I like Lovecraftian horror. Madness, meddling with things that humans should be meddling with, gradual loss of sanity, horrors hidden just out of sight, terror of the unknown. It’s a horror that’s very difficult to convey in most visual forms of media, and video games are no exception to this, often due to player agency being so important in gaming. Many have used Lovecraftian themes through creature design or plot, but few can convey the same sense of unknowable fear and loss of sanity. Conarium tries! But sadly fails to pull it off.
Connected to (although not a retelling of) At The Mountains Of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft, Conarium tells the story of a group of scientists searching the Antarctic for ancient devices capable of doing something. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers. You awake as Frank Gillman, one of the scientists, in a room with a bizarre glowing device and some sort of readout strapped to his hand. The research station is abandoned it’s up to you to explore and find out just what the hell is going on.
The game plays something like Soma, with you exploring areas and solving light puzzles to progress to the next area. The problem here though is that there is little to no direction regarding where to go or what to do a lot of the time. I often found myself scouring rooms until I found an item that seemed important, such as a key or an oddity of some sort. I didn’t feel like I was searching for answers, more searching for the next McGuffin to push onto the next area. More often than not I was finding text logs (which are certainly the most interesting part of the game) that developed the side characters. Many of these address the reasoning behind the events that are taking place and the experiences that people have had. Without these, the plot would make little to no sense and some of the puzzles would be more about guess work than anything else.
The world itself contains a variety of gorgeous and interesting environments, both real and seemingly unreal thanks to the Unreal Engine (see what I did there?!). Transitions between areas reminds me in part of Layers of Fear as something can seem to change when you aren’t looking, causing you to transition between an ancient cavern and a household office. I liked this as it kept things somewhat unpredictable at times. The majority of the game wasn’t this interesting however, as the obfuscated plot and uninteresting (not to mention rare) dialogue did little to engage me. Plus the voice acting was mostly terrible.
Of course, I could tolerate this to an extent if the horror game was scary! And it isn’t. There was maybe one jump scare and the rest of the game was…unsettling at the absolute most. This does tie into Lovecraft’s style somewhat, but doesn’t necessarily translate well into this format. The tension was all build and no payoff, and the build was barely there at all. Apparently it is possible to die in a variety of ways, but I didn’t die a single time in my first play through. If it weren’t for my earning an achievement for this “feat” then I would have assumed that death was not possible. This feeling of no threat certainly didn’t help when it came to the lack of fear.
As a positive, there are multiple endings and a number of secrets to find if those things float your boat. You get a percentage score at the end based on the items you found and ending you saw which is nice I suppose. It took about 3 hours to finish in spite of my faffing around looking for tiny objects I missed (spent 10 minutes stuck towards the end because I missed a tiny key on a shelf), so that makes replaying to get other endings less of a chore. I suppose the ending I saw was fairly interesting in context.
Conarium was developed by Zoetrope Interactive and published by Iceberg Interactive. I played the game on PC and wouldn’t really recommend it unless it’s very cheap and you’re in the market for a quick “horror” themed walking simulator. But if you were then I’d point you towards Soma or Layers of Fear as far better options.