Morphite is a game which harkens back to a classic era. Not, as I suspected when the game was described online as a classic shooter, to Doom and Quake. Not even, really, to the old arcade and computer space games whose vector graphics it alludes to. Morphite feels like a successor to classic science fiction cinema from the 70s.
The gorgeous and atmospheric soundtrack is made up of synths and electronica, swelling here and tensing there. The ponderous, slow exploration and the story which delights in bizarre aliens and a mysterious galaxy all reinforce this feeling.
This is the story of a young woman called Myrah, who makes her meagre living scanning alien life forms. The universe feels much bigger than her, and the mystery around the ancient substance called morphite, powerful but long-lost, is teased and uncovered with a delicious archaeological pace. This isn’t an action packed adventure with a brazen space marine but an intriguing float through a large, cold and unknowable cosmos.
Primarily, the game is spent exploring alien planets. Each one is only really a small level, but the colour palette and unusual landscapes, fauna and flora work well to really maintain an illusion of exploration.
The game cleverly starts you off with life forms much like everyday animals, albeit drawn from geometric shapes and maybe given a fin here or horn there to make them more unusual. The longer spent in the great unknown, the weirder the life encountered. After aliens which look like squirrels, lizards and deer, landing on a world with bizarre hopping creatures and floating eyeballs really feels like landing in some alien, unexplored place. Summitting a hill and seeing an enormous rock monster, ten times the size of anything you’ve seen before, makes it feel dangerous as well.
The game draws obvious parallels to No Man’s Sky, but Morphite rarely feels like the result of an algorithm. This is a crafted universe with characters, stories, and what feels like a deep lore always bubbling just below the surface.
The most obvious inspiration is actually Metroid Prime. The locking-on combat, the scanning mechanics, the platforming and the gear-gating are all present and correct. Interestingly, this game does a much better job of marrying Metroid’s signature feeling of isolation and exploration with a galaxy-spanning adventure than Metroid Prime 3 ever did.
Travelling from star system to star system, stopping at space stations to refuel or trade, is still a very solitary experience. Landing in civilised areas and walking around, they only seem imposing and alien. When other sentient creatures show up on planets, the impression is of malevolence and fear.
Mechanically, Morphite obviously isn’t as tight as a Nintendo classic but it doesn’t try to be. Combat situations are never quick-paced and complex, instead relying on a cautious approach to alien life. The momentum isn’t maintained by a single cohesive world to explore, but by story scenes and a desire to see more.
Early on, scanning creatures felt awkward and cumbersome. Trying to scan a monster that wanted to kill me felt less frustrating than catching a little lizard skittering around the floor, as at least it lumbered towards me and stayed in my sights. I quickly discovered that I could upgrade my scanner, and indeed my weapons, armour and space ship. Materials mined and discovered on planets can be used in a surprisingly in depth crafting system, yet all of this can easily be ignored if one chooses to go straight for the story objectives.
Between planets, stellar navigation is mostly handled on a map screen. Planets are selected and then Myrah drops from her ship in a pod. Sometimes, though, other scenarios can randomly pop up. Moral choices, space dogfights and Starfox-esque meteor dodging pepper the galaxy, helping the galaxy feel less like a glorified level select.
Morphite wears its indie origins on its sleeve. The visuals are stylistic and attractive, but simple. The level design rarely gets more involved than fetching things and killing bosses. Nonetheless, this is a game that can stand proud on the Switch with its impressive lineup. At first it might seem like the perfect game for short handheld sessions, exploring little planets on lunch breaks. Instead, I recommend switching off the lights, playing on the big TV and letting yourself get lost in a properly alien universe.