Cursed Mountain gave me quite a shock as I sat down to play it for the first time. True, it's technically a survival horror game, but my surprised reaction was not prompted by the sudden appearance of a nasty monster. No, what got me was the main character. He opened his mouth to speak... and he had a Scottish accent! It's amazing. You may think I'm overreacting, but how many Scottish video game heroes can you think of? At this point in my career I'm almost at the point where I expect every new release to be populated with gruff, Yankee space marines.
But a Scottish hero isn't the only original touch that Cursed Mountain has going for it. The whole concept feels distinctly unusual, even beyond the fact that it's a survival horror game on the family friendly Wii. It's the story of Eric Simmons, a talented young climber who is looking for his hotheaded brother, Frank. Simmons the younger disappeared while searching for a legendary artefact on the mountain of Chomolonzo, and now it's up to you to find him. Unfortunately this quest is going to pit you against some rather sinister forces.
In a distinct departure from the normal genre fare, Cursed Mountain takes its inspiration from Tibetan Buddhist mythology. Your primary foes are tormented souls trapped in Bardot, a sort of purgatory-like realm that exists between life and death. Due to a curse that has fallen over the mountain, everyone who dies on Chomolonzo is trapped in this state, and they've become rather dangerous as a result. To escape these foes you'll need to help them move on to the afterlife... by hacking them apart with an axe.
Okay, so in actual fact there's a little more to it than that. To defeat your foes you'll first need to weaken them using a combination of close-up and ranged attacks. Your climber's axe is obviously quite a useful melee tool, but by binding artefacts to it you'll also use it as a sort of enchanted firearm. If you hold down the C button, Eric will use his third eye to view the spirit world. At this point you'll be able to fire projectiles at your enemies. Weaken them enough, and they'll be vulnerable to a finishing move in which you free their spirit with a range of prayer gestures, swiftly carried out through a chain of swipes with the remote and nunchuck.
While this setup more or less correlates with the QTE finishing moves we've seen in so many games of late, there's no denying that Cursed Mountain gains a lot from its unusual inspiration. Even an action as simple as regaining health is conducted via the burning of incense sticks. And the representative from Deep Silver was full of stories about the rituals and imagery that the developer used as inspiration. He was particularly keen to talk about sky burials - a funereal practice that involves chopping a dead body into pieces, mixing the bits with flowers and then feeding the resulting mush to vultures. It sounds quite grisly, although I'm not sure whether it'll make an appearance in game.
Rituals aside, it's quite possible that the real star of Cursed Mountain will be Chomolonzo itself. Eric begins his adventure in the town of Lhando and slowly makes his way up through the hostile terrain. Throughout his voyage you'll be able to see the places you've already visited as well as those you have yet to reach, lending the game a sense of progression. Deep Silver promises a mix of environments, from desolate cliffs to creepy monasteries, with many of the sites being based on real-world locations. Towards the end of the game, when you get close to the summit of the mountain, you'll also have to deal with the fact that the air becomes too thin to breathe - forcing Eric to rely on an oxygen tank for his survival. Since the plot is set during the 1980s, our hero's equipment is somewhat on the basic side. After the gun-heavy action of Resident Evil 5, there's something rather pleasing about this low tech approach.
Indeed, there's a lot to like about the overall direction that Cursed Mountain is taking. On the basis of what I've seen so far it seems creepy and atmospheric rather than outright scary, but there's something genuinely fresh about the game's commitment to move away from the well-trodden bloody paths of the genre. While I've only had a relatively scant amount of hands-on time with the game so far, my initial reaction is that the action is at its best during its quieter, dread-building moments. I'm less convinced by what I've sampled of the combat, since the camera and slow character movements seemed to conspire against me. Close up fighting wasn't so much of a problem, but ranged battles seemed to be fairly awkward as I struggled to run into space, turn to face my target and then unleash a fireball or two.
I'm sure that this method of attack will get easier with time, but I'm still hoping that the final game isn't too jam-packed with combat. There's potential for something rather interesting in Cursed Mountain, and it would be a shame if the subtleties of the atmosphere were ruined by an over-reliance on hack-n-slashing. As I say, we've only seen a small slice of the game so far, so we'll keep you posted as more details come to light.
Cursed Mountain will be released on Wii later this year.