Sad horror? Misery?
If you’re like me, you enjoy your horror best when it’s sad. Video games can’t really scare me anymore, but gosh, they sure can get me depressed. Not that it’s difficult. A happy memory can depress me.
Anyway, a portion of Mortal Meal was featured on the Haunted PS1 Demo Disc: Spectral Mall compilation that was released back in 2022. The Haunted PS1 Demo Disc is sort of a nexus for experimental, lo-fi horror, and somehow I’m not on their mailing list. Thankfully, it usually passes my radar eventually.
Mortal Meal is perhaps a direct take on the genre, being largely a walking simulator. It’s also not terribly scary, but then, how would I know? It’s more focused on telling a melancholic narrative while weaving in a bit of levity and some fantastic horror imagery.
Sounds gay. I’m in.
You’re dead. A good boy is running around with your disembodied heart, and your ghost rises from that. A big part of Mortal Meal is figuring out who you were and why you’re dead. To do so, you start off by following the trail of blood back to your corpse.
I’m not really sure how much to give away in terms of the plot. The headline provided to me was a “gay romance story wrapped up in a horror game,” so I can at least say that. Which is nice. Gay romance is rarely approached in the same way as, say, lesbian romance, so it’s nice to see the orientation approached in the way of Mortal Meal. The gay part isn’t as central as the romance. It’s just romance with two dudes, is what I’m saying.
Where Mortal Meal succeeds best is presenting a mystery. Much of the game is figuring out first who you are, who this other guy is, and what all this has to do with your death.
Reuse of Assets
Mortal Meal makes great use of its lo-fi aesthetic. The world frequently shifts into a more surreal, nightmarish version of itself. Not only does this add some light gameplay that moves a bit outside the walking simulator framework, but it shows off some great – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – reuse of assets. Look, the asset pipeline is usually a bottleneck for indie games, and seeing one that can make cool-looking levels by reusing existing assets in interesting ways; it’s kind of exciting to me for some reason. It feels like the soul of small development. You always hear stories about how, like, the deku stick texture in Ocarina of Time is Link’s hair texture stretched out, and that’s just neat.
But the nightmarish transformations the world takes are also pretty cool. One part that stuck out to me was the full moon turning into an eyeball that glances around. Spooky. You’re also frequently pursued by a monster that eats ghosts. It has this patchwork texture over a skeleton on it, and that’s lo-fi gold right there.
Mortal Meal does stumble a bit with the pacing. The mystery gets solved quite a ways before the end, and the rest is a little flat. You’re given three objectives to get through at the end, and one of them is breaking into a grocery store. It gives you a series of five puzzles – about three puzzles too many – and then the spirit attacks you. Then the next two objectives are mainly accomplished by going and getting something.
It does, however, have a moment where you cook soup, and I’m not kidding when I say that’s fantastic.
Another unfortunate downside to Mortal Meal is that it’s $14. That’s not a huge number, but the game clocks in at about an hour long. There are other comparable lo-fi horror games that are longer and cost around the same amount. Maybe a few dollars isn’t worth getting upset about, but it’s worth noting.
On the other hand, Mortal Meal has weird additional replay value through unlockable modifiers that are speckled throughout the world. Again, worth keeping in mind.
Cost aside, however, Mortal Meal is a worthwhile little experience. It’s most successful when it comes to aesthetics, but its narrative and gameplay are perfectly serviceable. I think Goblin Council is a developer that could benefit from a budget because even with this relatively small production, they’ve shown off considerable chops.