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Cursed Mountain (Wii) artwork

Cursed Mountain (Wii) review


"When you hear the inconsolable sobbing of a woman – like her head is resting right on your shoulder – it begs for attention. There are also frequent wisps of ghosts seen just trailing off the screen or creeping around a corner, inviting you to follow. These eerie elements both repel and attract, a perfect quality for any horror-driven game."



Cursed Mountain isn't built for speed. Scaling treacherous inclines in the Himalayas, grizzled climber Eric Simmons must move with caution. When he's crawling up the sheer side of a cliff with only an ice axe in each hand for traction – a surprisingly rare occurrence – he has to be wary of loose rocks that could send him plummeting to a violent death. If he ever needs to bolt, it's done with the same amount of care; the game appropriately calls it a jog.

Neither is this title poised for surprise. The spirits terrorizing the abandoned villages and snowy peaks promise an even more gruesome demise than a long fall. However, they always announce their presence with horrible shrieks and a short cutscene, giving you the chance to plot their exorcism before they take even one stilted step in your direction.

No, Cursed Mountain won't bombard you with cheap scares or hordes of the dead chasing you down. It just teases you with the prospect. Certain spiritual hotspots will turn the world an eerie grey, yet simply return to normal after a few nervous strides. Something is there, but nothing happens. Instead, developers Deep Silver continually shift to a slower gear, focusing on creating a haunting atmosphere rooted in a lonely landscape and unfamiliar Buddhist mythology. The orderly pace works for the ambiance. It's when you enter combat against those evil ghosts where the game plods along.

Because of the story's Eastern influences, the apparitions ravaging the mountainside are referred to as pretas, spirits with an insatiable hatred of the living. Normally these malevolent beings could be quelled by monks and simple rituals, but something has angered the Goddess of the mountain. That something's name is Frank Simmons. Eric's arrogant younger brother had been hired to retrieve a religious artifact from its icy vault close to the unsummited peak of the sacred Cholomonzo. After a few days, though, his climbing partner returned to camp, and there hasn't been any word from Frank since. Looks like it's big brother to the rescue.

It's a linear recovery mission; there's only one way up the slope, after all. As such, Eric's ascent doesn't require that much brainpower. His main obstacles are locked doors and apparent dead ends, overcome by scouring for keys, walking thin ledges or finding obscured passageways. The straightforward nature works out, since there aren't many people around to point him in the right direction. When Eric arrives at the base of the mountain to find a guide, he only sees the result of the ravaging curse. The sherpas have fled the town. The few who couldn't escape are dead, flies buzzing around the rotting corpses.

Silence accompanies the empty atmosphere. It creates a stillness that permeates the entire game, and it's by far the most successfully unsettling element. Amongst the meager homes in the hillside villages, the prevailing sounds are flags flapping in the wind. At loftier altitudes, Eric finds a broken down monastery, along with an impressive view from its tenuous cliffside foundation, all but abandoned by the religious faithful. Travel even higher, and he stumbles upon sparse encampments with an equal number of tents and frozen climbers.

The void makes it that much more disturbing to detect a real sign of life... or death. When you hear the inconsolable sobbing of a woman – like her head is resting right on your shoulder – it begs for attention. There are also frequent wisps of ghosts seen just trailing off the screen or creeping around a corner, inviting you to follow. These eerie elements both repel and attract, a perfect quality for any horror-driven game.

The grainy, static cutscenes that convey the narrative are just as effective. Sometimes these represent live events, and the inaction lets you focus on particular details rather than extraneous movement. Take the leathered face of an esteemed yogini, a shaman espousing prophecies. Its wrinkles are more disturbing than any supernatural entity, especially as her slithery voice rails about the outsider's rape of the Goddess. (Be sure to turn on the subtitles to catch all the dialogue.) Alternatively, these episodes represent Eric's visions, slivers of consciousness brought on by drugs and deep reflection. He'll see his brother wearing a disdainful scowl, hear Frank's contempt for the beliefs of the local populace. It makes you wonder exactly what lengths he's traveled to achieve his goals.

