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August 2022


Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: ByteRockers' Games
Release Date: April 29, 2021

About Lauren "Feffy" Hall

I am a freelance writer based in Canada, where it's too cold to go outside; therefore, we play a lot of video games. I'm an expert zombie slayer (the virtual kind), amateur archer (for actual zombie slaying and general apocalypse purposes - it could happen), and a work-in-progress wife and mother (IRL). My claim to fame: I completed the original MYST without looking up cheats. It took several years. What other accomplishments does one need in life?


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PC Review - 'Insurmountable'

by Lauren "Feffy" Hall on Sept. 7, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Insurmountable is a new adventure roguelike about climbing (and surviving) treacherous mountains and harsh environments.

I've never tried any serious mountaineering in real life, but if my experience playing through the roguelike adventure game Insurmountable is any indication, I'd probably die before reaching the first summit.

I think I'll stick to the virtual experience.

Climbing a mountain is no small feat. The cold, the thinning air, the potential for danger, and the immense amount of energy required to do it in the first place are all major factors in your chances for success. That's assuming that everything goes according to plan! Even the most experienced climbers can fall and break a bone, twist an ankle, or succumb to the cold while sleeping in those harsh elements. Then, as you climb higher and reach the point where your oxygen stores begin to deplete, what can you do?

You're on a mountain at the mercy of Mother Nature, and her mercy doesn't extend very far way up there.

This point gets nailed home when you play Insurmountable. After selecting one of three climbers — Adventurer, Journalist and Scientist, all of whom have unique survival bonuses (and faults) — you are plopped down, totally alone, at the base of a mountain, with nothing but the clothes on your back and a pack with a tent and (maybe) a can of beans.

It's OK, though. You're a very experienced hiker, and in fairness, you are pretty good at what you do. In theory, you have everything you need to succeed, and if you don't, you have plenty of opportunity to find dead adventurers who conveniently died with their provisions in their sacks and on their person (yes, really) to steal from, so up the mountain you go.

It's not surprising that Insurmountable is a survival roguelike game when you consider how very alike the two concepts — mountaineering and playing roguelike games — are. After all, when climbing a mountain, even when you are the most prepared adventurer ever, you are still at the mercy of Lady Luck, just as you are when playing a roguelike. Happenstance can leave you mangled at the bottom of a mountain crevasse, eaten by mountain lions, or bleeding profusely from a random, falling rock. By the way, these are all things that can happen in the game (and on an actual mountain), so the simulation aspects are spot-on.

As in so many games before it, the landscape in Insurmountable is comprised of hexagonal tiles, but the tiles are staggered into peaks and valleys, offering a considerably more 3D experience than the flat terrain that often holds them. The tiles are categorized as ice, snow and stone, and your energy levels deplete more on some tiles than on others. There is gear, most of which you will find along the way (see the above comment about dead hikers, which, while rather morbid, still thankfully happens more often than I would have thought) that can reduce the amount of energy you spend on certain tiles. Some of the three mountaineers you can play as will have skills and attributes to assist in this area as well. While you will need to keep an eye on your various status bars — energy, health, oxygen, sanity and warmth — energy can and likely will become one of your biggest barriers in this game (at least early on), so it's almost always a good idea to find ways around using too much.

It makes sense, since on an actual mountain, a lack of sleep would affect you mentally, emotionally, and physically, causing you to misstep and see things that aren't actually there. On that note, even with its beautiful views and breathtaking vantage points to take in the Northern Lights, Insurmountable doesn't seem to be a great advertisement for actual mountaineering. In case you didn't know before, let me fill you in: It's pretty dangerous, risky, and hard work. Oh, and you could die.

Thankfully, you can experience the joys and literal pitfalls virtually with Insurmountable! Some of the tiles you travel on and climb up can also cause you to slip, dislodge rocks to impale you, or maim you slightly. This is where your choices start to come into play; it can be tempting to scamper up a tall cliff to reach your destination, but it's often more practical to take a longer way around, where you will hopefully avoid a fall — or worse. I know; the highlighted tile that signals the finish line is right there! Do what you will, but I speak from experience. Slow and steady wins the race … sometimes.

