Story & Art
Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is a challenging pixelated horror adventure guaranteed to scratch an itch for fans of the genre. According to publisher Merge, Morbid is "A Horrorpunk Action RPG filled with Lovecraftian horrors and Cronenbergian gore, making it the most gruesome take on the isometric Souls-like genre yet!" I was hooked from the start on pixelation alone, but the detailed accountings of the Morbid world found throughout this game are full of beautiful illustrations of sinister experiences that pulled me in even further. As lovers of music at Busch League, we thought it wouldn't be fair to continue without letting readers know that a phenomenal score accompanies Morbid's gameplay. We recommend listening to it alongside the reading of this review.
Morbid's story is a hero narrative in an apocalyptic setting. You play as an anonymous female protagonist, and while your name and backstory are primarily absent, your mission as the last surviving Striver of Dibrom to destroy the Seven Acolytes is overwhelmingly present. Each of the Seven Acolytes has been parasitically infested by the insidious deities known as Gahars. Gahars use their powers to warp and manipulate their hosts into spreading chaos and bloodshed throughout their kingdoms.
You must slay the Acolytes, thus ridding the Gahars of their flesh. Succeed, and you'll free the kingdom from the heavy yoke of their terror. Fail, and the malicious gods rule on, as the Acolytes rise anew, and madness prevails.
Morbid does an excellent job of fleshing out the world through optional in game readings. A significant part of the story is delivered to you in loading screens or when reading the Morbid Menagerie's descriptions at shrines. This feature is an enjoyable option for those who cherish lore but it's not intrusive for those who do not care. Avid fans of Horrorpunk darkness will surely appreciate the grotesque character art in Morbid. Every aspect of the story is steeped in spine-tingling terror.
As mentioned in the opener, Morbid is an isometric Dark Souls-like RPG. Meaning it's tough. Once you understand the mechanics and how your character moves, it becomes even more enjoyable. Your attacks are either light or strong. Light attacks are quicker, while heavier attacks are slower and drain more stamina. You can also block and parry. To evade enemies, you can dodge roll out of danger in the nick of time. Successfully landing hits on your enemies boils down to patience, timing your swings, and managing your stamina. Swinging too late allows the enemy's attack to interrupt yours, dealing damage and canceling out your attack. Rushing into battle without stamina has a similar effect giving your enemy an advantage over your speed. If you wish to be effective in Morbid, you'll need to understand how to manage your attributes, weapon types and runes, and how to level up at shrines.
When it comes to managing your attributes, along with your stamina and health, is a sanity bar. One of the biggest gripes I had about Morbid was not fully understanding some of these features. This opaqueness may have been intentional, but regardless figuring out some of the mechanics is something you must do on your own. Even after beating the game, I didn't fully understand how sanity worked. Your level of Sanity affects the damage you deal and take, the amount of XP you earn, and the amount of specters you face. For instance, having low Sanity allows you to gain more XP, become more damage resistant, and increase damage output. An adverse affect of low sanity is blurred vision, and upon slaying your foes, you'll have to kill them again when their specters arise from their bodies. While it isn't entirely crucial to know that going in, it would have helped me better understand the depth of strategy found within this system.
For weapons types, Morbid offers over 25 unique melee weapons that include swords, axes, maces, spears, heavy two-handers, and a few ranged weapons. In addition to your primary weapon, the pistols, shotguns, and rifles help out quite a bit. While limited with ammo at first, the further you trudge through the game, your weapon capacity increases. A unique aspect to every weapon was the ability to add runes to socketed weapons. Reminiscent of Diablo, certain weapons have empty slots where you can install special runes. Runes range from additional bleed damage, increased speed, poison or fire damage, and sanity drain. Equipping the runes made a noticeable difference in my combat with enemies, which felt rewarding. It's vital to act strategically when picking your weapon and runes and how they affect the surrounding enemies.
Lastly, you have the leveling system. Morbid is already difficult and choosing not to level up either on purpose or because you don't understand it will significantly hinder your progress. Leveling up can be done at shrines which appear periodically throughout your journey. They are also the spawning location if you die. Shrines let you meditate to refresh your health, fast travel, and read lore entries about enemies, weapons, and consumables. Upgrade options are powerful, and like runes, make a noticeable difference in your effectiveness. You'll have options to increase health or stamina, do more damage to elites, gain more experience, and improve other skills that will aide you in the trials ahead of you.
We loved the creative direction in Morbid, from the biased pixelated and dark story lovers like me to our other podcast reviewer, Jacob, who doesn't usually feel pulled to these genres. Between the art style, enrapturing score, and unforgettable writing, we found deep appreciation. We mention how often gamers can look at a game's pixelation and correlate the art style to a shallow experience on our podcast's complete breakdown. Our experience has been dramatically different in many of the indie pixels we've enjoyed, from Nine Witches: Family Disruptions comedic writing to Tales of the Neon Sea's deep fictional lore. Morbid's environment is dark and bleak as you traverse multiple geographies in an apocalyptic setting. From beaches to marshes to cities and swamps, each location provided consistent gloom with new intrigue.
The 18 track score accompanying you throughout your journey added to the setting. At Busch League, we've talked about the power music plays, often subconsciously, into the gaming experience when done correctly. Like Hades, Ghost of Tsushima, and Tetris Connected, Morbid is one we recommend playing with headphones.
For gamers who enjoy lore and backstory, we think you'll find the writing to be excellent. If you weren't impressed by Merge's description of the game in the opening, we will spoil part of an Acolyte's description from the Morbid Menagerie to change your mind. A word of caution to the reader, the following snippet from the game is beyond grotesque and may cause physical or emotional discomfort.
Jean Bibe was considered to have been given a tremendous gift at birth. He was born with 13 fully functional fingers. His father, the court composer of the house Grimwald, saw the opportunity to train his son to become the greatest harpsichordist of all time. Jean was brilliant, a true prodigy in fact, but his father's increasing demands for perfection gave him extreme anxiety. Jean would bite his fingers constantly to the point where his cuticles were bleeding and inflamed. By the age of 5, as Jean was being prepared for his first grand recital, some of his fingertips had already started turning black. His father, concerned only with his son's upcoming performance, refused to notice the incipient necrosis, and went on with the rehearsals as planned. When the night of the performance came, Jean was more nervous than ever, and chewed his fingers straight to the bone. As he stepped onto the stage, the audience gasped. His swollen purulent hands left a stream of blood and puss behind him. As jean started playing he painted the keys red with blood before passing out on he floor in front of the silent crowd.
The lore discusses Jean's father's disgust with his failure and inability to perform, thus opening the door for Jean to search for healing from the ancient god of Cul Gahar. We found the tale allegorical to some of the pressures put on kids, making the short character story resonate on a deeper level. The writers of Morbid skillfully take grounded personal experiences, like anxiety and grief, and elevate them in twisted ways through their setting and lore.
Overall we thoroughly enjoyed Morbid. As we discuss on our podcast, we felt this title wasn't for everyone, started extremely slow, and won't be enjoyable if you're not open to difficult souls-like gameplay. For fans of the genre though who appreciate any of the details written about above, we are positive you'll enjoy this experience. As one of Busch League, one of our first titles to debut our new 20 point rating scale, Morbid lands in the impressive bucket coming in at 7.5 out of 10.0.