It took a couple of years, but we are now entirely in a post-Dark Souls era with developers left and right trying to pick up on some or several of the aspects which made FromSoftware’s games so great. The latest entry in this new genre of action RPGs is Mortal Shell, which, ironically, is all about wearing the shell of others.
While it falters in some places, Mortal Shell is probably the only Souls-like out there that somewhat manages to capture the feel and style of the games that serve as its inspiration, especially when it comes to the world and the look of the game itself.
Mortal Shell wastes no time in establishing that tone as your fleshy, skinless avatar rises from reflective waters surrounded by mist and ruins. From there, you get swallowed by a gigantic fish-monster, crawl through an endless tunnel to a sodden bog, and possess your first body. Within the first 15 minutes, you see exactly what they are going for and where it diverges from the FromSoftware formula.
There is no character creation in Mortal Shell, and I might even go so far as to say there is hardly any character development either. Instead, you are to collect and possess the bodies of four different warriors who coincidentally vaguely correspond to character builds. You start with a balanced Shell, and then it is up to you to find the nimble rogue, the heavy tank, and the closest to a spellcaster Mortal Shell has to offer.
It’s an interesting idea and makes for some compelling lore hooks to string you along; you want to find out what this fleshy ghoul who possesses dead bodies is all about. It also effectively gives you a second life, Sekiro style, once you bite the dust. Once your health reaches zero, your ghoulish self flies out of the body, giving you a chance of recovering it and regaining full health. You have to act quickly, though, as the ghoul form is quite fragile.
Likewise, the world itself seems very compelling as you first set out, and I have to say, It’s the first Souls-like I have played which captures the mystique and charm of those games. It doesn’t explain much and yet leaves just enough for you to be hungry and looking for more. You want to find out what’s up with the dark prisoner in the tower or why the merchant seems like something that washed up on the shores off Innsmouth. The world itself has that damp, run-down feel that FromSoftware is so good at creating that you can almost smell the mildew.
Sadly, as fascinating as the world and especially the Shell mechanic is at first, you soon start to see where it breaks down. Not having a character creation forces you to play Mortal Shell the way the developers wanted. If you are used to playing nimble characters who rely on dodging, you’re out of luck until you find that shell. Likewise, if being a heavy-hitting tank is your thing, you have to wait until you collect that character. Making matters worse is that there’s minimal character progression in the game: you use the XP to learn new passive buffs and, for some frames, limited stat increases. There’s no way to improve the health of your rogue or the stamina of your tank in Mortal Shell.
Additionally, there is no loot in the game besides a signature weapon for each of the shells. No armor, no trinkets or anything equipable like that. By the halfway point, you’ll find yourself without much to spend the XP on, which makes the combat almost entirely superfluous. Other games have managed fine without loot, though, but then you need something compelling to replace it with. In Sekiro’s case, it’s best in class combat and a flexible prosthetic system. Mortal Shell lacks this extra layer, which really impacts the gameplay. The game doesn’t escalate, and you don’t need to master anything new after the first few hours.
That’s not to say that Mortal Shell is without neat combat ideas. Hardening, for instance, is a cool thing to work into your combos. At any time, you can hold down the left trigger to become a stone statue, impervious to any damage for a single hit. This is like having a shield on cooldown, but the cool thing about it is when it’s worked into combos. While attacking, you can pop the harden mid-swing, recover stamina, and once you are hit, the attack is carried out. Using hardening in this way makes it possible to string longer combos together and still have time to dodge away from counter-attacks. It’s a reasonably fluid and fresh combat concept, but there’s sadly not much more to it, and once you master it, there isn’t much else to do. You’ll use the same attack patterns and combos you learn by hour three as you do in hour twenty.
The world design also starts to show cracks the further into it you go, and it probably comes down to budgeting in the end. Mortal Shell tries to show us a big strange world full of mysteries and wonders to discover, but only manages to populate it with a handful of different enemies and NPCs. Many of the same types of enemies and even bosses are reused a little too much, which makes the combat difficulty plateau even more after you’re halfway through. It also highlights a thing I feel is key to the FromSoftware formula of games: an open world that interconnects in exciting ways.
In both Lordran and Yarnham, you discover more and more of the places’ history as you delve deeper into them. Not only through exposition and dialogue but by the world itself, you see how older, deeper, sites connect with the newer, more topside areas. The fact that you can see how the world interconnects and influences each area is a massive part of how those games do world-building. At the beginning of Mortal Shell, I had the exact same feeling; I felt very compelled to explore the bog and see what old ruins might lie within. It wholly evaporated by the time I hit my first load screen to go to one of the three temples which constitute your primary goal. For as impressive as some of those areas were, the world’s coherence was lost entirely.
Mortal Shell is not a full-priced game, and as such, it probably just wasn’t able to fully flesh out and build the world they hint at in the early hours of the game. It’s unfortunate, but at the same time, I am very impressed that they managed as well as they did, especially visually. Mortal Shell surpasses most of its competition when it comes to raw visual fidelity. None of the Soulsborne games looks particularly impressive technically, but Mortal Shell has some beautiful models and effects to offer that other titles in the genre simply don’t. Of course, it seems to come at the cost of the variety mentioned above and the load times, but the game does look great. It also runs at a steady framerate, which is always welcomed in games that have timing-based combat.
Mortal Shell is a fun and compelling game that just doesn’t quite hold up all the way through. It’s without a doubt the only game besides the FromSoftware series which manages to capture the world of decaying mystery as well as they do. That said, once you have scraped off the surface layer of the game, there sadly isn’t that much new to learn or do. The lack of loot, character development, and enemy variety makes the combat feel entirely unimportant after you are halfway through, and I found myself skipping as much of it as I could. Likewise, my interest in the world evaporated once I discovered how shallow and sectioned off it all was.
For the price, though, you can do a lot worse to satisfy that FromSoftware thirst as Elden Ring seems to be quite a way off at this point.
A code was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Mortal Shell’s incredibly strong start peters out as you learn more and more about the limitations of the gameplay and the world Cold Symmetry try to establish.
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