These snapshots become much more intriguing than actually fighting off the ghosts that pop up at scripted points. When Eric is attacked, he must enter third-eye mode, a state of heightened awareness where the screen goes black and white, and your third-person perspective settles in over his right shoulder. His weapon is an enchanted ice axe, augmented by powerful religious objects that make it more like a shotgun firing spiritual energy. In this frame of mind, Eric operates like a turret. He's glued to one spot, only able to spin around while you point with the remote to target enemies; there will never be more than three or four spirits closing in at a time. Initially they lurch forward like zombies, but eventually you'll encounter airborne ghouls and the spirits of those dead climbers, who can shoot at you with weapons of their own.

It's intimidating at first; the overwhelming noise is Eric's own ragged breath, uneven with fear. In their ephemeral state, the ghosts can quickly teleport to another location, like right behind Eric's back. Eventually, though, a realization washes over you. Enemy attacks are all designed for a stationary target. It doesn't matter if you're facing some peon, the swooping razor beak of Garuda, or a six-armed Mahakala firing off tri-beams of energy. Run around in circles, stop momentarily to pop off a few shots, and you'll feel virtually untouchable.

The only frustrating component of battle is the compassion ritual. Once you've beaten up on a spirit enough, a seal will appear on its body. This allows you to purify it by using the remote and nunchuk to perform a sequence of actions: a combination of diagonal slashes and forward punches listed on the screen. The slash is perfectly tuned, but the punch just doesn't register well, especially with the nunchuk. Perhaps you'll find a magic touch, but I got to a point where I never expected it to actually work. Performing these rituals is mandatory, both to regain health and defeat bosses. Annoying is not the word when the ritual just keeps failing. Maddening is more like it.

Execution aside, neither the combat nor the game as a whole do justice to the Buddhist philosophy. It throws around a lot of authentic terminology, but our hero basically totes around a virtual holy rifle. Along with mimicking spastic rituals, you have to conquer a little motion-controlled meditation minigame by whipping the remote around like a lasso. The plot even interweaves sensational elements – like whispers of tantric rituals – to make it more M for Mature.

It feels exploitative and crude, like it's portraying some primitive ooga-booga mysticism. That's one mark against a game that gets quite a bit right. Cursed Mountain starts off strong by presenting an urgent task, responsible Eric's quest to retrieve his foolish brother. The barren landscape and cramped buildings fuel an anxious edge, but the speed doesn't foster frightening combat. Cursed Mountain makes you feel safe staring down malicious spirits. It can't be horror when its most crucial moments are never truly horrifying.

Rating: 6/10

woodhouse's avatar
Staff review by Benjamin Woodhouse (October 12, 2009)

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zippdementia posted October 12, 2009:

First of all, really good review. I have no commentary on the review itself as it's fine in every way (try harder to suck next time if you want comments).

I do have to express my crushing disappointment that the game doesn't live up... not to what I thought it would be, I thought it would suck, but to that opening atmosphere you describe (again, good one on your part, to make me want the game to be good).

I'm tired of developers ruining their games with poor gameplay or unimaginative gameplay (in this case both... a magical ice pick? Fuck off. Seriously). This game sounds like it could've been great if they'd made the spirits invulnerable and just things you had to avoid drawing the attention of while you climbed this mountain.
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woodhouse posted October 13, 2009:

First of all, really good review. I have no commentary on the review itself as it's fine in every way (try harder to suck next time if you want comments).

Thanks. I really lost my orginazational thread halfway through writing, let it sit too long, and then struggled to churn this out. In other words, I'm just glad it's not terrible.
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Probester posted October 15, 2009:

Too bad, huh? The premise behind the game could have made it awesome.
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zippdementia posted October 15, 2009:

Thanks. I really lost my orginazational thread halfway through writing, let it sit too long, and then struggled to churn this out.

Dammit! You've stumbled on my formula!

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