I would not blame you for being unfamiliar with the topic of today’s post. Unfortunately, Dogless Head Games isn’t exactly a household name, even from an indie perspective. Probably doesn’t help that they have a tendency to disappear from the face of the planet until a game comes out. Nevertheless, Mortal Island (0.5) is the latest project from a developer whose games I have some history with.
Brief Personal History
About four years ago, when I was a fresh writer for KeenGamer, I stumbled upon a game called Mortal Manor completely out of the blue. While not blown away by its presentation, something about the simplicity of its gameplay style beckoned to me. Thus, on a whim, I decided to play it for review—it became one of my favorite indie games in the last several years. (I really need to replay it.)
Given I have shilled for the game many times before on this blog, I will not continue here. Just know that since then, Dogless Head Games has constantly been on my radar. So imagine my surprise when after nearly three years of silence on Twitter, the official developer account announced, “Hey! We got a game coming out in a few weeks!” What a lovely surprise.
Brief Game Synopsis
“Explore a dark island using platforming and various upgrades you get along the way. Intended as a short (1-2 hour long) game used as practice for a future commercial project.” –itch.io
To preface this review, I want to highlight a specific part of the synopsis above. “Intended as a. . . game used as practice. . .” Now, one can look at this and immediately write it off as some useless demo that’s not worth playing. And at only 1-2 hours long, it won’t keep you for longer than a standard-length film would. Yet from my perspective, this provides ample opportunity to discuss this “outline” of a potential future title and how it may shape up into a fully-fledged adventure.
Glad we got that covered. Anyway, the game’s kind of rough.
Booting it up from the beginning, there isn’t a whole lot of complexity to the UI or visuals. It would not surprise me whatsoever if newcomers assumed this Dogless Head’s first game ever. (It’s technically their first 3D game, but I digress.) How it handles mechanically, down to the finer details of visuals and audible quality, this is definitely as “tech demo” as one can get.
This sort of staggering early impression extends to the first minutes of the gameplay. Your player, a sprite-based 2D model in an environment of 3D textures, is super fast and rather slippery. Mortal Island necessitates a lot of skill and precision in platforming, which occasionally clashes with the unruly movement. I fear that one may begin playing and immediately be overwhelmed by a lack of motivation and struggles with getting around properly.
By the way, you need to get an item in order to even jump. It’s the first item you get, yeah, but it’s sort of like the Long Beam in Metroid/Metroid: Zero Mission. To collect such a menial item so early on—especially when it could have been a starting thing, anyway—seems odd.
Much like Mortal Manor, however, the more I played through Mortal Island, the more these suspiciously underpolished aspects began to blur in the mind. Eventually, they felt more like a challenging rigidness rather than careless ineptitude. A sort of “classic” appeal that required more from the player than games nowadays. Not a lot is spelled out to you, and the gamer boomer I am really enjoys that.
In time, I fell into this sort of “groove” that occurs when I’ve become deeply absorbed in something I really enjoy. The same type of “groove” that their prior work put me in for long stretches of time. Despite the comparatively lesser details in visuals, audio, and cohesive story, the gameplay aspects are, though simplistic, intensely gratifying. You just need to get used to how things are, which may take a little time.
Still, while I liked being able to piece together vague bits of information, less experienced players may struggle to find where or how to progress in given situations. Upgrades are littered throughout the map, whether at the end of platform challenges or boss fights. Each of these upgrades are a means of powering up the player and a clue as to how to expand more of the map. Some of these things are occasionally difficult to decipher.
For example, at a certain point, parts of an area are blocked off by stone pillars that only move upon specific conditions being met. Sometimes you need to flip a switch—this is easy enough to understand. But then there are times where you need to defeat certain enemies—which enemies? The ones that sparkle. I only discovered this on accident when I noticed one baddie was exuding some weird sparkly energy to them. Upon defeat, a message stated “A door has opened somewhere…”
The nature of Mortal Island is similar to that of Mortal Manor (3D spiritual successor?). Search-action adventure with heavy emphasis on platforming. Being able to visually identify the requirements necessary is not always intuitive; most players, I assume, will simply run around the map repeatedly for empty spaces in order to find where to progress. An item later on in the adventure, that allows the player to reflect projectiles, is something I also learned how to do only via experimentation. (It’s kind of finicky in use, too.)
For those lovers of narratives in video games, there is absolutely nothing here. When you start the game, it starts immediately. No cutscenes, no dialogue, barely any text to speak of. You’re simply plopped into the environment and you’re on your own. Very old-school-game-like. While this isn’t necessarily a terrible negative for what’s essentially a practice game for the future, it thus places a lot of pressure on the gameplay to succeed in winning players over.
I won’t give this any formal rating due to its “practice” model. What I will conclude is that it has a lot of the same spirit as a game they’ve done in the past that I like quite a bit. Though its appeal, also like said game they’ve done in the past, is somewhat limited in the perhaps archaic execution of gameplay mechanics. Ye olden days of games, where information was limited and gameplay reigned, is the perfect place for Mortal Island to reside.
An overall enjoyable, if not fairly rigid, experience that has me looking forward to what more polish will do for it. Can’t say, at least in its current state, that it will find lasting appeal in general gaming audiences.
Mortal Island is available to download for free on itch.io. (The link is above after the game synopsis.)
For more reviews on this topic, be sure to check out the associated archive.
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Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.