Insurmountable Review: Mounting Mother Nature

Insurmountable is available on PC.

You can find a video version of this review here!

Overview

Insurmountable is one of the most unique rogue-lite games I’ve come across. There is no combat, yet death follows you with every step. The game is about scaling mountains and the difficulty is based on keeping yourself alive against the elements, mitigating risks, and optimizing the path you climb.

I initially thought the game was going to play somewhat like Death Stranding, but I was way off the mark with that prediction. Insurmountable plays very much like a digital board game, and it’s best to approach it with that kind of mindset.

A lot of the game is focused on text based events.

The environments are nice, but the game isn’t flashy. Events are resolved via text-based choices, similar to drawing some kind of event card in many popular board games. This formula serves the game quite well if that’s what you’re into. It just so happens that I’m as much an avid board gamer as I am a video gamer, and combining the two definitely hits one of my soft spots.

Because It’s There

Insurmountable has a clean-cut and straightforward approach to its concept. It’s what really sold me on its boardgame feel aside from its hexagonal-shaped tiles. There isn’t an ounce of bloat in this game, it’s clear that the developers had a vision and followed it with a laser focus. I make this comparison because actual board games can’t have bloat, because of the cost of producing physical pieces.

You choose one of three characters, each one starts with different equipment and abilities, then you choose one of three routes that dictate a set of random modifiers, such as rough terrain, or frequent storms, and you’re off. It’s that simple.

The game is kind of turn-based, but not really since there are no enemies to take a turn. You simply click a tile, and your character moves to it. Every bit of movement consumes time and energy based on the type of terrain, the conditions, and several other factors.

Three unique characters and multiple difficulties to choose from.

A massive part of the game is simply figuring out where to move. Rougher terrain consumes more energy, but some tiles are dangerous and can trigger events that can hurt you. You might be tempted to take the most direct path up a mountain, but that would be a mistake.

Each run consists of THREE separate mountains with the same character, and all your loot and skills carry over, but you will also obtain a scar between mountains, a permanent penalty for that run. You aren’t just preparing yourself for the climb you’re on, but the next one. So gathering useful gear, and leveling up is very helpful.

Striking that balance leads to making agonizing decisions. If you ever run out of health, you die. Your other stats, energy, sanity, temperature, and oxygen can go to zero, and you can survive for a time. But you will constantly get hit with bad events based on them.

Sanity constantly drops while you’re on the mountain, and traumatic events can impact it as well. Energy is what you use to actually climb, and temperature is to keep yourself from freezing to death. Then you have Oxygen, once you breach the death zone at 6000 meters, the air becomes thin and hard to breathe. Up until that point, you can move a bit slower. But once that bar starts ticking you really have to choose what paths you take wisely, at least until you come back down.

The night is cold, and also impacts your visibility.

That’s the kicker. Just getting to the top of a mountain is only half the battle, you also have to get back down alive. The core principles of the game’s design are fantastic. The game is purely about strategy, the kind you can mull over at your own pace. Time doesn’t move unless your character is moving, so the game has an almost meditative and relaxing feel to it, in spite of the punishing difficulty.

I love how from top to bottom the game entirely revolves around the choices you make, even though randomness is also a huge factor. The events are random, your rewards for the events are random, and the weather fluctuates. But your success or failure will come down to your actions.

You really have to think about what you’re doing. You might have picked up a climbing pick and boots that reduce the energy cost of traversing stone. It might be tempting to stick to a path with a ton of stone, but there could be a loot event over on that dangerous ice path. What do you do?

Looting gear is crucial to a successful climb.

Past the death zone, do you stay the night in a convenient cave as your Oxygen slips away? Or push through it and hope you can manage without rest as the night’s bitter cold chips away at you. Even your skill choices matter greatly, you can build your character to master certain times of day, types of events, or specific terrain types.

An active ability that reduces your energy cost on tall climbs can be a game-changer at the right moment, but active skills have long cooldowns. If a skill lasts four hours, you will really want to squeeze everything you can out of it.

You have limited space in your inventory, so what do you prioritize? A tent to sleep anywhere? Or maybe some oxygen tanks. Carrying a set of boots for every terrain type can be super helpful, but that’s a lot of space, plus you have to find the loot in the first place. You never just think of the present moment either, that oxygen tank might help you now, but that climbing pick can help you on the mountain after this one, yet if you die first, it was for nothing. Which one do you keep?

None of this sounds exciting on paper, but if you enjoy emergent strategy as I do, it’s brilliant and a ton of fun. Every step of the climb is a small puzzle to be solved and it does a great job of forcing you to think of the future, without being overwhelming.

Crampon My Style

Insurmountable faces a problem that physical board games of this nature often do, variety. The game features three unique characters and multiple difficulties for each one, and the random route modifiers definitely shake things up. But the game becomes familiar far too quickly.

Most of the game is dictated through multiple-choice events. Since you constantly interact with these events, you burn through them very quickly. Odds are good, you will see a duplicated event on your very first run.

You got up there, now you have to get back down!

The mountains themselves seem procedural to a degree, event locations are absolutely random. But the shape of the terrain itself became familiar to me very quickly. As if a gameboard had been spliced up unto pieces and shuffled around.

There is a vast selection of skills, but the equipment is pretty limited. All of it is based on realistic mountain climbing gear, but the variety is quite low. Actually managing it can be tedious too.

If you have Snow boots, Hiking boots, and Crampons. The best thing to do is to change out the ones you’re wearing whenever you go to cross that terrain type. Being lazy and not wearing your Crampons on ice terrain will burn precious energy that you will need. But stopping and swapping them every few seconds can be grating, to say the least.

You pick from a random set of skills when you level up.

These issues make Insurmountable a bit less replayable than other games of the genre. Your mileage is going to vary based on how much you enjoy challenging yourself on higher difficulties while encountering the same events and familiar boards.

Each climb still feels varied despite the repetition, simply due to how the mechanic’s function, the randomness of the events, and the emphasis on player choice. But more variety would have certainly been welcome.

Verdict

Insurmountable’s core design is fantastic, it’s a great strategy game that feels very much like a board game. The limited variety of events, gear, and level layouts dampen the fun a bit, but the developers already seem keen to improve on it with a patch planned later this month.

The reality is if Insurmountable were a real board game, I’d be interested in picking it up, and the price would be much steeper due to the physical pieces. The digital experience it offers is a unique one worth having for any fans of slower-paced strategy games, even if its freshness is shorter-lived than I would like.

You might also enjoy my review of Crown Trick!

Pros

  • A unique, slow-paced but challenging strategy rogue-lite with the DNA of a board game
  • The focus on the moment to moment decisions you make is highly engaging
  • Interesting focus on managing several status bars as you climb a mountain feels strategical, rather than tedious
  • A run is split between three mountains, it adds to the strategy that you need to plan for the next one, not just the one you are currently climbing
  • Three Characters, random modifier’s and ever-changing weather helps runs feel unique
  • Difficulty settings present.
  • Lots of skills to choose from when you level up
  • The risk versus reward nature of the game is done very well

Cons

  • The game is almost entirely based on text-based events, and they repeat often
  • The mountain layouts become familiar fast
  • The variety of gear feels limited
  • Constantly swapping gear can be tedious