Review – The Mortuary Assistant
It takes a special kind of person to work with dead bodies. Not only does it require you to not be squeamish, but it also demands a certain level of bravery. It can’t be easy to be all alone with the deceased for extended periods of time, wondering if they’re going to move at any given time. Thankfully they’re dead, so that shouldn’t ever be an issue, right? Well, in The Mortuary Assistant from DarkStone Digital, you can expect the unexpected.
In The Mortuary Assistant, you play as Rebecca Owens, a young woman who has taken up an apprenticeship at River Fields Mortuary. After spending years obtaining a degree in mortuary services, things were seeming pretty routine, until the night she receives a call from her employer asking for her to take over his shift at the mortuary. Rebecca agrees and hurries over to River Fields Mortuary, only to be locked in soon after arriving. She soon learns that it was her employer who has shut her inside, but he claims to have an important reason for doing so. Apparently, there is a demon hiding within one of the dead bodies and it has its sights set on Rebecca. Will she be able to complete her shift with her soul still intact?
The Mortuary Assistant has two distinctly different gameplay focuses: performing your duties as a mortician, as well as deducing the identity and location of the demon threatening Rebecca. The bulk of the gameplay is dedicated towards properly executing embalming tasks on the deceased. This might sound morbid and gruesome (and to an extent, it is), but it’s oddly satisfying.
There is set list of tasks that you’ll have to carry out in order to prepare each corpse for its final rest. These include noting any marks or blemishes on the body, sewing their mouths shut, fully draining the body, and replacing its liquids with embalming fluids. The gameplay loop of preparing the deceased for their funerals might seem a little bland on paper, but it’s surprisingly cathartic when you’re actually doing it in the game. Then, when you’ve finished all the duties on your list, it’s time to take them back to cold storage. That is unless the demon decides it’s not done with you yet.
This is where the second aspect of the gameplay comes in: demon hunting. Now this doesn’t mean Rebecca is going to become the next Constantine. The demon hunting in The Mortuary Assistant is approached in a more puzzle-solving manner. While performing her embalming chores, Rebecca will make note of any marks or oddities on the patient’s body. As she undergoes the embalming process for each cadaver, she might notice peculiarities or inconsistencies: marks that weren’t there previously, twitching, or full-body contortions. If the latter seems more extreme than you were expecting, then brace yourself; the demon has far more nefarious tricks up its sleeve.
Periodically throughout her shift, Rebecca will have to search for sigils, which are signs used to identify the name of the demon you’re dealing with. She can uncover them by lighting a Lettering Strip and walking around the mortuary. If a sigil is nearby, the Lettering Strip will ignite and then burn away when she’s right next to it. After collecting a few sigils, she can check in her computer database to compare the symbols and discover the name of the demon harassing her. After that, she can make a special stone marker from the specific sigils, place it on the body she suspects is possessed, which will bind the demon to that body, and then burn that body in the incinerator. Doing so correctly will banish the demon and save your soul.
Part of what makes The Mortuary Assistant work so well is the balance between its two gameplay focuses. The seemingly mundane tasks of preparing the dead for their final rest is incredibly satisfying. It lulls you into a false sense of security with its repetitive nature. There’s a certain satisfaction in memorizing where the items are so you can complete each embalming in less time than before. There’s even an achievement for completing a shift in less than forty-five minutes, which I found myself actively striving for… before the demon had other plans.
Throughout each shift in The Mortuary Assistant, a demon will mess with you in a number of ways. Sometimes they’ll make the body you’re working on twitch, sometimes they’ll make them grin (when they certainly weren’t doing so when you started), and sometimes they’ll make them contort and point the way to new horrors. Occasionally, you’ll turn to the body to begin your next embalming process and it simply won’t be there anymore. This is when you know things are about to get intense.
