Last week, in my Inner Chains review, I laid out my own personal ground rules when reviewing a horror game. I wont go in to great detail in this review as I try hard not to repeat the same content article to article. But to give you a general summary: A piece of horror can lie between two opposite ends of a spectrum. On one end you have the graphical and disturbing and the other you have the atmospheric and terrifying. I always try to place the game on this spectrum and then judge it for how well it delivers on its chosen style before going in to any of the titles technical prowess.
Now my personal favourite type of horror is of the latter, the subtle and atmospheric. I find it delivers a much more intense emotional response in the audience. So much so it can cause physical symptoms that spawn in the depths of your gut. The dread of the darkness and unknown around the corner, whether it arrives or not.
Conarium, without a doubt, belongs on the top half of this ladder. An atmospheric horror game that puts more of an emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving rather than monster hunting and jump scares. It pits the player into the shoes of Frank Gilman, one of the scientists of the Utupau Expedition to the Antarctic regions. You find yourself waking up in a dark room accompanied by a strange glowing device with little knowledge to what happened to the rest of the crew. From their you must find your way through the dark Lovecraftian world solving puzzles and exploring every nook and cranny for various different items to continue your journey.
While Conarium delivers atmosphere in plentiful, It falls short on the one thing that pushes a good horror game in to a great horror game. That one thing being fear. You see, although the title does create grand cocktails of suspense in its great audio and visual design, it rarely pushes in to the realms of sheer terror. If I could draw on an example it would be that of Alien: Isolation. Throughout Alien, the game builds suspense in all areas in its purist subtleties but what really makes it terrifying is the unknown in whether you are in danger or not. Even though Conarium had me feeling tense in many of it’s scenes, it rarely made me feel like I was in danger.
Conarium is the type of game that serves well as an interactive cinematic experience where you never feel in control of whether or not the characters death is at stake. Don’t get me wrong there are moments of this kind of terror I look for in horror games, such as when you first encounter the Lovecraftian tentacle monsters and when the reptilian alien species spot you for the first time. But the fear drains away quickly. The same problem can be found in the games exploration. I always felt Conarium was trying to make me feel the suspense but I spent so much time trying to figure out the puzzles that the fear faded away.
Now with that being said, when the title create fear, it did it in spectacular fashion, creating a feeling immersion and the giddy tension I crave for. Particularly in moments where darkness and silence were so absolute that it had an overwhelming ambience in itself, as well as the unknown of following a mysterious dark figure down a hallway.
The games audio is arguably it’s greatest strength but also sometimes can be it’s greatest downfall. As I mentioned in my preview for Conarium,Here the title exhibits a fantastic show of directional sound, a good balance of silence and volume equalisation. Seemingly triggered randomly, you will often hear different sounds coming from behind you, above you, to the side of you and right in front of you. It could be a valve turning, a rock falling, some water dripping or even your own footsteps that cause you to feel uneasy.
At first it caused me to constantly be checking behind me, it causes tension in a scenario where there is no danger present. A great asset to keep for set pieces but I feel like this system happened so frequently that I just stopped noticing them. After about 3-4 hours of gameplay I knew there was no actual danger and that it was just the games audio tracks. Although given a fantastic sense of a living environment as well as an immersive one, the subtle sounds wear thin too quickly and become systematic rather than climatic.
The previously mentioned ambience is the king of all kings in the games audio design however. Silence is a noise in its self in Conarium. Further amplified by your own footsteps the atmosphere at play in the title is undeniable. It’s truly fantastic in its presentation and was always at the forefront of my brainwaves when trying to navigate the title’s narrow game world. The monsters themselves sound great and rather penetrating. Most of all they’re realistic and at place in the game. They felt organic in their equalisation, especially when inside a dark cave. Many developers struggle with adding in realistic environmental effects to audio tracks to create an even deeper sense of actually being there, but Zoetrope knocked it out of the park there.
Although on the flipside, Zoetrope are big fans of white noise. Throughout the game you are presented with various flash backs and reality altering experiences, all greeted with a head pulsing white noise that gave me one of the worst migraines of my entire life. It’s okay the first few times but after a while it gets really intense. So much so I had to stop playing for a time to even bring me to complete the game.
I’d like to commend the game most of all for its art direction. Conarium is heavily based around the novella from HP Lovecraft, The Mountains of Madness. It delivers if you’re a fan of the source material that’s for sure. The dark and twisted reality of the Antarctic and beyond stays true. The Cthulu Mythos is one that is regarded as the most influential piece of science fiction history and you can see that Zoetrope either are massive fans themselves, or put in a tremendous amount of research. The Bioshock-esque game world is one that kept me both intrigued and immersed.
In summary, Conarium is a title that kept me intrigued and peaked my curiosity throughout my 8 hour play through. It’s audio design is top notch and the almost handwritten details put in to the game worlds various secrets and journals display a passion rarely found from developers today. I’d also like to note that, in my initial hours of the game, I came across a game breaking bug in which I couldn’t open a door, after reporting this via the steam forums Zoetrope fixed it within a couple of hours. I can see the love of the source material and the care put in to the game is evident from start to finish. However, the Broken Sword type puzzles can sometimes take so long (if you’re blind like me) that the atmospheric chops wear thin quickly and fear only comes in short bursts. While being an enjoyable game to play for all its curiosities, terror is not in abundance. A great puzzle/adventure title, an okay horror experience.