H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on pop culture is found everywhere, but very few things attempt to adapt the source material into something that is directly related to the original works. Beings beyond comprehension and worlds made of madness lose their awe when they are perceived through someone else’s view.
Many games that contain Lovecraftian horror rely on the player combating this perversion of reality. Games like Eternal Darkness, Eldritch, and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth pit the player against the madness. Instead, Conarium tries to capture the gentle slip into insanity. The game is more interested in trapping the player into horror and then preventing their escape. While this is an interesting take on the source material, the incredibly rich environments are tainted by repetitive puzzles and gameplay.
Lovecraftian stories are incredibly visceral to the reader. The nature of forces beyond mere mortal comprehension puts the task of deciphering the insanity to the reader. Zoetrope Interactive do a fantastic job of creating a horrific invasion of reality. The fidelity of the graphics strengthen how unsettling the journey gets. A heavy atmosphere confines the player to dread what they could be dragged into next. Each time I explored these beautiful environments, I was continually shocked by a new, nonsensical area. Art works by seducing the viewer into engaging with it; Conarium accomplishes this with a grotesque design, compelling the player to discover more.
All of this ran very smoothly, with no framerate hitches, buggy environments, or other issues that would have ruined the feeling of slowly skulking through the Antarctic. The lighting is especially impressive as it is incredibly realistic, which means when reality starts to bend it is even more disconcerting. The horror is thrilling to experience, and it kept Conarium fresh for me in my first playthrough.
The story is a bit well-trodden for the genre, but mostly unexplored for video games. A man wakes up in the Antarctic and begins to search for answers. So as with any Lovecraftian story as he searches for meaning he slowly loses his sanity as he explores the wastes. The plot is not offensive, but it is not inspired enough to encourage multiple playthroughs. Despite Conarium’s multiple endings, I was not eager to see the differences to the story. Instead, I played through them to see what new assets pertained to those sequences. Environments tell the best bits of story in this game. Their careful design strengthens the already strong environments. If only the story was as compelling.
Conarium is unfortunately undercut by the trappings of the “run away from monsters” sub-genre of horror. Each puzzle grew tiresome as they all felt very familiar to preceding games. None of the puzzles felt particularly clever; at no point did I think I was thinking ahead of the game to find a solution. Every puzzle was just a barrier to see more of the world. This even affects the quality of the monsters as well.
This style of horror game has been oversaturated to the point where even terrifying monster designs can not make up for the disappointing gameplay of hiding from everything that wants to kill you. Often I would let the monster run me down so I could get a good look at it the first time I encountered something. A lack of suspense in the gameplay had me ogling the monsters instead of fearing for my life- the gameplay is incompatible with making the game feel terrifying.
Conarium has the design to leave players scared with the horrors it conjures. But worn gameplay leaves it feeling like a chore to reach the parts of the game that are truly unsettling. I certainly think that the game would be more enjoyable if it were more of an experience, a “walking simulator” that as the player progresses corrupts, leaving them stranded in a shattered realm. The game’s environments are presented with such an authority that they can stand by themselves as an experience worth having.
I would suggest that avid fans of Lovecraft give this game a try when it is half off. Horror fans looking for a new type of experience will not be satisfied by this game as it’s only a new look for something they are already overly familiar with.
Review code provided by publisher.
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The exploration of one's gradual slip into insanity and the experience of otherworldly isolation is palpable and well-executed, but anyone who isn't a fan of the source material will likely grow tired of Conarium's lack of anything new and innovative to the horror genre.
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