Game Review | Mortal Shell
The fact that Dark Souls became the gold standard for action-adventure games makes me both incredibly pleased and severely frustrated. I’m glad the sub-genre has taken off to the extent it has - I enjoy exploring twisting, sprawling maps and learning the ropes of a combat system designed to really push the player to observe and focus, rather than just mash a single button until everything around them is dead.
That philosophy - the “prove yourself to the game” line of design - has begun dominating the industry, with everyone from AAA blockbuster studios producing their own take on the Souls-like formula to tiny indie studios trying to replicate the style as best they can.
Yet the thing that frustrates me most is that word I used the last sentence: Souls-like. Without going too deep into the genre problem of the game’s industry, it’s always a pain playing something that brands itself as a “Souls-like” because that title alone begs for the comparison, doesn’t it?
This game is like Dark Souls, one of the most influential games of the past 20 years, and we’ve tried to make it better or different. The second you start throwing terms like that around, you invite scrutiny which, more often than not, reflects poorly on the game. That’s the case with Mortal Shell, a game that shows off its inspirations proudly, comes remarkably close to surpassing them and then fumbles the catch at the last second.
If you’ve ever played a game modelling itself after Dark Souls, you know exactly what Mortal Shell is about. Twisting, winding maps filled with enemies that take away 80% of your health bar in a single hit, a death system that encourages you rerun a path to find gather all the resources you lost when you died, and a combat system that’s built on timing and patience rather than combos and air-juggles.
All the expected ingredients are there and I’ll get back to them in a second because replicating Dark Souls is the thing that Mortal Shell does worst. Yet the new ideas it sprinkles on the table are genuinely solid additions to the Souls-like lexicon.
The crux of the game is that your character may embody “Shells”, slain worries dotted around the world with different stats that affect their playstyle. Mortal Shell isn’t about character builds and skill points, it’s more focused on being a action game rather than an RPG. You can’t grind out character levels if you’re stuck, the only option is to find a Shell that best suits your playstyle, assign it a weapon that works well for you and then learn how to play it.
It’s a really neat idea, with an added flair for whenever you first “die” actually just being your character forcibly removed from their shell and desperately trying to claw your way back to it. Almost like the revive system in Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Twice, to reference another From Software production.
The best part of the game’s “shell” system is the process of upgrading them with abilities. In order to do so, you’ll have to talk to Sester Genesa (not a typo) and spend Glimpses to find out more about them before they died. It’s a really cool idea, with the unlocked memory having some connection to the skill you’re acquiring. It’s a great way to make the play settle on a favourite character-type beyond the rote stats.
A similar system is in place for the game’s weapons, which are few and curated unlike the mess of different offence options in plenty of other action-RPGs. They feel great to wield with each weapon playing vastly different from the others that discovering a new one always felt like a special occasion that warranted a test.
Considering I’m the sort of player that finds a weapon they like and doesn’t try anything else, the vast differences in weapon types and attacks was enough to break me out of the habit.
The combat itself is nothing special and at times feels more clunky than intended. The commitment to each hit is excessively lengthy, an issue I wouldn’t have if the damage reflected that length. More often than not enemy encounters, especially bosses, aren’t difficult because you’re forced to adapt but rather survive through endurance.
Plenty of games do that, yet Mortal Shell’s bosses are never interesting enough to warrant that endurance test. Most have really straightforward patterns, making the fight difficult through tedium rather than an actual challenge of skill.
Yet the worst instance of tedium being used as a difficulty marker is in the game’s healing system. Mortal Shell doesn’t equip the player with a Estus Flask equivalent, an item with a series of healing “charges” that replenishes upon death. Instead, you can gather Weltcaps, small mushrooms, from around the environment and use those for healing.
Yet there’s a cooldown on those mushrooms even between death, meaning the actual best way to heal is to farm enemies for tar, the game’s currency, and purchases loads of less effective heals.
What this does is turn the game into a bigger grind fest than it has any right to be - as you don’t really want to go explore a new area without a decent stock of heals, yet you’d rather not waste 30 minutes farming mobs to afford the necessary amount.
It wouldn’t be as bad if the combat was faster, but due to the weight of it, the whole process feels like a slog. It’s an unfortunate design decision that discourages players from actually exploring their surroundings and rather focus on farming items.
Now, I should mention that you can use the game’s parry system to restore health, but it’s such a minimal amount that risking life and limb to recover maybe a quarter of your health feels like a risk that’s really not worth it in the end. So what you’re left with is a healthy system that almost discourages the player from progressing in the game and that’s … well, that’s not all that enjoyable.
Which is a real pity, because when Mortal Shell is firing on all cylinders, it’s fantastic. Exploring the world and piecing everything together, the variation in enemy types and fantastic character upgrade system are all fresh innovations in a genre that’s quickly becoming stagnant.
Those changes to the formula are what kept me playing yet when Mortal Shell, yet the tweaks to the make the game “harder” just make for something much less enjoyable - a shame because Mortal Shell is gorgeous to look at, has a strong and imposing art style, sounds amazing and has enough hidden lore to tickle the imagination.
You just need to appreciate those things while bashing your head against some unintuitive decisions that make actually playing the game more tedious than they should.