A few weeks ago, OnlySP published an editorial arguing that games could never truly be Lovecraftian. While well-argued and worth a read, Conarium shows how utterly possible making a Lovecraftian game is.
H.P. Lovecraft, for those unaware, was a horror writer in the early years of the twentieth century. While perhaps best known for his weird monsters (in particular the tentacled Cthulhu and the fish-men of Innsmouth), his work touched on a cosmological horror in which human beings were powerless beings facing a hostile and uncaring universe. Lovecraft has inspired a variety of popular films, including the Alien franchise, The Exorcist, and The Thing, which are all marked by their strange and nigh-on unstoppable antagonists. Conarium encapsulates much of this strangeness, as shown by its vague but fascinating teaser trailer:
However, the trailer by no means does the game justice in terms of scope. While the main gaming environment is presented as the Antarctic caverns of At the Mountains of Madness, the actual game expands into several different locations, allowing for a much more thorough exploration of the Lovecraftian universe than the premise suggests, joined by a flexible, two-character narrative.
Writing-wise, Conarium is not the most skilled Lovecraftian adaptation, but the game stays true to the source material. Many on-the-nose details, such as naming the leader of the expedition Dr Faust and a liberal inclusion of giant lizard people, make Conarium far from an intelligent reconceptualisation of the Lovecraftian oeuvre. Conarium is no Providence. Instead, the overall atmosphere resembles something out of a C-grade 1950s movie, with plenty of style but little substance. However, as fans will be aware, that style is highly reminiscent of how H.P. Lovecraft writes his stories; the main selling points are the weird monsters, the heightened and poorly-written characters, and the consistently bad writing. Even the game’s title, Conarium, is merely a fancy way of saying “pinecone-shaped”, which fits nicely into Lovecraft’s eldritch, stygian, and, by now, antediluvian writing-style.
The plot, too, is largely what might be expected from some of the lesser Lovecraft stories. Lasting around three hours, Conarium involves a group of scientists investigating ancient tombs, finding technology that human beings should not mess with, and degenerating accordingly. Developers Zoetrope Interactive previously worked on the Lovecraft-inspired franchise Darkness Within, so the game heavily incorporates Lovecraftian lore. Expect many subtle nudges to creatures and events from the Lovecraftian mythos, particularly with the hidden trophies. While the game feels as if the developers ran out of time to complete their project and had to cut the story short, the endings have a somewhat Bloodborne feel in a way that is not entirely unsatisfying and still allows for multiple endings.
The beautiful design of the game also holds true to the source material, to the extent that playing this game feels like a replication of the real world. From the detailed statues lining the tombs, the variety of locations in each new climate, the Dishonored-styled human being models, and the beautifully horrifying designs of the villains, Conarium proves to be a game that could be sold on looks alone. As OnlySP found Empathy: Path of Shadows (another of Iceberg Interactive’s 2017 releases) sorely lacking in good textures and level design, this sharp improvement in quality is a relief.
The game chooses to utilise a curiously lacking combat system, however. The early stages of the game involve players gathering objects such as an axe and a glowing item that repels vines, but when enemies appear, players have very little to do besides running around the environment to kite the enemies before returning the way they came. The weapons players have painstakingly collected are effectively useless in combat. Having a protagonist utterly powerless in the face of unnatural and otherworldly threats fits with the Lovecraftian style, and Conarium perhaps has more in common with Outlast than BioShock in that regard. However, the first and only combat sequence occurs almost a full hour into the game. If a player enjoyed the single combat experience the game provides, they unfortunately will not find any more and will have to be satisfied with a variety of puzzles instead.
As Conarium is primarily a puzzle game, the aspects that make puzzle games so popular is probably important to cover. Games as diverse as Uncharted, Resident Evil, and Zelda use puzzles to keep players engaged, rewarding them in the short-term to keep the game from getting dull. Generally, players are eased into into puzzles, provided a simple puzzle to overcome to gain a mechanical understanding, before subsequent puzzles become more challenging. Sometimes, players will need to gather mission critical items to solve puzzles, but the game will clearly indicate that such items need to be found to progress forward, perhaps even giving hints about where such items can be found.
For some reason, Conarium does not do that. Often, quite difficult puzzles will be thrown at players with inadequate information for a solution being provided. While having many varied and unique puzzles is a commendable trait in a game, players might become frustrated at having to constantly learn new entirely new systems without so much as a tutorial. Instead, players will have to get through by mashing the keyboard, dying multiple times, or looking for online playthroughs. Solving some of those puzzles may depend on whether players draw a line in one direction and not another, or if players can figure out to arrange some random dots so they vaguely resemble a star constellation. Furthermore, if players wish to find mission critical items, expect to search over, under, and through entire areas to find them, and then discover, through laborious trial and error, how to use the items correctly. This results in a puzzle game where the least pleasant part is solving puzzles.
Building on that shortcoming, Conarium features one of the same problems as Empathy: Path of Whispers, in that the game does not provide any objective markers nor any map to help orientate players in environments. As players are largely wandering around expansive, poorly-lit, and largely identical cave systems, remembering where important things are can sometimes be unnecessarily hard. Clearly, the developers wanted players to explore the world, as they filled the beautiful environments with multiple hidden trophies that hint towards well-known figures of the Lovecraftian mythos, but players will have difficulty exploring the world in a natural way without a way to orientate themselves. With each new environment, players might find themselves getting lost multiple times over to orientate themselves and remember where they are. This aspect is a chore after the first time, let alone the tenth or twentieth.
Players should be cautious buying Conarium. On one hand, everything that is appealing about the game from its trailer, including loyalty to the source material, beautiful design, and engrossing weird-horror atmosphere, will absolutely be found inside. As has been mentioned above, even more locations and cool-looking monsters will be found in the full gameplay, along with some surprises on the way. However, the irritatingly counter-intuitive puzzles would deeply frustrate even the most avid Lovecraft fan, leaving Conarium a game with plenty of well-rendered and attractive style, but sorely lacking in satisfying gameplay substance.