Aconcagua begins with a dramatic explosion sending a small passenger plane hurtling towards the titular real-world mountain the game takes place on, which for the purposes of this 2000 PlayStation title is located within the fictional country of Meruza. This is a country where the people suffering under enforced military rule still harbour faint hopes of democratically-elected peace; a peace that relies on Pachamama, a popular anti-military activist and upcoming election hopeful, surviving not only the plane crash but also the fearsome snow covered mountain terrain sprinkled with gun toting soldiers below.
On any other day a disaster movie style setup like this would have led to yet another mediocre third-person Lara-alike but Aconcagua sees this as a chance to indulge in some traditional point and click gameplay instead, pad-controlled cursor and all.
At first there’s just one character for you to click around the place – Katou, a Japanese journalist who was on the same sabotaged flight as Pachamama, but before long you find yourself in command of a five-person team. You’d be forgiven for assuming having a large party of survivors to individually shepherd from one puzzle to the next using only a cursor (there is no MOVE>ALL command) would lead to a whole heap of dreary repetition but the game gets around this by simply making sure there’s never any situation that calls for you to walk everyone to a single point of interest in the first place – if the plot needs everyone gathered together to discuss something then as far as Aconcagua’s concerned that’s what its motion-captured realtime cutscenes are for. Further multi-character agitations are deftly avoided by giving everyone in the thrown-together team a very clearly defined role, meaning as soon as you spot the latest clearly-telegraphed problem you instantly know who to bring along to solve it: Anything to do with climbing needs Katou, strength-related tasks are for Lopez, if something needs fixing get Steve, use Pachamama for Spanish listening/reading tasks, and lastly if something needs setting on fire or stabbing to death with a knife (!!) then that’s Julia’s field of expertise.
Support for the rarely-seen PlayStation mouse is conspicuous by its absence, but this is one point and click where such fine control is neither needed nor missed. Every possible interaction is communicated clearly by just six cursor icons the game automatically switches between as you move it around the screen, and that’s including the standard pointer and the catch-all “you can’t do anything/go there” cross symbol too. Amongst the usual “You can interact with this” and “This is something you can climb up/walk through” glyphs is a “D”, for Danger. This is your fair pre-ouchies warning that if this character performs this sometimes-necessary action or moves into this area they will take damage – and any harm they come to is carried with them all game long unless you happen to find a rare single-use recovery kit along the way. It’s actually not as punishing as it sounds: Having individual health bars adds that little extra bit of “grit” to this tale of survival, allowing characters to still be as fully functional as always but you, the player, constantly reminded that at least in theory someone’s not doing so well right now, or one more wrong move could bring up the game over screen (as all characters are vital to your progression if one dies you have to reload from the latest save). With the exception of one late-game anomaly and a few timed segments you never fail outright for trying something daring or making a mistake, and the damage is balanced in such a way that while you hope your party never comes to harm if they do – including as extreme as being shot in the chest at close range – it’s always more of a “Hey, don’t do that” (or maybe “Get someone else to do that”) punishment rather than a reason to quit.
There’s a lot of clever streamlining going on in Aconcagua, all designed to keep the action movie pace up in a gaming genre that tends to favour going slow and steady: The small size and scope of each self-contained scene helps the search for relevant interactive points go quickly and smoothly, and the fixed camera angles (as well as the not-so-subtle close-ups of important places/objects when you pass nearby) remove any worries about missing something important just because you didn’t happen to swish the camera in the right way in one particular spot. Once you’re sure you’ve found everything you can possibly poke and pilfer you’ll discover there will only be perhaps three or four items to use in the entire area, and as nothing ever carries forward (and you can’t go back) you get to spend more time focussing on the task at hand and feeling like you’re pushing forward through an unpredictable and ever-changing situation than wondering if your idea’s not working because you failed to examine a bit of string you saw in a wooden hut half an hour ago. All of this clever clicking and pointing feeds back into the cinematic nature of the story, causing your team to climb the corners of their prison cell to confuse the guard outside, hide behind giant rocky outcrops to escape helicopter gunfire, make more than a few things explode, and drop down on armed militia from above with deadly force; everything working in harmony with everything else.
The entire adventure takes place over a single twenty four hour period, starting in the early hours of one day and running straight through to the dawn of the next. Not only does this contribute to the relentless nature of Katou and friends (or more accurately, “friends”) struggle for survival but it’s also a really effective way of making an almost endless supply of samey snow and rocks stay fresh and interesting; cloudy grey mornings giving way to clear skies and blue-tinted ice before moving on to long shadows cast across areas bathed in a warm dusky glow.
And while all of this is going on the party are almost constantly bickering with each other, their fears of a traitor lurking in their midst eventually proving to be true…
Aconcagua’s unusual idea of telling a nonstop epic action adventure via the medium of pointing and clicking works – even during the end-game boss battle against a man with a gigantic gun who’s out for your blood. There’s an enjoyably MacGyver-ish quality to many puzzles which only serves to emphasise the unprepared and desperate nature of the group’s situation, and although a few solutions may look a little weird on paper there’s never a point where you believe the game is inventing problems just to keep you occupied or tenuously finding things for everyone to do. The spoken English and Spanish dialogue (brilliantly the game is not shy about switching to Spanish – with Japanese subtitles – when two local characters are talking amongst themselves) is reasonably well acted considering the era and the game’s Japan-only release, although as this audio only pops up during story-related cutscenes it’s not as helpful to any potential importers as they may hope.
If ever a game truly deserved to be called a hidden gem, it’s got to be this one.