☆ Review: Conarium - "A game crafted with love for Lovecraft" ☆ #GameDev

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Conarium - PC
I am familiar with Zoetrope Interactive’s previous titles, namely the ‘Darkness Within’ series, which I enjoyed some years back.
I am a big fan of their approach to horror, with their style more chilling and creepy than gory or horrific and the solid pace of their games appeals to me, I played Darkness Within around about the same time that I played other horror titles that stick in my memory such as Scratches and The Lost Crown (speaking of which, come on Jonathan Boakes, stop teasing us and release the sequel, you fiend! Ten years, TEN YEARS!)
It’s been a fair old while since their last game was released in 2010 and I’m pleased to say that Conarium was definitely worth the wait.

For those familiar with the Darkness Within series, it’s already known that Zoetrope Interactive eat Lovecraft novels for breakfast (covered in lashings of HP sauce) but whereas the previous games have referenced his works, Conarium drenches itself in the lore of his books. 

The only other game that I’ve played that came close to capturing his unique atmosphere was the fantastic but flawed ‘Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth’ which I can say is one of the few games that has genuinely scared me and gotten under my skin.

The story of Conarium follows on from the Lovecraft novella, ‘The Mountains of Madness’ with the game taking place in the 1940’s. You play the character Frank Gilman (spot the pun) who wakes up next to a strange machine in a research station with no memory of recent events and a strange contraption attached to your hand and so you begin searching the station for the others members of your team.

I was reminded during the early sections of the game of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ which is one of my favourite horror films. There are sections where you need to travel outside the safety of the station and the sense of cold, blasting winds, snow-blindness and loneliness are quite affecting, within moments of starting the game I was already hips deep in its rich atmosphere.
The graphics in Conarium are gorgeous. From the cold, steel interiors of the research hub, through the whipping winds of the Antarctic and eventually down into the caves and temples that make up the bulk of the game, everything is fully detailed and dripping with well-realised visuals imbued with a sense of the unknown, it really drew me in and kept me playing straight through to the end. The alien architecture was monolithic and daunting whilst the claustrophobic parts of the cave system and the ancient temples felt just as believable and intimidating.

The strong graphics in the game are accompanied by an equally mesmerising soundtrack which roams eerily in the background of the game, combined with occasional ancillary sounds (a rock fall here, a low moaning there) the world of Conarium is an unsettling and yet beautiful one to navigate. The only slightly incongruous aspect of the audio department in the game are the voiceovers, the voice actors in the game I am assuming are not British and it sounds like their only training regimen to master the English accent was to watch the Cary Elwes scenes in The Princess Bride, I did find myself raising an eyebrow at some of the pronunciation (mass = mars) occasionally but it’s not too much of a distraction from the doom-laden aesthetic of the game and the protagonists’ descent into madness, (or perhaps being coerced into believing he is mad?) is believable and well-set out.

In fact, there are only two other aspects of the game that detract from the overall experience, one I’ll discuss in more depth later in the review and the other is an over-keenness on the bloom effect. Some moments in the game had me actually squinting at the screen, especially when I accidentally looked at something metallic without turning my torch off first, it’s a nice touch but occasionally blinding, although not as fierce as the Syndicate remake, which I pretty much had to wear sunglasses and sun cream to play (although it was worth it for Michael Wincott’s gravelly tones)
The puzzles in the game always have a logical solution and are straightforward enough to work out with objects being automatically used if you have them in your inventory (which removes the tedious inventory management and random combining of items that can sometimes plague these adventure games).  

The game world is rich with Lovecraftian lore and notes, books etc. that come in the form of ‘Trophy Items’ which are a really nice touch. It makes it worth the odd scavenge in the drawers to find some idol or drawing of a creature from other Lovecraft stories or notes that reference happenings throughout his writings, this is a real goldmine for the hard-core fans out there.
There's a rather brave moment in the game where the main character says, 'this is nonsense, I can't understand what's going on!' Which, if the game wasn't as good may have had some players thinking, ‘pfff, tell me about it’ but the game has the gravitas to pull such a comment off.

The story although presented as fractured and mysterious does make narrative sense and is easy to follow and even concludes with a strong ending. There were only two small sections of the game that I found tedious, an underwater section (I can't actually think of an underwater section in any game that I've enjoyed, with the exception of the first level of Alex Kidd on the Master System and even then only because it was so brief) and a chase sequence later in the game that I personally found badly implemented although it was admittedly initially tense, but after a few tries  I did get slightly bored and just wanted to get past it to continue the immersive story.

In summary, this game is a must for any fan of H.P Lovecraft, truly great games that reference his works are thin on the ground and even if you haven’t read anything by him, this is a solid starting point as the story stands on its own. (Although perhaps a quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for ‘The Mountains of Madness’ could help you get up to speed for the events at the start of the game) and at around four to five hours in length, it moves along at a steady pace and doesn’t drag out it’s tale or require constant back-tracking, as you play you are constantly discovering new places and delving deeper into the mystery of Conarium.

I’m hoping that Zoetrope Interactive carry on in the same vein for their next game as they have struck the right balance of puzzles, game play and narrative for me. I just hope we don’t have to wait seven years for the next one.
Right, I’m off outside, I’d best remember to leave my humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.

Ratings Explained
ICE COOL (Great Game Recommended)
MELTING (Just Falls Short Of Greatness)
MELTED (Not A Recommended Purchase

Game Link: Steam
Dev Link: Zoetrope

Reviewed By Britt
(from @kingdomofcarts)

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