Version tested: Wii
These days you feel obliged to reward any Wii game that's been purpose-built for the console and isn't depressing licensed shovelware - but that's not the sole reason Cursed Mountain looked promising. Survival horror is still relatively unexplored territory on the system, and it's one genre where motion control could really add something to the experience. After all, the Wii remote is just as suited to throwing torchlight into dark corners as it is to pointing and shooting.
Cursed Mountain tracks a Scottish mountain climber's ascent up a Himalayan mountain in search of his (strangely non-Scottish, judging by the voice acting) brother, who has stirred up trouble by attempting to scale the mountain without completing the appropriate religious rites. Ghosts have infested every village and monastery on the way up the mountain, leaving them desolate, empty and full of sacred barriers. Protagonist Eric must overcome these using motion controls and the religious door-unlocking trinkets hidden in obscure places. It's linear, old-school survival horror, with all the associated backtracking, key-finding and awkward combat.
The setting is easily the best thing about the game. A mountain trail provides the perfect framework for the action, keeping you following the game's intended route without making you feel restricted. It's occasionally well-drawn, too; the deserted clumps of houses, narrow trails and monasteries can be genuinely atmospheric. As you get higher up the mountain there's a constant need to find oxygen canisters - searching for them does build tension, even if it does seem unlikely that they'd be conveniently hidden in smashable pots.
Unfortunately, despite the occasional impressive moment when you turn a corner around a summit and catch sight of the village you're heading towards, or walk up some narrow stairs to find they open out onto an impressive Buddhist monastery, Cursed Mountain's visuals are so decidedly low-rent they ruin the atmosphere. Darkness and foggy visual effects are overused to the extent you can't actually see what's going on, which builds irritation rather than suspense.
Eric never really inhabits his environment - for all his mountain-climbing prowess, he can't step over tiny bits of scenery or skirt chunks of rubble - and his animation looks incredibly old-fashioned. Ghosts sashay flouncily towards you in a strange sort of dance rather than shambling or scuttling or doing anything else remotely threatening.
But the real reason that Cursed Mountain isn't frightening has nothing to do with its visual limitations. It's because you always know exactly what's about to happen. Ghosts never appear from thin air or take you by surprise - they're signposted with in-game cut-scenes showing you exactly how many there are and where they're coming from.
The complete lack of enemy variety doesn't help; you have ghosts that walk, ghosts that fly and a couple of bosses. Once you've played through the first hour you've seen pretty much everything the game has to throw at you, and it gets very repetitive. There's rarely a moment where you don't know exactly what's around the corner - which is a shame, because in the two or three instances where it does manage to evoke tension, Cursed Mountain is almost entertaining.
It never quite gets there, though, mostly because it's so horrible to control. Any sense of suspense or fear dissipates immediately as soon as you're put back in control of a character who can't decide whether to walk backwards or turn around when you pull back on the control stick.
There's a rich precedent of survival horror games with purposefully restrictive controls - done right, it can increase the sense of tension and helplessness - but here, Eric's painfully ponderous jog and inability to turn around on the spot makes everything a chore, especially in a game which involves so much ambling about in search of obscure items to open doors.
The control system is at its worse in combat situations. You can't move whilst Eric is in aiming mode, so the control stick suddenly transitions awkwardly from controlling movement to point of view. All the while, you have to hold the remote up and point at the screen to shoot ghosties with your mystical pickaxe. There's absolutely no reason why all the aiming couldn't be done with the remote alone, leaving you free to move around with the stick.
It's hideously awkward, and leads to situation after ridiculous situation where you're forced to jog slowly away from ghosts whenever they get too close, then find another suitable spot to shoot at them from standstill. This is the sort of nonsense we might have put up with ten years ago, but it's not something we'd choose to do for fun today.
Speaking of mystical pickaxes, Cursed Mountain's incorporation of Buddhist religious tradition frequently oversteps the line between authentic and overzealous, and is often completely ludicrous. Having a blessed pickaxe that shoots beams at ghosts is ridiculous, whether or not the upgrades you collect are correctly-named ritual implements with half a screen of explanatory text.
The discoverable notes and journal entries dotted around the game to flesh out the backstory are full of incomprehensible language. Though the game's attempts to dress up healing and aiming as incense-burning and opening the Third Eye are sort of endearing, they're as close as Cursed Mountain ever gets to actually integrating any of its Buddhist shtick into the gameplay.
The motion controls, too, suffer from a common problem in that they have the opposite of the intended effect; instead of making you feel immersed, they pull you straight out of the game and back into your living room as you struggle with two bits of unresponsive plastic.
Breaking supernatural seals in order to finish off a ghost, open a door or trigger an event is a matter of locking onto them and following a few gesture prompts - they're nothing too complex, but it often takes two or three tries before the game acknowledges your movements, especially when it comes to forward thrusts.
All of that might be worth putting up with if the pacing wasn't so tortuously slow and the mildly interesting plot wasn't so drawn-out - problems that are exacerbated the longer you play. Trudging up a mountain in search of a shaman whilst listening to Eric's inner monologue and fighting ghosts along the way can be fairly engaging; walking incredibly slowly around the same building for 40 minutes searching for three ritual fragments to open a door cannot.
The game's reluctance to challenge you at all only emphasises the drudgery. Killing ghosts with gestures restores some of Eric's health and incense shrines are fairly generous anyway. The only reason you ever die is because the controls get the better of you.
Cursed Mountain has some good ideas, and it's encouraging to see an original survival horror for the Wii. However, its repetitive structure, fiddly controls and slightly shonky construction mean that it's no fun to play.
It's clear from the thoughtful setting and the commitment to Buddhist myth and ritual underpinning the plot that genuine effort has gone into the game, but that doesn't show in the final product. Perhaps fittingly for a game based around scaling a peak, playing Cursed Mountain is more a matter of endurance than anything, despite its worthy intentions.
5 / 10