Even 80 years after his death, the creative and warped genius of horror author Howard Phillips Lovecraft still influences our culture even to this day. His works emphasized fear of the unknown which he highlights in his famous quote:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”.
The stories of H.P. Lovecraft wove tales of madness, mystery, Elder Things, Deep Ones and many other horrors far beyond mortal comprehension. Today Lovecraftian influences can be found from music to movies and of course, to video games. Few developers have been able to truly terrify the player by embracing the works of H.P. Lovecraft and molding them in their own design to create experiences which throw the player into the world full of occultists, Great Old Ones, insanity and other terrible things not for the faint of heart. One developer that attempts to embrace Lovecraftian madness is Zoetrope Interactive with their puzzle horror game Conarium. Set after the events of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, Conarium hopes to bring players into an unpleasant world full of strange things and mysteries leading to a horrifying truth which for the most part, is best left undiscovered.
You are Frank Gilman. You remember nothing of past events, only that you’re a member of an excavation team based in Antarctica. Something has gone horribly wrong and you must traverse through the site, solve strange, cryptic puzzles and uncover this sinister plot to find out what’s going on. The game is played in first-person akin to games like Penumbra, Amnesia, Alien Isolation and many other first-person horror games. Your task is to traverse a strange environment, solving puzzles and witnessing major events, all leading to the truth of what happened to the place you’re exploring. Puzzles vary from arranging patterns in a correct combination or finding the correct item to activate another item. You also have a journal which notes down important events and documents that you pick up, all which offer clues as to what happened to this place. You don’t have a map so it may be hard at first to put yourself on the right path initially. As you progress you experience memories of past event to help piece together what’s happening.
Conarium makes good use of its Lovecraftian influence. As you progress you’ll traverse through eerie caverns adorned with strange, stone drawings on the walls. Alien hieroglyphics from a bizarre, unknown civilization. Machines far too advanced for the time they were created. Massive stone idols of horrifying old beings from eras long past. The dialogue from the characters uses articulation that can be found straight from Lovecraft’s books. Those who are familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s work will be pleased to know that much of the Lovecraft weirdness is on full display here.
Conarium captures the essence of Lovecraftian lore rather well. Those who have read his books, especially At the Mountains of Madness will recognize some references that Lovecraft had made in his stories. However, the Lovecraft vibe is really all the game has going for it. You’d expect the game to really draw you in using the setting of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best novellas to create a frightening, atmospheric gameplay experience. However, all the gameplay in Conarium really amounts to is a puzzle horror game without much horror.
The biggest problem that eclipses all the good in this game is that it’s just really, really boring. Almost nothing happens while you’re playing aside from the odd flashback and puzzles to solve. Just when you think the game is going to pick up and lead you into a big event, it usually ends up being a total bust. At first, the game begins really well. You wake up in a dark, abandoned installation, you’re stumbling about in panic with no idea where to go and what to do and you also have that horrible feeling that something very bad is watching you. However, as you progress further into the game the feeling of dread eventually waters down and the atmosphere that the game tries to build up is no longer effective as you’ll soon find that it’s just not tense and scary enough. You’re not in any danger, your surroundings aren’t very imposing and all you’re doing is moving from one puzzle to the next.
The game runs off the Unreal Engine 4, but it doesn’t look particularly groundbreaking. Textures aren’t very detailed, character models look weird and there aren’t many effects which help give the visuals a slight facelift. The big problem with the visuals is that the lighting makes your surroundings too bright, especially in the caverns meaning the soundings aren’t so intimidating anymore since you can see clearly where you’re going and what awaits you, killing the suspense and removing any fear you may have had initially. The sound effects when you’re in the installation are great. The loud, howling wind resonates outside, machines activate angrily and aggressively and very faint drips and creaks emanate a very lonesome, uncomfortable ambiance and you do indeed feel while you’re exploring that something very, very dangerous is watching you. The rest, however, won’t be chilling you to the bone anytime soon since it acts as background noise without helping create an intense atmosphere together with the visuals and gameplay.
Aside from not being very scary and not very fun, Conarium is not very long either. The game can be beaten in under 4 hours as the puzzles are not that difficult and can be beaten quickly provided you’ve searched areas long enough for clues. After the 4 hours, the outcome is a rather anti-climatic ending that appears to end on a cliffhanger note. It could be a suggestion that Frank Gilman’s journey into madness will continue at some point, but even so, it’s still a rather big letdown after all the puzzle solving you’ve just gone through.
Conarium tends to rely solely on the fact that it’s a very Lovecraft inspired game without really shaping its influence into its own design. This could have been a truly memorable, frightening and exciting game, had they upped the horror factor and the puzzle challenge higher. You’d expect a game that’s heavily inspired by a book from one of the greatest horror authors in history to really push the envelope and show you what makes H.P. Lovecraft’s world so terrifying. Sadly, this game doesn’t do that, instead offering simple puzzle solving and not much else. Anyone looking for a horror experience influenced by the weird and strange mind of H.P. Lovecraft won’t find it here.
This review was based on a digital review code of Conarium for the PC, provided by Iceberg Interactive.