Cursed Mountain

Game Description: Cursed Mountain is a survival horror game designed specifically for the Wii. Set in the late 1980s, players will take the role of Frank Simmons as he tracks down his brother, who went missing on a trek into the Himalayas to find an ancient Buddhist Artifact. As he ascends the mountain, he encounters an ancient curse: the souls of the people who died in that region and are stuck in limbo.

Cursed Mountain Review

Proving that horror isn't based on guns and gore

Cursed Mountain Screenshot

HIGH Refreshingly different and mature on a kid-centric console.

LOW The lack of play variety may put off some players.

WTF Do religious artifacts really need more powerful upgrades?

Players who favor the scary side of gaming may have been finding themselves quite disappointed lately. In recent years, horror has been almost completely supplanted by survival horror, and although related, they're not the same thing. For example, I don't believe that packing big guns and spending my time scrounging for ammunition are necessary for a frightening experience. In-your-face levels of explicit violence and piles of dripping gore aren't, either. Although I can certainly appreciate the more bombastic side of the spectrum, I don't want the understated, more cerebral approach ignored at its expense. I believe those types of subtle, quietly frightening games still have their place. Evidently, Deep Silver agrees.

Taking an entirely different path than recent survival horror entries like trigger-happy Resident Evil 5 or alien dismember-fest Dead Space, Cursed Mountain is the lonely tale of a seasoned mountaineer named Eric Simmons. Suggestive and atmospheric where other games trot their sanguine wares out on full display, Eric's goal is a simple one; to discover what happened to his brother Frank. Also a climber, Frank was hired to retrieve a sacred artifact at the top of a remote summit. Instead of returning from the mountaintop victorious, Frank disappeared. Soon afterward, an aether's worth of hungry spirits appeared and now ravage the villages below.

The premise I've just outlined could be taken a number of ways, but Deep Silver went with what was probably the most bold—forgoing the standard combat-oriented, locked-door scenario, Eric's path up Chomolonzo mountain is one of mood, atmosphere, and a constant questioning of sanity. Although some may claim that it's too linear and narrow in scope, in Cursed Mountain's case, the game is the journey itself.

I'm certainly no expert on Buddhism or Tibetan life, but to my eyes, Deep Silver has done an excellent job of capturing elements of the culture and crafted them into an immersive, convincing setting. Starting at a small town nestled in the rocky range's surrounding foothills, it's clear to see that setting rules all. Gray and cold, the decrepit buildings and ramshackle appearance of the lower dwellings soon give way to rocky paths, endless vistas, vertical spaces, and isolated monasteries sequestered far away from civilization.

It was easy to imagine the sort of hardscrabble life these people must lead in such harsh conditions, and the foreign iconography carries mysterious significance all its own, completely apart from the game's plot. These alien, yet entirely believable elements do a fantastic job of reinforcing Cursed Mountain's aim of keeping the player constantly off-balance and fearful by maintaining a toehold in the real world. Although I wouldn't say it was jolt-inducing or shocking in the way other, flashier games tend to favor, the overall sense of unease permeates the experience.

Cursed Mountain Screenshot

Though the setting itself is powerful, the quality that drives Eric's adventure further into the dark is the constant sense of self-doubt and insanity that dances around the edges of every scene. Thanks to some clever choices in visual presentation and the developers' choice to often strip away certain aspects of the player's perception, Eric's long, slow trek up the mountain often feels like a descent into madness. Is Eric sane? Can he believe his eyes? His ears? Is he imagining the events before him, or is reality truly falling apart at the seams? Certain moments capture the very Lovecraftian theme of man struggling against a hostile, malevolent universe, and it was a quality I savored.

As much as I admire Cursed Mountain—and I do—that's not to say that it doesn't have its share of issues. Primarily, the game's potential feels limited by underpowered Nintendo technology. Deep Silver did an admirable job presenting the unique architecture of the territory and teasing drama from the content, but there's no question that the project would be intensely stunning on a more powerful machine. I hesitate to even say it, but since so much of the game is based on environment and mood, there's no getting around the fact that the machine doesn't do the game justice.

