For those who have conquered the Dark Souls games, this will feel like a 2D younger sibling that’s not as hard or refined. It’s a pretty good game regardless, and warrants a playthrough.
Genres: ARPG, Roguelike
Developer: Still Running
Publisher: Merge Games
Release date: 3 Dec, 2020
I’ve not played any Dark Souls games myself, but I know the general mechanics and higher difficulty associated with the series. So when given the chance to play Morbid: The Seven Acolytes (MSA), a souls-like game, I was trepidatious yet also excited to challenge myself. With presumably 7 bosses lying in store for me, tucked behind an army of tough foes that would make progression an uphill climb, I expected to fail frequently. I certainly didn’t play the game without losing any lives, but I only died against a non-boss enemy a handful of times. For those who’d be wary of a game that might be far too hard, MSA isn’t a brutally hard choice. It’s certainly a bloody one though.
You start off amongst a handful of dead bodies, with scavengers and parasites scattered around you. This opening area acts as a basic tutorial to the game’s mechanics, with you squaring off against weak foes. Gaining a few items and with a light sense of what you need to do, you’ll venture off in the only direction currently available to you, trying not to die. Over time you’ll gain weapons and runes that can be equipped onto them, and find shrines to refill your hearts at, which are MSA’s version of the estus flasks. Though refilling them does cause all enemies to respawn. There’s even a few quests to fulfill for NPCs, though their rewards only seemed to be basic items you can get anywhere. For quite a while it won’t seem like there’s a purpose in killing enemies, because though you’re told that you’re gaining levels, there doesn’t seem to be any way to cash them in. I only found a blessing after killing the first boss, which is where you can invest your levels into different skills, such as a larger health bar or stamina refilling faster.
Other aspects of the game’s mechanics are slowly opened up to you like this, such as getting firearms, which serve as a secondary weapon to your melee choices, such as swords and axes. There’s a wide range of items to use, such as elemental mushrooms which will add that feature to your weapon for a short time. Honestly, I tried this once, but don’t think the elemental effects were explained very clearly, so I don’t know if this matters that much. With the first area consisting of sea-based monsters, they could in theory be weak to electricity or cold, but I don’t know if that’s how it works or not. A mechanic that I figured out over time was the sanity bar. You’ll want that purple bar to be filled up, but until I got near the end, it always resisted being full, leaning towards about 30%. If it gets too low though, the edges will flash purple, and enemies you kill will sometimes spawn spectral versions. They can be killed, but it’s an additional hazard to contend with, so you’ll need to use items periodically to maintain your sanity.
The controls take some time to get used to, but I found they worked well enough with my controller. Movement and aiming your attacks is done with the ‘L joystick.’ You’ll dodge roll often with ‘A,’ and your primary attack is done with ‘X.’ A more powerful attack can be done with ‘B,’ while the ‘R shoulder’ fires your gun. ‘Y’ interacts with the environment, such as picking up items. I didn’t use it often, but the ‘L bumper’ parries, and ‘L trigger’ is held down to sneak around. When you set up items from your inventory, the ‘D-pad’ will act as a quick way to activate them. ‘Select’ brings up your inventory, though it doesn’t pause the game.
Of the little that I’m shown of this world, I’d have to say that things are royally screwed there. With the people switching from an established religion to a cast of old gods that crept into the world by making cruel deals with desperate people, it’s soiled the entire area. It’s not safe to wander out into once settled areas, with the docks devoid of fish and replaced by sailors mutated into fish men. The populace is horrified, hopeless, and miserable, and I can’t blame them. You get some dialogue intermittently from NPCs and as you kill the acolytes, but most of the game’s lore is contained in shorter blurbs you have to read at shrines.
If you take the time to read the lore, it does contain interesting information about what’s going on. I know certain games have done this to varying extents. However, requiring the player to go out of their way to read text, let alone as they gather it in helter-skelter ways, isn’t the most effective means to convey a story. Admittedly though, I found some of the enemy information to be intriguing, but particularly for the acolytes themselves. Each of them suffered from a plight or issue, and sought relief by divine intervention. I didn’t find all of them to be equally relatable, such as the first boss, though with others I can see why they’d have become so despondent that they’d put their fate into the hands of the gahars.
The larger issue I have with the story presentation is how the acolytes are described as the lynch pins for the gahars, which is what’s cursing the land so badly in the first place. As you defeat them, there’s the minor effect where you’re able to access new areas previously blocked off to you, but there isn’t a cleansing of the land when they’re destroyed. It might have removed your opportunity to explore the surrounding areas and continue to level up if it’d had such a large impact, yet I think seeing the immediate area change would show that your actions are making a difference. It’ll take time and effort to scour all of the foul influences on the land, but you’re heading in the right direction. Plus, it’d be understandable with the last one still in power, since all 7 need to fall before the whole world can revert back to normal. When I beat the last boss though, there wasn’t an ending to the game. No ending cutscene, an epilogue or montage of the world returning to normal, or any sign that killing the acolytes had any effect whatsoever. It just rolls the credits and you go back to the title screen unceremoniously, which sort of soured the mood for me.
