Ah, Early Access on Steam. Always a prickly proposition. And while I'm going to have some positive things to say about the game that this could be, this is one product which definitely should've waited longer for its first public airing. To say that At the Mountains of Madness is not yet ready for release is like saying that the Titanic should have been more wary on its maiden voyage.
Perhaps a brief run-down of the first fifteen minutes of my gaming experience is in order. Things begin well enough with a slightly rough-around-the-edges but nonetheless intriguing cut-scene, in which we see a lot of disparate scenery, but not much plot. All good, this is Lovecraft after all: a firm sense of mystery is where every good H.P. adaptation should start. Already we have blood, and madness, and Miskatonic...and, yes, mystery. Definitely mystery. All shall surely be revealed, in the fullness of time...
Our gameplay proper begins on a boat. First-person, we move about a staggeringly dark cabin, surveying and picking up objects on and around a table. I'm not really sure what I've picked up, though, as upon nabbing a second object we abruptly cut to a Lovecraftian quote, then to:
We've arrived somewhere. Somewhere icy, by the looks of it, and...no, wait, that's not ice. It's moving. That's water. Not the best-realised graphical depiction of water I've ever seen, but...that's fine, it's Early Access and early days yet. The rest of the graphics are rather nice - not spectacular, but nice - so I walk down a jetty and into a portside town of some description. Wow, so many directions I could go in. Perhaps I should go in...this direction? No, wait...invisible wall. Now who put that there? Hahaha. Again, that's okay...early days yet, and this game/demo still has plenty of time left to bedazzle me.
Maybe I'll try...this way? Nope, er...another invisible wall. Maybe this place was built inside a glass dome or something. That's kinda cosmic horror, innit? Ah, I do seem to be able to go up these stairs, along another jetty, and...oh, it looks like I can interact with this fisherman character! I press "E", and he grunts a simple hello and walks in the same direction which I'm going. Hmmm, not a particularly polite fellow, and not very fast as I quickly out-pace him, but that's alright. I'm sure it's just a plot thing. Certainly wouldn't be the first Lovecraftian town full of surly, unfriendly folk (it can be hard living under the shadow of Cthulhoid horrors, after all).
Half-way across the jetty I meet a cute white dog. A brief look at the game's Achievements tells me that his name is Igloo, and he certainly lives up to his name. He regularly stops to fart icy puffs of smoke, and lifts his leg to urinate invisible pee-pee. He also makes some very strange noises (when he howls, he is Legion) and parts of his body frequently become one with the scenery, so he's clearly either a ghost dog or a devil dog. How creepy that he wants to be my "best friend"...but hey, this is a horror story, so fair enough. (And I did get an Achievement for my hard efforts of "finding" him.)
The next section of the town I arrive at is chock-full of people, most of whom I can't interact with, and the ones whom I can have a similarly frosty response to that of the fisherman. At least Zoltan, Hound of Dracula - sorry, Igloo - seems to like me (there's the little scamp now, seemingly stuck in the same well which I walked over like it wasn't even there just a second ago; that'll teach him to follow me around so closely). To cut a long story short, then, I basically walk around this new area with as little sense of purpose and just as many of those gosh-darned invisible walls every which way, until I interact with someone-or-other and get another very abrupt cut-scene; which is a good thing, 'cause I honestly had no idea what the game was wanting me to do next.
There's a few other technical problems I could point out at this stage, but won't. You get the idea. Fortunately, things get a bit better after this rather dubious introduction. But only a bit...
Our next stop is an icy wasteland of strong winds, sluggish movement, and white, white, white every which way the eye can see. Apart from again experiencing the same problems with not knowing what we're supposed to be doing next - the impenetrably quiet and thickly-accented voice-acting doesn't help matters - it's at this point of the game that we realise its single greatest asset: atmosphere. There's no denying that At the Mountains of Madness is positively swimming in it. It obviously stops slightly short of immersion on account of the imperfect environmental interactions, and certainly doesn't measure up to the snowy heights set by the undeniably superior Kholat a mere year ago, but the potential shown here is undeniable.
Story-wise, I can't think of too many better premises than finding curious fossils in snow-bound caves, so the developers are also on the right track in that department. I will confess, however, to only playing a couple more hours beyond this point; but rest assured that precious little happened during that time other than some semi-spectacular imagery (gigantic frozen Mi-gos and what-not), and countless incidents of me "falling" into the ground without necessarily dying (though I did get permanently stuck on a couple of occasions, which really isn't very acceptable in a game where it takes minutes to walk less than a hundred metres). I did pick up a shotgun, though, so I'm guessing there might be some action at some later point of the game. (Apparently there's some "killer penguins" to be encountered, but I'm yet to have the pleasure; and am frankly lacking the patience to play that far in at this point in space and time.)
I would apologise for my shoddiness as a reviewer at this stage, but trust me, if anyone has made it further into this game than I have, they deserve a fucking medal. Several medals. At least one for every "chapter" you successfully manage to negotiate. I managed five, and had by then well and truly arrived at my own personal Mountains of Madness. So in the interests of sparing my laptop the insides of my oven, I've regrettably had to take my leave.
There's no denying that this game-in-progress is a labour of love. An awful lot of first-person horror games recently released to Steam have either been abruptly churned-out scam-jobs (with borrowed or bog-standard assets, and running times well under an hour) or, at the very least, highly unambitious "tech demos" which should probably never have seen the light of the general public, much less the PAYING general public. At the Mountains of Madness is neither of these.
It's a game which clearly has lofty ambitions, but is just as clearly in the earliest stages of its infancy. Team Clockworks have certainly done themselves a bit of a disservice releasing the game so early - just take a quick look at the harsh critical response it's received thus far if you require further proof - but in all fairness, the developers still have time to turn those bad reviews around and make a truly noteworthy game. I, for one, sincerely hope they do this, and will be more than happy to give the game another burl once it's safely out of Early Access. I only pray that day is years away, as the project really does need that much time and effort to fix up all that is presently wrong with it.
I honestly applaud Team Clockworks for their vision. I look forward to applauding them even more for their achievements once the "finished" product is truly, honest-to-Godly finished. Masterpieces take time, people. Playdead just spent six years making Inside, and boy, does it show. Here's hoping Team Clockworks have that kind of tenacity, and longevity, or this will be little more than another disappointing footnote in the history of Lovecraftian-themed horror video games, much like the equally underbaked Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Let's face it: it's about time someone did poor old H.P. a bit of justice...