Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Cursed Mountain (PC, 2010, Germany): A Little Too Steep?
September 24, 2011, 6:00 am
Filed under: Cursed Mountain (PC, 2010, Germany)

Sometimes it may seem like I’ve abandoned this blog. Not true! If I disappear from this space for a while, it is usually because I am embroiled in playing some triple-A titles that I’ll never write about or that will never appear here. For example, most recently, I got wrapped up in finishing “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” (a very “adult” game by my estimation, considering the rather complex characters and “gray morality” narrative) and “Red Faction: Armageddon,” (substandard by most critical accounts since it abandoned the open-world roots of its predecessor “Red Faction: Guerilla”). While I liked them both personally, this blog space isn’t really meant to discuss big ticket games like those. This blog is dedicated to small, crappy games that only small, crappy people like. You know, gutter dwellers, like you and I.

So, after a little high-class hiatus, I’ve returned home to the slums (whew!), and I’m back with a relatively new (only a little old) title from 2009 originally released on the Wii (the only modern console I don’t own and am not interested in owning) but then later ported to the PC (yeah, you heard me correctly) in 2010 by the publisher Deep Silver Vienna (who was shuttered about two weeks later, apparently). Anyway, that game is the survival horror title “Cursed Mountain.” And, in contradiction to what I said earlier about distinguishing smaller unknown games and larger triple-A titles, determining what category “Cursed Mountain” actually falls into is probably impossible. While not necessarily a widely known title (which had pretty much zero marketing as far as I can tell), this game was apparently created in a “distributed” fashion by “16 companies consisting of 236 people in 17 unique locations in 14 different countries” (a little fact found on Wikipedia). Sounds like a development nightmare to me, but this distributed development was planned from the beginning, and apparently the various parties used Skype a lot to get the job done. So was all the long distance buffering worth it?

It’s perhaps reductionist to say so, but “Cursed Mountain” is basically a “Resident Evil” or “Silent Hill” third-person, survival-horror ripoff that has been transported to the icy, haunted Himilayan mountains, where you are surrounded by sherpas, Buddhist villlages, prayer wheels and shrines, and nasty ghostlike demons (instead of infected Umbrella scientists or maniacs with pyramid-shaped hats). Oh, and like “Silent Hill,” there’s lots of ominous fog…yes, thick, thick ominous fog that makes it impossible to see what’s about to attack you.

And if you think the next thing I am about to say is “So, skip this one” that would be an overstatement. For several reasons, I’m not putting a “play this or else” endorsement on this title, but if you are a survival horror buff and are willing to experience a bloodless kind of “horror-lite” romp, then by all means put your climbing gear on. However, if you are looking for the kind of unbearable tension offered by titles like “Dead Space,” “Fatal Frame,” or “Siren,” then a quick reality check is in order. This is a Wii game, folks. I’m not sure that necessarily means anything, but I keep thinking this must be why everything regarding the horror in “Cursed Mountain”—the horrific visuals, the scary music, the skittering cutscenes, the twisty narrative—feels a little watered down, a little soft. True that this is an M-for-Mature title, but something about it feels right up the T-for-Teen alley. This mountain will not scare the pants off of you, not close. We’ve got an extremely slow pace here; this mountain takes its time. Hence, you will not have an accident in your undies. If I wanted to make a more nuanced statement, I’d say “Cursed Mountain” is more of a “horror drama” than it is a “survival horror” game, if that makes any sense. What I mean is that instead of grotesque, spine-tingling circumstances, you are surrounded by mundane intrigue, such as civilian mountaineers defrauding naive Tibetan monks, scorned lovers, and estranged brothers. Oh, and with irritable ghosts.

Nevertheless , the extremely unique locale, and the way the game immerses you in the mantras and superstitions of the Buddhist faith, makes the package work more often than not—as a horror-drama, that is.

