When I was in college, our painting instructor asked a simple question that really stuck with me: “Is Bob Ross a talented painter?” It was a question that many of us took as a joke, like yeah, Bob Ross is a talented painter; he was on TV for years with his happy trees, happy grass, and loving clouds. What never really occurred to any of us, which our teacher was quick to point out, was that good ol’ Bob simply followed a formula, as if he was painting by numbers. A few of us questioned this, only to be treated with some slides of Bobby’s less popular paintings, all of which were… not that great. The same could be said for the numerous releases in the horror/walking sim genre that use the Unreal engine. Don’t take this as a slight against the engine, because there have been a number of spooky games that utilize the tool with amazing results; but for every standout release, the gaming world gets five or so lackluster releases that look great at a glance, but somewhere along the way seemed to forget to fully cover the numbered outline of the template. Which camp does Conarium fall into? Read on and we’ll take a look to see how many of these bold numeric guidelines we can find.
The story is based on the H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, following researcher Frank Gilman as he awakens to find the Antarctic research base in a state of disarray and completely vacant aside from himself, with no memory of what has happened. Equipped with the token flashlight and walkie-talkie the horror genre is known for, he sets off to explore the installation, as well as the mysterious caverns the team has discovered underneath. Along your journey, you’ll be able to inspect and interact with strange relics with macabre symbols etched into them, as well as the standard audio and text diaries that drive the narrative forward. These don’t really disappoint in terms of writing, but when you don’t have much else to offer, it feels more akin to reading a book on your TV screen opposed to playing a game that should have you on the edge of your seat in terror.
Gameplay is limited almost exclusively to walking around exploring the world, only taking short breaks to step away from what becomes a monotonous, downright boring experience. Early into the game there are a few scripted events, which most developers would use as simple yet effective jump scares; in the world of Conarium, they are nothing more than shadowy figures that evoke a sense of mystery at best, but often fall completely flat. Around the mid-way point of the game there is a short underwater segment where the player finds themselves piloting a submarine through the icy trenches. What could have been a nice change of pace is nothing more than a tedious mini game, as the field of view does not permit the player to accurately navigate the vessel through tight areas that the game requires. While it did not stop me from pushing forward, the few deaths I experienced in this area felt more like poor design choices than an error on my part.
If boredom doesn’t defeat you prior to making it to the worst encounter (which comes entirely too late into the story), a hide and seek style situation with several zombie-ghouls that stalk you through tight corridors will. I never saw Frank, but I can only assume he was a portly fellow, this deduction coming from the fact that he isn’t very nimble and can only run in short bursts. This doesn’t impede gameplay in most of the areas, but when three bloodthirsty beings are sprinting at you, it becomes a bit of an issue. The end result is a frustrated player and three unimpressive, mindless enemies that seem to catch you no matter how efficiently you use the limited sprint. After what felt like hours, I finally made it through this encounter by the skin of my teeth thanks to the inept AI getting caught up on a rock. The puzzles found within are no more engaging, with only a single puzzle requiring more thought than finding Part A and inserting into slot A. Even at its best, the puzzles fail to stimulate even the slowest of brain cells with the exact answer often being found on a scrap of paper two feet to your left.
Much like (insert the name of your favorite horror walking sim utilizing the Unreal engine), the environments are well rendered, but look… off. Every asset has a strange, glassy appearance, meaning even the paper notes you collect have a pretty gnarly reflective shine to them, often making them completely unreadable. While not nearly as noticeable when viewing the game using the limited ambient lighting, the constant use of the flashlight makes this an eyesore that becomes even more prevalent. The character models look passable at a short glance as they scurry across the screen, but in full view they look terribly dated – even more so in the full view of your never failing flashlight.
The sound design adds a bit to the lacking immersion, but not nearly enough to save the sinking vessel. The haunting background music sets the tone for the descent into madness, but the voice acting is another story all together. Most of the voice actors fully commit to their brief roles; however, whoever is voicing Frank sounds overly robotic and monotone, with confusion being the only emotion properly conveyed at any point. Clocking in around four hours, the game offers little to no replay value. There is the illusion of two unique endings, which are decided by a single choice offered to the player at the final conclusion of the story. Instead of taking a more creative route basing this upon the number of deaths or how many of the collectibles were located, this feels anticlimactic and lazy. The only positive to come from this is you can simply reload the final checkpoint and make the other decision, allowing you to see both endings without trudging through the story a second time.
While I am sure there are some Cthulhu fans out there who would find enjoyment from seeing the novella in an interactive form, I found Conarium to be a let down on mostly every front. Still images capture a dark beauty that is lacking from other horror-centric games, but the bold paint by numbers formula shines through more than anything unique the title has to offer.
5 out of 10
- Nice Still Imagery
- Writing Successfully Pays Tribute to Lovecraftian Lore
- Lack of Gameplay
- Boring Puzzles
- Frustrating Encounters
- Wonky Textures
Conarium was developed by Zoetrope Interactive and published by Iceberg Interactive. It was released in 2017 for PC and February 12th, 2019 on PS4 and X1 for $19.99. The game was provided to us for review on X1. If you’d like to see more of Conarium, check out the official website.
Here at GBG we use a rating method that you are more than likely familiar with – a scale of 1 to 10. For clarification, we intend on using the entire scale: 1-4 is something you should probably avoid paying for; 5-7 is something that is worth playing, but probably not at full price; 8-10 is a great title that you can feel confident about buying. If you have any questions or comments about how we rate a game, please let us know.