Conarium Review

By Mark Delaney, 1 month ago
There's no shortage of Lovecraft-inspired games these days, but the extent to which developers borrow from the master of horror varies quite a lot from game to game. Some merely use a similar visual style or touch on the author's signature themes, while others are straight up adaptations. Conarium manages to fall somewhere in between, though closer to the latter. As a retelling of At The Mountains of Madness, the horror-adventure game manages to get a lot right and should be played by anyone who appreciates Lovecraft.

27/01/2019 - Carousel

Conarium begins much like Lovecraft's aforementioned novella does. A science expedition in the Arctic has gone awry. Waking up in the role of one of the four scientists, players are tasked with uncovering exactly what went on in the oppressive wind and cold of the research center. In the three to four hours it takes to see the whole story, much of it will come via notes and memories replayed in front of you, giving the whole experience an adventure game feeling. In similar titles, such a feeling usually gives away the fact that there are no real horror elements beyond its atmosphere.

Thankfully, this isn't actually the case with Conarium. There are death screens, there is a chase sequence, there are ways to die (and even achievements for doing so a lot and never at all) and you likely will be unsettled more than a few times. It's fair to still call it part adventure game, but it dodges the walking sim categorization by smartly breaking up the walking with the occasional legitimate scare. Even then, there are a few really creepy moments within the less gameplay-intensive sections too.

Puzzles also play a major role in the game but these are consistently one of the worst parts of the experience for two reasons. First, they often slow the pace of the game to a halt because their objectives are so often be unclear, presented in areas so large, that one's choice in solving them are limited. Either achingly scan a large area looking for the often minuscule clue you missed, or you will have to look up the solution online. Neither method is fun and while the game seems to want to reward a keen eye for detail, it feels like few would actually solve the puzzles this way.

The puzzles create an additional hassle because of how poorly optimized the control scheme is. In the options, you can reassign any and all buttons for walking around. But you can't adjust the controls for the puzzle sections, and they consistently use the D-pad in ways that feel clunky and nearly broken. When one of the puzzles even demanded I use these faulty controls quickly, despite knowing the answer it was tough to get the controller to cooperate well enough to pass it. It's a problem not often seen in console gaming anymore, but it's a consistent reminder that Conarium was born on PC.

It's not Lovecraft without creepy stone altars.It's not Lovecraft without creepy stone altars.

Past those sections, the game does a lot right. The story that plays out is neither an adaptation nor a loose homage. It takes major beats from the Lovecraft novella while bringing wholly new elements to it that don't feel out of place. If you haven't read the story yourself, you'll not know which parts came from Lovecraft and which parts came from Zoetrope Interactive. They clearly have a respect for and understanding of the author and put it to great use. The game scatters a lot of collectibles around and many of these are merely tangentially related to the story at hand, but they bring more Lovecraftian appreciation to the mix in a way fans will really appreciate. It can sometimes feel like a Lovecraft museum, with its omniscient automatron heads playing host and squishy green viscera flooring decorating the halls.

Conarium also looks lovely running on Unreal Engine 4 and the audio is usually good and sometimes even great. Atmosphere is more important to horror than perhaps any other genre, and with the impressive visuals and audio, including a quieted but unsettling original soundtrack, Conarium gets these crucial parts right. It looks better than most other games of its scale.

The achievement list includes many for gathering the collectibles of various types, seeing both endings (which can be done with a quick reload of the last checkpoint) and more for unmissable story beats. As the game is never too difficult beyond the puzzle frustrations, it's an easy four-hour completion with a guide to find some of the many pick-ups you'll want to grab on your travels.

Check out our Best Xbox Adventure Games Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

Covering horror as often as I do, I know by now the telltale signs of a horror game that is little more than a walking sim with a few scripted door slammings. Conarium thankfully rises above this regularly faulty approach by including just enough actual threats to keep players on their toes. It is still an adventure game in part, but it gets that part mostly right too thanks to a good atmosphere and a story worth following whether or not you've read its original inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft. Puzzles and controls leave a lot to be desired, but Conarium does much else well, making it an easy recommendation for any fans of the author.
3.5 / 5
Conarium
Positives
  • Interesting story that is part adaptation, part reimagining
  • A few good scares to keep it feeling like more than an adventure game
  • Atmospheric sound design including good music to fit the mood
Negatives
  • Some frustrating puzzles which bring the progress to a halt
  • Poor control optimization for consoles
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent four hours at the mountains of madness, uncovering the mystery and thankfully getting spooked a few times. He gathered 12 of 26 achievements for 430 gamerscore. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.