Release date: August 2, 2022
Developer: DarkStone Digital
Genres: Horror, simulation, light puzzle elements
Modes: Single player
Categories: Horrifying and Terrifying, Morbid and Disturbing, Death, The Occult, Dark Creatures, (Ill-)Fated Quest
Content warning: “This game contains disturbing imagery, drug references, moments of self-harm, and strong language” .
Spoiler warning: This review discusses specific jump scares as well as character backstory and plot points that are not revealed at the start of the game.
The Mortuary Assistant fuses three fundamental horror subgenres (paranormal, psychological, and body horror) into straightforward, spine-chilling gameplay backed by a storyline that’s probably more substantive than you’re giving it credit for.
You play as Rebecca Owens, a new entrant to the funeral industry serving as an apprentice at River Fields Mortuary. When her boss unexpectedly asks her to cover a night shift, Rebecca finds herself in an outlandishly terrifying situation—there is a demon occupying one of the cadavers, and Rebecca is now trapped in the mortuary with it. Unless she can promptly identify the demon’s name, discern which body it’s bound to, and banish it, Rebecca (or her soul, at least) won’t survive to see the next morning.
Ironically, the best way to complete this critical mission is by “treat[ing] it like a normal day”  and carrying out the apprentice’s regular tasks—inspecting each body for identifying markings, logging the information in the mortuary’s record system, making routine cosmetic adjustments (wiring jaws shut, inserting eye caps to keep eyelids closed, etc.), and performing the embalming process. Naturally, this shift entails a few departures from Rebecca’s usual job description, such as adding “baleful reagent” to the embalming fluid to evoke signs of demonic tenancy, scrutinizing the mortuary for sigils that spell the demon’s name using incendiary “letting parchment,” and assembling these sigils in the correct configuration using a “mark,” a circular tablet that can be placed on the proper body to bind the demon to it. If you manage to follow these steps correctly before Rebecca loses her sanity, burning the corpse will then banish the demon.
Of course, you can’t expect a demon to wait quietly while you attempt to expose its hiding place and send it back to Hell, especially in a setting that lends itself to haunting as perfectly as River Fields Mortuary (at night, no less). The game has an abundance of effective frights to confront you with—mundane noises like footsteps and closing cabinets that are startling under the current circumstances, shadowy figures stalking you from around corners, twisted visions incorporating trauma from Rebecca’s past, and more. The occasionally animated corpses are contenders for The Mortuary Assistant’s most unsettling scares (especially when they raise a hand to gesture at something even more nightmarish than themselves), but there’s nothing quite like the devastating simplicity of a light suddenly switching off—not knowing what might be waiting for you in the dark is perhaps the most formidable fear of all. Smartly, The Mortuary Assistant does not bombard you with all the terrors in its arsenal—it allows an uncomfortable amount of breathing room, enough to either cultivate an atmosphere of tension and dread or lull you into a false sense of security depending on your disposition. It takes several playthroughs to experience all the fright this game has to offer, and no two shifts present an identical sequence of paranormal events.
Rebecca’s agenda may feel overwhelming at first, even during the tutorial phase that takes place during the day and is (mostly) free of jump scares. Until you have a strong grasp on the function of essential items and the correct order in which to use them, the clipboard is your most valuable tool—although its initial purpose is recording the identifying marks found on each body, accessing it at any subsequent point also displays a checklist of the embalming process that is automatically filled out as you proceed. Overall, the game’s mechanics are quite simple, and after blundering your way through a shift or two, you’ll likely find yourself breezing through bodies like a top-tier mortician. Maneuvering the gurney is always slightly cumbersome, but it’s nothing you can’t overcome with a bit of vigorous mouse handling. (If the dead object to taking an erratic spin around cold storage, they haven’t mentioned this yet.)
Rebecca is written as a recovering drug addict, a characterization choice that feels very purposeful. Not only does this backstory elevate her out of one-dimensional “final girl” territory and provide a wellspring of suffering for demons to draw from in their assault on her psyche, it also allows the player to view the game through another lens: as a loose allegory for her sobriety. There are parallels to make (e.g. Rebecca’s self-destructive use of intravenous drugs versus the restorative/preservative functions of chemical substances and needles at the mortuary), more concrete links to find (e.g. sobriety coins serving as keys to what is arguably the game’s best possible ending), and a paradoxical sense of normalcy that eventually accompanies dealing with demons—both inner and “outer”—on a daily basis. After you’ve completed multiple shifts, Raymond, River Fields’ mortician and Rebecca’s mentor (or sponsor, if you’re willing to extend the metaphor that far), remarks that “… this is the life we get. We have to face our worst selves constantly” , which is a line that applies equally well to combating addiction as it does to banishing otherworldly evil.
The Mortuary Assistant is a worthy addition to any horror fan’s collection, and its success is all the more impressive when considering its single-developer origins. The way the game intersects the clinical and the occult spheres is a fresh, astute take on the classic demonic possession narrative, and its particular brand of terror ensures that you’re in for some fright (and fun) during every shift.
Note: Some of these screenshots contain decorations (wall decals, jack-o’-lanterns, etc.) that are part of the 2022 Halloween update and not present in the regular version of the game.
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