“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
Conarium, a horror-adventure title by indie development team Zoetrope Interactive and published by Iceberg Interactive, has taken that simple quote from H.P. Lovecraft and turned it into a playable experience. With Lovecraft’s Mountain of Madness as a significant influence, Zoetrope (who also released the Darkness Within franchise) has presented a title chock-full of the trappings of the cosmic horror for which Lovecraft is famous, eschewing gore and hack-and-slash tactics for the subtle nuances of psychological terror. Conarium takes about five hours to complete, if you take your time and allow yourself to absorb the total mind-screw that seems to have been gleefully provided. If you are searching for the next BioShock or Silent Hill -- this isn’t it. The horror and action are much more insidious, rooting in your mind.
You awaken in what appears to be an underwater ruin full of floating, glowing jellyfish. As you progress, the edges of your vision begin to blur, as if an electric signal is breaking up and, in the distance, you see a ruined corridor and the shadow of …something …lurking at the end. Reveal broken wooden floors, and the jellyfish begin to look more computer than nature generated. Ominous creaks fill your ears, with the occasional creepy tolling of a bell, low-keyed chimes, and a plethora of other noises designed to make you jumpy. You have the impression of walking into a break in time; nothing is where or what is should be; nothing makes sense. And Dr. Faust. Eww. That’s all I shall say about Dr. Faust.
After all, you just woke up in the middle of Antarctica and remember nothing.
Once reality solidifies, you find Frank (the gentleman whom you play as) alone at the Upuaut Base, and in the throes of what seems to be a crippling headache. (Or, the character is just a wuss.) Either way, your view of static-y background graphics eventually clears, leaving you in a room that hosts a crackling electronic device (think plasma globe that has taken steroids and gone wrong). Frank experiences what seem to be flashbacks; hallucinating sights and sounds, which may have been forgotten. The ‘flashbacks’ are a bit confusing -- but they need to be. After all, you just woke up in the middle of Antarctica and remember nothing. Not to mention the sign written in what appears to be blood saying, “Stop the sessions,” and strange memos in an otherwise empty (or is it?) base-building in the middle of a snowstorm hinting at everything dastardly, from bad weather, and sickness to mental illnesses. I would be confused if it wasn’t confusing.
You find yourself playing through a myriad of environments, from the base to an abandoned mansion full of eerie artwork, hosting enough guttering candles to burn down Yellowstone. The atmospheric difference between these two landscapes is dramatic, and the beautiful and haunting visuals Conarium provides are exemplary. Let’s not fail to mention the caverns, submarines (embarrassingly – even after years in the Coast Guard and Navy, I may have sunk a few of these boats before figuring out how to operate them), a creepy-ass cat, and plants that seem more diabolical than my mother-in-law. Statues and carvings abound hinting at otherworldly creatures that smack of reptilian and other less pleasant lineages.
Too much terror
Zoetrope has been very careful not to give too much of the terror of Conarium away, so I'll remain respectful, and attempt to do the same. I spent much of my time playing in a mild state of almost-panic, holding my breath over what I just knew must be lurking right around the corner. I reached a few points where I simply didn’t want to keep playing as the suspense was niggling into my brain more than any jump scares ever have. Five minutes in, I squealed loud enough to scare the other people in my house; one hour in, the headphones came off ( …if the purpose of this soundtrack was to make me feel insane – fantastic job!! It succeeded.). And, I’m a self-confessed wuss: I might have also played for a while with no sound at all before I convinced myself to plug in my faithful old speaker.
There are two glitches. One was pretty simple: a thin black line would cut across the screen when I made Frank run. The other was quite a bit more noticeable: in my first runthrough, the landscape just wouldn’t populate after traveling through a weed-choked corridor near the end of the game. As the terror in Conarium is more psychological than physical, I was a bit unsure if this was an intentional part of the release or an actual glitch. I wandered about dumbly through this jagged and incomplete terrain, for a few minutes before I decided it must be a mistake. I had to reload three times before the environment populated correctly. However, once it did populate, I was able to play to the end with no more troubles. (The second time I played Conarium, this didn’t happen.)
With beautiful graphics, an intense, fluid soundtrack, and relatively straightforward gameplay, Conarium is different horror title. Multiple endings and a cool stats feature translate into hours of entertainment. One feature I found particularly interesting was the recap of my stats. After my first try, I was missing half of the ‘findable’ secrets and had only achieved 61% overall progress. While I’m not sure I would have played through a second time without these stats, they were motivation for me to go back into this world of cosmic horror and face my fears all over again. Because after all, Conarium couldn’t be that scary now that it is no longer unknown… could it?!