When we talk about video games, the most common thing we hear is that a good video game is one that has good gameplay, or good controls, or good mechanics. As the resources for our ability to create these video games expand, the definition of what a video game is and what makes it good has suddenly been thrown into a gray area, with games such as Undertale or Life is Strange or any sort of visual novel, which highlights more on a narrative spectrum, become just as prevalent in the gaming world as those without. Perhaps this is just a bias of recent trends, as nostalgia and its pandering has typically been a part of human culture in some form no matter the subject, but lately I feel there has been a rise in games that cherish the simplicity of older generations of games and what they offered.
Enter Mortal Manor, a game I came across while browsing Steam for upcoming games to review. There was nothing particularly eye-catching about it, with the trailer displaying a simple-looking game of adventure and standard RPG elements. The design wasn't flashy and the trailer wasn't trying to induce me into a feeling of the grand sublime. It did what it had to do and that was that. I figured it wouldn't hurt to at least give it a shot. It seemed harmless. And it is now, after roughly twelve hours spent playing the game and more than a hundred deaths (probably), that I concede to how wrong I was to underestimate it.
Mortal Manor is available via Steam for your regional pricing.
Slightly paraphrased from the game's official synopsis, Mortal Manor has the player control an unnamed (and oddly non-striking) hero as they set out on a quest to investigate a fog that's polluting the world. The source of this fog lies within a giant manor that houses an army of mystical creatures who will kill on sight. The rest of what's to be presented is all done through triggered events that happen in-game, but there is no dialogue or exposition. Upon the world map, the game is as ambiguous as one would expect from a game made during the early days of video gaming.
Indeed, the story of Mortal Manor, like a number of other games I have looked at in the past, doesn't matter so much in the greater context of things. With no dialogue or any other characters of interest, one has to draw their own conclusions to the scenarios that occur upon defeating giant toads and genetically-modified human beings named Robert. That isn't to say all this is mindless, as there are traces of evidence that imply a number of situations that lead to this point of melancholy (not to mention multiple endings). It's a case of the developer encouraging the player to imagine a story for themselves to fill the void, something which I feel is only appropriate for the type of atmosphere Mortal Manor embodies. Like a fine antique, this title occupies all which older gamers should feel familiar with from their golden eras of gaming.
And so brings us to the most polarizing point of Mortal Manor: accessibility. This game is hard, especially in the very beginning. An hour into the game, I wasn't sure I would ever like it, as my frustration boiled over into more than a few "rage quits." One's character is almost pathetically weak to start out with, and with no handy gadgets to improve one's arsenal, the game can become very repetitive very quickly. To add on to that, save points are minimal and death erases all progress made since the last save; and, in my own words, if there were an award presented for the most annoying enemy in a video game, my choice would be every enemy in this game. Their patterns are simple, but aggravating, with it constantly bombarding the player with three or four enemies in a single screen. It took me (and will likely take many others) a valiant amount of effort to get past that initial hump of chagrin.
For the sake of my pride, I carried on despite the death toll and my growing irritation with the game's rules. Finally, my efforts paid off. The stronger your character becomes, the more fun the game allows. Things which were so burdensome at first are extinguished with the right assortment of weapons and learned behavior. Experimentation, exploration, curiosity, creativity. The more one tries, the more one grows, and Mortal Manor rewards those willing to perfect their craft by making the craft harder to perfect. A challenge constantly rising to bigger and higher scales to climb until one becomes so good at the game that they're exploiting the game's small leniency in their favor. There's the saying that the feeling of overcoming adversity is greater than the feeling of succumbing to it. In this case, I believe the feeling isn't greater until that adversity is being demolished under my steel focus as I blaze through the game without effort. Fortunately, that was a large part of the game for me.
