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Review: Morbid: The Seven Acolytes

10 Dec 2020

In a way, Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is a very simple game to review. This is a game somewhere on the greater Soulslike spectrum, so the question is just a matter of whether it succeeds on that spectrum or not. If you like that point on the spectrum and it works, you’ll like this. Simple!

Unfortunately, this is also wherein my own judgement can get a little bit wonky, because the Souls games and I have a complex relationship wherein I recognize that they’re good without finding them very fun. The majority of the time I like almost everything about them except actually playing them, and the one exception that I’ve managed to make stick (Code Vein) leaves me wondering how that even happened.

Is Morbid: The Seven Acolytes a different experience? Did it get its rusty meathooks in me? Why did I feel the need to specify that they’re rusty? Read on and all shall be revealed, with a gentle note that the Steam version was played for this review.

The Crimson Mask

The story of the game is functionally the very basic sort of story which you expect from this subgenre. Your character is a nameless woman who is the last Striver of Dibrom, you are on this island to kill the seven Acolytes, and you will do so by exploring the area and dealing with the handful of friendly NPCs while largely slaughtering everything else around you. There are teases of lore around, but this is not a game with a single overarching narrative so much as a ludonarrative.

As such, the minimal story you’re fed makes way for the atmosphere conveyed by the world, and it’s not by coincidence that you start out fighting fish-people and fish-monsters by a bay. Morbid has a general air of almost steampunk mixed with a healthy dose of cosmic horror and body horror. Your enemies are twisted shells, often looking like they’re in pain as they attack you; the world has a constant sense of bleak oblivion and the protagonist feels like they’re barely hanging on.

In most games of this type, the story is told as much through environments as anything. It’s a matter of feel rather than dialogue, and the feel here is of that note-perfect bleak hopelessness coupled with a need to press on. You have to keep going and exploring, even as the enemies become more contorted and monstrous, the NPCs visibly deranged rather than having carved out little isolation. To use the obvious points of comparison, this isn’t a game of the empty spaces of Dark Souls or the sharp decay of Bloodborne but a grinding, encompassing dread all around you.

It’s the sort of site you want to nuke from orbit just to be on the safe side. Unfortunately, you’re just one woman with a small arsenal hacking at it as best you can. And I don’t mean to shortchange the actual narratives the game does offer; it’s just that the focus on these stories is secondary to the atmosphere they create.

Out, Out, Damn Spot!

Of course, these games live and die by their mechanics. In that sense, Morbid is definitely a game that manages to hit exactly the notes it’s aiming for, featuring both some unexpected changes from the strict formula and some welcome changes as well.

In broad strokes, this is a top-down action RPG in which your actions are managed via your stamina bar. Dodge-rolling, running, and attacking all take chunks of stamina, which means you need to budget your resource expenditure carefully lest you be caught flat-footed by an attack. You can also parry incoming swings with precise timing.

All of these are the expected elements, but there are some different wrinkles. For one thing, the combat feels a fair bit snappier than you might otherwise expect. It feels like I could more frequently cancel out of an attack into a dodge, which lends combat a bit of a lighter feel than its contemporaries in the general subgenre. This is counterbalanced by the game’s biggest weakness in your walk speed, which is very… very… very slow.

I get why this is a thing. If you can dodge roll as easily and often mid-attack, you need to keep people conscious of their stamina so that it stays limited, and that means you shouldn’t be able to dodge by just moving up on the screen. But it’s kind of tedious and frustrating, made more so when you use the sneaky movement which slows you down further.

Beyond that, you also have a gun to give you a ranged option and the game’s sanity system. Sanity basically lets you choose between taking more damage but also dealing more damage or the inverse, an interesting mechanic that serves as a neat bit of risk vs. reward.

It seemed to me, at least, that the game is generally biased toward slower weapons that hit hard, but some of that might just be my own limitations as a player. Considering that in many games of this ilk the “does tons of damage but takes ages to swing” weapons are often nigh-useless due to the windup, it stood out to me.

Regardless, the mechanics here are crisp, polished, and responsive. I sometimes found myself annoyed by elements of combat, like the nippy little flying bastards from various spawns, but the fault was never on the game and was always on my ability to deal with the battlefield. And as you would expect, there are properly huge and dangerous boss fights awaiting you as you hack a trail across the island.

Steeped in Blood

First and foremost, it should be noted that Morbid is a bloody game. Not just a little bit, either. There are buckets of pixelated red blood spraying hither and yon as you fight. Dead enemies explode in a shower of gore. In another setting it’d be almost comical, but here, it manages to feel somewhat unsettling despite the abstract and intentionally pixelated graphics.

And it’s supposed to be unsettling. The entire game seethes with a strong atmosphere of body horror and slick, wet groesqueries around every corner. If the sanity is a nod to cosmic horror, the actual enemies you’re fighting are far more frightening as twisted wrecks bent into impossible shapes. Yet it all has a haunting beautiful air to it, splashes of color amidst largely washed-out shades across the streets and wilderness you explore.

It’d be easy to lose track of enemies in context, but in practice I found the game to be remarkably good at communicating what was happening and making it easy to keep track of what was happening even when I was beset by multiple opponents at once.

The music is also a contributor to the atmosphere, quiet and subtle. I don’t know if I’d describe it as good, necessarily – it fades into the background very easily, but it’s supposed to do that. It feels fitting, let’s put it that way.

Gallons of the Stuff

Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that Morbid: The Seven Acolytes still wound up hitting that same point of not quite hooking me in. It never made me sit up in delight and just start playing for the sheer fun of it. Not that it’s supposed to be fun, since you’re wandering into a broken hellish locale that’s supposed to be unfriendly with every step.

But I consider the fact that my impulses responded that way as a good thing. Whatever quality prevents these games from quite resonating with me was there and present here, and there’s a lot to like here. The game looks eerily and disgustingly beautiful, weaves a compelling environment, and plays sharply and responsively.

So I might be a bit more reluctant to go wade back in, but if you like yourself some Souls-like action and fancy something novel, you should definitely give this a shot. And if you like buckets of blood and body horror, you might get a kick out of it too.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Merge Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Merge Games.