It’s hard to think of a name more synonymous with the adventure-horror genre than H.P. Lovecraft. His themes are everywhere – from the fear of the unknown to your ever-loosening grip on reality –developers the world over have used his motifs to build their horror titles around. While Call of Cthulhu is widely-considered Lovecraft’s magnum opus, he had several other works that have earned high praise, such as the novella At the Mountains of Madness, which Turkish developers Zoetrope Interactive has adapted in their game Conarium. As a huge fan of Lovecraft’s works and the games that are borne out of inspiration, I was surprisingly unaware that Conarium released just under eighteen months ago on PC, only being made aware of its existence when it received a console release earlier this month. While it’s faithful to the source material, it would be a stretch to say that it’s one of the best games inspired by Lovecraft’s work. It is however an enjoyable jaunt if Lovecraftian games do pickle your cephalopod.
The man, the mythos, the legend
Instead of being a direct carbon copy of At the Mountains of Madness, Conarium appears to be a successor of sorts, accounting for what happens after the events that played out on the printed page. Set in the frozen wasteland of Antarctica you play as Frank Gilman, one of four scientists on an expedition to challenge the limits of human nature (not the Australian Motown band), who wakes up without much recollection of past events and to find his teammates gone. You must explore your surroundings in order to piece together the events of what happened and where your colleagues have disappeared to.
The gameplay is simple in nature and could easily be filed under the walking simulator genre. In order to progress forward and unravel the truth you must solve puzzles. Solutions will be found in diary entries, letters and audio recordings that are strewn across the game’s locations or by simply exploring your environs. These along with flashbacks help Frank construct a clearer picture of just what has transpired. Puzzles themselves aren’t overly difficult but sometimes can lack a solid starting point if you’ve bypassed one of the primary clues.
While the game prides itself on being ominous (another well-worn Lovecraft trope) regarding its objectives, it can sometimes be more frustrating than it is rewarding. There were a couple of times where I was oblivious to where I had to go or what I had to do next until I practically stumbled on the answer. It’s not that the game is too hard, but a little more direction – even a voice cue – would have been helpful.
These statues would look good in my hallway
Where the gameplay does falter ever so slightly is during the game’s chase scenes. They are so infrequent that they almost feel forced in for the sake of it. The saving grace is that they’re quite short and simply require you to run as fast as you can. Sometimes it’ll take a couple of attempts to find the golden path to safety, but it’s nothing you’ll be pulling your hair out over.
As you would expect, the game excels in crafting an authentic Lovecraftian atmosphere. From the desolate expedition headquarters to the unnerving underground caverns laden with strange markings and statues of unknown creatures, everything is highly detailed and helps sell the Lovecraftian vibe. Walking around the eerily-quiet locales is made even more unsettling thanks to an apt soundtrack. The music will ramp up when it needs to build tension, but despite this you’re never sure if you’re truly alone or safe.
From a storytelling perspective Zoetrope has done a pretty good job of fusing Lovecraft’s premise with their own plot ingredients to craft an interesting narrative. Sadly a lot of the momentum the gameplay and atmosphere generate is undone by some subpar voice acting. Sometimes you can lay blame on some shoddy writing but in Conarium it’s all on the delivery, which sounds flat and uninspired. It’s a real shame because Conarium’s story does provide moments of intense intrigue, but too often they’re spoiled by Frank’s characterless voice.
Can you feel the Love(craft) tonight?
Zoetrope’s Conarium is a solid take on Lovecraft’s works. It does the source material justice while adding its own spin to the Cthulhu Mythos without ever overdoing it. Fans of puzzle-based horror walking simulators should find the 4-5-hour expedition enjoyable, objective design and voice acting aside.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher