When it comes to telling a story of Lovecraftian horror, it's important to know where to set the bar. The core of H. P. L.'s work is rooted partly in his ingrained xenophobia, and partly in a pseudo-nihilistic outlook on the universe, with regards to mankind's position in it. In a Lovecraftian world, everything is out to get you; what you don't (or can't) understand is inherently something to be feared, and in the greater scheme of things, you feel small and unimportant, naked before an uncaring cosmos. His stories are rife with the trope of arrogant men of science pursuing knowledge they are not prepared to cope with and being driven mad as a consequence, because they cannot confront their inherent helplessness and irrelevance.
The Cthulhu Mythos is built on this central set of themes, and has spawned a vast body of work as a result, which Lovecraft himself ironically only constitutes a small part of. Conarium is a part of that mythos, set in the same world and bearing heavy marks of its core tropes. It's a classic tale of mystery and dread, courtesy of Turkish developer Zoetrope Interactive, and is the indie group's third title to bear such relation to the tropes and principles of H. P. L.'s literature. It's available on Steam for $19.99, though it's best to read at least a couple of old Howard's better-known works before picking it up, to be sure you get the full effect.
Conarium plays heavily with those aforementioned tropes of 'foolhardy scientists messing with cosmic wisdom' and 'some things are better left unknown'. You play the role of Frank Gilman, scientist and graduate of the infamous Miskatonic University, who has come out on an expedition to the arctic with the renowned Dr. Faust as a follow-up to the doomed voyage detailed in Lovecraft's short story At the Mountains of Madness. Faust is seeking to study the ruins of the ancient Elder Thing city unearthed by those unfortunate explorers, particularly in relation to the blueprints for a device he uncovered during his expeditions in Egypt.
Unfortunately, rather than trying to tell this in a more thoughtful manner, Conarium sacrifices creativity for tried-and-tested methods, with Frank awakening in an empty room with large portions of his memory missing. As a result, it's hard to avoid feeling like the whole game could've been achieved as a custom story for Amnesia: The Dark Descent. True, there is an automatic benefit to having the character awaken in a strange place with no real reference as to how they got there, but it's been done so often (especially in recent times) that it's left the setup feeling contrived and unoriginal.
Conarium doesn't even open things in a particularly cohesive manner. Amnesia gave you enough context and personal connection to Daniel in the first ten minutes or so to keep the story feeling motivated and relatable on some level. Frank receives no such bonus, and he receives almost no character development throughout the course of the game, though admittedly that's something of a hallmark for Lovecraft's work overall. There was also the problematic employment of flashbacks, which felt like they were an attempt to demonstrated Frank's deteriorating sanity, but which came across as far too bland to do the job.
Ultimately, Conarium's story is actually rather decent, detailing one man's quest to use ancient alien technology to transcend the limits of the physical body and how everyone around him pays the price. It's just that it's delivered in such a ham-fisted manner that it almost spoils the entire experience. Sadly, while doing their best to be loyal to the source material, the writers appear to have repeated many of the mistakes Lovecraft himself made while adding a few of their own. In short, they held too close to the letter of his work, and not its spirit.
Conarium is by and large a walking simulator, with some note collecting and achievement hunting sprinkled in. About half-way through, there's a submarine-piloting sequence, though it doesn't last long enough to garner any real interest. The game could've used some slightly better puzzle design, as those that exist range from tiresomely simple to frustratingly counter-intuitive. True, overly-complex problems can pull the player out of the setting in immersion-breaking frustration, but given how little actual gameplay there is, and how flat the atmosphere can get, it might've done better focusing on improving such challenges.
The sad part is that, apart from a couple of sequences towards the end of the game, Frank is never in any real danger. There are no monsters for almost the entirety of the experience, and even then, there are precious few opportunities for you to come to harm in any manner. The experience is tiresomely linear, and there's even something about the player's plodding movement speed that detracts from the element of dread that should be present. A horror game should make you stop playing because of stress or because you've just realized what time it is, not out of frustration or exhaustion, which is unfortunately exactly what so often happens.
Conarium's play-time is rather short, and the whole game can be powered through in about three hours, provided you know what you're doing. It tries feebly to extend this by grading your performance based on how many items and notes you collect during the course of the experience, something that other horror games have been known to do, and which we could use a whole lot less of. If a game that markets itself on its atmosphere and story tries to grade your performance, the developers have missed the point of their own project. The last screen of the game should not tell you that you missed part of the experience by not collecting all the notes or journal entries. The player should be allowed to discover that for themselves with subsequent playthroughs, which helps each run through feel at least a little bit different. Variety can be the saving grace of a haunted house with bad atmosphere. Alas, Zoetrope Interactive didn't appear to think of that, or if they did, it came too late.
Sound and Design
Conarium's soundscape is depressingly uninteresting. A huge chunk of any horror game is its ability to imply danger in the environment not through visuals, but through audio. True, in some cases the visuals can take the spotlight through spectacle, but alas the oft-described impossible geometry of the Cthulhu Mythos is nowhere in evidence here, and without it, the whole world seems singularly boring. If you can't convince yourself that there's always something sneaking up on you every time you start a new game from the main menu, then the devs need to reconsider their dedication to the horror genre.
Of course, that's not to say the game looks bad. The art direction is admittedly quite good, with the early-on monotony of the arctic research outpost being replaced by impressive undersea caverns and ruins left by the long-lost society of lizard-people that turn up in the game's lore as worshipers of the even more ancient Elder Things. The Unreal Engine 4 really shows its muscles in these sections, and its nice to just sit and stare at some of the environments and marvel at how pretty some of them are, particularly in terms of lighting.
The sound design is okay too, though again, not exactly terrifying. It's not clear if the devs had their own dedicated sound crew or used stock material, but whatever the case, they should've probably invested more heavily in what they had. Also, the music, if there was any, fails to stick in the mind apart from a heavy emphasis on chimes. It had an unusual effect, but if their intent was to unsettle, it didn't precisely work. Taken with everything else, it leaves the game feeling unfinished, like it was meant to be longer, with more sequences to fill in the gaps in its pacing, except that Zoetrope didn't have the funds for more material.
Conarium is a visually-compelling, but mechanically-barren title. It's heavy on sticking to its Lovecraftian roots, perhaps a little too strongly. The air of mystery and fear wears off quickly, replaced by a bland sense of detachment from characters with whom it's impossible to really relate to. Also, given the lack of danger to spice up some of the slower segments between puzzles, it can turn into a real chore to play. It was ambitious, but alas, the creators' abilities fell short of their vision. Overall, it's a nice, short story, but it's not something you'll be compelled to return to more than a couple of times.
|+ Very loyal Lovecraft-themes.||– Low on replayability.|
|+ Engaging visuals and art design.||– Poor pacing and unexciting gameplay.|
|– Storytelling methods leave much to be desired.|