Review: Cursed Mountain

Platform: Nintendo Wii

Developer: Deep Silver Vienna/Sproing

Publisher: Deep Silver

# of Players: 1

Official Site

Score: A (95%)

sub·jec·tive (suhb-jěk’tĭv) adj.
1. a. Proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world: a subjective decision.
b. Particular to a given person; personal: subjective experience.
2. Moodily introspective.
3. Existing only in the mind; illusory.
4. Psychology: Existing only within an individual’s mind.

Most horror-themed video games are extremely subjective in that each person who plays them will generally have a different overall experience. Those that frighten easily will baby-step through their play sessions, saving frequently, checking maps and trying their very best not to to die horribly. The more fearless, bolder gamers accustomed to faster-paced play will blaze forward, taking on all comers in a quest for kill counts while often blissfully unaware of the developer’s intentions in attempting to set a particular mood. This type of player generally never flinches unless the game adds in “jump” scares like those found in hundreds of horror movies or live haunted house experiences in some amusement parks. A third type of gamer takes the middle road, going into every game “cold” in order to fully appreciate every nuance as they let themselves become completely immersed in the game world.

Welcome, dear reader to Deep Silver’s incredible Wii exclusive, Cursed Mountain

“I finally know on what kind of expedition I’m on. I’m on the search for my brother, Frank, who disappeared somewhere on the mountain. Nobody has heard or seen anything of him or his fellow climbers. It will take me some time to reach the base camp of his expedition. But I’m optimistic. I’ve planned my route well and cut the way up into 13 steps. I think the distance is always smaller when you divide it. I need to stay positive…”

(from Eric Simmons’ diary)


Cursed Mountain is designed to scare you in a more than few ways, but if you fit squarely into the first two categories above, you’ll need to thoroughly surrender yourself to its finer points if you expect to fully enjoy what’s here. Baby-steppers will freak out because there’s no conventional save anywhere system or super detailed map, but the game’s auto-save function actually helps the pacing tremendously and it’s very difficult to get lost if you’re paying attention to your surroundings. The fraggers will be frustrated at the game’s intentionally languid pacing and tendency to show off technological flash (such as no load times in vast seamless environments during an entire chapter) when all they want is just to blow more bad things away. Here, the game doles out its encounters initially in smaller chunks, but “boss” fights and some mass enemy encounters are well done enough to keep things thrilling when necessary.

However, this definitely isn’t the more dynamic action movie “horror” of the last few Resident Evil games, and while occasionally disturbing, not quite the completely surreal nightmare of the Silent Hill series. What’s here is more of a personal tale of one man’s experience that happens to put him in a particularly frightening set of circumstances he has little control over. In order to play, understand and fully “get” the game, you have to become Eric Simmons as soon as you take off that shrink wrap. Once you do so, the game succeeds almost flawlessly.
At the beginning, Eric finds himself seeking the whereabouts of his missing brother Frank and a few fellow climbers after they’ve gone missing during an expedition. As the plot unfolds however, it’s clear that locating his sibling may be more of a curse than a blessing. The pacing screams ‘adventure game’, the combat screams ‘innovation’ and if you settle into the right mood, you’ll be screaming inside as Eric’s tale takes its twisted route through your eyes, ears and brain.

Movement controls are very well implemented, although those more accustomed to speedy heroic types bounding off walls and running at top speed breathlessly for hours on end will find Eric a tad sluggish and well, human. However, given that he spends the game covered up in different types of heavy winter gear, that sluggishness seems a lot more realistic. As this isn’t a pure action game, Eric isn’t the battle-hardened bad-ass at all. He’s more or less a more talented version of Silent Hill’s Harry Mason, if you need a reference point. His mountain climbing skills are solid however and yes, scaling icy cliffs actually becomes part of the gameplay. Eric soon finds himself involved in his brother’s problems as the mountain and surrounding area have become rife with unsettled spirits.

Telling more would spoil things greatly. Suffice it to say that there’s a great deal of ghost pacifying to do with some very unconventional weapons and that long climb up Chomolonzo will test Eric’s body, mind and soul to its core.

