Most “Souls-likes,” games that resemble 2011’s seminal action RPG Dark Souls, do their best not to resemble From Software’s runaway hit at all. The most notable ones add a lot of color and a sci-fi setting or make it 2D and full of bugs. Not Mortal Shell, whose stills and video clips could easily be confused with any Dark Souls proper to the uninitiated. Dark fantasy setting? Check. NPCs speaking in riddles? Check. Challenging, hardcore combat? It’s all here. But if you take this list and decide that you can skip Mortal Shell because of it, you’re gravely mistaken. It is the Souls game, but more focused, condensed, and approachable, taking the right sorts of cues from outside of the subgenre to create an experience that is unlike any version of this game before it.
The most derivative piece of Mortal Shell, outside of most of its overall grimdark aesthetic, is the story. After awakening as a wrinkly mound of white fleshy ghoulishness, you’re transported to a strange swampy forest called Fallgrim. This place is physically caught in some sort of period of strife and undeath related to a religion of whom Sester Genessa, your guide, and hub for buying items and powering up, is a part of. After that, much of the game’s narrative is told through cryptic inscriptions and memories from the shells you inhabit throughout the game. I was never a fan of this sort of storytelling and think it’s rarely done well. I don’t think Mortal Shell rises to that challenge.
A note on those “shells.” This is often used as a moniker for “dead people whom you possess” throughout the game. Each of these “shells” – Harros, Tiel, Solomon, and Eredrim – all died in Falgrim in some terrible fashion. You come along and start wearing them like people suits, which is a bizarre and mostly unexplained phenomenon that is also key to some of the best combat you’ll find in an action RPG of this ilk.
You cannot level up individual stats on a character in Mortal Shell. Instead, these shells act as prebuilt “classes,” each with their own strengths, drawbacks, and special abilities to unlock. This reminded me of the Super Nintendo game The Illusion of Gaia in that way. You’re as powerful or as limited as the character you’ve inhabited.
All of these characters feel different. Some have more stamina than others, allowing them to run, attack, and dodge more frequently. Some are naturally more durable, providing more room for error when dealing with tough enemies. This is further nuanced by the individual abilities shells can unlock with Tar and Glimpses, the two forms of currency in this game. Tiel is a mobile menace who can get further utility from his already immense stamina bar with an upgrade that lets him sprint without expending any stamina. Solomon’s specialty, besides being the most durable shell in the game, is that he can unlock a lot of unique utility from countering enemy attacks. A big part of what keeps me playing this game well into New Game + is trying to see how to get the most out of these personalized character strengths in fun and interesting ways.
I mention that it’s a post-game curiosity because it’s nigh impossible to make significant skill progress in all four shells on one playthrough. Unless you want to farm local minions for what I can only imagine would be a mind-numbing amount of time, you’re better off focusing on just one or two shells. The overall balance between the four choices seems off, though. Tiel can learn to be healed by poison, and poison becomes a very prominent debuff in the game, so making him a main character seems like a no-brainer. Harros is a jack of all trades and the first shell you find, so you’ll invest in him naturally. Mortal Shell doesn’t make a strong enough case outside of a player’s own curiosity to give some of the other shells a real college try.
The same goes for the four weapons you’ll come across. Each has unique attack patterns, damage scaling, stamina costs, and special abilities that pair with your shells quite nicely. I love the Hammer and Chisel, both as a badass concept and as the pressure building quick attack weapon it is. The Smouldering Mace became my go-to though, as it’s perfect for dealing with swarms of enemies, while also locking down single targets with relative ease. These weapons in tandem with the harden system – a form of blocking without a shield – really adds a sort of intensity and pace to the tried and true Souls combat that elevates it up and over the rest. Being able to stop mid-swing to absorb a hit and use your opponent’s aggression against them to finish the swing on their newly exposed bodies always feels good. You can also use it more traditionally, lurking in range to bait out attacks, blocking with a harden, and countering. By the time you get to some of the later weapons, you’ll realize that mastering the cooldown of your harden ability is the most powerful weapon of them all.
I say “later,” but in reality, everyone will likely find the four shells and weapons in different orders. There’s no main path or any solid directions after you hit Fallgrim for the first time. You’re free to explore in any direction you want and explore the three dungeons in whatever sequence you choose. I personally dove into The Shrine of Ash and defeated the terrifying boss there before I even knew there was a “safe” base of operations in the center of Fallgrim. Knowing that the Tower hub existed early would have saved me a lot of grief in my early hours.
It was especially weird when I got to the end of the Shrine of Ash, was told to rip a juicy organ from a gross, pulsating fleshy thing, and had to run it back through the temple and the swamps that have been greatly altered both in layout and enemy assortment. All to give it to a strange bird creature chained in the main keep. The camera work does a little bit to gently guide you out of the gate, but I of wish there were just a couple more guardrails in place to push you to this zone early so that you can be introduced to the Zelda-style task in front of you properly.
The game is riddled with some unintended oddities as well. If you’re scrambling through a dungeon quickly, you might pass enemies who haven’t loaded in yet, only to encounter them trodding behind you when you least expect it. Knocking enemies over is a very useful tool in your arsenal, but some enemies spring right back up to their feet unnaturally as soon as you touch them. Getting caught on the environment, taking damage from enemies that are already dead, and having a hard time seeing some of the pickups scattered throughout the map are also some uncommon, but frustrating bugs that may only happen to you once or twice in your ten-ish hour playthrough.
But for a budget price, Mortal Shell has enough to say about the Souls-like as a whole that it’s a worthy adventure to go on. Everything is kept simple and streamlined, delivering a brisk and engaging dark fantasy action experience without overstaying its welcome. None of its lore or characters may live on as memes in the way Solaire and “Praise the Sun” have, but hopefully it remains a valuable footnote on the evolution of the subgenre as a whole.