One of the best aspects of The Mortuary Assistant is how it handles its scares. While it does make use of jumpscares, it doesn’t throw a nonstop barrage of them at you, unlike games such as Outlast 2, Layers of Fear, and Maid of Sker. Instead, it mainly relies creating an incredibly tense atmosphere with often very subtle scares in the background. For example, sometimes you’ll hear a door open or close in another room. Sometimes one of the lights will go out and you’ll see eyes staring at you from a corner. There have even been a few times when it took me a while to notice something was glaring at me from the other side of a window. It makes me wonder just how many things I missed while I was so focused on completing my mortuary tasks.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any jumpscares in The Mortuary Assistant, they’re just few and far between. However, that’s what makes them so effective. Each one is truly earned. I’ve played many horror titles over the years, but very few have been able to successfully scare me or creep me out quite like The Mortuary Assistant. Yes, you’ll constantly have to check your surroundings while performing your job, but this is no Five Nights at Freddy’s. Instead of having a demon lunging at your face every few seconds, it’ll more often than not tamper with things within the mortuary and the bodies in your care. But when it does decide to show up and attack you, it’s truly jarring.
Another important facet of the gameplay is time. In addition to having the demon try to mess with you, there’s also a chance of it possessing you completely. This will happen if you either fail to recognize which body is harboring the demon before time runs out, or if you burn the wrong body. Naturally, getting possessed by the demon results in a “game over” of sorts. Thankfully, each shift is relatively short, usually taking about forty-five minutes to an hour to complete, so if you don’t successfully complete your shift, it’s easy to hop back in and start a new one.
As far as the visuals go, The Mortuary Assistant is more often than not a surprisingly good looking game (for a game revolving around the deceased, that is). This is even more impressive when you consider the fact that it was developed by only one person, Brian Clarke. The cadaver models are well detailed, even if there aren’t that many of them. Oddly though, the cutscenes tend to not look nearly as good as the in-game models, but there aren’t very many of them in the game. All things considered, the graphics are far better than one might expect from a solo developer with a limited budget.
The sound design on the other hand, is outstanding. The voice acting is well done, but that’s not what steals the show. It’s the sound effects that really shine. As I’ve already said, much of the scares in The Mortuary Assistant come from its tense atmosphere and subtle creeps. The sound design is pivotal in making these kind of tricks successful. From the sounds of doors opening and closing, to footsteps running down the hall, to the taunting whispers in your ear as you work, they all work together to fully immerse you in the experience. I highly recommend playing with headphones if you can.
One thing I really do feel is really important to mention is that at the time of writing this, The Mortuary Assistant suffers from a ton of bugs. This isn’t terribly surprising considering it comes from a solo developer, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. I had to restart my shift several times due to various issues, such as getting stuck outside of the map behind an invisible wall, falling through the floor, or being unable to interact with certain key items. Thankfully, restarting usually fixed whatever issue I was having and since the shifts themselves aren’t terribly long, these were more of an annoyance than anything. I also have to commend Brian Clarke for being so great at communicating with his audience and frequently providing patches to fix the issues.
The Mortuary Assistant is truly something special. I haven’t been captivated by a horror game like this in a long time. It has such creative and unique ideas that make it stand out from the countless other games in the genre. This game just proves what I’ve been saying for years, that you don’t need a massive budget and nonstop jumpscares in order to make an effective horror game. The Mortuary Assistant succeeds where so many others have failed because of its use of subtly and cleverly subverting your expectations. Even though the shifts might be short, there are multiple endings, several of which require multiple playthroughs to unlock, so there is a ton of replayablility here. On top of that, the scares are randomized, so you’ll never get the same experience twice. Despite its flaws, I cannot recommend The Mortuary Assistant enough.
The environments and most of the character models are surprisingly detailed. Oddly, the cutscenes don’t look nearly as good as the in-game models.
The tasks you perform to prepare the cadavers are fun to perform, although they can feel repetitive after playing through several shifts. Turning the gurney is awkward and cumbersome. Tons of bugs hinder the gameplay quite a bit.
The sound design is outstanding and I highly recommend playing it with headphones on for better immersion. My only complaint is just how loud the embalming machine is compared to the rest of the sounds in the game.
Fun Factor: 8.0
An incredibly creative and unique horror experience. Many of the scares are effective thanks to relying on more subtle tricks and not simply inundating you with a barrage of jumpscares. The numerous bugs are the only thing holding it back from true greatness.
Final Verdict: 7.0
The Mortuary Assistant is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC with an i7-9700k, RTX 2070, and 16gb RAM.
A copy of The Mortuary Assistant was provided by the publisher.