Speaking of technology, I need to note that the Wii's motion-sensing abilities are an issue. When ghosts are encountered on the way up Chomolonzo's peak, the player can perform certain motions to put them to rest. Although I only died a small number of times due to my motions failing to register, it was always extremely frustrating to repeat the same sort of gesture over and over again, and have it work only half the time. For such a central, repeated function, the sensitivity fending off phantoms should be more dialed-in.

Production issues aside, I have to admit that I was also a bit puzzled at Cursed Mountain's pacing. The game gets a proper start and builds suspense admirably, yet just when I felt the game should be coming to its natural conclusion, there was still about a third of the adventure left to go. Unfortunately, things started to lag a bit in the tail end as I kept waiting for a resolution that was postponed a surprising number of times. I'm not sure whether the developers were nervous about having the game perceived as "too short" on top of all the other comments that were sure to be made, but I have to admit that the last leg's arc did feel needlessly padded.

Despite those issues, there is no question that Cursed Mountain is not only one of the finest titles currently available for the Wii, it's a welcome detour from the well-worn survival horror path that so many developers seem only too happy to tread. In my opinion, the pursuit of its unorthodox approach and its character's tenuous lucidity has paid off in spades to create a gripping, frequently brilliant title that is in no danger whatsoever of being mistaken for anything else. In today's too-safe, too-similar development environment, something that manages to be unique as well as successful should be recognized. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Wii. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed one time. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, sexual themes and violence. Although I greatly enjoyed and appreciated this title, there is little question that it's absolutely not appropriate for children. Little ones will likely be creeped out by the ghosts, the specter of violent death is present throughout, and there are certain discussions of a mature nature near the end of the game that kids probably shouldn't be privy to.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have any problems following the story since all dialogue is subtitled. The combat isn't an issue either, since nearly every encounter is prefaced by a clear introduction and telltale visual cues. The only problem I foresee some players having is that when the character is climbing vertical surfaces, the sound of ice cracking plays before he's about to lose his grip. There is no visual representation of the sound which may cause a few untimely deaths. However, if all climbing is done at normal speed (and not in the character's "rushing" mode) then fatalities can be avoided.

Cursed Mountain Second Opinion

Touch The Void

Cursed Mountain Screenshot

HIGH The moody and atmospheric section in the ice caves, featuring a perfect use of the Wii remote.

LOW The meditation sequences, which feature a painfully imperfect use of the Wii remote.

WTF Am I seriously smashing pots for loot at the top of a mountain?

In a curious way, maybe the climber stops living when he begins to climb. He steps out of the living world of anxiety into a world where there is no room, no time, for such distractions. All that concerns him is surviving the present... He leads a separate life of uncomplicated black and white decisions—stay warm, feed yourself, be careful, take proper rest, look after yourself and your partner, be aware. Be aware of everything until there is nothing but the present and there are no corrosive fears to eat away at confidence.

— Joe Simpson, This Game of Ghosts

Eric Simmons must climb a mountain. Not because it is there, not because it will bring him glory, but because up there in the snow and mist of Chomolonzo, something has gone terribly wrong. His brother Frank, sent to retrieve a sacred Buddhist object (called a terma) from the peak, has gone missing. Angry and murderous ghosts have covered the slopes, somehow released from the "bardo"—a time between death and nirvana or rebirth. Equipped only with Buddhist implements he barely understands, Eric must reach the summit to find his brother and end the curse he unleashed.

Like climbing, Cursed Mountain requires the player to understand and manipulate the surrounding landscape. Survival horror games use atmosphere and resource scarcity to create tension and fear in the player. In Cursed Mountain, as in Resident Evil 4, the scarce resource is the space between Eric, whose best attacks require him to be motionless, and the enemies who are out to kill him. The awareness of space manifests in the player's tactical response to the ghosts: those that move rapidly or can deal damage from across open ground will receive priority, because Eric moves so slowly and has no effective dodge capability. Spatial exploration and management are also key in the life-draining "ghost khorlo" segments, where the player must find and eliminate sigils while avoiding aggressive ghosts. Moreover, the healing incense sticks that can be used to replenish Eric's life are quite plentiful, but can only be used in specific places that are fairly rare. With even modest exploration of the game's world, Eric will always have plenty of healing items and unlimited "ammo"; what he lacks is open ground.

