Is it October already? Because that is the time when we are supposed to start reviewing scary games. So, I guess developer DarkStone Digital (which is amazingly comprised of a single programmer) jumped the gun by putting out The Mortuary Assistant on Steam a bit early. But despite getting a jump on the Halloween season, this has got to be one of the creepiest games ever made. It does a wonderful job of blending different kinds of horror into an interesting title that you may end up loving and loathing at the same time.
As you probably guessed from the name, The Mortuary Assistant involves the player taking on a new job as a mortuary assistant in a small, rural mortuary. It’s a tiny facility called River Fields Mortuary, and it’s not attached to a funeral home or any government facility. It apparently functions in order to clean up newly deceased bodies, embalm them and get them ready for someone to pick up for a funeral. Maybe that is how they do it in some small towns?
In any case, you play a young woman who has just completed her degree in mortuary sciences. The game begins with the player talking with their grandmother and explaining how your first job will be at River Fields. Your grandmother does not like that idea very much as there are rumors of strange happenings tied to that facility. But you assure her that things are safe and head off to your first shift.
Your first day on the job takes place in the middle of the day where you will work to embalm a body under the supervision of your boss, who apparently owns the facility. Now, you would think that a level that takes place in the middle of the day would be fairly mundane, and yes, there are no creepy monsters or jump scares. In fact, it’s mostly designed to act as a tutorial for how to handle the bodies in the game. But here’s the thing, unless you actually work in a mortuary, the things that you are asked to do to the bodies is shocking and more than a little bit grotesque. So even though there are no traditional horror elements on display yet, your character’s new job’s tasks are probably a pretty horrific experience for most players.
You will be asked to pound threads into the corpse’s gums to act as anchor points for sewing up their mouth. And you slice open up their carotid artery with a scalpel, pin the dead skin back with forceps, attach surgical tubing and pump their body full of embalming fluid, letting the rancid blood drain out in a red waterfall at the bottom of the table. We had one GiN reviewer come into the testing room while I was reviewing that part of the game and almost retch. And that was just the normal part of the job, which I assume is probably pretty close to reality.
I think that is a key to the horror of The Mortuary Assistant. Before the real horror even begins, players are put on edge by some of the normal job-related tasks that they must perform. Yes, the main character may have studied for her job and is probably used to working with dead bodies, but most players probably don’t share that experience. So, you are already highly on edge about the situation. And that just multiplies once you experience the horror elements. It does not take much to knock you over if your psyche is already on edge.
Of course, the actual horror elements do eventually begin. Even during the tutorial, if you keep your eyes open, you may notice some strange things in the background, or some subtle clues that something is very wrong at River Fields. So, when you get a midnight call from your boss telling you that there are three bodies that need embalmed, and that he is too sick to come in and do it himself, your spidey senses are probably tingling to the point that they are on fire. That was my experience, much more so than I experienced with any other recent horror titles. For example, I had a great time with another spooky game I reviewed, I’m on Observation Duty 5, but there I was safely behind a camera, so the horror was a level removed. The Mortuary Assistant, by contrast, is very hands on, especially with its first-person interface.
When you head back to the mortuary that night, you learn that River Fields has a pretty big problem. Demons are possessing the dead bodies, and for some reason, one of them has locked onto you. As you work, the demon will slowly try to move from the dead body and possess you instead. Apparently, the demon can do this no matter where you are, so running away won’t help at this point. Your only chance is to solve a who-done-it kind of mystery. You need to figure out which of the three bodies is possessed, embalm it, add a special marking symbol with the demon’s true name, and then burn it in the crematorium. If you get any of those steps wrong, or burn the wrong body, then your life will end, or the demon will take your soul. No pressure.
The one thing going for you is that your boss has been fighting these demons for quite some time. He has amassed a lot of information about them which he stores on the office computer. You will want to read that, especially the part about the known demon names, which you get to by clicking on the demons houses links (and which is not very clear in the instructions). And he has a special demon fighting wooden case with tools that will help you uncover the true name of the specific fiend at the mortuary so that it can be safely marked and destroyed. All you need to do is get those bodies out of cold storage and start your investigation.
Of course, it’s not that easy. The demon does not want you to discover which body it’s hiding in before it can possess you, so it will do everything in its power to trick and scare you into making mistakes. Because of that, you have to embalm the bodies while it turns off the lights, jumps out at you from behind closed doors and does other creepy things to try and scare and unnerve you. And because you are probably already on edge from working with dead bodies in the middle of the night, it’s pretty terrifying at times. And yes, the demon can sometimes manipulate the bodies you are working with too. So, try not to freak out when the corpse tries to rise from the table or screams while you are cutting into it. The demon can even sometimes pull you into one of several hauntings, which are a sort of alternate reality where anything goes, and which you will need to escape to get back to the mortuary in order to continue your work.
The actual mystery of which body is possessed is difficult to verify, especially since the demon can manipulate all three bodies, not just the possessed one. But there are some subtle clues that can help to give it away, as well as a hidden method involving a match (there is only one in the game) and a bag of ashes from the crematorium that can help you to eliminate one of the wrong bodies. Even if you determine which body is possessed, you still need to find the demon’s name. You do this by walking around with a magical paper (found in the wooden cabinet), and when you get near a symbol, the paper bursts into flames. That forces the symbol to manifest, but you still need to find it. It might be inside a drawer, under furniture or otherwise hidden, although more often than not it’s mostly out in the open. Collect four symbols and check the demon database to see what you are dealing with.
At some point, you will either burn the correct body with the right name anchored to it, pick the wrong one, or simply run out of time. At that point your shift will end, and you will either be dead, possessed, or alive and well. In any case, you can then choose to go on a new shift, which is basically playing the game again. You get new bodies, a new demon and a new night of spooky thrills. The game keeps track of your wins and losses so you can see how well you are improving as a mortician/demon hunter over many playthroughs.
For a game with a single developer, The Mortuary Assistant is of surprisingly high quality and hidden depth. For example, on one run I discovered a hidden key-holding device inside a cabinet, which was secured with a keypad. I discovered the six-digit combination to the lock in two separate hauntings I was forced to endure, putting the code snippets together even though the game did not specifically tell me to do so. That unlocked the mortuary basement, while another heavy key I found unlocked an even stranger door down there. It was super creepy, but as far as I can tell, was completely optional and only served to flesh out the plot a bit. There may even be more secrets that I didn’t uncover, so look around if you think you have the time.
If you are able to get through The Mortuary Assistant without getting scared out of your mind, then you are brave indeed. Personally, I am glad I played this title. It was quite an experience, although I have little desire to go back and encounter that level of horror again anytime soon. If you are into horror gaming, then do yourself a favor and go play The Mortuary Assistant right now, because it’s far scarier than most horror titles currently available. And if you do dare to take that step inside the dark horrific world of The Mortuary Assistant, on the bright side you’ll only have your life, sanity and soul to risk.