I died on the very last tile before the exit. Nothing I say can illustrate better how brutal and harsh the game can be, and how suddenly it gets there. Which is odd for something that is generally peaceful, but that combination does help Insurmountable set itself apart.
Most games tackle the subject of climbing and mountaineering from the angle of simulation or platforming, emphasising the physical action, and even then often thoughtlessly. I’m not keen to return to the days of brutal, pixel perfect leaps, but I do wish there was more that captured the careful observation and problem-solving involved in the actual sport.
Insurmountable isn’t quite that, but it is definitely in the right ballpark. You watch from above and guide your mountaineer from one tile to the next, plotting out routes that can take them between resources they’ll need to see their journey through. Whether that’s a cave that can offer potential shelter from a storm or a fleeting encounter with another human being on a desolate mountainside, the goal is to reach the peak of the mountain but crucially, to also make it back down again.
It’s basically a roguelike without combat. In place of enemies, your foe is the mountain itself, and the harsh ascent you have to make, weighing up the best paths and avoiding hazards along the way. Harsh as it is, it’s a lovely looking world, without aiming for photo realism but definitely evoking the natural in its vibrant palette. It replicates the coldness when night crept in and everything went dark or grey. However, the camera is a bit awkward, suitable for aerial overviews, but unable to let you get up close to the climber or the world’s chasms. You’ll never have trouble plotting your route, but it’s difficult sometimes to enjoy the view.
Climbing in video games is often a matter of following a pre-determined route, but Insurmountable instead reflects a little more of the planning and thoughtfulness that goes into a climb. Being able to observe a cliff side and plan out a route are skills every bit as important as developing the physical strength and stamina necessary to make the climb. While it’s hardly an imperative for video games to portray climbing realistically, they miss out on a lot of potential by treating it as a perfunctory act. Foregoing the intricacies of scaling a single rock face, in favour of the whole mountain climb, does make you think several steps ahead until you take each step in the journey with caution. At the same time, mistakes aren’t fatal in the moment, but hours later when you realise you really should’ve picked up another O2 canister over food, and now you’re in a storm at night with no quick way down from the bit of the mountain they call the “death zone”. Nobody wants to be stuck in the death zone.
I found that as I put more hours in, the more I weighed up individual choices, especially those early in a climb. There’s an element of chance that can never be accounted for, but that just makes success all the sweeter. You didn’t just figure out a perfect system: you beat the odds.
Yet for a game where death looms, it’s a surprisingly serene experience. With a session often lasting no more than an hour, it’s also a perfect lunch break game that can fill the slot I used to give to games like FTL. There are various modes and modifiers, as well as different mountains, so you can vary your climbs, though these haven’t had too dramatic an effect on my overall experience. At the core, it’s a laid back game where you soak up the atmosphere of isolation, go up that mountain just to get away from it all—maybe even nearly dying along the way. What’s meditation without the occasional life-threatening hazard?
Insurmountable isn’t without its drawbacks. The simplicity of its navigation means it focuses solely on the broader strokes of a long climb and less about any individual acts of dexterity. It’s all too easy for disinterest to set in when you go on a stretch between the unique story events. This factors into repeated runs, with little in the way of new events emerging over subsequent playthroughs. In that respect, Insurmountable feels like the foundation for a richer and more varied experience—something I hope the developers can build on it over time. More unique events, more little plot threads to pull on and a greater variety of hazards, would all go a long way to elevate the climb.
For now though, Insurmountable is a fun, if simple little experience, that’s perfect for those who want something chill to fill an hour or two.