Although the areas the game requires the player to traverse are very linear and generally require very little skill to cross, these features are disguised by their considerable verticality and mazelike design. There is only one way through, but that path is usually not obvious from a distance. Unfortunately the areas where Eric must actually climb the mountain are much less creative. Cursed Mountain is merely the best climbing game one could make based on walking. In the game, Eric uses his feet almost exclusively, except for some wall-climbing segments that differ little from those in Ocarina of Time. For the most part the mountain itself doesn't seem particularly devious: only a few spots require the player to do anything more than barrel straight ahead along an obvious linear path.

Cursed Mountain Screenshot

The gameplay also disagrees with the characterization when it comes to item discovery. Cursed Mountain depicts Eric as disbelieving, but respecting, the religion and culture of the Sherpas, as opposed to his brother who is openly contemptuous of them. Yet the game asks the player very early on to smash pots to gain incense sticks, keys, and diaries that explain the events on Chomolonzo. This mechanic feels tired and stilted, of course, but more than that it is difficult to reconcile Eric's supposed uprightness with this degree of property destruction. The level design also fights against the character's central conceit: it's difficult to believe that an experienced, well-equipped mountain climber will be stopped by a relatively gentle slope or a low wall. Even the blocking potential of steep-walled chasms falters when Eric will be climbing sheer vertical rock faces in short order.

I feel such concern for the way the fiction plays because Cursed Mountain's narrative otherwise works quite well. It has rough and awkward moments, like any script, but the principal characters are convincingly drawn, and it efficiently juxtaposes several sets of interesting and compelling ideas. As a big brother myself, I felt empathy for Eric's conflicting feelings towards younger Frank and self-doubt of his own worth as a sibling. The script also sketches out a parallel between another character's quest for literal immortality through the terma with the desire for figurative immortality through mountaineering history. A single, well-depicted near-erotic scene sets up a compelling and troubling connection between Frank's desire to summit the peak and sexual violence against the mountain, which the game's Sherpas see as a female goddess.

Yet the design constantly sells this narrative short, as best illustrated by its dull, prosaic depiction of the bardo as a darker rehash of an immediately preceding area, a sin compounded by the powerful explanation of this spiritual realm delivered immediately beforehand by a Lama. The level offers nothing resembling the test of enlightenment and understanding the Lama describes, just a simplistic prelude to a boss that doesn't seem to symbolize anything.

I cannot chalk this up to a general lack of ability, however, because some levels are masterful, including a maze of ice tunnels that can only be escaped with the help of radio direction from a man who may already be dead. Cursed Mountain shines when it uses isolation, a genuine uncertainty about where to go next, and hints delivered in ways that make the player question whether Eric is even sane anymore. Part of the power of these sequences comes from the fact that Cursed Mountain merely makes one ask about sanity, and resists the temptation to provide an answer. Did Eric really hear Paul Ward? Did he ever really speak to Edward Bennett? Even the game's final moments concern an act of survival at once so implausible and believable a player won't be sure of anything other than the scene's emotional authenticity.

Sadly, Cursed Mountain never embraces its core ideas fully enough to really succeed as a whole game. Greatness always seems just within its grasp, but the game is toppled from the heights by its unimaginative level design and mechanics, and its use of inappropriate gameplay tropes. In its best moments, however, Cursed Mountain truly inhabits the persona of a man whose entire existence relies on his understanding of space and distance, whose whole world is the howling wind and the biting cold and the lonely rock of a mountain that must be ascended, even if it means brushing up against the realm of the dead. Rating: 7.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: The game was obtained by retail purchase and reviewed on the Wii. Approximately 13 hours were devoted to single-player mode, completing the game once.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, sexual themes and violence. This game is not for children. Dead, desiccated bodies are everywhere and the cutscenes feature violence and mature sexual content.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't be missing anything. All dialogue is subtitled and all auditory cues are simply used to reinforce visual data.