 

There are a total of five main weapons plus a number hidden upgrades as well as spiritual attacks in the game to discover, yet its entirely possible to vanquish the majority of the enemies with standard blows from Eric’s trusty ice axe. How that otherwise normal tool can damage spectral skin is explained well enough that you don’t even think twice about hacking away at nearly anything evil blocking your path. In fact, the game does a superb job of keeping your suspension of disbelief from creeping into the reality it presents because you’ll start to feel as if you’re actually exploring a deserted monastery and the poisoned summit above it. As you learn new spiritual moves, the fights go from simple three-hit combo slashing to zapping ghosts or objects with holy power before “ripping” them with gesture-based movements. Later on, you’ll be swirling that Wiimote like a lasso over your head, but again… you’ll need to see how this fits in by playing for yourself.

There are only a handful of supporting characters here and each has his or her own importance to the story. Some offer assistance from the human, Buddhist or supernatural plane, while others have more evil intentions. Saying more would again, spoil the game for more brainy players out there as discussing the more salacious elements go a long way in revealing some important plot points. Humor, a part of certain horror franchises, isn’t really something CM falls back on to lessen tension. The most “amusing” thing about the game is Edward Alexander Bennett’s mustache. You figure out early on that since he’s got that evil Tom Selleck thing going, three names and an obsession with all things occult, he’s probably not the most trustworthy man on the mountain.

Speaking of mountains, Eric has to deal with the pesky peak almost as much as he does the spirits out to kill him. Between rock slides, blinding snowstorms, the dangerously cool climbing sequences, and oxygen deprivation at higher altitudes, you’ll get quite a workout wrangling that Wiimote and Nunchuck combo. On the combat front, some will gripe about the lack of auto-targeting, quick turn or strafing mechanics, but to me, this forces you to perfect your ghost-busting skills in and outside of the Bardo. If you’re trying to quickly blow through the game, you’ll find that not putting distance between you and some ghosts will keep you playing too defensively. Conversely, your ranged mystical weapons can only shoot so far, so you’re forced to engage and retreat, running away to gain breathing room in some spots while you try to survive attacks from multiple angles.

 

Healing requires seeking out incense and using it at scattered prayer shrines or “killing” ghosts in ways that leave healing energy behind. In a great touch, there are healing shrines in boss areas, so if you’ve got the moves and enough time while whatever is beating you down takes a break, you can heal up and continue the fight. The one problem with the boss fights is dying means you’ll need to start over from the very beginning of the battle. This can get frustrating if you’ve been having trouble with one of the demons a few times and finally get its pattern down, only to get killed when the thing has a sliver of life remaining. The best thing to do is these cases is to regain your composure and retry, making sure you don’t get hit as much while dealing out as much damage as your last almost boss-killing run.

Visually, the game works perfectly at creating and setting its bleak tone from the very beginning and this oppressive sense of dread never lets up. For all the evil monks and farmer ghosts clawing after you, Chomolonzo is really the star of the show. The dev team really shows this off with some amazing work on everything including the assorted buildings and backdrops in and around the peak. The draw distance is incredible for a Wii game and As I mentioned in my preview a few weeks back, being able to look out and see where you came from at certain points is simply outstanding. Unless you have really bad agoraphobia, that is. Some of those views may have you clawing the edge of your couch. Even better, the fact that there’s no loading screens during a chapter only adds to the immersion factor. Character and enemy models also look great; a nice blend of realism and stylization that balances quite well. If you let yourself sink into the game as Eric, the whole thing almost seems very real, which is exactly what Deep Silver intends.

The different Bardo effects along with the psychological elements and more unusual creatures are all gorgeously rendered, particularly in the nicely cinematic manner in which they appear. Sometimes the screen tilts slowly to an odd angle as smoky tendrils creep into your field of view and the color fades from your TV. Other times, more dangerous enemies get introduced in a manner that lets you know this won’t be an ordinary fight about to take place. Whether or not you’re scared by any of this is indeed, subjective. However, if you take the game’s account of Eric’s adventure as “real,” it’s nearly impossible not to feel a bit of a chill running down one’s spine as the game unfolds. By the way, the no HUD thing is brilliant. You only see a circular life ring when danger is present and later, an oxygen meter that adds much tension to things as Eric gets closer to the summit. Oh, and if you’re afraid of the dark… the game has a few surprises that just may make you jump a few times.

