The phrase “souls-like” strikes fear in me. I have never once finished, or even gotten close to finishing a FromSoftware game. I have purchased and tried my hand at Dark Souls, Dark Souls III, and Bloodborne. Across each of these titles, I have never made it past more than three bosses. Whether it was due to a lack of patience, focus or simply my own lack of skill; these titles and their challenges hung above my head, a cloud of shame. I had always played videogames on normal difficulty, looking to experience the story and world more than seeking a challenge. As a result, each prior fight gave me instant gratification. I entered every battle, against basic enemies and bosses alike, with the confidence that I would win. In the Soulsborne games there was no such confidence. It was replaced with fear, and that fear led to doubt, hesitation, and inevitable death. I gave up on those titles, not even batting an eye when Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was released. I lived under the assumption that I was just not their target audience. That was until Mortal Shell.
Visually, Mortal Shell has a clear idea of what it wants to be. Set in this dark and murky world, it envelops you and everything in it with a grim tone of despair. The starting area and subsequent temples throughout the campaign provide the player with some decent variety. You’ve got the frozen temple of the Crypt of Martyrs, the swamps of Fallgrim, and the narrow stone walkways of the Seat of Infinity. While these visuals are nothing we haven’t seen before, they work well here and add to the atmosphere this title is committed to maintaining.
In terms of its sound the game feels somewhat purposefully barren, relying more on ambient sounds throughout its world. The rare occasion of music came during boss fights, which also has a minimalist, ambient feel to it. From a percussive beat with Imrod the unrepentant, to the deep and ritualistic sound of war drums and deep humming which accompanies Hadern. This selective choice of music and ambience works in the game’s favour; adding an extra layer of atmosphere.
The voice acting on display here is few and far between but works very well in those moments. It’s got this oddly soothing quality to it, everyone speaking in these low and morbid tones. Their words seem meaningful, but are just vague enough to sustain the intrigue characterising the world. The voice lines are strangely relaxing to listen to; I could probably listen to the old prisoner drone on for ages. Even the moaning of defeated enemies had me feeling just the slightest bit bad for them.
The Dark Souls inspiration is apparent from early on. The grim undertones in sound and sight, sprawling level design, the mysterious intrigue, even the loading screens. One can’t help but compare the two when many aspects of design and world building were clearly influenced by the 2011 title. The game even has you start out somewhat similarly as a nameless creature, looking like something straight out of the nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch.
The game does manage to set itself apart in a few ways, the most clear example is its class system. In Mortal Shell, the faceless creature known as a foundling, inhabits the bodies of slain warriors; Harros the vassal, Solomon the scholar, Tiel the acolyte and Eredrim the venerable. Each of these shells changes your health, stamina, and resolve. They each also come with their own offensive and defensive abilities. For example Eredrim has an offensive ability which allows him to deal extra damage to enemies that are alone, giving you an edge in boss fights, or in a particularly tricky 1v1 encounter. In order to upgrade this ability Tar and Glimpses are needed. Tar is the game’s currency and Glimpses are akin to skill points. It’s a simple and straightforward system, but it doesn’t take long to acquire every ability for a certain shell. Meaning the feeling of growth and progress with a favourite shell caps quite early on. It does however, incentivise you to experiment with different shells, as glimpses gained for one shell will not be shared amongst the others.
This leads into another defining characteristic of the game, the second wind mechanic. Upon getting your HP to zero you will be thrust out of your shell leaving you vulnerable. This event freezes enemies in place, but this is temporary, giving you just enough time to get up. You could of course just get right back to fighting, but one hit and you’re dead. The safest route is to run back to your shell and inhabit it once more, replenishing both your Health and Stamina. Unlike the Souls-Borne games where once you die, that’s it; Mortal Shell allows you to redeem yourself. This is a welcome addition in my eyes, as save points are not as close together as I am used to. Dying also means you lose all your Tar, you would need to get back to the place you died and reclaim a now statue-like shell in order to get your hard-earned currency back.
This statued version of a shell is also present in another mechanic unique to Mortal Shell, the harden ability. Holding down the button for this ability makes you impervious to damage, taking on a calcified form. Once hit, the ability recharges until it’s ready for use again. One could even harden in the middle of an attack animation. If hit while in this position, the attack carries on where it left off. This ability right here, was my saving grace throughout the campaign. It saved my skin countless times, and to be honest I’m not sure I could have beaten the game as easily without it. However, this means that at times it felt like a bit of a crutch. Often in boss fights, I would attack, harden, let them hit me, and then be assured of a hit, keeping my distance until it recharged and then repeating this process. This made for some pretty repetitive and long fights. A way to circumvent this possibility in future installments would be the inclusion of unblockable attacks, that ignore your harden ability. At the very least the attacks could send you flying back, or apply a status effect, such as poison or slowed movement.
Honestly, when all is said and done, the boss fights in Mortal Shell were a little lackluster. Their move sets felt limited and easy to learn, one could also bait certain moves out to open them up to attack. This made it very easy to manipulate a fight to your advantage once you got the hang of it. The stand out boss would definitely be Tarsus the first martyr, providing a good amount of challenge and variety in his moves, as well as a very intimidating second phase. That being said, I could not help but feel as though he was given the most time and attention when developing the game as every boss thereafter felt a little boring in comparison. I just wish every one of them brought the same challenge to the table as he did. I even managed to beat the final boss of the game on my first try. Coming from me, someone who is notoriously terrible at these kinds of games, that is not a good thing. I don’t want to feel hopeless when fighting a boss, but I also don’t want to feel as though I have it in the bag the whole way through, especially when the title presents itself as challenging. This aspect might disappoint die-hard FromSoftware fans.
I also wish there was more variety in enemy types, often between locations there would just be variations of the same enemy types you’ve been fighting since the first temple. Though there are definite stand outs, such as an enemy with blades jutting out of its torso. It removes these blades, using them as projectiles when at a distance and removing two to fight you with, close quarters. Upon getting its HP low enough, it rips its own head off and throws it at you as one last spiteful attack. Pretty Metal.
All in all, Mortal Shell provides the perfect amount of challenge for someone like me. I often felt inclined to press on; just one more fight, or one more save-point. That drive kept the game flowing quite nicely, ensuring that there was never a dull moment. It is a very streamlined experience, and that shows in its runtime. The title took me about 14 hours to complete the game, including a bit of light exploration. It might be a bit straightforward or easy for the veterans of the genre, but definitely has enough merits to justify a purchase. For more casual fans of Action or RPG titles, it also presents a great way to dip your toes into this more challenging breed of game. Give it a try and don’t be intimidated by a few deaths at first.