And speaking of the drama, the narrative, as well as the voice acting, is top-notch. The game takes place in the good old 80’s (before cell phones and consumer-friendly GPS trackers, folks; if the characters in this game would have had that tech, there would have been no game to play, basically). You play as Eric Simmons, a thoughtful, careful mountain climber/expeditionist who is trying to find his brother, Frank Simmons, who is pretty much the exact opposite of you—he is a high-stakes climber, reckless, thoughtless, indifferent, and looking for fame and fortune. The game begins, and you have received word that your brother has been lost after beginning to climb a section of the Himalayas called Chomolonzo, which the natives in the Buddhist villages surrounding the mountain call “the Sacred One.” Your egotistic bro was hired by Edward Bennett, a famous and wealthy expedition planner, to retrieve a sacred artifact placed on top of the mountain ages ago by early Buddhist followers. (Bennett tried to retrieve the artifact himself, but broke his leg in the attempt.) The artifact, which holds untold knowledge to be revealed “when the world requires such knowledge,” is called a Terma. Locals say that in order to climb the mountain, though, seekers are supposed to complete a variety of cleansing rituals, such as walking the entire circumference of the mountain, on the ground, at least a dozen times, as well as performing some tantric rituals. Apparently, your bro Frank didn’t do these things as prescribed, and the goddess of the mountain became angry, and she bestowed a powerful curse upon Chomolonzo, trapping Frank and everyone else.  When you arrive at the base of the mountain to begin your search for your brother, many of the villages are empty as if abandoned in haste (or is everyone dead or transformed?), and there are a variety of nasty, black and white ghosties who float about the place and are generally unfriendly—apparently part of the pox the goddess has unleashed. The entirety of the game takes place on the mountain and its various encampments/villages/monasteries, as you climb to find your brother. So, it’s all up, up, and away! It’s a tidy, culturally interesting, self-contained horror story that simply works. In a sense, it is much more erudite and unique than anything “Silent Hill” or “Resident Evil” ever offered up, narratively speaking. Of course it makes sense that this game would be much more narratively rich, since it arrived long after the survival horror genre had grown up.

Not having played a Wii game before (and I’m guilty of not considering it a “hardcore gamer’s platform,” though I know some Wii owners disagree), I was not sure what I’d find. Suffice to say, there are some seemingly Wii-centric aspects to the game, even in this PC iteration. For example, there is no difficulty selector for the game—everyone plays it the same, I guess. Also, other than a brightness slider and a resolution changer, there are no video options available in this PC version (such as selecting level of detail, level of textures, turning on HDR lighting, for example). Considering that the Wii and its games are technically still considered “last gen,” the absence of these video options is not surprising. (We’ll get to the “look” of the game in a moment.) Next, many of the motion-controlled actions that were originally performed with the Wii-mote have been ported to the mouse. For example, one main aspect of combat in the game involves a kind of spellcasting that requires you to trace symbols on screen (in the air, in first-person perspective, in front of your foes) with a cursor (say, three points of a triangle, or four points of a “Z”). Since you’ve got no motion controller hooked up to your PC (which, by the way is possible apparently, by using a USB Bluetooth dongle), the actions required by the game are easily accomplished with your mouse. One point though: This kind of action does make playing the game with a gamepad a bit tricky, since moving the cursor with a thumbstick doesn’t really allow you to trace these symbols with enough speed or precision to work properly. Suffice to say, while this PC iteration is configured to be played primarily with keyboard and mouse, I DID play the game with a gamepad hooked up to my PC using the Xbox 360’s Wireless Receiver for Windows (which is always my preference, plopped down in front of my big screen TV that I use as my PC monitor). But when it came to drawing these symbols on screen, I had to quickly grab my wireless mouse and use it instead. My partner also helped by grabbing the mouse and doing it for me too. Actually, after the first few chapters, we just started playing the game together in a strange kind of cooperative fashion—I’d use the gamepad to move the dude around and shoot, and my partner used the mouse to draw the finishing move symbols (which the game calls a “Compassion Ritual”). You know, it was fun.

