Writing anything about a game with corpse runs and mysterious NPC’s who cackle at the end of their dialogue is a tricky area. The descent into ‘well this one isn’t as good as Dark Souls’ is inevitable, but Mortal Shell invites this comparison, demands it, in fact.
You wake up in a strange land without explanation. You’re this white skinned, no-faced wax person. You learn the mechanics of the game which are superficially similar to Dark Souls, except for Harden. Harden allows you to freeze your character during any animation and makes them invulnerable to damage until you release the Harden button or are hit by an enemy. Harden begins the game’s foray into new territory, so despite any superficial and tonal similarity to Dark Souls, Mortal Shell treads new ground where so many others fail.
But the structure is Dark Souls adjacent: you’re playing a third-person action game where you have a limited quantity of healing, and when you die, your experience is dropped at the location of your death. You return to the last check-point you visited, the enemies in the world respawn. Your goal is to fight through areas to reach the next check-point where you can spend the experience you’ve gained. Then fight boss. Get an upgrade to make killing things easier. Rinse, repeat.
Mortal Shell is built on the same 3D action game framework as FromSoftware. Dark Souls is a game about timing animations to hit enemies and avoid damage. Gear and stats then dictate the damage sliders on these animations. You’ll spend the majority of your time spending experience points from defeated enemies to level up your character. Gear augments defences, your movement speed and stamina required to swing your weapons. The game’s challenge is in bringing to bear this character you’ve built to defeat enemies. The first two Dark Souls games are so gear and level focused that it’s possible to completely break a weapon if you use an upgrade that isn’t compatible with your stats. Because of this, you’ll always have the sense you’re missing out on a slightly better weapon or armour set.
Conversely, Mortal Shell does not have character levels. Not exactly. Instead, you acquire four Shells in the starting area. Shells are the corpses of previous inhabitants of the world that you can inhabit (basically different classes). Each of the four Shells has a unique set of properties and skills. You upgrade Shells’ individual skills rather than upgrading your base character. There’s also four core weapons and some more peripheral customisation as the game goes on, but that’s your core.
The key to the game is still dodging, and parrying, and boosting through damage with Harden, but the Shells add this other layer. For example, the rogue-type shell doesn’t dodge roll. Rather, it dissolves into mist and reappears. Equally, the super heavy King Shell has basically no stamina but seemingly endless health, and heavy attacks get a damage buff. The real unique hook of Mortal Shell is the upgrades of the shells.
Where Dark Souls sees you increase stats, your shell upgrades are gameplay modifiers, rarely straight boosts (there are five straight buffs in the whole game by my count). The Shell you begin with focuses on Harden, extending and modifying the damage boosts. One Shell is geared around parrying and so on.
Like its inspiration, Mortal Shell’s first few hours are a slog. I’m a Souls veteran but even by the obtuse standards of Demon Souls, Mortal Shell begs you to stop playing. Once you get the hang of Harden, you’ll go through a marshland, Fallgrim, populated by spooky looking dudes right out of Yharnam. They all have straight forward attacks that rarely chain more than two hits, and after they cream you a few times, you start to dispatch them handily. Like any regular enemies in small numbers they are manageable, but large groups are an issue. This teaches you basic crowd control, a skill you’ll need often as Mortal Shell groups enemies in threes often.
So you get through the first area, and a torch by an open door entices you in. Here you’ll find your base of operations in the midst of Fallgrim. The somewhere seemingly safe where your Shells will be stored, upgraded, and where you learn how to parry.
The game also does some neat foreshadowing here. The empty slots for weapons and Shells have this weird glowing aura, and if you interact with them you can use instinct to gain a vision of where you might acquire them. It’s cool, and helps give you a sense of purpose early in the game. Your goal is to find the four shells and the four weapons. The shells are all in the starting area, but each of the four weapons will lead you to the game’s key pathways, a clever way of encouraging early players to explore. This is their version of glimpsing the playspace you’ll explore to get you excited.
But that initial learning curve drags on, and on. Pretty early you’re going to stumble into a boss battle. Either against this huge monstrosity with stabby knives for hands, or a straight up vampire. If you come across the knife-hand-boss, Grisha, you’ll be treated to the game’s first hefty lesson. You tip-toe around some bear traps and a pile of corpses. Stepping into the clearing, a huge furred creature roars at you, shaking the ground with its very voice. Grisha attacks in rapid strings of two’s and three’s that vertebrate through your skull.
