What’s psychotic, frustrating, futile, and ultimately very satisfying? If your answer was “life in 2020” you clearly didn’t finish the sentence. If instead you opted for Still Running’s new Souls-like RPG, Morbid: The Seven Acolytes, you’d be right on the money. This macabre little gem shines like freshly-exposed viscera and offered a rewarding experience that inexorably left me wanting more, so much more.
Players take up the sword as the last surviving Striver of Dibrom (I just now realized that’s “morbid” backwards), a lone warrior bent on defeating the seven ghastly acolytes possessed by evil spirits (or Gahars, which doesn’t spell anything backwards). The plot drags players across soggy docks, shroom-lit caves, steampunk alleys, and crusty cathedrals as they hack, slash, and dodge their way through a week’s worth of ghoulish boss battles. The story itself is conveyed through quippy NPCs and lengthy codex entries, and while it won’t be winning any medals for ingenuity, the lore fit the environment like a bloodsoaked glove in a Wendy’s parking lot.
The extent of Morbid‘s marketing focused on its kinship to the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and the gameplay comparison is fairly appropriate. Players are limited to basic light and heavy melee attacks and a single ranged attack, so a large portion of the combat boils down to timing, gear, and acrobatics. The plethora of enemy types and their various attack patterns make survival a rather challenging ordeal, but the try-die-rinse-repeat approach facilitates a smooth learning curve right up until the very end. Attacks, dodging, and running are all drains on your stamina, so timing quick divebomb maneuvers becomes essential when taking on larger enemies or mobs.
Morbid’s offering of weapons and consumables is both appropriately sized and effectively diverse. Players can choose from a wide selection of swords, axes, claws, and spears, alongside muskets, handguns, and crossbows, and each weapon sports its own unique set of stats that can be upgraded with runes found throughout the game. While the range of items felt expansive, the weapons lacked any type of leveling apart from the limited rune slots, and I found myself sticking to one sword and crossbow for most of the game. In addition, there is a distinct lack of any armor options, which seemingly would have been an easy injection of variety. I will say, however, that the pages of lore available for each item really show the developer’s level of love and attention to world building.
Similar to its weapons, Morbid provides a steady stream of thematic consumables to aid you on your quest. Mushrooms, oxygen tanks, and mysterious liquids all grant lifesaving buffs and keep the gameplay diverse and entertaining, and the ability to only assign three items for instant access adds a level of strategy. While certain items such as ammo or health refills were sometimes hard to come by, I was never without a hefty selection of gear to balance out my stamina or add temporary buffs to my weapons.
In addition to health and stamina bars, Morbid also weighs players down with a Sanity meter. Exposure to the denizens of the world will quickly drain a player’s Sanity, which results in slain enemies rising from their graves to take a second crack at you. I’ll be honest in that I can’t really see the point of this mechanic other than to add to the player’s list of chores and introduce additional consumables. Sanity isn’t central to the plot or integral to the overall gameplay, so it really feels like a cheap attempt to chip away at my health for no other reason than the game possibly thinking I was doing too well.
Leveling up in Morbid is an interesting affair. Instead of choosing a skill tree or permanently investing points in various personal attributes, players can select a specific blessing from shrines they find throughout the game and apply their points to boost its effects. Blessings are fairly varied and include options like increased health, decreased stamina consumption, or increased damage against bosses, and the number of active blessings increases for every acolyte that you slay along the way. Players can swap their blessings out at the ubiquitous Souls-esque shrines in each level, which again plays a large role in each Striver’s adopted strategy.
In addition to the main quest to viciously murder the seven deadly
dwarves acolytes, players can whittle away the hours with a few side quests that boil down to “go here, kill X, bring me Y.” I’m fine with the bog-standard formula because I found the world engrossing enough on its own to just enjoy mucking about, but the absence of a map or quest markers was at times frustrating. Morbid‘s maps are all theoretically linear, but the developers were able to pack in quite a bit of set dressing throughout each maze, so I never felt like I was confined to a straight line across each environment.
For all the positives the gameplay offers, Morbid’s aesthetic is the real winner. The pixelated gore and color palette are all lovingly crafted and mesh perfectly with the game’s lore. I’m always amazed when developers can create such gruesome visuals with paired down graphics that somehow still make my stomach turn, and Morbid does this exceptionally well (yes, the witch was using her umbilical cord as a chain mace, and no, I was not OK with it). The enemy designs are hideous and the aforementioned set dressings look as if they were pulled straight from John Carpenter’s nightmares, and the whole experience is backed by a delightful orchestral soundtrack. It’s unfortunate that I can’t stop here, but it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t discuss the game’s biggest shortcoming.
As a handful of puppets in an ironically ethnocentric theme park ride once told me, “it’s a small world,” and Morbid is no exception. From start to finish I reached the final acolyte in just under seven hours, and that’s including time spent on a good number of side quests and general exploring. I understand that this is an indie production, but I was really disappointed every time I stumbled into a boss fight because it all felt slightly premature.
The buildup of apprehension that the game’s environment facilitates through both its appearance and difficulty always felt like it was cut short by an abrupt conclusion, and this to me defeats the purpose of a Souls-like game. The whole point is to accentuate the grim and often perilous journey that the player faces, and this is achieved with a veritable slog through waves of enemies as your health slowly drains. Here, I felt like I barely had a chance to get my bearings before barging into an acolyte’s living room and massively ruining their weekend plans. The gameplay is fun and the world is amazing, but it was over far too soon and the level of replayability is exceptionally limited.