Cursed Mountain review
Eric Simmons is a man who climbs mountains and takes on ghosts with a magical pick-axe. For some reason though, he has trouble opening doors.
*Well written, interesting story
*Innovative gameplay ideas
*Very slow paced
*Badly implemented quick-time-events
*Can get very confusing at points
"Don't leaave me!"
The Survival Horror genre has been around in the video game industry since the fifth generation of video game consoles. The genre itself was birthed by Capcom’s hit Playstation title Resident Evil, and since then has spawned some of the most well known series in the whole gaming industry, such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Project Zero, all of which have been heralded as some of the best series in gaming as a whole. Despite this though, the genre has seen a severe decline, both in popularity and in the number of games produced in the latest generation of video games, and whilst a few decent titles do still pop-up from time to time, they’re few and far between. It’s for these reasons and more, that many Survival Horror fans in possession of a Nintendo Wii were excited to learn about Cursed Mountain; a Wii exclusive Survival Horror game being developed by Sproing Interactive Media in conjunction with Deep Silver.
Three-eyed birds are common in the Himalayas.
The story of Cursed Mountain puts you in the role of Eric Simmons; a professional climber on a quest to rescue his younger brother Frank, whom disappeared while attempting a climb on the mountain Chomolonzo, the fictional mountain that Cursed Mountain is set on. Eric is contacted by Frank’s climbing partner Paul Ward shortly after Frank disappears, and sets off up the mountain in an attempt to find him. Shortly after arriving in a small town at the start of the trail Frank was following, Eric encounters Edward Bennet; the man who hired Frank to climb Chomolonzo. Edward is hunting the Terma, a Buddhist artifact that grants the bearer immortal life. After discovering its location of Chomolonzo, Edward went after it himself, but after a fall that broke his leg he hired Frank to find the relic for him. Apparently sometime during the climb, Frank and Paul had an argument, resulting in the latter returning to their camp while Frank pledged on with the climb. If this wasn’t enough, Eric soon discovers that the mountain is protected by a Buddhist goddess whom has unleashed a cursed to exact vengeance upon Frank for climbing the mountain without committing the proper sacred rites first, trapping everyone presently on Chomolonzo and infesting the mountain with ghosts, which have scared off nearly all the inhabitants, and left the abandoned villages in ruins. After finding his brother’s now-magically enchanted pick-axe, and encountering Thod-Pa; one of the few remaining monks on Chomolonzo whom reveals that the ghosts can be combated with ancient Buddhist prayers, Eric begins his quest to find his brother.
That's a loooooot of mountains.
On the presentational side of things Cursed Mountain is amazing, the story itself while somewhat absurd, is extremely well-written and very accurate in a lot of it’s reference to Buddhism, and as a whole the curse behind the mountain is really interesting, to the point where you’ll be playing the game solely for the plot if nothing else. The story is told through a series of cut scenes made-up of images that really make it feel somewhat like a storybook on a slideshow. Eric also has a lot of inner-monologue, and from exploration you’ll also find a variety of logs kept by the former inhabitants of the various villages about Chomolonzo, letting you delve into the back story further and learn just how the curse came about. A lot of the story and the environments are inspired by Buddhist culture, and if you have some understanding of such beforehand you’ll find yourself able to appreciate both the plot and the locations much more.
The various monasteries you come across are accurately designed and very visually appealing, as are most of the sculptures you’ll come across. In-fact as a whole, Cursed Mountain is very visually appealing, the art direction is unique and the mountain is scaled with the geometry and geography of real Himalayan Mountains taken from satellite imaging, and it really shows as you’re trekking up Chomolonzo. The abandoned villages are just as eerie and creepy as they should be, and the dark caverns inside the mountain really add to the sense of isolation you get from playing the game, this whole freaking mountain out to kill you, and you’re near incapable of defending yourself against the harsh weather conditions, violent ghosts and the various other challenges you face with high-altitude climbing, such as the lack of oxygen and the lack of sufficient medical supplies.
The art direction in Cursed Mountain is amazing.
Cursed Mountain doesn’t falter on the technical side of things either, the ‘Athena’ engine the game runs on enables for a variety of impressive effects as quoted from Gerhard Seiler, Technical Director of Sproing;
“It is really important to us that the player experiences nature's powers as realistically as possible, and that the game's viewing distance allows the player to see the monumental landscapes at all times. We are also going to great lengths to make the dead souls look as convincing as possible in order to deliver the level of immersion necessary for really effective and believable survival horror.
“In order to achieve this, our ‘Athena Engine’ is designed to enable HDR-Rendering, shader simulations developed especially for the Nintendo Wii in order to display ice, heat and water (realistic reflections and refractions), an ultra-fast particle system for amazing snow storms, soft particles for realistic fog and smoke, depth of field, motion blur, dynamic soft shadows, spherical harmonics lighting, as well as a high performance level-of-detail and streaming system in order to provide long viewing distance of the entire surrounding.
