Insurmountable ByteRockers' Games

Today’s weather looks nice, and this weekend will probably be fine, and we’ve got a whole pretty summer ahead of us for going outside for a hike or a couple days of camping. But if the grind of life has you chained to a desk, or if the mountains are close enough to see but still too far to reach, the lonely strategy game Insurmountable (out today on Steam) may scratch your outdoorsy itch.

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You are a mountain climber, working alone, standing before a hex grid of varying elevations, terrains, and weather conditions. Each mountain is procedurally generated, with random encounters, and in that sense it feels very much like a classic tactical wilderness game, the kind that inspired Gary Gygax to create Dungeons & Dragons. Like those pre-D&D games, the story is meager; this is a game of balancing resources and stats, equipping the right gear and mental-mathing the optimal path across the field of play.

But although the plot is too thin to breathe, the game is more than numbers.

I played more rounds of Insurmountable than I expected, though it’s not a complex game: Your goal is to climb a mountain, then get down, then climb another, and get down, and so on without using up your supply of oxygen, warmth, energy, and “sanity.” (Whoops, the developers might want to send the game to a sensitivity reader for a closer look at that last stat.)

The game presents choices in a somewhat frustrating manner, which makes the effects of player decisions so opaque that it’s often impossible to strategize. For example, you come across a backpack in the snow, do you search it or move on? If this were D&D, I’d know that if my Investigation stat is low, it might not be worth the time; but in Insurmountable it’s unclear what stats govern the roll of the dice that determines the outcome of the search.

So what kept me playing? Oddly enough, it was the loneliness. The player character is, generally speaking, the only character in the game. They might encounter another human in a lone outpost during a random encounter, but those other people are only described in text, never depicted visually, and opportunities for interaction are so limited that there isn’t even dialogue. More frequently, the player will encounter corpses of other climbers.

I would have thought that such a vibe would be a turnoff after the year we’ve all had, and it surprised me to feel a sense of relief while I played. Insurmountable is an attractive game, with highly detailed textures, weather patterns, and day/night lighting; it’s a pleasure to look at, and it’s a pleasure to see a physical manifestation of the mood that descended on the world in early 2020.

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Like a little toy figurine, your character climbs a mountain staggering under the weight of supplies, buffeted by unforeseen weather, and cut off others, with choices that branch in ways that are impossible to discern (to the extent that I’m not sure that was the designers’ intent).

“Ah. Yes. There we go. That’s how I’m doing,” I thought as I watched my character struggle. The next time someone asks me the cursed question, “how are you,” I might just send them this game in response.

Rating: ⛰️⛰️⛰️ (3/5)
Available April 29 on Steam.