Chilly atmosphere can't ascend flawed gameplay and control issues
Opening statementsThe fear of heights is perhaps the most common fear mankind has experienced in its long and eventful history, and fear of the unknown is probably a close second. So, when Cursed Mountain (a survival horror game taking place on, you guessed it, a mountain) was first announced, the natural reaction was that of intrigue, and maybe a tiny bit of cautious optimism. After all, the Nintendo Wii has yet to have a single inspiring horror title to its name. Now, that the game is finally out, it is easy to see that the mountain may be high, but everything else falls short of exciting.
StoryThe player takes the role of Eric Simmons, a mountaineer who is determined to scale a mysterious Himalayan mountain named Chomolonzo, or as the natives call it: "the Sacred One". Eric isn't climbing the mountain just for personal glory; he is doing so in order to find his younger brother Frank who had disappeared while attempting to recover a treasure hidden at the top. Right from the start, as Eric wanders into a small village at the foot of the mountain, it is clear something had gone horribly wrong. Instead of a warm welcome, Eric is greeted by the angry vengeful spirits of Tibetan monks and previous climbers that died on Chomolonzo. Apparently Frank's journey had somehow angered the mountain's goddess and now the spirits of the dead cannot find peace and are trapped between life and death. Pretty standard stuff really.
GameplayThe player controls Eric using the Wiimote, for interaction with objects and aiming a weapon, and the Nunchuk, used for guiding him around the world. From time to time (usually when fighting ghosts) Eric will have to "open" his Third Eye (which allows him to see weak points on enemies or corrupted shrines) and preform a series of gestures as part of a Tibetan ritual, that require the player to follow a set of movements shown on the screen using the Wiimote. Completing a ritual successfully will release the ghost from its mortal bonds, and award Eric with a slight health boost. For the most part it works rather well, but there are some specific movements the game continuously fails to register, making it harder and harder to defeat the ghosts while remaining unharmed. More than one encounter ended with "game over" because of this technical problem, slowly amping up the amount of frustration, and reducing the gameplay experience into wild, violent flails and excessive cursing.
The combat itself can leave something to be desired. At the beginning of the game Eric stumbles upon Frank's pickaxe, which has been imbued with special mantras, making it an effective weapon against ghosts at close combat. Apart from slashing at ghosts at close range, there is an option to mount the axe with a variety of religious relics, with each type of relic shooting a different kind of energy. These bursts of energy can hurt ghosts at longer range, but need to be recharged after one or several shots. Aiming with the pickaxe is done by entering the Third Eye mode and pointing the Wiimote at the TV screen. The one problem with this mode is that it takes the Wiimote's cross hair about a second and a half to register on screen, which by then a more powerful ghost can close the gap between it and Eric, making it pointless to use the energy blast (slashing at it is much faster).
Another minor flaw (to some) is the game's linearity. While most survival horror games are a bit linear, they focus on exploration and puzzles; Cursed Mountain leads the player by the hand the entirety of the game. There are a few rare occasions where it's possible to stray from the path and search for hidden items, such as health upgrades or weapon boosts, but there are no two roads leading forward in the game. Every attempt at exploration results in the occasional secret item, but mostly with a dead end, forcing the player to return to the game's linear route.
Cursed Mountain's linearity, combined with its slow pacing do contribute to one thing, though: the atmosphere. The game does a great job setting the mood, and a constant feel of isolation accompanies Eric through his entire journey. Strewn around the world are diaries left behind by the previous occupants of the region, describing the moment when the ghosts first appeared, or even some notes written by Frank as he ascends the mountain. These help convey the background story for the game, and serve as monuments to the horrors that happened all around Chomolonzo mere days before Eric's arrival.
PresentationSurprisingly, Cursed Mountain's graphics do a pretty good job at setting the mood and the atmosphere. The in-game visuals are decent enough to portray the stark, desolate landscape, with the faintest trace of life still lingering around (making the entire journey all the more unsettling). Character models look nice, and although most ghosts look the same, the few unique designs are quite eerie. When indoors, however, the game starts to show its rough edges. Most indoor environments are bare and uninteresting, and most of the textures look too much like wallpapers. It isn't too obvious to be a major issue, and compared to other Wii games the graphics are above average. There are some nice visual effects every time Eric enters the Third Eye mode, when it seems like all colour's been washed out of the world, and only the menacing black and grey shades of the ghosts are left.
The audio presentation is nothing special, with a mediocre cast of voice actors and subtle, yet forgetful background music. literally five minutes after finishing the game and turning off the console, all of the game's musical pieces (as little as there are) and dialog lines will fade away from memory, leaving no lasting impression whatsoever. That isn't to say the music or voice acting are bad (they aren't), it's just so generic it can't strum any emotional strings or create the sense of dread most horror game's audio pieces can.