With the Wii in desperate need of some quality third-party titles geared toward “core” gamers, Deep Silver's soon to be released Cursed Mountain comes at exactly the right time. I finally got some hands-on time with this survival horror gem at a the company's New York City press event and can safely say this is a must-buy for genre fans who crave a great story with their gameplay. It's not only one of the most innovative games on the console, it just might be one of the best genre games to date thanks to a huge development team dedicated to the project from day one. Martin Filipp, Deep Silver's Developer Relations Manager proudly took a room packed full of editor-types through a few areas of the game's early levels showing off the solid visuals, intuitive controls and innovative combat mechanics.
This absolutely isn't yet another run of the mill zombie splatter-fest at all and you won't find any intentionally bad voice acting, rocket launchers or tacked on multiplayer modes here. The entirely self-contained storyline focuses on one man's journey up and around a haunted Himalayan peak that goes from a simple search and rescue mission to a life or death struggle against spiritual forces stirred into tremendous rage by a nasty bit of human error. It's a 15 to 20 hour ascent up this treacherous peak that soon turns into a descent into pure nightmare. 27,000 feet of pure nightmare at that – let's go for a brief trip up into hell, shall we?
In the game, you'll play as Eric Simmons, an expert mountaineer that goes searching for his missing brother, Frank after he disappears during an expedition along with a few fellow climbers. What Simmons' brother and his small team were searching for is part of a complex plot that involves a raft of well-researched elements from Buddhist history, ritual and mythology. Let's just say that there's a horde of very angry spirits between Eric and his brother Frank and the overall truth around the latter's trip will affect Eric's (and your) adventure significantly. The late 1980's setting was chosen for a number of reasons, Filipp explained as he played. With no cell phones, GPS or other modern tech niceties for Eric to rely on, players will need to pay very close attention to visual elements and other cues given as they explore the mountain and its surroundings.
Filipp played through the game's tutorial, taking time to carefully show off the well-implemented controls. The Nunchuck's analog stick moves Eric, pressing and holding “Z” makes him sprint. “A'” picks up items, interacts with doors or other objects and is used during certain context sensitive events. Tapping down on the D-pad down lets you look around in first-person view, tapping left or right selects whatever relic upgrades you've found for your handy ice axe. That axe does triple duty initially as a melee weapon (by pressing "B"), climbing aid and is used to break urns scattered about the levels. Some urns contain incense you can use to heal Eric at shrines throughout each map and he'll also regenerate a small amount of health over time.
You'll also end up (thanks to an encounter with a mysterious monk) gaining the ability to enter the Bardo, the region between earthly life and Nirvana by pressing the “C” button. Here, your vision is altered as the game's color palette bleeds away and a sort of spectral sense allows you to see hidden symbols. Using relics you find in the game attached to your axe, you can unlock doors or “rip” enemies during combat. As for those enemies, you're entering a ghost world packed with mostly angry spirits of differing strengths. There are former farmers, weak and easy to dispatch, much stronger monks that can zap you from afar with spiritual powers, ghostly hands reaching through walls that can suck away your health and more.
You can simple melee most ghosts (there's a nice combo system here) by tapping B 'til they drop, but by going into the Bardo, you can use the axe to fire spiritual energy at them. Weakened ghosts will display one of four types of arrows symbol and it's here where the Wiimote is used to finish enemies using a unique “prayer” system. You need to quickly thrust the Wiimote or Nunchuck in the direction of the arrows as they appear on screen, emulating Buddhist prayer gestures. Successfully completing the moves “kills” the spirit, leaving healing energy behind, while failing requires you to kill the ghost normally or try again. If you're grabbed, you can shake off some ghosts by quickly shaking the Wiimote and Nunchuck until they're knocked away.
The prayer moves come into play when dealing with the bosses at the end of each chapter. We were shown one boss battle against a floating winged idol (based on Buddhist mythology, Filipp mentioned) that required some deft slashing and eventually the destruction of three pesky statues that kept healing the thing. There's no auto-targeting system, so you'll need to make every strike count and when you enter the Bardo, you'd better be a crack shot and expert Wiimote waggler or you'll be going back to the beginning of the battle. Filipp finished the fight in short order, but it's a given that a few players might not figure out exactly what to do the first time out.
