Mountain climbing is truly a risky hobby. It takes a great deal of skill, plus requires an exorbitant amount of care. After all, human beings are fragile creatures, and the slightest mistake can be the end of us. Insurmountable tasks you with climbing seemingly impossible peaks, all within the package of a strategic, survival rogue-lite. Successfully encapsulating the exhilaration and peril of climbing a mountain is a tall order. Yes, that pun is very much intended. Although I may have been unsure as to how well it could pull it off, I’m happy to say that it reaches those heights with flying colors.
Insurmountable arguably tells a story, but doesn’t have much of a narrative. You begin by picking from one of three classes: adventurer, scientist, and journalist. Each carries with them different starting perks and gear, but all have their own insight with certain events. For instance, the journalist is doing it for an investigative piece. The game is awash with a large number of events that are described via text. The writing isn’t the most attention-grabbing you’ll see, but it adequately gets the job done.
The tone of events varies greatly. Perhaps you’re asking an old-timer for some stew at their camp. Maybe you find hot springs that revitalize you. Or you stumble upon a frigid corpse in the snow, the blue limbs draining your sanity and causing you to hurriedly continue on your journey. Due to such events, each climb in Insurmountable tells a story of its own. There are enough that you won’t see the same few scenarios repeated ad nauseam as I’ve seen in other games. There’s a tangible sense of discovery and danger lurking around each steep precipice and uneven stone surface. Then the night will fall and a blizzard will obscure your vision, leaving you to wonder if you’ll make it out alive.
Five steps to freedom
Each run in Insurmountable begins with you choosing between the three aforementioned classes. The adventurer comes with gloves that reduce the energy cost of movement and an active skill that reduces it further for a time. The scientist can zoom out further with their active skill. The journalist can ignore dangerous terrain for a time. They all have different starting equipment and perks, which are helpful, but they won’t define your playthrough. Perks or equipment can be found by leveling up or during exploration — if you’re lucky, at least.
Aside from your class, you’ll also need to pick a difficulty. Each run is comprised of three increasingly dangerous climbs. You’ll need to make it through all three to be victorious. Each time you set off on a climb, you even get to choose between mountains with different characteristics. Some might have thin air, which will increase your oxygen needs. But it might also have easily navigable terrain. Or it can be plagued by unnerving events that shake up your character’s sanity more. Insurmountable is all about carefully weighing risk versus reward when making tough choices.
Each subsequent mountain is taller than the last. The first two have you climb down to a lower point after reaching the summit. This is so you can begin your next climb. Insurmountable‘s third mountain, however, only tasks you with reaching the summit. The first mountain isn’t all that tall, but your third will shoot up towards the sky. Granted, even taller ones won’t take more than 45 minutes of playtime to best. A successful run will last about an hour and a half or so, depending. Of course, Insurmountable is a rogue-lite, so you won’t always succeed.
And one pill makes you small
Insurmountable is navigated via hexes. All terrain is composed of these, and you’ll need to double click to command your character to move to one. Naturally, you can click on distant hexes and an optimal route will be selected. As your character travels, their resources deplete. Moving uses energy. When it’s colder, you lose body warmth. Climbing a mountain is mentally demanding, so sanity depletes as well. Once you make your way higher up the mountain, you’ll enter the death zone, which greatly increases your oxygen use. Finally, there’s health to worry about. The game is very much about carefully monitoring all of these meters, as any of them dipping too low will result in certain doom.
The kicker is that there are numerous trade-offs. You can restore energy by sleeping, but you’ll need to find a cave or sleeping bag. Sleeping restores energy and warmth. But, if you’re in the death zone, sleeping also depletes oxygen. Things become trickier because not all resources are equal. If you run out of energy, you’ll often be able to trade health for it. You can also go longer without energy without taking damage. However, if your sanity or oxygen empties, you’re almost certainly dead if you don’t have items to get them back up.
This is why you’ll need to make regular use of events in Insurmountable. These are found on hexes marked with icons. Some let you search for items, such as oxygen tanks or sanity-refilling herbs. Others lead to viewpoints that can refill other meters. You can even find hot springs or interact with other people. But you need to be careful. It’s necessary to explore for consumables, but you’ll need to conserve other resources. If you use up too much sanity looking for items, all the canned food and oxygen tanks in the world won’t save you if you didn’t find any herbs.
There are roleplaying elements at play in Insurmountable, too. Many events grant experience, which levels your character up and lets you choose new active and passive perks. There’s plenty of equipment to find that gives buffs and bonuses, such as shoes that reduce the energy cost of walking on certain surfaces. Your inventory is limited, and some items take up a lot more space, so you’re going to be making tough decisions as your run goes on.
Insurmountable does have a few issues, though. The visuals are solid, even if the hexes make things look less mountain-like. As I mentioned earlier, the balance between your resources can feel horribly uneven. Energy is too lenient, while oxygen and stamina can seem merciless. It’s also quite strange that these characters decided to climb mountains, yet none of them thought to bring oxygen tanks. One thing that often got me in a bit of trouble was that it’s easy to accidentally auto-select a route that ends up wasting more resources than another would, with no way to undo it until it’s too late. You can also speed the game up, but only by a single increment. I would have liked a bit more.
Overall, though, Insurmountable succeeds at what it set out to do. Runs are engrossing, varied, and require a lot of thought. But the game does allow for some mistakes, which isn’t always the case in this genre. Zooming the camera all the way out and trying your best to plan out a route to the summit can be tricky, but the rush when you hit the top while your character is at death’s door is exactly what rogue-lites are all about.