Thrusting us tentacle first into the weird and wonderful world of H.P Lovecraft, Zoetrope Interactive has ported its Steam release, Conarium, to PlayStation 4. What might seem at first glance to be a first-person horror game filled with jump scares and hideously graphic gore, a la Outlast, is in fact a more unsettling, creepy, plot driven tale of when science goes too far, gifting us a more subtly ominous experience. The title is loosely based on Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, though many of the character names and plot details are amended to allow the developer its own stamp on the mythos.
As a horror walking sim puzzler, Conarium’s main focus is on plot, which is delivered well. You play as Frank Gilman, one of a team of scientists who ventured to the Antarctic to explore and challenge the limits of human nature. As Frank, you wake up in a suitably spooky medical bed, with no recollection of what the heck is going on, what the pulsating machine in the middle of the room is, or why you have something similar looking attached to your hand. From there, it’s all downhill into the depths of the ancient caves below to try and work out where your esteemed colleagues are, and what your terrifying hallucinations are all about.
Plot information in is dispersed via two main avenues: scripted cutscenes and reading material found throughout the levels. The latter is far more effective in crafting a sense of dread, and also serves to further explore the world and exposit additional lore. Finding notes of a patient’s descent into insanity in the same drawer as old-timey pictures of children tends to send a chill down the spine. While the cutscenes are less effective, they can give a good mini jump scare if your intense exploring is interrupted by a loud hallucination or flashback.
Unfortunately, the cutscenes also expose one of the game's weakest elements: the voice acting. While it’s not awful, the cast just don’t sound as invested as they should. Frank in particular delivers his lines with a level of cheese bordering on B-movie territory, and subsequently clashes with the excellent, eerie tone created by the sound design and visuals. Frank is of course the voice that you’ll hear most too, as he vocalises that "the door is locked" with all the gusto of a pantomime dame, repeatedly. The characters themselves are also pretty ugly, looking quite outdated and blocky. Although, overall, the graphics are solid. There was only one occasion we encountered a glitchy rock during our play through, which hardly affected our overall enjoyment.
Gameplay wise, Conarium is effective in weaving its story into the game's events. It also refuses to hold the player's hand, leading to some moments that’ll leave you scratching your head considering what to do next. These can be frustrating at times, but generally, the ‘a-ha’ moment that comes from solving a problem is highly rewarding. Puzzles are mostly what you’d expect, but the environmental features are, again, strongly paired to the narrative, even if they are somewhat basic, gameplay wise. Most have you finding an object, or relating back to a detail of a previously collected item or note to discover their use. Otherwise, you’re quite helpless in Conarium, with the focus firmly on plot progression via puzzle solving. It should be noted that the game is pretty short, and can be finished in a few hours if you rush through. There are, however, secrets and easter eggs to find, which will extend your play time.
Aesthetically, the game is marvellous. The aforementioned character models aside, the world is beautifully crafted, presenting Lovecraft’s truly bizarre visuals with a great level of detail, and giving us levels that feel incredibly distinct from one another. In particular, the ending sequence becomes a feast for the eyes, akin to the trippy lights of 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the unnerving quiet of the abandoned Antarctic base, to the stunningly brilliant and creative caves below; the game captures the style of Lovecraft quite well, while still keeping its subtlety intact, something many games that base their aesthetics on his work fail to do. The soundtrack is also solid, building tension in the spookier moments, but inspiring a feeling of wonder and intrigue in the explorative segments.
Conarium is a good, plot focused and atmospheric walking sim puzzler. Though it's billed as horror, it serves to get under your skin, rather than producing any massive frights. That said, the world created is wonderfully realised and quite beautiful in its freakishness. The way that the game captures the otherworldly vibe of Lovecraft’s work, and develops such an engaging story quickly, is something to applaud. Ignoring the poor voice acting, bad character models, and the odd frustrating puzzle, if you’re looking for a disturbing, plot focused walking sim experience, or you’re just a huge Lovecraft fan, you won’t go far wrong here.