Made With Plenty Of Love And Craft
HIGH It nails that Lovecraft tone.
LOW An annoying chase sequence sucks the atmosphere out.
WTF The protagonist sounds like Paddington Bear at times.
As a HP Lovefraft enthusiast, I’ve always thought his work would translate poorly to visual medium as his stories tend to be about indescribable cosmic horrors that incite madness when viewed. This works perfectly with literature, as it forces the reader to imagine these horrors, but that same fright is dulled if overexposed visually, and particularly if poorly designed. However, there are works that successfully draw from Lovecraft with strong art direction — Bloodborne comes to mind — but I wanted to try something that adhered closer to his work. Having read Dan’s effusive review of Conarium, I sought out the Switch port.
Conarium is developed by Stormling Studios and inspired by the Lovecraft story At the Mountains of Madness. In fact, this game serves as an unofficial sequel to that novella.
The player takes control of Frank Gillam, a man who wakes up with no memory and a mysterious glowing device in the middle of his room. It becomes clear that he is on an Antarctic base, and through exploration, reading documents and solving puzzles, the player will begin to understand the situation Frank is in.
Conarium could be described as a ‘walking simulator’ — essentially, it’s a narrative-driven first-person adventure that offers fairly passive gameplay overall. This genre fits Lovecraft well since the isolation easily created in these types of experiences means that horror can be gradually built without the need for action or frequent appearance of monsters. Conarium focuses on this isolation and effectively creates a sense of dread as one reads accounts of what has transpired while reinforced by frequent hallucinations and strange environments.
In short, I share Dan’s enthusiasm for Conarium. The developer’s appreciation for the source material is clear — its tale is told in a tell-but-don’t-show kind of way, the dialogue echoes the author’s wordy, overstylized dialect, and even telling the story through documents matches the epistolary structure that Lovecraft’s stories often take. Some may find the voice acting to be comically over-the-top, but I was hooked from start to finish.
However, I do have some problems with Conarium. Like Dan, I also had to do some backtracking due to missing an item. Key objects are often hard to spot as they blend into the environment, and backtracking is not only frustrating, but slows the pace to a crawl. Not helping is Frank’s snail-like walking pace and a sprinting option that sees him running out of stamina too quickly. The languid pace of Conarium often works in its favor, but this sort of backtracking takes away from the atmosphere that’s been carefully cultivated to this point.
However, more damaging to the experience is a sequence where the player finds themselves chased by reanimated mummies. They’re basic-looking with cheesy sound effects, and not in the least bit scary. This overt use of creatures goes against the previous vibe Conarium had been going for, while also highlighting the player’s slow movement and the limited sprinting.
Trying to run around this area while fending off the advances of poorly-designed enemies and quickly running out of stamina completely sucked the atmosphere out of the adventure. Thankfully, this sequence was an isolated incident, and I was able to get through it after only a couple of deaths. However, my success felt more like luck than design, and this segment was nearly a frustrating hurdle that would have led me to ragequitting.
I also question Conarium’s suitability for the Switch. It’s reasonably stable for the majority of the time whether handheld or docked, but playing it handheld makes it easier to to miss items and other details, especially since it’s a dark game. I don’t think these types of experiences are well-suited for handheld play as they rely heavily on environmental visuals to immerse the player, and having such a small screen impacts this.
Conarium is a short experience — I finished it in around three hours — but I’ll happily take quality over quantity. Despite finding fault in a few certain places, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Conarium and was happy to finally find a title that faithfully scratches that Lovecraft itch.
— Gareth Payne
Disclosures: This game is developed by Stormling Studios and published by Iceberg Interactive. It is currently available on XBO, PS4, Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Fantasy Violence and Mild Blood. Conarium is not a violent or bloody game, but does feature instances where there are dead bodies and the occasional appearance of monsters, mostly glimpsed. It also features artwork and hallucinations that can be described as unsettling.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered or resized. Having played Conarium without any sound, I had no problems at all. It is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.