“Our engine technology really takes the Wii hardware to its limits and Wii gamers can really look forward to a heart-stopping and breath-taking world that comes alive with this title”
From a graphical standpoint Cursed Mountain is easily one of the best ‘realistic’ looking games on the Wii, the technical effects the Athena engine produces are practically unmatched on the console and the art direction truly is perfect. Some of my personal highlights would be the amazing particle effects that come into play during battles against the ghosts, or when I first arrived at the monastery, the visuals are simply breathtaking, even when compared to games on more powerful gaming platforms.
One of the other big things Cursed Mountain does, is it allows you to see the entire route you progress through as you play the game right from the start, you’re able to look up the mountain and see where you’re going to go, and at any point outdoors you can generally look down and see where you’ve come from, and this really adds to the immense feel of the mountain.
Needless to say a great story and amazing visual appeal don’t make a good Horror game, after all the whole point of a Horror game is to scare the player, and one of the most important factors when attempting to achieve this is sound; without well done sound a Horror game falls apart. And the sound is where Cursed Mountain excels. The sounds of the wind beating against you as you proceed up the mountain is as realistic as you’re going to find in a video game, and the well placed chimes of bells and disturbing voices you hear in the background are some of the creepiest and most unnerving in the entire genre, and it really succeeds at getting into your head, to the point where you’ll be hearing them long after you’ve stopped playing; a mark of a great Horror game. What little music there is in the game is performed fantastically as well, setting an ominous and intimidating tone which only further adds to the huge sense of isolation Cursed Mountain creates, and with the use of surround sound to make the ghosts sound like they’re actually moving around you, the game really keeps you on edge. Playing Cursed Mountain with headphones is recommended, as it makes full use of the surround sound and by extension it immerses you into the experience so much more, you really feel like you’re here on this mountain, traversing the harsh environments and facing down ghosts.
The music and sound effects don’t make up all the audio in the game though, there’s also the voice acting. Thankfully the voice acting in Cursed Mountain is great and the characters feel real enough to pull you into the story. George Anton pulls off the voice of Eric well, giving him a sense of both being a regular person mixed up in this insane turn of events, while also coming across as determined and willing to trek on for the sake of his lost brother. Frank’s voice actor Justin McDonald gives him the sense of arrogance and recklessness associated with the character, and pulls it off perfectly. Junix Inocian gives Thod-Pa the feel of a wise old-man and a sense of mystery perfectly, and Keith Wickham makes Edward Bennet into the well-spoken and determined man that he is. The voice cast for the minor characters all pull off their roles quite well to. Overall, Cursed Mountain’s audio is practically perfect, the sound effects and music are used to great effect, and the voice work makes the characters much more believable. This game is a true example of perfect audio in a Horror game, especially when it comes to the sound effects.
I think I’ve made it clear how much I love Cursed Mountain’s presentation, but that alone doesn’t make a game good, and whilst having a good presentation is crucial to a Horror game, if the gameplay is terrible then the game winds up going from a must-have to a must-avoid. And it’s also at this point, that Cursed Mountain stumbles a bit. Now the first thing I’m going to bring up in the game’s length, normally I’d leave such until later on in a review, but I feel hat it’s important to understanding how Cursed Mountain plays. In total the game’s story mode clocks in at about 6-8 hours depending on how long it takes you to figure out puzzles and the like, but the overall pacing of the game is VERY slow. Eric himself moves about the environment at a snail’s pace, and the exploration and puzzle solving in Cursed Mountain can easily rack up several hours by itself, this seriously isn’t a game for the impatient or action-hungry.
Who goes about sticking flags all over a mountain?
Furthermore Cursed Mountain lacks any replay value outside of the Single-Player story, and as good as the Single-Player may be it doesn’t offer a lot of replay incentive so odds are you’ll only be playing through Cursed Mountain a handful of times at most. The story mode plays through a series of chapters, each one taking place in a particular area on the trail up the mountain, and they all feel connected really well, although there’s no actual open-world area that links them.
The basis of the gameplay really comes down to exploring the immediate area until something of relevance happens, but this is quite difficult because the environments are not only confusing to navigate, but very misleading as several doors won’t open at all and there are a LOT of dead-ends in Cursed Mountain. As you explore you’ll find various logs left by former inhabitants of the various areas you visit which add to the story, as well as keys that interact with locked doors very much like in Resident Evil series. In fact Cursed Mountain really does feel like a Resident Evil game, and to fans of such the best way of describing the game would be the original Resident Evil meets Resident Evil 4. The camera angles in Cursed Mountain are somewhat frustrating at times, they feel like they’re geared more towards adding to the atmosphere than the gameplay, and while that is somewhat beneficial considering this is a Horror game; it doesn’t help at all when exploring some of the more confusing areas.
Should have gone to Specsavers.