Later in the game, you'll find a special staff weapon called LagPa that shoots an “energy lasso” that allows Eric to one-hit kill ghosts using the prayer gestures. It's almost like a fishing game meets a fighting game as you need to yank that Wiimote and Nunchuck through on screen combos as quickly as possible without mucking it up. In terms of using Bardo weapons, the more distance you place between you and the ghosts, the better chance you have of getting a few shots off. Up close, it's a bit tricky to aim with a pissed off ghost at less than arm's length, but this adds a lot to the fear factor when multiple ghosts populate an area.
In a wonderful touch, there's no map, map screen or heads-up display to obscure the action. You'll only see a small ring that denotes your life force appear in the lower left corner when enemies are nearby, but while moving about the mountain, you'll be able to take in the gorgeously bleak visuals. Afraid of heights? Well, you'll be seeing a lot of ledges, sweeping vistas and even be able to look down at where you've some from in a few choice locations. As for the lack of level maps, Filipp noted that players will quickly realize that that upward slopes, stairs and such will always guide you in the right direction.
One other excellent change from the norm is the auto save system that allows the game to dictate the pacing, not the player. The game saves frequently enough that should you die anywhere other than a boss battle, you'll never be sent back to the beginning of a stage. Taking the ability to save manually from players also allows for a seamless game experience that will keep you concentrating on playing the game, not saving every three steps or scouring environments for out of the way save points.
Visually, Deep Silver has truly pushed the Wii's graphics capabilities. There's an stylized realism here that may go over the heads of jaded 360 and PS3-only owners, but it's hard to ignore the work that went into making what's here look and feel simultaneously beautiful and oppressive. Little touches such as the colored streamers and tattered flags blowing in the wind, fog, cloud and weather effects combined with an amazing draw distance really immerse you into the game world. Full camera control is available to the player, save for the montage filled cinematic sequences and quick instances where the game needs to show you scale or introduce a new location.
There are also creepy areas where the screen tilts to one side and blurs slightly, the colors distort and if Eric sticks around too long, his health starts to drain. It's a nicely done effect, bit I'd guess that you need to keep moving through these areas and onto the next part of a stage or else something evil will show up. There's truly an overall sense of dread that permeates the desolate village around as well as the entire mountain range. In a way, the constantly gloomy atmosphere and 'you are there' feel reminded me a little of the hugely underrated PlayStation 2 game Siren, which used elements of Japanese ghost stories all too effectively.
The sound production here is equally as grand with plenty of unsettling ghost noises, unearthly ambient sounds that keep the fear pumping, solid voice acting and a soundtrack worthy score that creeps under you skin and stays there. Filipp noted that the team went with a different casting method for the voices, as in the US, there are only about 300 or so voice actors and using them would have made the game sound similar to many others. From what I heard, everyone sounds as if they belong here – no campy screeching or lousy accents to rip you away from what you're experiencing, yet another sign of a developer intent on delivering the goods.
The only issues I can see some gamers having are with the character movement in very tight spaces or corners and the fact that there's no strafing system or “lock on” function for the Bardo weapons. You get used to this long before the first boss fight, but there are a few moments where the boss teleports around a few times, forcing you to spin Eric around in order to see where the beast has reappeared. It gets trickier when it starts summoning help and yes, you'll need to worry about two or three threats at that point. On the other hand, the fact that the game eschews these hand-holding elements that are standard issue in other horror games only makes it all the more thrilling to play.
We didn't see the gesture-based mountain climbing sections or a bunch of the other spectral enemies, but showing off too much of the game would have been a bad idea, as there needs to be some suspense before the release date. What was shown was definitely enough to let all present know that this is in no way, shape or form a “budget” game or something quickly thrown together to capitalize on the success of other horror games. With 37 years of gaming under my belt, I'm a firm believer in respecting any developer that creates a completely fresh experience in this age of sequels and clones and Deep Silver absolutely deserves your support whether you agree with me or not. The company believes so much in their baby that they're shipping it in both standard and Collector's Edition formats, the latter containing a soundtrack and “making of" feature in a steel box with new cover art.
After the presentation, nearly everyone present tried out the game and as more writers dropped by during the day, Filipp started up yet another presentation with as much enthusiasm for the product as he had at the beginning of the event. He absolutely has that right, as Deep Silver Vienna and a ton of other talented folks have created a completely enthralling game experience no true horror fan will want to miss. Personally, I can't wait to play the finished version at home in the dark from halfway under the couch. We'll be back with more on Cursed Mountain as the August 25 release date draws near. Back with a full review soon – stay tuned...