Astonishingly enough, the game isn't very complex with its mechanics. Key items one collects throughout the game that improve gameplay and allow the player to progress further in the game are small, but effective upgrades that fling open the playbook for freedom of exploration. Things like double jumps, sliding, and grappling hooks don't seem all that exciting, but trust me when I say that it makes the game so much better. Innovation is well and great in video games, though as stated before, Mortal Manor is an ode to the games of yesteryear, where mastering the basics is key to a successful immersive experience. Not only does it do so beautifully, but it even adds hidden depth underneath that one wouldn't immediately think could be possible in those times. Type advantages, rolling damage, fast travel, assigning three different weapons to three different buttons, a bestiary of all things! As if the game couldn't get retro enough, it has a separate button for the inventory and pausing the game, so one is open in the line of fire even if the inventory is open. One last protip: the inventory menu has a help tab that explains various aspects of the game, which will be a beginner's best friend.
On the surface, the objective is to explore an area surrounding an evil manor by slaying monsters and uncovering the tools to access said manor. The game has an RPG-like system of experience points, HP, PP, a level-up system; the typical stuff. One gains experience by defeating monsters or breaking open breakable material in a room that drop green star-like objects. These materials can also drop hearts that restore health and blue jewel-like objects that restore PP. Once one gets enough experience, they level up and can then increase their stats, but there's a catch. One can only do a number of these stat-boosting activities at save points, which are designated crosses that glow upon contact. Contacting these save points (other than being like reservoirs in a desert) allow the player to increase their stats upon each level up, fast travel between other crosses, and attach relics found throughout that provide miscellaneous effects to the player's person. Oh, and they save your game and refill all your HP and PP. I haven't reached a level cap yet, so I can't say if there is one, but I plan to play this game far into the future, so just as I may discover more in the future, the sky is the limit for anyone on the fence.
Graphics and Sound
The pixel art and animation of Mortal Manor is pretty impressive when addressing the monsters to be slaughtered and the area to explore. The player, not so much. The unnamed hero looks rather ordinary, like one plucked them right out of their home during a day off from their 9-5 job. Walking animation is rather stiff, though that's about as much as the outright negatives achieve. They definitely could've shored up the design of the hero, though perhaps they thought it humorous to make a non-hero-looking hero. Otherwise, the world to explore, the enemies to combat, everything else looks about as good as '80s-intended pixel art could be circa 2018. Some occasional instances of the same enemy only with a different coat of color, but Mortal Manor does a magnificent job of differentiating the capabilities of these newer enemies, as well as adding some occasional winks to the audience. (The developer's company name is Dogless Head Games. There are both dogless heads and headless dogs running around in later areas.)
For all the praise I have extended, is there anything to truly condemn? That comes in the form of the soundtrack, which is memorable only for the sake of repetition than pleasure. Again, perhaps it is for the sake of making it as simple as a game for the early NES days, but even Castlevania, a game Mortal Manor took heavy inspiration from, had iconic tracks to its library. There are definitely a number of tracks I recall, though not many I would consider worthy of a listen outside the context of the game. Most of it is general beeps and boops that keep the game from being altogether silent, which, in passing, seems like an intriguing proposition. Yet the final product leaves a lot to be imagined; a better ambiance through score could've made this game a near-masterpiece.
Endurance and resolution produce results. Such a delicately-crafted work, that takes the simple pleasures of the Metroidvania genre and combines them with the brutality of old-day classics, can only come from someone who unabashedly loves to push past one's intended limitations. Strenuous, enraging, and spirit-smashing, Mortal Manor provides the ultimate feeling of triumph for lovers of challenge, which doesn't lie in the hands of chance, simply pure, polished gameplay skills. If this is what Dogless Head Games can produce for their debut presentation, I couldn't imagine what's possible with a full-blown team of experienced veterans. For the price it's set at, it's nearly criminal to ignore such a fantastic opportunity.
|+ Depth underneath the simplicity||– Occasionally as frustrating as enjoyable|
|+ Multiple means of combat improves replayability||– Soundtrack is below par|
|+ Exploration rewards exponentially|
|+ Structurally sound, enjoyably ruthless|