Experience isolation and fear in the Antarctic. Bloody Disgusting gets lost in the snow for its Conarium review on PS4.
It’s easy to see why more and more modern horror games lean into H.P. Lovecraft‘s work for inspiration. It features a healthy checklist of cool and otherworldly things to stuff into a video game and let’s face it, Lovecraft’s work is in the public eye more than ever.
Take Conarium. It’s heavily inspired by Lovecraft’s In the Mountains of Madness. Set in the Antarctic at a research station, some sinister experiments have led to some equally sinister results. You play as what appears to be the only surviving research team member, trying to unravel the dark mystery of what happened to the rest of your crew. What follows is a mix of simple puzzles and note reading, with the occasional visual aid to help the story along.
Being based on a Lovecraft story, things obviously head into the realm of horror. Unfortunately, Conarium could do with remembering that a little more often.
This is a game that appears to be trying to drip-feed suspense and dread, and as such, it takes you along at a sedate pace. Thankfully, the visuals are worth taking in. Venturing out of the darkened cabins of the research station for the first time, you’re thrust into the cold windswept night, where a snowstorm reduced the already low visibility. It’s an arresting sight, and shows Conarium nails the atmosphere it’s aiming for, one of isolation and quiet dread. Its problem is that it doesn’t maintain it.
You see, Conarium almost never makes you feel like you’re actually any real peril. Sure, you feel like you’re alone and that something could happen, but rarely does anything happen that really delivers on the dread feel. In fact, the more Conarium gets in your face with a perceived threat, the less it works.
The upside is you’re free to dig into the story and the myriad puzzles without too much distraction and Conarium does tell a good story. Note reading may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in a game like this, it’s enjoyable to get lost in the words and soak up the atmosphere, regardless of any shortcomings. This is a relatively small world, but the developer has filled it with a rich recent history.
Reading is fine and well in a video game, but you have to have something meaningful to back that up, otherwise, it’s pushing the limits of what constitutes being called a game. The wandering between places in this snowbound isolation is certainly an effective part of that. It’s difficult to emphasize how well Conarium evokes that feeling of solitude. There’s an unnerving peacefulness to the constant gloom of the station and the howling winds, and while the attempts at horror fall flat elsewhere, it’s here where it comes closest, and it’s hard to imagine anything but a video game capturing that in quite the same way. When the locale changes into something more Lovecraftian over time, it loses a little of that, but the visual design remains strong nonetheless.
When it comes to the more interactive side, the puzzles, in this case, Conarium feels like a bit of a letdown. There’s nothing truly bad about them, they just aren’t particularly inventive or challenging. This does keep the storytelling flow going smoothly, but if you trust your audience to be able to read copious amounts of text, you can probably trust them to solve a slightly complex puzzle now and again,
Remarkably then, even through disappointing attempts at horror and puzzling, Conarium is just about compelling enough to warrant seeing through to the end. It’s not particularly mind-blowing from a narrative perspective, but it is engrossing and satisfying. If only it pushed harder for a sense of dread and terror, or even simply provided more of a challenge, then we’d be talking about something that truly stands out as a thoughtful, engaging horror game.
Conarium review code for PS4 provided by the publisher
Conarium is out now on PS4, PC, and Xbox One