This fight demands you time a Harden well and learn how to dodge around successive attacks. If you can string together enough dodges Grisha will stagger from missing, and you can land some easy damage. Equally, if you learn the parry timing, you make this a short encounter. If you do make a mistake, Grisha has a harsh punishment that involves skewering and then tossing you through the air. Much like FromSoftware's boss encounters, Grisha is placed to teach you these mechanics will be crucial, and must be mastered no matter how much you upgrade your weapons or stats. To what extent this succeeds is dependent on your experience with these action games in tandem with how crisp hit boxes and animations are. The Grisha fight succeeds because it's a fairly small arena, so you have the opportunity to get quick hits in every time to successfully avoid damage. It took me a good hour to comprehend what the game was asking. In a Souls game, you'd likely hit this wall and go in search of a few levels or upgrades to your equipment to level the playing field. But Mortal Shell's upgrades cost so much of the game's currency (Tar and Glimpses) that you'll be grinding for a few hours to make a meaningful upgrade. With this stumbling block out of the way, I also sought out more healing.
Healing plays a pivotal role in these corpse run games because they define the number of mistakes you can make as a player before needing to revisit a check-point. In Dark Souls you have the Estus Flask, a healing item with limited uses that refills each time you die or visit a check-point. In Bloodborne you have Blood Vials, an item you pick up in the world but are limited to carrying twenty at any one time.
Mortal Shell follows the Bloodborne method. Sort of. You have a small, unlimited healing resource in the form of mushrooms. They respawn in the same places around the map, so are theoretically unlimited, but you’ll start to go through them quickly in boss battles. Most of the time you’ll have ten mushrooms tops in your pocket, at least for the first few hours. There are more powerful healing items as you go on, but they rarely grow more interesting than this.
Then there’s the Shells themselves. When you die in Mortal Shell, you have a last stand. This throws your weird waxy body from the Shell and into the area. You then have an opportunity to re-enter your Shell, which grants you full health and stamina. You’ll die in one hit outside your Shell, so positioning and timing is everything. But it’s a guaranteed full heal.
I think this is supposed to be framed as a risk-reward mechanic, but there is no reason not to hop back into your Shell. Getting knocked out and scrambling back for your Shell creates amazing urgency as you sprint toward the thing that just killed you to escape sudden death.
Equally, when you die for real, you leave a Shell behind with the same mechanic. This means that when a boss slaps you down, subsequent attempts give you access to a second source of healing on top of your last chance revival. The trick here is that if you die before collecting the shell you left behind, you’ll lose your tar, this game’s levelling up resource ala Souls. It's neat because failing makes the battle a little bit easier. And if you're a player who died at that boss, this addition health can be enough to get you over the line.
My final run on Grisha felt like perfect revenge for this reason. I knew he’d spanked me into oblivion so I had a Shell chilling in his domain. I had a pocket full of mushrooms and a charm that let me recover the damage absorbed by Harden. I went in and weaved around his attacks, waiting for his stagger. Timing the parry to maximise the riposte damage. Hardening through his unblockable attacks. Then using my shell to recover, and keeping him at bay. It was a methodical butchering, one attack at a time.
The satisfaction of defeating Grisha is found in overcoming a challenge that first feels insurmountable. The issue, as with the series that Mortal Shell builds upon, is that so many players will never make it through that initial challenge. You have to know what you’re getting into in some ways.
Mortal Shell explains so little to you (one of the top google results for the title is ‘how to save your game in Mortal Shell’) it returns those feelings of discovering Dark Souls on your friends couch and having no clue what anything does or why that graveyard is so much harder than the rest of the game. Mortal Shell takes this a step further with items, where you must use an item to know what it does. This is a questionable choice, and occasionally ended with me using an incredibly valuable item without knowing it, and otherwise just feels deliberately obtuse. As the game opens up, the design behind this choice reveals itself. I think the idea is that as you progress and further and further from safety, you’re more likely to try unknown items in desperation. Particularly as you won’t always have a reliable source of healing. This means that when you’re reaching into your bag of mystery items it’s because you need a hail mary. When it fails it feels cheap (I accidentally ate poison one time), but it’s worth it for the few times it saved my arse in the middle of a new area.
This balance of items and limited healing is great in theory but as the game goes on it becomes a system that aggressively demands you get good without much room for error. In some ways it’s a distillation of what this type of game can do very well, but I felt myself pulling away a few times. And I love this type of game, so I can't imagine how it feels for a new fan.
You will eventually leave the starting area and discover the wider world. The game really hits its stride after this, but I do think a lot of players will get hamstrung on this strange, stilted introduction. It’s by no means the worst tutorial area of a game (looking at you The Witcher 2) but a few missteps might shove away prospective fans. It makes me yearn for play stats to see when people drop out of the funnel.
I’m about ten hours in now, and will return for a full piece delving into the themes and story as I close out the game. But so far Mortal Shell is a unique idea that is both an homage but rarely an evolution of its predecessors. It recreates the teeth pulling sensation of first dipping into Dark Souls, but it may not be able to sustain this tension in the face of its own ambition.