MSA takes an overhead view and is made up of 2D graphics, which isn’t what first comes to mind from the term souls-like. I’d be lying if I contended that this limited the visual quality of the game though, because it’s very well composed. The setting makes good use of dark colors and palettes, without creating environments that look bland or washed out. Some environments don’t look particularly terrifying or grisly, as they suit what a city and buildings should look like, or a poorly lit forest close to a swamp. With the abundance of blood and weak parasites littering these areas, and never knowing when a tougher enemy might show up as you explore, you’re usually kept on edge. Plus, other locations make up for the less spooky areas, with Felfields being the most creepy to me. Besides, it’s the ghastly monsters and abominations that really drive home the sense of everything being twisted. I’d say my biggest issue with the graphics was knowing what was or wasn’t a wall or barrier, as I couldn’t always tell where I was able to go or not.
When listening to the background music in the different areas, it doesn’t suit the dark visuals and atmosphere very well. I enjoy simple melodies and tunes that aren’t overly dramatic or intense, but the songs are too slow and at ease to be dreadful. It’s not quite calm enough to be soothing music, but it doesn’t resonate and create an effect that MSA could otherwise capitalize on. If they had composed stereotypical music for forest and meadow settings, and played with the tempo, pitch, and instrumentation, warping it into something funky and dark, the music could have been very powerful. As it is now, you’ll only notice if for how little it builds up the mood. The sound effects of attacks and item effects all suited the game appropriately, so I don’t have any complaints with that.
- Though I didn’t level up the range of blessings enough to try different playstyles, I do think the variety of effects would support different ways of how you fight enemies. For instance, increasing your stealth and the damage done that way, could make sneaking strong enough to do massive damage to most foes. I imagine it’d crumble against bosses though.
- I found the acolytes, who were humans that called out to the gods for aid, rather sympathetic and fairly reasonable. Their actions seemed logical, if perhaps extreme or misguided.
- The monsters have interesting designs, and in some cases, origins. Most of them are pretty easy to bamboozle, but they still look monstrous.
- Since I wasn’t spending much time repeatedly killing enemies to level up my blessings, most of them were very low level. That’s even while routinely using the learned blessing, leveled all the way up, which increases the amount of XP earned. Without a new game plus option, I’d never get all the ones I was using maxed out, let alone all of the blessings available.
- I’m not sure if there are more strategic ways to fight certain bosses and enemies or not. When fighting the 3rd boss, I felt like I won simply because I had enough health and resources to tank it. I kept running out of enough stamina to dodge, and parrying the boomerang claws didn’t seem to work well either.
- Your inventory only has 44 slots, with weapons taking up more space relative to how cumbersome the weapon would be. A broadsword takes up 6 slots for example. If there were places to dump all the weapons you’d accumulate that’d be fine, but you have to abandon all the ones you don’t want now.
- Combat emphasizes distancing and timing. Parrying probably has its uses, yet if you properly slash and dash enemies, it’s not necessary. You’ll want to get in the habit of hitting the enemy once, immediately dodge-rolling away, putting distance in-between you and the enemy if your stamina is too low or they’re attacking, and repeat as often as is needed.
- Sanity will steadily decrease, even if you don’t take psychic damage. Even while walking around in a neutral village, it won’t stay stable, though once it hits a certain point it doesn’t decrease any further. While in places like that, you might as well let it linger at almost empty, and refill it when you go back into enemy territory.
- I often forgot I even had a firearm available, because I didn’t want to waste ammo on random fodder. It’s helpful to save it for elite enemies and boss battles, but only if you actually use it. Since you can fire it without a stamina cost, it’s a good way to get chip damage in as your stamina refills.
I’m glad that MSA wasn’t as difficult or riddled with cheap traps and deaths as I anticipated. There were some situations that raised my ire, but when I sought out the path of least resistance and tried another approach, I was able to make it work. Since you unlock more slots for blessings by beating acolytes, there’s a system in place to prevent you from becoming too OP before having to fend them off, while also having a couple of skills to invest into if you’re getting stuck. Based on how the game went for me, once you get adept at how the game plays, and get the right equipment lined up, you won’t have many problems making progress and finishing it off. I found the earlier areas took longer to navigate for that reason, as I cleared the latter areas much faster than I expected.
There are strange combinations of positives and negatives in MSA, as I think the graphics are great while the music short changes the atmosphere. The lore is engaging, but it’s not delivered very well. I like the hit and run style of the combat, though I don’t think it cohered into the complex system it strove for. Overall though, I quite enjoyed MSA, and would recommend it for those who enjoy tough but mostly fair games.