Review: Insurmountable Recreates the Perils of Mountain Climbing through Strategic Decision Making
I’ve always had a fascination with mountain climbing, but I don’t think it’s something I’d ever seriously consider doing. First of all, I have a low grade fear of heights, and second of all, there aren’t any mountains around Chicago, making such a hobby pricey and impractical. There are plenty of movies that depict mountain climbing, but not too many video games tackle the subject, and there’s no other climbing game that’s quite like Insurmountable.
Insurmountable is a strategy roguelike adventure game in which you play as a solo climber attempting to summit three increasingly difficult mountains. These mountains are laid out with hex tiles, each representing different terrain types, dangers, and heights. It’s stylized, but these hexes look like they’re part of the mountain towering before you. The hex tiles gives the game a board game feel without removing the feeling of danger and awe. You navigate from hex to hex by clicking or setting waypoints, with each hex representing a potential hazard—some more hazardous than others. There are also event tiles to discover, with such exploration essential to a successful journey. It’s not always best to take the most direct route to the top: you might miss items that mean the different between life and death.
This isn’t a game where having fast reflexes is important. Insurmountable is more akin to a thoughtful turn-based strategy game. Except it’s not you versus enemy units, but you versus the mountain. As a strategy game, Insurmountable gives you those moments of decision making without moving at a glacial pace. Each decision has the potential to affect the outcome substantially, and it’s a constant struggle to keep your stats above zero so you don’t succumb to the mountain. To be successful, you have to keep an eye on your health, energy, body temperature and even sanity. You collect experience by travelling and interacting with events which you then can then spend on one of three abilities, randomly presented to you. Unlike some survival games, it’s possible to take your time and explore multiple events instead of making a bee line to the top. There is no hunger meter, so your character doesn’t get tired—rather, you’ll have to keep an eye on your temperature, which is the most likely to deplete while outside of the death zone. Once you enter the +6k meter death zone, however, it’s a race between getting to your destination before your oxygen reserves deplete.
Gameplay in Insurmountable is turn-based in a way. You make a choice, and you wait for the outcome. When you move, you decide which path to take by setting a destination, or by setting waypoints. I found that setting a direct route was often not the best in terms of time and energy use, as the game would often have my character scale a sheer rock face instead of step up. Time matters, as nightfall is generally more difficult than daytime. Even the terrain you decide to walk through could have an effect on your travel, with dangerous terrain even forcing you to deal with hazards, usually with the choice of dealing with it at the cost of a stat (usually energy) or going around it at the cost of time and often body heat. Events you encounter usually have similar choices with outcomes generally decided randomly, unless you spend stats to guarantee a result.
Each run through of Insurmountable is different. The mountains generate in a different configuration each time, but there are also three different climbers to choose from. Each of these climbers has an inherent ability and carries a set configuration of starting items. These items can be found in a playthrough, so each of the three classes are really set apart by their starting ability. As I mentioned before, as you accumulate experience through events and travel, you will eventually level up. Each level you get to select one of three randomly available abilities. The abilities being randomized means you can’t really plan your build, as in most roguelikes, but you can plan your route based on what abilities you have. Each run consists of three summits, and before each one you’re given a choice of route to take—usually with two bad effects, and one good effect.
Mechanically, Insurmountable is well done, and interesting. I just wish it did more to make me feel like I was on a desperate journey to conquer a mountain. Losing in Insurmountable is through slow attrition as you watch your stats tick down to your sometimes inevitable death. You won’t suffer a catastrophic rope break, nor will you outright die from a random event—that is, unless you’re low on hit points. When my character was suffering the most, and their fate uncertain, is when Insurmountable was the most exciting for me.
Insurmountable scratches the same sort of itch as games like The Long Dark. Though I wish Insurmountable’s higher difficulty levels weren’t locked behind grind. In order to unlock the two harder difficulties for each character you have to complete a run with that character on the previous difficulty. Each run took me about two hours, if I’m being conservative. There are, after all, three mountains to climb for each run—and each mountain is more difficult than the last.
I really did enjoy my time with Insurmountable. But as with other games I enjoy, I wish there were more. More mountains, hazards, events, etc. would all be welcome. But I’ve never played a game that made me feel like I was conquering a mountain in the same way as Insurmountable–it is definitely something to check out.
Insurmountable will be available on Steam on April 29th.
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