Publisher Iceberg Interactive presents developer Zoetrope Interactive’s Conarium for review. Conarium hopes to provide a first-person horror experience as a spiritual successor to H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” with environmental puzzles and accompanying spooks.
The player begins and traverses through Conarium as Frank Gilman, a scientist on an Antarctic expedition searching for the unknown. All navigation through the snowy expedition base is done through first-person moving and object manipulation with careful focus needing to be paid to environment details for clues. The mostly linear path forward takes the player and Frank through the surprising depths of the base into an expansive network of tunnels with sudden shifts into another time or space. Through Frank’s interactions with the arctic mystery, the player will discover what happened to the expedition team and what this may mean for the future of humanity.
H.P. Lovecraft continues to be a popular source for video game inspiration. There’s potential to be mined from plumbing Lovecraft’s obsession with the horrific unknown that frequently butts heads against many developers’ desires to provide a solid narrative experience. Conarium hits some of the highs of Lovecraft-inspired video games with a firm control of mood and environmental storytelling. But it also has some of the lows through uneven voice acting and gamier elements that fit awkwardly alongside the otherwise great environmental storytelling.
Conarium works well when using the Unreal engine to craft a chilling environment for the player to navigate. Chills, in this case, does not mean fear but the sort of cold that travels suddenly and unexpectedly up the spine. Frequent images of Frank’s breath vaporizing in the point of view mix with honeycombed organic life and a perpetual settling of snow and dust to create a place that often feels alive with moisture. Conarium‘s sound design frequently accompanies this feeling expertly, echoing groans and shifting rock to communicate a place that never feels fully at rest. The soundtrack is admirably understated, eschewing high tension strings for a moodier score of piano and borderline unnerving drone.
Other aesthetic elements don’t fare as well. Visually, the environment is phenomenal, but the eventual creature designs and encountered character models are modeled with a lower resolution gooey visual style that looks more unfinished than creepily unformed. The sound similarly falters in part when it comes to the voice acting. Frank’s voice acting is inconsistent and there’s just too much of it. Overexplaining is often the death of horror, and with so much of the tension relying on the great sound design, listening to Frank ask what’s going on repeatedly adds annoyance over intrigue. I recommend playing Conarium with the quiet mode on to stifle most of Frank’s dialogue and keep what successful tension there is.
This leads to the double-edged appeal of Dr. Faust’s voice, the other presence that dominates Conarium‘s playtime, and toes the line between horrified and campy so carefully that Vincent Price might have been proud. Dr. Faust often chimes in when more silence might have enhanced the environmental tension. That written, Dr. Faust’s voice acting is so good I was able to overlook my lukewarm reception to his very presence. The same could have been said for the main character, but Conarium earns its appeal when it matters most.
The gameplay and puzzles play decently overall. There’s rarely a moment where I felt unacceptably lost, like not understanding environmental triggers or what I needed to do with certain symbols. Even if you don’t have a great memory, the auto-updating journal gives decent hints on what to use. Some of the puzzle controls were difficult using a gamepad and considering the timing necessary for a couple of solutions a keyboard plus mouse might be the best way for you to go. The only portion that worked horrendously was a sudden chase sequence in the gameplay that – to that point and immediately thereafter – relied solely on exploration and puzzle solving. The chase itself has a silly solution that’s more Scooby-Doo than Lovecraft, sticks out badly, and feels arbitrarily placed for additional gamey elements than arising from the story.
None of those criticisms apply to Conarium at its best during a submersible sequence that ties together all of its aesthetic highs with a unique spin on control. You work with an unwieldy craft second-hand via Frank’s actions. This is masterful as it relies on uncertainty in speed and piloting combined with Conarium‘s good grasp of unsettling environments for a game-high path of tension. The mostly linear experience of Conarium is almost worth revisiting for this underwater sequence alone, and those who enjoy a chill (even if thrills aren’t necessarily guaranteed) would do well to give this a look.
Conarium's effective chills eventually outweigh the lack of mysterious thrills you might want from Lovecraft-inspired videogames. Pick a cold night with loved ones, turn off the lights, and puzzle through the Antarctic together or enjoy yourself weathering the snow alone. Just don't linger too long on the out of place character models and uneven voice acting. Keep Conarium moving and the effect will settle in.
- Chilling environmental design and puzzles.
- Effective sound design and score to keep the player immersed.
- Memorable submersible sequence almost worth replaying the game for.
- Iffy character models that feel unfinished compared to the environments.
- An overabundance of confusingly voiced exposition from the main character.
- Unnecessary and disruptive detour into hide and seek chase gameplay midway through.
Prognosis is Good