Every choice has a consequence. The trouble with taking the longer (and theoretically safer) route is that you eventually climb high enough to spend more time in the "death zone," where your oxygen starts to trickle down at an alarmingly quick and steady rate. Reaching this zone is an indicator that you're in the home stretch, but reaching the summit is going to take some careful conservation, planning and luck.

The lower peaks are no picnic, either. Your energy seems to plummet in this stony terrain, and should you run out of tent usages (you only have three for each tent, but as luck may or may not have it, you will probably stumble upon more) and are unlucky enough not to come across any timely caves for shelter, your warmth bar will regularly be low.

As if that weren't enough for you to deal with, there are also storms and general inclement weather to add another sizable wrench to your carefully laid plans. I found this game tough enough on the normal difficulty level, even with lucky finds and well-timed caves or shrines to take care of my depleting status bars, and then I recalled that there are higher difficulties to unlock.

Insurmountable's normal difficulty level has its benefits. The views are astounding, especially as you reach higher peaks in your journey, and if you've ever been lucky enough to look down from the top of a mountain, you know that capturing that level of majesty is pretty hard. There are also story tiles or narrative event tiles that are better suited for exploring on normal mode than they are for a quick, rough and dirty jaunt up the mountain on harder modes.

The narrative event tiles, of which there are several types, are how you get better gear, thermoses of tea to warm you up, tanks of oxygen, canned food, tents, bandages, and herbs. Insurmountable keeps you on your toes, as there are random events that can pop up as you trundle along; the events can be good or bad. The event tiles include shrines, which may give a chance to replenish a depleted status bar, abandoned camps, caves to sleep in and explore, and so on. They seem to be placed strategically enough around the mountain to offer several opportunities to hit a few on the way to the summit, but the outcomes and rewards are random enough to make or break your chances for success.

In one of my playthroughs, I used all three of my tent charges quickly as the random weather patterns leaned heavily into the colder side. I also found only one cave to sleep in and never found another tent. Unsurprisingly, I died from the constant cold. In my next playthrough, I found no fewer than seven tents. I was literally leaving tents all over the mountain. On that run, I died from oxygen deprivation instead.

It's a roguelike, though. You can't say you haven't been warned.

Although this game is a mountaineering simulator, which, by all accounts is a highly physical, agility-driven and action-packed hobby, Insurmountable is anything but an action game. Your moves are slow and calculated (unless you plan to die a lot — well, you will die a lot, but it's not necessarily because of a decision you made), and you will succeed more by planning a careful route up the mountain, especially as you get into the aptly named "death zone." This is when you've climbed high enough for the air to become thinner, causing you to need frequent top-ups of oxygen in your tank. At this point, I found that the best strategy for success was to motor up the mountain as quickly as possible once you reach the death zone, and hope that you are topped up enough to do so successfully.

I guess that's not much of a plan, but it did the trick.

Unsurprisingly, I found ByteRockers' Games Insurmountable to be extremely addictive. In my first playthrough, I chose the Adventurer, who was the aforementioned unfortunate friend who lost her only tent, couldn't find a cave to save her life, and who finally died, unceremoniously frozen solid on the side of a mountain (coincidently, right next to an abandoned camp event tile). I didn't even reach the summit, although in part that was due to my intense curiosity kicking in and causing me to be filled with the need to click on all the things and slow my ascent considerably. My death, however, didn't discourage me for a moment because I was already hooked.

For my second playthrough, I chose the Scientist, for no other reason than it was right next to the Adventurer. He was the lucky person who was swimming in tents and happened upon pretty much everything he needed, but he, too, expired as he choked on the toxic air in his lungs irritatingly close to the summit.

The third time, also with the Scientist (he felt lucky) was the charm. I whooped when I finally reached the summit in one, slightly cold, still breathing, and somewhat bloody piece. Alas, you aren't finished! You then need to head back down to base camp to regroup — or whatever it is scientists do.

Those wins make you want to play, and play, and then, play Insurmountable some more because, well, go back to what I said about peaks and views and random events in which your choices may make or break you. Insurmountable is beautiful, engaging, clever, and a delight to play — even when I was halfway dead on the side of an icy peak and slowly dying of frostbite. It sounds like it would be tough to make that fun, but Insurmountable pulls it off.

Score: 8.5/10

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