Horror games are a guilty temptation since I love that sense of trepidation that comes along with them, but hate feeling like there are shadowy figures gazing in at me from outside my window. Conarium didn’t scare me in the usual sense, but it has the creepiness factor jacked up to ten. With its focus on Lovecraftian horror – a subgenre that emphasizes horror of the cosmic unknown – it’s a flavor I’ve never had the chance to experience for myself.
Players take on the role of Frank Gilman, a member of the Anthropology Department in Miskatonic University. An early clue to what we’re getting into may be in the game’s name itself: Conarium is another world for the pineal gland of the human brain that resembles the shape of a pinecone. We learn that Frank embarked on the Upuaut expedition led by the esteemed Dr. Faust with the goal to explore beyond the limits of the human consciousness using a device called the Conarium. In horror gaming, things seldom work out like they should. Do they ever?
From here the setup is familiar: Frank regains consciousness and wakes up alone in the Antarctic expedition base. He remembers nothing of what happened, and sets to exploring the base to find out what happened to the rest of the crew members. He begins to have visions and dreams during his exploration and tries to put together just what happened.
The pacing in Conarium is slow in the beginning, with about an hour or so spent reading notes and piecing together what little clues that can be found. Frank writes down ‘notes’ players can refer too later on to help them solve difficult puzzles or hints on clues to keep an eye out for. My first hour wandering around the empty base felt like an oddly passive experience. Just reading the observations of the crew members who used to occupy now empty halls helped set the pace for what may come next.
The real creepiness factor didn’t really kick in until I had the pleasure of conversing with a talking human head, incidentally one hooked up to some sort of input device. This confirmed my suspicions of a non-human element being responsible for the empty base, but also left me with more questions than answers. My explorations carried me down into an underground tomb with creeping vines that felt self-aware and a strange instance with a black cat who may or may not have been real.
One factor that kept me on the edge of my seat is Frank’s constant switching between alternate realities or having flashbacks. These continue to increase as the story progresses filling in the gaps of how the characters came across the strange device and why they were so interested in it. Conarium even takes on a philosophical tone at times when Dr. Faust talks about exploring beyond the human consciousness and seeing the birth of creation itself. He states how such an opportunity has existed for ages and was ignored simply because no one knew how to “read between the lines”.
These flashes in Frank’s memory also serve to take over the main narrative instead of just throwing mountains of notes at me. I even got to play phonographs from time to time and hear other characters talking which was a welcome change of pace.
Similar to how the pacing of the story is well thought out, the same can be said for the environments, too. In the beginning I found myself disconcerted with seeing a shadowy, static figure at the end of the hall. Several hours later I walked into a room with skeletons embedded in the wall with this black, tar like substance moving around them. The underground temple Dr. Faust and the other explorers had come across had reptilian figures and symbols scattered around speaking of a time long past.
Other than a few odd textures scattered about, the environments are beautiful and detailed. How odd does that sound, especially for a horror game? The opening sequence alone has Frank walking down a hallway surrounded by jellyfish and what I assume are other underwater flora and fauna. I restarted twice just to play that opening sequence as I found it so stunning. The crumbling stonework and statues of an old reptilian race sparked my interest, providing outside motivation to continue on to find out what the heck was going on.
Conarium didn’t scare me that often, but I still found the experience incredibly interesting. It was pretty clear that after a few hours of exploring this creepy world the focus lay in the story, rather than solving traditional gameplay items like puzzles and other horror staples. This didn’t bother me as most of them were incredibly easy, and watching the odd environments gradually change to support its Lovecraftian aesthetic was a real treat. It’s an intriguing, fun experience that even managed to scare me a couple of times. Highly recommended.