While it was fun, for a horror game, it just wasn’t all that scary. At first, I was certain it was because (as a jaded horror buff since birth) I’ve become long desensitized. But having just finished “Dead Space 2” about a month ago, and since I was loudly cursing the screen and jumping out of my seat every 30 seconds as Necromorphs dropped from the damn ceiling vents, that theory doesn’t hold water. Thankfully, I CAN still be scared. So, I have tried to work out in my mind why I was not particularly scared by “Cursed Mountain,” and I’ve come up with this: During the length of the game, you are in one of two different kinds of settings. Either you are trudging up (or climbing vertically up) the incline of an open mountain landscape, or you are walking along the rooms and corridors of the village houses, monasteries, and base camps that pepper the mountainside as you ascend. The wide open outside environs tend to dissipate any sense of horror or being trapped, even though the ghosties out to get you spawn right from the snow under your feet. Likewise, the warm, vibrantly colored inside spaces (an artistic decision no doubt designed to provide smart relief against the gray/brown/snowy white sameness of the mountainside) tend to not create fear either (and the inside spaces, due to this technically being a last-gen game, leave a little to be desired, graphically speaking—there’s not much detail inside these structures, which are mainly empty boxes). So, if none of the environs in the game seriously inspire fear (regardless of the fact that every place has been abandoned), where is the fear supposed to come from? I suppose the ghosts you fight should do the trick, and there are a small handful of jump scares, but once the baddies appear, they pull the same trick repeatedly, and the familiarity of their tactics immediately disperses any kind of fear as well. To ratchet up a sense of fear as the game progresses, I think, the developers have more difficult foes spawn closer and closer to you in increasingly tighter spaces that you can’t escape. But that, for me didn’t create fear either; it just became irritating.

Perhaps the only thing that does generate some fear is the forced saved system—no saving anytime you want here, which is a holdover from the console origins of the game, of course. While this does create some tension (which, I presume, is its function), the saves are usually fairly liberal, not leaving you to trudge through large parts of the terrain repeatedly after being mauled to death—though some of the save placements leave a little to be desired. At one point in the game, I completed a tough battle in an enclosed space, then, sighing in relief, I exited a door, and the game saved. I then encountered an even tougher battle, but I was unable to go back through the door to heal myself at a shrine (you heal yourself by burning collected incense at a shrine) because the save had taken place. This little unintentional mistake on my part—and the resulting series of a dozen or more deaths since I had practically no health to fend off 7 or 8 ghosts simultaneously in an enclosed barracks—actually made me turn the game off in frustration for 3 days. Then, I downloaded a trainer, gave myself unlimited health, finished the battle, and returned to playing normally. Arrrrgh. But again, is that fear or just frustration?

One confusing aspect of the game is the weapon. Ultimately, you only have one weapon, which is a large mountain climber’s icepick you can slash with. (It belongs to your brother, and you find it in a hut early in the game.) But you collect different, magical implements that fit onto the end of the icepick, allowing you to shoot out a single blast of energy, or a dispersed blast of energy, etc. One of the icepick attachments allows you to more easily latch onto a ghost and keep it in place (in Ghostbusters fashion) in order to perform the aforementioned “Compassion Ritual” (spellcasting/symbol drawing).  On the weapons information screen, each of these attachments look strikingly different, and they each have different names, and you can cycle through them during the game at will. But it is never clear which weapon-end is actually the strongest, or which magical implement is designed to battle which ghosts. During battle, the attachments sort of look as though they are all doing the same thing. But I don’t think they are all equal, and you do collect them as you progress through the game, as your battles become more difficult. However, that does not necessarily mean the later weapon choices are always the best in a given scenario. Having one weapon with differing attachments is a nice idea, but more information should have been provided to the player about the level of damage inflicted by each one, or if it has a specific use against “Ghost Type A,” or whatever. I would die several times in a battle, only to, at random, try a different magical attachment on the end of my icepick and realize that I should have been using that one all along. Poorly planned weapons management.

The developers make a valiant effort to slowly ramp up the scale of the game toward the end—the vistas get bigger, the music becomes more ominous, the screen starts to completely white out (at 28,000 feet, a lot of blowing snow and fog is to be expected, I guess), and you have to use oxygen if you are interested in continuing to breathe. I won’t spoil the story of whether or not Eric Simmons finds his younger, arrogant brother atop the inhospitable mountain, but suffice to say it is nice to play a game that comes to a proper end, without trying to hang you off a cliff (pun intended, in this case).

“Cursed Mountain” is a fine game that will scare little girls, and those with hypertension and nervous dispositions already anyway. For the rest of us, this horror-drama title, though far from great, is an interesting, and probably mostly accurate (albeit popularized) portrayal of the mythos and practices surrounding the Buddhist faith. For example at one point you come across a decaying body of a local inhabitant, and your character explains, “The bodies are just left here in the open so that even in death you may be useful. It is the Buddhist way.” It’s precisely that kind of insight that makes this an interesting, if not creepy, game worth playing.

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