Insurmountable is an interesting case. It’s a survival game with rogue-like elements, developed by ByteRockers’ Games and published by Daedalic Entertainment, and an almost visual novel structure to it. Overall, my experience with it was mixed. The game is calming, interesting to play, and only has one or two issues from a technical standpoint. The story, however, is tied into the missions and lacks the kind of depth necessary for this kind of game. It’s vestigial at best, and time-wasting at worst.
Still, for the most part, the gameplay will carry you through the experience. It’s a far more contemplative approach to rogue-likes, combining a slower game pace with a tactical approach. While the game suffers from the inherent problems of procedural generation, and the slow pace does make it difficult to keep going after every mission, it doesn’t make the experience less interesting. There are problems here, but, I get ahead of myself. Put your backpack down and rest by my fire traveler, so I can tell you why.
Story – The Mountain’s Deepest Valley
Story means a lot to me when it comes to gaming. It’s what turns 40 hours of jumping on turtles into an odyssey. That’s why I get so upset when a game has a bad story, or worse, when a game has a story that could have been good with a few tweaks. Unfortunately, Insurmountable fits neatly into that particular crevasse. There’s a lot of potential with this game’s story, and it never lives up to it. It can be fixed for sure, and keep in mind that this title hasn’t been fully released yet. So, let’s dive in, and see where the story flounders.
A Problematic Descent
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. The writing in Insurmountable isn’t bad. There’s some nice imagery, interesting world-building, and even some good mystery. It is, also, the weakest part of the game because of two simple reasons. It’s a very slow burn, and it feels kind of pointless. The basic gist of it is that you are a mountaineer, caught in a mountain for unknown reasons. A mysterious stranger with a weird amulet is trying to help you escape and return home.
The smaller of the two problems is an issue of brevity. This game takes so long to get anywhere but manages to throw wall after wall of text at you. It’s the first game I’ve played in a long time where a character will use an entire text box three times just for exposition. I played for about six hours before I found out why the mysterious stranger was even on the mountain. Now, this could be done to establish a tone. The game itself is fairly slow-paced, so it makes sense that the story would trundle along as well. Unfortunately, you risk your audience losing interest, as I did about partway through.
Your Fellow Climbers
Still, there’s a far bigger issue to address. The story itself feels pointless, but not because of its ending or how quickly it moves. It’s because the only character in the game, the mysterious stranger, isn’t a character at all. She’s an exposition hose. This is a game in desperate need of side characters, other people to share their views on the world. I can see why they’d go with one character, mind you, it does fit into the theme of isolation the game uses, but it just doesn’t work.
I was all geared up to call this story a write-off when I noticed a peculiar line of dialogue. After rescuing the third of the three playable characters, the mysterious stranger suggested we talk to each other. No such option was available, but it does shine hope on future updates, and it’s exactly what Insurmountable needs. Character interaction is the lifeblood of any good story, and every mission in this game is so tied to the story, that it’s unavoidable. Hopefully, the chats with the other climbers will give this tale the human element it currently lacks, and allow the stranger to be more of a character than a human-shaped glossary.
Gameplay – The Mountain’s Highest Peak
While the story may have been the weakest part, the gameplay is by far Insurmountable‘s strong suit. It’s a rogue-like with procedurally generated mountains, absolutely filled to the brim with random encounters, points of interest, and almost visual novel style choice making. The true challenge of the game isn’t getting to your destination, however, but getting there and then to the extraction point with all of your resources intact. Each character has a limited amount of energy, sanity, body warmth, oxygen, and health, all of which can be replenished with items, and all of which are vital.
All The Right Gear
Now, I can go on and on about the features, but it must be said that Insurmountable isn’t a typical rogue-like. Think less Binding of Isaac and Hades, and more FTL: Faster Than Light. This isn’t the kind of game that rewards skillful button mashing, but tactical thinking. Sure, you could get to the top of the mountain now, but your energy will run out by the time you get there and then you get extra perilous encounters. You may be able to survive with just health, but losing the other resources means more perilous encounters that drain your health.
You need to use the mountainside to your advantage. Sleeping in caves to replenish your energy might sap your body heat if you aren’t careful. Using your tent too early might mean having to sleep outside and suffering the detriments. You could waste time trying to get to a supply drop, only to find out nothing is there. Strategy is the name of the game here, and it works. It’s also a surprisingly peaceful experience. It’s at a much slower pace than most rogue-likes, but it works. Although, that does invite a few problems.
All The Wrong Mountain
That earlier FTL: Faster Than Light reference wasn’t made without reason, as Insurmountable suffers from a similar problem. Turns out, that climbing a mountain is a bit of a time commitment. But here’s the thing, none of the missions actually take that long. Maybe 20 minutes each. It’s just that Insurmountable‘s glacial pace makes them feel like they take forever. Then, after every single one, you have to go back to the research station and sit through another conversation with the stranger, upgrade your stuff and check your equipment. None of it takes very long in real-time, but it’s just long enough for you to think twice about starting another climb.
Procedural generation also brings along its own inherent problems. In trying to make every mountain seem unique, the whole game starts to feel a bit similar. It also means that through nothing but pure bad luck, you could run into the same random event on every mountain. I cannot tell you how many snow bridges I saw that threatened to be shaky but turned out to be absolutely fine. It really kills the tension. Randomized maps just can’t deliver the same impact as a carefully crafted level, and Insurmountable suffers for it.
Audio and Visual – Basecamp
I really like the audio design in Insurmountable. The music is a soft, soothing, ambient affair that fits the scenery to the letter. I particularly enjoyed how your footsteps sound different depending on the terrain you’re currently walking on, and the soft clinking noises when you’re climbing. It makes it all feel a little bit more real, and it adds to the immersion. This isn’t the kind of game that really needs a bombastic soundtrack of memorable titles, and I’m glad the development team went this route. Solid work.
The visuals also work well. All the information you need is readily available, without cluttering up the heads-up display, which is always nice. One of the cooler features is that if the weather is stormy enough, it gets really difficult to see, adding another layer of chance and complexity very naturally. It’s very satisfying to see my little character walking along the hexagonal tiles on the route I chose, at the speed I requested, then being able to freely look around for a bit. My only gripe is that the camera is a bit difficult to wrangle in certain spots, but that was a mildly rare occurrence.
Insurmountable was previewed on Steam, with a preview key provided by Marchsreiter Communications GmbH.