 

Stellar sound production, great voice acting and a truly eerie soundtrack add to the visual power on display and really bring the game world to life. Even in the more quite moments when Eric is hoofing it to the next area, there’s some ambient noise, a rhythmic chant, a lonesome wail or other sonic element to keep your skin tingling. Again, you need to play this and completely concentrate on the entire experience. Popping headphones on to listen to personal tunes here or dropping a disc into a CD player is missing out on the aural experience the team has created. I received the regular edition in the mail, but the music drew me into the game so much that I’m hoping there’s a standalone soundtrack. That, or I’ll end up buying that Collector’s Edition at some point. My biggest actual gripe with the game is the manual has a few minor grammatical errors that should have been fixed before it was printed. Still, given that a good deal of the Joe Gamer types out there don’t read manuals, they’ll miss the mistakes completely.

There’s a solid 15- 20 hours of gameplay here (my own time was 21:43:57 by the stopwatch I set up), provided you’re in the mood to seek out every journal and patiently sit through all the montage sequences that play out during the game. I’m a fiend for a damn good story, so the game had me at the Start screen and other than stopping to write this, it kept me playing for a good 12 hours straight before I took my first break. Whereupon, I stood up too quickly and almost entered the Bardo myself as I had a dizzy spell and fell backward onto the couch, missing hitting my head on the wall by a few inches. Ouch. That made me laugh like a crazed seal for a few minutes – imagine me conking myself on the living room wall, ending up in the ER and not producing a review, good or bad after hyping how good the game was in a few previews? “Oh, the humanity…”

Is the experience totally flawless? Not quite. Those gamers with a poor sense of direction will be cursing mountains of expletives at the screen because there’s no map, and anyone looking for tons of “New Game+” features will be disappointed by the linear structure the 13 levels provide. Still, these complaints are subjective – none of those elements kept me from enjoying the ride. The story is engrossing enough and there are enough memorable moments and a number of great scares as things get weirder. You can retry the game using only melee attacks (good luck with that on the bosses), if that’s your bag, which is sort of like reading a book and slightly changing the fistfight scenes. For those easily disoriented: just keep heading upward and you’ll get a lot less lost.

 

In the end, Cursed Mountain succeeds extremely well as the first high quality horror adventure experience on the Wii. You can see, hear and feel the passion and dedication that went into its creation and only the most jaded “gamer” will ignore this fact. One thing the game industry absolutely needs is more developers that go outside the box and create fresh, innovative experiences for ALL consoles. This is particularly true for the Wii, which has suffered from too many dodgy budget releases, “me-too” exercise games and more “casual” titles than you can shake a Wiimote at. Deep Silver and all the development houses that put this gem together should be commended for their originality with your gaming dollar. With a wave of other unique horror games on the way for the Wii, they’ve now got a lot to live up to, as Cursed Mountain is one of the best and creepiest games on the console this year. And that, folks, is not subjective at all.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Cursed Mountain

  1. I love this review, thanks so much for sharing it . This is my first time on your blog and I'm super-impressed by the thoughtfulness of your critique… I realize this game won't be everyone's idea of fun and excitement (judging from other reviews) but this one has me convinced it's well worth playing. Off to buy my copy now! ^_^

    Like

  2. Thanks, Jane! My intent with DAF is to shift game criticism to being a bit more constructive, as opposed to the newer “gonzo” style criticism that's all too common these days. Cursed Mountain clicked with me the moment I first saw the screenshots and later, saw the game played (and got to play it) at a press event. It's really beautifully done and if you understand Tibetan Buddhism and certain rituals, the “boss” battles have real meaning, a surprising thing for a video game. Anyway, feel free to drop by any time!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Review: Amnesia: The Dark Descent | "DESTROY ALL FANBOYS!"

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