In my opinion, good Horror Games are in somewhat of a resurgence. Following the critically acclaimed success of Alien: Isolation and the polarising marketing gem P.T, many more developers are chomping at the bit to get into the heads of the audience. The winning formula in suspense, jump scares and good use of directional sound combined with a first person perspective seems to be a mainstay in today’s iteration of the genre. One that I believe to be the best way. The first person perspective allows for developers to get creative in ways that the third person or scene camera horror games of yore just couldn’t.
Conarium is a first-person adventure horror/puzzle game developed by the three guys over at Zoetrope, masterminds of the Darkness Within episodes. It tells a story of four scientists on an expedition in the Antarctic regions trying to push our understanding of reality and human limitations. Largely inspired by the H.P Lovecraft novella At The Mountains of Madness, Conarium is also to be taken as a light sequel to the original novella published in 1931. The book written by the granddaddy of Sci-Fi horror is often credited to be responsible for the popularisation of the concept of Ancient Astronauts, one I find to be extremely interesting, even if widely criticised.
I digress, however, the short preview in which Zoetrope was happy to provide for us here at Invision gave us a great example of how subtle placements of sound and lighting can be all you need to stir fear into the hearts of the players. It is a bit difficult to be able to tell you what the game is about, however, because from the demo, well I couldn’t even tell you. From what I gathered, you control Frank Gilman. A scientist who can’t remember a thing traveling through a dream world of Lovecraftian tentacle wielding baddies and a reptilian race who’s identity is somewhat unknown. We often come across rooms in which we are being spoken to by a distorted figure who is there but not really there. Our head pounding with white noise we must listen tentatively to what the figure is telling us, whether it’s how to complete the puzzle at hand or just to make my head feel like it’s going to explode with the high pitch noises pulsing through my headset.
As mentioned before there is one thing Conarium does really well and that is its use of directional sound, equalisation of the volumes and a good balance of silence. A good horror game should cause you to look behind you constantly just in case something is creeping on you in the dark, Conarium does this in the plentiful. Many of times I found myself wandering through the moist caves that glisten in moonlight in the silent veil of darkness, only to step on a rock and almost have a heart attack because I could have sworn that something was behind me. There never was, but how that subtle use of physics kept my attention was fascinating.
Combat is completely stripped from Conarium, making the inevitable run in with these creatures even more terrifying. At one point in the preview, I picked up an axe and felt a little bit safer, only to realise that the only thing it’s useful for is to break rocks apart to delve into deeper depths of the caves. And that was scary in itself when the loud crunching noises emitting from the steel on rock is replied by some kind of screech or rattling from behind you.
The puzzles presented to me in the demo aren’t exactly groundbreaking but the game provides little information on how to complete them. I get the feeling that in the full version of the game that certain puzzles will require a lot of backtracking through the territory in which you just mapped only to be met with more exaggerated pulse inducing white noise and distorted memories. And of course deadly tentacle monsters.
The game makes use of the Unreal Engine 4. A powerful pre-built dev kit that I have always been a fan of due to its great innovation in the area lighting mechanics and pre-rendered textures. Lighting is important in all games let alone horror games and the use of lighting on show here with Conarium is not exactly a game changer but effective none the less. At one point a light glinted off a large piece of ice that stood out amongst the dingy rocks that surrounded it so I investigated for any kind of secrets. As I drew nearer I see something very faint in the ice and then all of a sudden a figure just appears out of nowhere, an absolute shock to my system as nothing had moved in the demo yet but a moment later there it was, my own reflection staring back at me. This is one excellent example that where lighting and sound can become so atmospheric that it can cause my even something as small as your own reflection to become the scariest thing in an hour session of gameplay. I would have liked to have seen more times where the darkness is absolute but this was just a preview version of the game so, high hopes.
There is something extremely unsettling in the Lovecraftian style of antagonistic beasts. My last run in with such creatures came in the form of Bloodborne. I can never seem to shake why they are so scary. They’re unrealistic and quite tame compared to some modern creatures but the floating tentacle monstrosities still input fear to this day. A testament to Lovecraft’s genius to be sure. I like the ideas at play here. Conarium doesn’t change everything about Adventure Horror but it looks like it could become a fine addition to one’s collection. The atmosphere is dealt with well and the lack of jump scares pleases me as I find them the most overused in video games. Whether or not in can contend with the likes of modern pant-fillers like Layers of Fear and Resident Evil VII is another story altogether, however.