The email dropped into my inbox informing me I had a review code for a game called Conarium. I had visions of taking control of a mulleted Nicholas Cage as I battled against a group of convicts that had taken over an aeroplane, all whilst muttering such iconic dialogue as “Put the bunny back in the box”. I then realised that Conarium wasn’t a Con Air inspired game, but instead was a Lovecraftian horror adventure video game, inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains of Madness. Disappointment set in. The game was developed by Turkish game development studio Zoetrope Interactive, published by Dutch indie game publisher Iceberg Interactive, and was originally released on PC in June 2017, but now gets it’s console release in February 2019.
Conarium follows four scientists in their endeavour to challenge what we normally consider to be the absolute limits of nature. The scientist sought to transcend human consciousness with the use of a so-called Conarium device. The player controls Frank Gilman, one of the four scientists of the Antarctic expedition. At the beginning of the game Gilman wakes up alone at Upuaut, a research base located in Antarctica. The room where he wakes up has a strange device on the table emitting odd noises and with pulsating lights. Gilman has no idea what the device is, nor has he any recollection of what happened prior to him passing out. He discovers the research base abandoned, with no trace of the other scientists. Gilman must uncover what happened to the others in his expedition by exploring the Antarctic base and its surroundings. During his search he experiences strange visions and dreams, which feel like memories that he cannot place.
Conarium is basically a first person walking/puzzle game as you try and work out what has happened. As an example, the first thing you have to do is turn on the power to the starting area, which is as simple as finding the generator, filling it with fuel from the can sitting right next to it and then starting it up. Simple. But unfortunately that’s about as difficult as things get, as the game mostly consists of fetching an item and then placing it where it needs to go in order to open your progression route. You’ll soon move out of the base and into some more interesting locales, but apart from some nice visual elements there’s not a lot of difference between a hallway in the base and a cave in the catacombs. There is sometimes a huge amount of map to explore to find the one small item you need, which means endless searching and exploring. There is an interesting moment when you get to pilot a submarine, but this is the only moment where the gameplay switches it up throughout the entire game. There are also a couple of more interesting puzzles, which do lead to some head scratching, and there are also some incredibly boring puzzle elements.
The story is told through collecting notes, books and drawings throughout your exploration. There is a great disturbing moment early on with a talking head, which never gets repeated, and there are many flashbacks which show previous events within this world. Most of the “horror” elements also seem to appear via flashbacks, but I do use the word horror very lightly, as apart from a few jump scares there is not a lot here that will scare or terrify. This isn’t helped by the sheer amount of audio effects that are present, meaning the designers intent of freaking out the player with eerie sound effects just gets lost amongst the plethora of sound effects. There is also the extremely poor and lifeless voice work from your character, which doesn’t help portray any kind of danger or excitement. Graphically there’s not a lot to shout about either, and as mentioned earlier there are some nice Lovecraftian elements as you near the end, but these are exceptions to the many dull and dreary interiors.
However, the main problem here is the story and the puzzles. There is just no real excitement or sense of wonder in what you are doing. It became a real chore to play, and if I wasn’t reviewing it I would have given up long before the end. It’s also quite short, as you are able to complete it within 3-4 hours, which makes the lack of excitement even more of a problem. I am quite unfamiliar with the works of Lovecraft, so I may be missing something here, but there never felt like there was any real threat or peril, and the monsters, what little of them was actually present, were pretty dull. It does feel like a wasted opportunity to produce a horror game in this genre. It’s also incredibly confusing at times to work out as to why and what is actually going on. It’s usually pretty straightforward but searching around the huge empty map to find an item you needed, or to find a breakable wall, was poor. Some areas had me scratching my head and was only solved by complete trial and error. The game also jumps between locations and timelines so often that you really do question where, when and who you are. It’s obviously designed in this way so as to disorientate the player, but it’s just done too frequently. At one point in Conarium there is a line of dialogue that says “This is nonsense. I cannot understand what is going on” and this is probably the most perfect explanation of this game I could ever personally write.
Oh well, guess it’s time to put this disappointing game back in it’s box and go back to dreaming about the day someone make ConAir-ium.
Many thanks to Iceberg Games for supporting Thumbstix.