to reveal themselves as you progress. In a few cliché turn of events you find yourself in a state of amnesia, unable to remember why or how the Antarctic base has been abandoned. Frequent visions and numerous notes will help piece your memory back together, slowly revealing the story.
Each location feels alive and picturesque without being too cluttered or overwhelming. Key objects and drawers are distinctly marked with an icon when you look over them, reducing a lot of time that could be wasted merely searching every nook and cranny. Likewise, the tunnels and corridors you’ll be traversing are winding and naturalistic without ever feeling too confusing. Occasionally in some of the larger areas, a little bit of backtracking is necessary, but close attention to level design ensures you’ll usually be in the right place at the right time. It’s hard to complain about backtracking either, as environments are carefully detailed and extraordinarily well lit. Alongside the large variety of music and sound effects, the general ambience feels breathtakingly effortless.
To call Conarium a puzzle game wouldn’t be strictly true by my definition, story and setting is the major focus of the title, as it should be if it wants to truly depict Lovecraft’s work. Many of the puzzles that simply involve finding a key or an item practically solve themselves through the process of your exploration. This lets you focus on the setting and soak in as much of the surroundings as possible. The slightly more fiendish puzzles are pretty few and far between, however each and every one is distinct, and often satisfying when you reach the solution. Considering the major focus is clearly with the story, for those who aren’t so inclined to solve puzzles I doubt their experience would be hampered by simply looking up the solution.
On the surface Conarium shines with polish. For a small studio like Zoetrope Interactive the achievements are undoubtedly incredible. Animations are smooth, the tiniest of objects are highly detailed, large vistas are awe inspiring, one-time set pieces keep the story going at a brilliant pace. The voice acting certainly isn’t perfect, the English accent of the main protagonist isn’t all too convincing, but regardless it’s still very engaging. However, some of the fundamental keystones of H.P. Lovecraft’s mystery is lost along the way.
Numerous story beats are presented with such clarity, many of the Lovecraftian themes fail to evoke a similar sense of haunting wonder portrayed by the scientists exploring the Antarctic in the original novella. The undeniable beauty of the overall presentation works against these core themes of terrifying curiosity: little is left to the imagination. To be fair this isn’t as much of a problem with Conarium itself, more the difficult nature of converting a written piece of work to a playable game. When much of the literature is about monstrosities so horrifying just looking at them can make you insane, visualizing them on-screen is always going to be lacklustre. Eternal Darkness is the only game, that has managed to achieve this in my opinion.
A FANTASTIC INTRODUCTION
That said, I need to give credit where credit is due, it’s clear Zoetrope Interactive have a very good understanding of the work. The frequent progression of visions, memories, nightmares, and dreams are carefully paced and combined with the main narrative. Some sequences involve relatively large portions of gameplay, all of which provide flavour and context to the main storyline. There is just enough ambiguity you are never truly certain any of these horrifying visions are memory or merely nightmare. Jump scares are kept to an absolute minimum too, rarely showing any glimpses of the terrifying creatures. Many secrets and trophies scattered throughout don’t feel like an afterthought either, such relics pertaining to the mythos haven’t been presented in such eerie detail before. One area in particular sent a wave of shivers up my spine, without the use of any cheap scares. Another secret had such a commendable amount of detail it was refreshing to see so much effort put into something many players would simply miss.
Conarium is labour of love, for its inability to strike a similar sense of wonder the written work did, it makes up for in sheer presentation; like a wonderful catalogue for enthusiasts to drool over. Horror fans might find it somewhat lacking in the scares department where monster interaction is kept to a minimum, but fortunately it never presents itself as a horror game. Fundamentally it provides a wonderful introduction to the visual themes of H.P. Lovecraft, which hopefully, will encourage many players to pick up the books and delve deeper into this world.
Striking amounts of detail, subtle music and sound effects, multiple endings, expertly paced, a brilliant introduction.
Fails to truly capture the psychological themes of the written work, minor cliché story beats.