Cursed Mountain is the latest game in the survival horror mountain climbing genre. It really wants to let everyone know that it’s scary, it has angry contorted faces all over the place, deep dramatic music, and lots of dark shadowy stuff everywhere. It also really wants to recreate the feeling of climbing up a mountain. You will have to literally climb every inch of this huge mountain. Except for a few parts where they jump you ahead a little, since only so much mountain can fit into a ten hour game.
This videogame is less “survival horror” (most noticeably absent from the game is the whole “survival” aspect) and more of a genre that I made up after playing Gears of War, which I like to call “on rails but not really.” It’s extremely linear and extremely scripted without actually being set on rails. Just to make everything clear, I don’t believe rails and scripts are bad things. A lot of history’s best games have consisted of pushing a forward button and a jump or attack button. One of my favorite videogames of all time, Killer 7, literally is on rails. Some designs work best in that environment.
Cursed Mountain was clearly designed from the ground up to be an extremely linear game, and sometimes it might as well have been on rails with how narrow the paths are. This design isn’t without a purpose, it lets the player focus on the mountain environments and admire the graphics, which by the way are fantastic. Killer 7 is an appropriate comparison in a way, because some of its most powerful moments were nothing more than the player walking down a hallway and pushing a button. This spectator style of gameplay is what Cursed Mountain is all about, and at some points it is pulled off brilliantly.
As you walk through the opening village you can watch the mountain you are about to climb in the background. Later, you’re hiking across a path cut out of the side of a cliff, the path gets narrower and narrower and the camera shifts to show the mile or so drop your character could possibly be facing. Still later, the camera zooms out a little to show you, from your elevated perspective, the entire area you’ve covered with the villages you’ve past through in the background. There aren’t a lot of games out there that simulate the feeling of having actually scaled a mountain, and this one does it remarkably well.
I said before that heavy use of scripting isn’t a bad thing. But like any mechanic it can be misused. A scripted game runs the risk of becoming like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Not Dead: the player appears to have free will but is ultimately trapped inside a chain of seemingly arbitrary events. Unfortunately, Cursed Mountain has its fair share of weaknesses in this regard. For example, the first area is a big village. It looks like an open world, but you’re only able to go through certain doors and roads. The game doesn’t give a reason for why you can’t open every door, you just can’t. At one point you must fight against the insanely strong wind to progress down a certain area of the mountain. At an arbitrary point during the long and tiring journey through this segment, a giant demon thing appears out of the sky, picks you up, and takes you to some random place. Later you find the demon and fight him. After defeating him, your character falls off a ledge and continues on his way on a different path.
This is bad scripting. Every time a miniature cut scene shows you being carried away or falling down or whatever else happens, all sense of geography is lost. Your character wants to summit the mountain, but all of these intermediary steps seem arbitrary. These cuts destroy any sense of accomplishment and remind the player loudly that every event has been predetermined and you don’t need to worry about why you’re walking on your current path or what will happen when you reach its end. Things just happen because the designer said so.
Worth noting is that this game features combat. Not worth noting (because it should have been assumed given this game’s genre) the combat mechanics aren’t particularly good. That’s fine though, Resident Evil didn’t have great combat mechanics but still managed to make combat an important meaningful part of its game design. Cursed Mountain manages to have combat mechanics which are a lot more competent, although not much deeper than, Resident Evil, but doesn’t integrate the combat into the rest of the game very well.
But there’s no reason to be comparing it to Resident Evil other than because I randomly picked that title, so lets judge Cursed Mountain’s combat on its own. Almost every encounter with an enemy is preceded by a miniature cut scene dramatizing his approach. Then the area you’re in gets closed off by some invisible ghostly power, forcing you to fight. Because of this, the two major elements of the gameplay, exploration and combat, are extremely segregated. This design works in a lot of videogames but not in Cursed Mountain, which is the type of game that would work best as a seamless experience.
This would be very forgivable if the combat mechanics were better, if the weapons were less boring, if there were more than one type of enemy outside of bosses (the game claims there are multiple types of enemies but the practical differences between them are very subtle), or some other way to make the combat more interesting. But nope, sometimes ghosts appear and you have to drop everything you’re doing (walking forwards) and fight them.
Cursed Mountain is full of lots of things that I like in games, but almost everything that I like becomes ruined at some point by something I really dislike. I loved the art direction. The Wii’s graphics really can churn out some fantastic stuff when developers put their mind to it, and this game is proof. The mountain scenery is fantastic, the cinematics are great, and the empty towns and monasteries are enthralling. I don’t know how many gamers climb mountains, but I personally have, and this game is a cool way to relive select parts of those experiences while sitting on my couch. The feeling that I literally climbed an entire mountain was frequently driven home through the graphics and cinematics. Unfortunately that experienced is frequently interrupted by random cut scenes and battles.
I appreciate games that can create scariness, which this game sometimes does. But the ghosts aren’t scary, partially because their presence is constantly being announced through cut scenes. The dramatic music seems like it will never stop. The few screaming sound effects are repeated constantly. The game tries as hard as it can to make every single moment as scary as possible, but the monotone mood gets old quickly. It’s like a Lovecraft story, it tries to be scary but is actually just boring.
The story’s development missed a lot of opportunities to be interesting and ended up with a lot of pulp. There are documents you can pick up that give little insights, but few are interesting to read. It seems that every game does this now, and it’s awful. Why am I reading your shopping list again? (Yes, one document literally is a shopping list.)
The part of the story that was most interesting to me were the psychological bits. Throughout the game your character reminds himself about how altitude sickness is making him see things, and that all of the ghosts are just in his head. At a few points, the game strongly hints that he actually does have some mental issues. But that theme never goes anywhere, and there’s never any evidence to suggest that they’re any less real than any other videogame enemy.
The only point your sanity is brought back into question is when a voice on the radio describes what you’re doing, but the person talking is miles away from you. At this point your character notes how little sense this makes, and he must be crazy. Brilliant inclusion of a hallucination, or cop-out explanation of an arbitrary mechanic? I lean toward the latter.
I loved the fact that the developers clearly put time into researching Buddhist doctrine and mythology. As far as videogames with religious influences go, Cursed Mountain is actually very close to the real thing. But I was nonetheless annoyed at how, like every videogame does at some point, it twists and magnifies the mythology. In the end it becomes yet another “this religion is mysterious and weird, hey look demons!” videogame.
At a few points, the monks explain that the demons you fight are metaphorical, but like the psychological aspect of the story this is never developed. The demons are the same demons that are in every other videogame. Will any religion ever get a fair shake in a videogame? Despite how it’s a central part of every culture I have yet to see any religion be well represented in a game, but that’s neither here nor there.
This game had so many things I liked, so many great moments, so much potential. And those made the weak portions even more pronounced. I hope Deep Silver is able to distinguish the good from the bad, because with the skill they’ve shown they have with Cursed Mountain they could make a fantastic game, if only they can learn from their mistakes.