Third Person Action Adventure
Mortal Shell is a souls-like where you play some sort of weird spirit that can inhabit the bodies of fallen warriors. If you don’t know what souls-like means, I can say with a decent degree of certainty that you are not part of this game’s target audience. No judgment or anything, it’s just that some people are more about certain games than others, and that’s okay. If you do know what souls-like means though, you might have rolled your eyes when you read it. “Oh boy,” you may have thought, “another souls-like. Because that’s totally not an oversaturated genre.” In many ways, I would agree with you, dear reader, especially since so many games within the genre don’t seem to understand – and thus fail to properly deliver on – what made the original Demon’s/Dark Souls such a phenomenon. Many developers (and indeed many gamers) seeking to imitate the style of FromSoftware’s modern classics seem to think that their key defining features are their combat system and difficulty, which is simply not true and is why so many imitators end up being lackluster.
Mortal Shell doesn’t have this problem. Though it is not without its own problems, developer Cold Symmetry understood that a good souls-like is just as much about atmosphere and storytelling as it is about dying a lot and losing your experience/currency when you do. The world, characters, and lore of Mortal Shell are all understated but still cohesive once you start being able to parse them, as well as being fascinating before and after understanding really starts to happen. Exploring feels properly, deliciously lonely in the moments between fights, really nailing that feeling of desolation lovers of the original Dark Souls or Hollow Knight are familiar with. It helps too that the game looks good; one of my first thoughts on starting up the game for the first time and seeing the menu screen was “oh wow that’s actually kind of gorgeous.”
Which isn’t to say that the game’s presentation is always on point. One of my other earliest thoughts was “wow that’s a really stupid looking run cycle” because your character’s run cycle prior to picking up a weapon/inhabiting one of the game’s “shells” (the bodies I mentioned earlier that also serve as the closest thing the game has to a class system) does indeed look very silly. It got better very quickly, but there was still that moment where I was completely thrown. There’s also an issue I noticed with one of the first items you pick up, a lute you can play to taunt enemies and get them to come to you, where the animation for sitting down and playing it doesn’t seem to have the best spatial recognition with the ground. Other little things popped up here and there, largely during parries or special attacks from particularly nasty enemies, but never anything game-breaking.
Speaking of parrying, Mortal Shell manages to do some really cool and fresh stuff with its gameplay that helps to set it apart from the souls-like crowd. Instead of blocking you have an ability called “harden” where you turn your character to stone until the next time you get hit, thereby negating all damage from that hit and throwing your attacker off balance. Though it’s a bit stronger than blocking in other games in the genre the tradeoff is that there’s a short cooldown even if you deactivate your harden without getting hit, which makes the player have to think strategically about how they engage enemies and remember not to hit the button on panic. Even if harden is unavailable though, you can still parry many attacks, and if you have enough “resolve” (built up by striking enemies) you can even get health back from the follow-up attack. This struck me as a very cool way to do healing even if it’s not the only way, because it allows a skilled player to simply negate any damage they might have taken while also delivering a good chunk of damage themselves. That said, the timing on parries seems clunky and less intuitive than in other games, so it was harder to parry consistently than I felt it should have been.
I also feel like balancing is all over the place, particularly in the early game. Mortal Shell takes a unique approach to leveling, wherein rather than directly increasing your stats you can attain various passives depending on which shell you use. The downside to this is that there’s no way to increase your health or resistance to damage, meaning that if the shell and weapon you start off with don’t click for you as a playstyle, you could be stuck in the starting area for quite a while. You can of course upgrade your weapon, but again only if you manage to make it to one of the materials used to do so. Using items in the early game feels risky because of a “familiarity” mechanic which changes the effects of items (usually just to make them more potent) as you use them more… but also leads to not knowing what an item does until after you’ve used it once. This lead to me either poisoning myself or wasting a very powerful item on more than one occasion, and while I liked familiarity as a whole the mystery item aspect didn’t add anything to the experience.
On top of all that, you take a lot of damage from pretty much everything, which can lead to your health bar being absolutely demolished if you’re not super careful. It helps that every time you rest you are given a “last chance”, which means that the first time you die you just get ejected from your shell and have the opportunity to re-enter it at max health if you get there without being hit again. What doesn’t help is the way last chance can’t be reliably recharged except by way of the bonfire equivalent or a certain rare item that, again, doesn’t tell you what it does until you use it once, potentially wasting it if you don’t need the recharge. Worse still, many bosses and even some of the stronger enemies have powerful knockdown attacks that ragdoll your character and allow them to severely punish you before you’re even able to get up, so getting hit once by the wrong thing can be a death sentence. Another poor design choice is that the first “major” boss I fought had two stages, but rather than stage two occurring after a certain threshold of his health bar he just had two health bars, and so the fight did not end when I thought it would the first time I took that first bar down. If you’re going to give a boss multiple stages, fine, but don’t do it after the player feels like they’ve already won.
As a final criticism, making it so that you can’t pause in a souls-like is still just as dumb of a design choice now as it was in 2009. If I’m not playing online I should be able to put a game down without worrying about getting murdered while I’m in the bathroom.
Based on all the criticisms I just made of Mortal Shell, you might be thinking I don’t like it very much. While it’s true that I found it to be unnecessarily frustrating at times, I still enjoyed playing it to the point that when I had to take a break for a few hours the day I started I still thought about it a lot while I was doing other things. The combat is very fun and satisfying when it works, and as I mentioned previously the world is great for getting lost in for a while. For everything I think the devs could’ve paid more attention to, there’s something that it’s clear they paid very close attention to, and I honestly think even that is fairly impressive for a game made by fifteen people. While I wouldn’t blame anyone who decided to give Mortal Shell a pass, I also think they’d be missing out on something kind of special by doing so.
Once Mortal Shell gets going it really gets going, but for the opening few hours, it can be frustrating to try and get a handle on things.