Of course if all Cursed Mountain amounted to was wandering about abandoned villages looking for keys and books it wouldn’t be particularly impressive, there is a lot of combat in the game arguably too much at points. When you’re nearing ghosts the screen goes dark grey and the music takes on a more aggressive tone. Combat itself can be done in any one of three ways; you can either run up to enemies and hammer the B button so Eric will swing his pick-axe about like a maniac in the hope that you’ll successfully kill the ghosts, or you can make use of the ‘Third-Eye’ a gameplay element inspired by Project Zero’s camera mixed with Buddhist concepts. You activate the Third-Eye by holding down the C button on the Nunchuck, and from there the game becomes a Third-Person Shooter, you aim the Wii remote at the screen to point your pick-axe about, and by pressing the B button you can fire blasts of spiritual energy from your pick-axe.
Yes I did just say you fire spiritual energy from your pick-axe, which gains magical abilities as the game goes on and can be upgraded using a variety of different Buddhist cloths that make it more deadly. It’s absurd, but it works quite well in practice adding a more Action-based element to the game. Of course that only makes two methods; the final method of dispatching your foes is to use the Buddhist prayers Thod-Pa teaches you. You learn more and more of these as the game progresses, and they involve imitating actual Buddhist prayers, that let you free the ghosts from the afterlife thus getting rid of them. This is obviously a pretty unique and innovative concept, and the idea of using the motion controls to achieve this is great. Although in practice it's bit all over the place; you're given an on-screen prompt to tell you which way to move the Wii remote and Nunchuck, but you're never given any indication of exactly how to do it, and even reading the instruction manual only gives you a basic idea, and this becomes a problem because Cursed Mountain is very picky about how it wants these motions executed. Once you know what you're doing they work fine, a tad unresponsive here and there, but the real challenge is actually working out how you're meant to perform the gestures in the first place.
The six-armed lizard is not amused.
As I said though the combat as a whole is solid, and for the most part it works. But what really stand out are the epic boss confrontations throughout the game. The bosses themselves are all inspired by various gods in Buddhism and this leads to a variety of impressive and fearsome designs. The bosses themselves are quite varied during combat, some just amount to waiting until they’re vulnerable before attacking them, where as others have more puzzle-based designs, forcing players to figure out how to beat the boss. Not once do the bosses falter on being impressive though, both visually and in the way the fights are executed.
Now aside from the exploration of these desolate environments and facing down ghosts and gods, there are a LOT of puzzles in Cursed Mountain, and the balance between the difficulty in the puzzles is rather inconsistent. In fact the difficult curve as a whole in Cursed Mountain is rather inconsistent, with chapters jumping between being pushovers to near impossible as you progress, and most of the difficulty in the combat will come from the controls being picky about what you’re meant to do, or QTE popping out of nowhere. And this brings me to my biggest gripe with Cursed Mountain; the quick-time events. Quick-time events, or QTE as they are also known, are events where a player is given a small period of time to press a button or make motions in this case, and failure to do so results in death. Now aside from really hurting the game’s atmosphere and immersion, the QTE become a serious hassle because for some reason the motion controls get even more finicky than usual during QTE, especially during cut-scenes. It isn’t a frequent problem, but it’s very frustrating when it does pop up.
Why are the caverns blue? I’m pretty sure ice is translucent, so how did all this blue get here?
The last thing I’d like to bring up is the ‘Horror’ aspect. Cursed Mountain really does create a fantastic atmosphere, the amazing presentation and slow-paced explorative gameplay mix well and really make you fell immersed and alone on this desolate mountain, with no way out but facing the horrors that inhabit it. The sound is probably the scariest point of Cursed Mountain, the creepy music and brilliant sound effects really leave you anxious and jumpy which helps make the somewhat intimidating ghosts become outright frightening, and turns the abandoned villages and creepy ice caverns into seriously nerve-racking experiences.
Overall Cursed Mountain is a great game, with a few annoying but minor faults. The presentation is simply astounding, the fantastic art direction and graphical engine mix with the amazing audio to create a fantastic world for you to explore, and the brilliant storytelling drives you on as you take on ghosts, explore Chomolonzo and continue to search for Frank. The gameplay mixes slow paced exploration, intense action sections and a menacing atmosphere really well. However the extremely slow pacing will put off gamers who want an Action-filled title, and the QTE become plain frustrating as the game goes on.
Despite all this Cursed Mountain is a good game and if you’re a fan of Survival Horror games then Cursed Mountain is definitely worth consider, it certainly isn’t putting the genre back on the map but it’s one of the better additions to it in recent years, and while it lasts it’s a fantastic experience, albeit unfortunately a short one. Even if you aren’t a big fan of the Survival Horror genre gamers who enjoy slower-paced Adventure games or gamers looking for a change of pace to the traditional Action-packed games that fill today’s mainstream will more than likely enjoy Cursed Mountain as well, and it’s definitely worth renting if you fall into one of those groups.