Mortal Shell does get a lot of things right and by the end of it, I kinda was in love with it. If you take a look at the game, it is as clear as day that it fits perfectly into the Souls-like genre. Many games try to emulate or even recapture that Dark Souls/Bloodborne feel and many fail. Mortal Shell kinda achieves in recapturing that feel, in a limited way, while also introducing some new things that make it way more approachable than the From Software games.
I used the word limited cause that’s what Mortal Shell is, a smaller scale Souls-like game, one that you can finish in less than 13 hours. However, don’t think that small scale means a budget/subpar quality version of a fully-fledged Dark Souls game. Think kinda the same experience, but just less quantity of it in some areas.
For one, the story in Mortal Shell, just like the stories of Dark Souls or Bloodborne, to me doesn’t make any sense, cause it is “told” in the exact same way. You have to piece it together yourself by reading item and abilities descriptions and decoding what the NPCs are talking about. Honestly, I didn’t care for it at all and I didn’t even bother to read any of the texts or wait for the NPCs to talk. Skipped everything and I was fine. I just understood that as an ashen-bony-humanoid like creature I had the ability to possess dead bodies, the titular Shells, and I had to go into three different temples, kill a boss, retrieve a gland and return it to a caged large creature in the main hub area. I leave it to you to guess who’s the final boss of the game…
You see, like, collect glands? What?! If I remember correctly, in Bloodborne you had to collect umbilical cords, cause why not I guess. So if you are a fan of this type of storytelling, Mortal Shell got you covered.
Now, back to the shells. There are four shells you can find and possess and each one has its own set of abilities or perks and different health/stamina stats. For example, my boy Eredrim, and this is the only shell/character’s name I remember, is the equivalent of a tank build, lots of health, and a tiny stamina bar. On the other hand, you have the thief/rogue shell with a lot of stamina and a tiny health bar. The other two shells, I just didn’t play as them as I didn’t found them as interesting as the two I mentioned.
Unlike the other Souls-like games, Mortal Shell doesn’t have a leveling up system where you use your Souls or here, Tar, to level up a specific stat. Instead, as I mentioned, each of the shells has around 6 unique abilities or character traits you can spend your hard-earned Tar and Glimpses to unlock. These traits range from more overall HP and deal more damage to solo enemies for the tank shell to run without stamina use for the rogue shell. While you may make the argument that it is too linear and doesn’t offer the same room for experimentation or crazy builds when compared to the other souls’ games, it still worked for me and I really liked this toned down more concise system.
Souls-like games have never been my forte as I am not good at them. I remember dying like an absurd number of times in Demon Souls before quitting it and thank god for summoning other players in Bloodborne who did all the heavy lifting during the boss fights. While playing Mortal Shell, I also came really close to quitting and uninstalling it from my PS4 Pro. I was simply stuck in a boss fight with two stages for two days cause big brain me thought “I’ll just run directly to the boss” and that’s what I did. Didn’t have any of the helpful abilities unlocked, no healing items or buffs whatsoever and this boss just kicked my ass repeatedly.
Two days later I understood that I couldn’t beat this fucking guy and I farmed enemies for Tar, Glimpses and collected every Mushroom I could find (health items) for like two hours. I unlocked some really helpful traits and well, kicked that boss’s ass. I felt great and I understood that I needed to play the game and “git gud” at it to succeed.
However, all that farming made the rest of the game easy for me, and this is coming from a guy who was getting killed by the basic enemies in the first area. My boy Eredrim had a ton of health, did increased damage to solo enemies, could get an additional free life and once I fully upgraded my sword, he became kinda unstoppable. I wasn’t really enticed to try and use any of the other three available weapons. The hammer and chisel were quick and in the hands of the rogue shell quite devastating. The fire staff and the icy big sword were cool with their special attacks causing some nice area of effect damage, but they felt too slow for my liking. The sword was the sweet spot for me so I just upgraded that and took down everything and everyone in my path.
So how is the combat and how does it feel? It’s good and it feels fine. You have light and heavy attacks, a dodge, and once you build enough Resolve you can successfully parry an incoming attack or execute a special attack if you have upgraded your weapon. When you die, you are cast out of your shell but it’s not game over. If you get back to your shell unscathed you can repossess him and get an additional life. Think like the resurrect mechanic from Sekiro, but with a slight additional challenge.
One thing that’s unique to Mortal Shell is the Harden ability which allows you to turn into rock and negate any incoming attack. This will be your best friend during all of the encounters as you can Harden pretty much at any time you want, even mid-attack. This creates a small opportunity for you to strike and deal some damage. It was really fun and kinda a challenge finding the perfect moment to Harden, quickly attack a few times to build up that resolve and either follow up with a special attack or parry to gain some health back. Unlike in Sekiro or Bloodborne where the parry timing is pretty much the same every time, in Mortal Shell it’s not and you really feel that during the boss battles where you can successfully parry two times to then fail a bunch of times even though you pressed the button at the same frame of animation. I think this is not the devs not trying hard enough to lock that parry timing down as it is an Unreal Engine limitation. If you’ve played Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, as I have done really recently, the combat in Mortal Shell feels exactly the same as in that game, when it works it feels good and when it doesn’t it’s borderline frustrating.
From Software’s games are known for how great their world is built. It feels like one connected coherent thing with many shortcuts that take you back to different areas quickly bypassing all of the encounters. You won’t find that in Mortal Shell. Just like with the level up mechanic, Mortal Shell’s world is linear without too much deviation or freedom. There are three temples you need to get to from the main woods hub area and well, there are three clear ways to go. Each of the temples has its own unique “biome”, one being a fire temple, one an ice temple and the last suspended in time obsidian-like temple. With the boss being always at the end, there’s only one way to reach it. Again, this might sound like a bad thing, but it really isn’t. I quite enjoyed the simplicity of always knowing where to go without much hassle.
As for the overall presentation, it is quite good with a creepy and unsettling atmosphere, exactly what you’d expect from a game like this. It runs at a steady 30 FPS, at least on the PS4 Pro, and I didn’t experience any dips whatsoever during gameplay. However, the level of detail for pretty much every asset in the game isn’t at a 4K resolution and I don’t understand why. Every texture looks to be either dated, low rez, and blurry. To my eyes, it looks like Mortal Shell, on a PS4 Pro, is running at 1080p and is being upscaled to 4K and it doesn’t look good.
I said at the beginning, I love Mortal Shell as it does get many things right and simplifies some mechanics making it way more accessible and approachable for fans of Souls-like games and newcomers alike. I highly recommend giving it a try as you will enjoy it. Thanks for reading.
The game was reviewed on a PS4 Pro using a review code provided by the publisher.