To hear it said that something is “Lovecraftian” will often bring to mind images of dark and terrible creatures in the night; a smattering of tentacles and eyes driving one to madness – and you definitely wouldn’t be wrong. Lovecraft’s style of narrative is a genre all its own and as such it has proven the basis and inspiration for countless games and more. The developers at Zoetrope Interactive cited very clearly that their first-person horror, Conarium, was directly inspired by the work of Lovecraft and in truth if you are familiar with his work you will recognize many names that place this squarely inside the terrifying world he created. While Conarium has been out for two years now, it has only just made its way onto consoles, so how does this horror experience stack up as a median between literature and gaming?
As a fan of Lovecraft’s work, I was eager to explore Conarium. I am not a fan of horror games, however knowing what it means to be “Lovecraftian” I knew what to expect and on that, the game delivers. The horror does not come from gore and violence, wild jump scares, or any of the typical tropes we see today. It is instead purposefully built to slowly rise and lead the character into madness, and in that regard, this game is phenomenal. Playing as researcher Frank Gilman, you awaken to a horrible noise and a strange device on the table next to you. Your head is throbbing but it eventually subsides, and yet everyone else in your Arctic research facility seems to be missing.
Frank sets out on a story of discovery as he searches for his missing team and the truth of what they uncovered deep below the surface. As the game goes on, the more dark and twisted Franks psyche – and the surroundings – become. It’s dripping with creepy atmosphere that forces you to take it slow just in case something is around the corner, however, beyond these narrative touches, Conarium is very much a walking-sim, mechanically speaking. You will be met with puzzles occasionally to further progress but nothing so overly complex that you feel particularly challenged. Very little in the environment can be interacted with and for whatever reason there is no button prompts for the game. While interacting with objects feels intuitive, an icon simply appears to say you can interact with the object but does not specify how. Maybe that is nitpicky, but a “Press A to ___” is fairly standard fair. I admit the lack of it is most likely to go with the minimalist experience and feel the atmosphere as there is no HUD to speak of, but it can be bothersome at times.
The aesthetic of the game truly is a marvel to behold. The harsh snowstorm outside the research facility, the way light shines off of glass and metal, the eerie sheen of dank and moist spires in the caves, it all is rendered with incredible detail. The audio as well reflects the lonely echo of the game, delivering harsh chords of shock when something terrible is happening. It all goes such a long way to building an atmosphere and telling a successful story which clearly was crafted with a beautiful purpose in mind, but it’s the mechanical side of the game that is its downfall. There really is nothing to do except keep walking forward. If you want to step into a horror game that won’t be all blood and guts in your face with senseless screaming, this is definitely the game for you, but be prepared to walk and look at how pretty it is because otherwise, it leaves the wrong sense of emptiness behind.
I did discover, upon completing the game, that Conarium features multiple unlockable endings. Given that my first playthrough clocked in around the 4 and a quarter hour mark I was definitely left with the desire to play again and try to find a new ending, hoping to uncover wildly different outcomes. There are also a number of secrets to discover and, to my surprise, I had only found a scarce few of them. The short length of the game coupled with the secrets and multiple endings claw at the back of my mind that I simply must play it over again because it isn’t REALLY finished, and to that end I applaud the developers for creating a game that is long enough to feel worthy of my time but short enough to feel comfortable playing it again.
Conarium is a game so rooted in its desire to tell a story inspired by a great author that it feels more like an interactive novel than a game itself. The narrative, atmosphere, and graphics have proven to be particularly superb; however, the poor voice acting and lack of significant interactive content root this game firmly as a walking-sim above a full horror experience. Serving the niche of Lovecraft fans, this is a marvelous game to play, but as a horror video game it will easily lose those not already interested in this style of macabre.
**Xbox One code provided by the publisher**
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