There’s an argument that “soulslike” isn’t a genre, or even a subgenre. No matter where you stand on that debate, it’s impossible to deny that Dark Souls has a particular set of quirks: risk versus reward style gameplay, a rest point that respawns enemies, usually with an emphasis on melee combat, and almost always brutal difficulty. There are games that borrow Souls elements while taking the gameplay in a drastically different direction, while other games recreate the Dark Souls’ gameplay while drastically changing the presentation from Dark Souls’ cryptic and interpretive storytelling—or any mixture of these. And then along came Mortal Shell, that if you would have told me it was a From Software title, I would have believed you. Mortal Shell is as close as you can get to Dark Souls without being Dark Souls—but it’s not without its own take on the formula.
Mortal Shell is a third person action game with brutal difficulty. You play as a being that wakes in a strange, dream world. You’re given a brief tutorial on the basics and Mortal Shell’s unique ‘harden’ mechanic, before you’re forced to fight a dude named Hadern (seriously) in a very souls-like opening. After that, you are swallowed by a fish, and forced to fend for yourself in a hellish swamp, all naked and sinewy. Luckily, you aren’t forced to continue to fight naked, as you can inhabit certain bodies—shells—to fight in.
Instead of traditional character creation, you will find several different shells that you can occupy as you play and explore. Each of these shells essentially serve as different character classes. Each shell has different abilities and stats like durability, stamina and resolve—a stat that works a little bit like mana. There are no caster classes, though different weapons you find can bestow powerful abilities—especially when they’re upgraded with certain materials. And you can parry certain attacks with powerful ripostes that can regenerate health or have other effects.
Mortal Shell is all about melee combat, though you only start with one weapon, and must earn the others through gameplay. Unlike Dark Souls where you can run to a specific location to get a preferred weapon, in Mortal Shell you have to defeat Hadern to earn the right to use that weapon. There are four melee weapons total, plus a ballistazooka that is a type of crossbow cannon that serves as Mortal Shell’s only ranged weapon. I wish there were more variety, but the weapons that are there tick all of the boxes: there are fast attack weapons, and a couple of large slow weapons that can knock enemies around. Weapons can be upgraded to have new abilities and do additional damage—something you might want to endeavor towards to make Mortal Shell’s combat a little more forgiving.
Combat in Mortal Shell is great. It’s so Souls-like that if it was possible to have a sort of gameplay blind taste test, I might mistake Mortal Shell for Dark Souls. Actions like attacking and dodging consume stamina, you can parry attacks with proper timing and resolve—or use your resolve to unleash powerful weapon abilities, if you have the proper upgrades. The one feature that makes Mortal Shell stand out the most is the harden ability. In Dark Souls attacking usually leaves your character open for a counterattack. You’re even more vulnerable if you’re using a slow weapon. In Mortal Shell, you can harden at any point, mitigating all damage you would take.
Harden drastically changes the dynamic of combat. Even after you harden, your attack completes—or will complete once harden deactivates. This does allow you to cheese some enemies, but it introduces an entire new type of blocking skill to the game. And since there are no shields you can wield in Mortal Shell, harden is the closest thing you can get. And you’ll want to use it liberally against the nightmare creatures of Mortal Shell.
Your true form is a strange, white, skinless, mouthless thing that looks like it comes straight from the depths of my nightmares. But you’re just one of many disturbing creatures to encounter through the dark world of Mortal Shell, which is populated by hellish denizens that look like they’re plucked from various horror movies—from murderous swamp dwellers to creatures that look like they belong in Hellraiser. The character models are superb. It’s just lacking in variety.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a decent variety of different types of creatures—large weapon wielding behemoths and archers that harass from afar are mixed into the rank-and-file trash mobs. But as you fight through the major areas in Mortal Shell, you’ll notice that enemies unique to those areas are often just reskins of enemies you’ve already encountered, with only a few being truly unique. That could be a little more forgivable if there was a lot of Mortal Shell to explore, but it’s a pretty small game.
Mortal Shell only has a few major areas , starting with the labyrinthine swamp area. The swamp acts as a sort of hub, with the other lands all connected to it. While every bit of Mortal Shell’s areas are interesting, sometimes gorgeous, and even occasionally breathtaking, there aren’t many moments of truly clever level design. It all looks cool, but it’s a pretty linear affair for the most part—with most of the exploration taking place in the dreaded swamp.
One of the core features of a Souls game are the bosses. With only a few ‘true’ bosses, and even fewer mini-bosses, Mortal Shell doesn’t exactly emphasize quality or quantity. And while each of the boss encounters are well done, only two really stood out to me as truly memorable.
There are a number of twists on the Souls formula that Mortal Shell does that I’ve never really seen before. When you get items in Mortal Shell, you don’t automatically know what they do. In fact, you’re forced to use items completely blind to learn what they do. This lead to a rather unfortunate circumstance for me which made me almost abandon my first playthrough. You can’t carry more than one weapon at a time in Mortal Shell, instead you can find items that can summon certain weapons. Well, I didn’t know that, and I caused my character to get stuck with a weapon I hadn’t upgraded and was unfamiliar with in a challenging section of the game.
For a game that was revealed as Dungeonhaven with a few rough gameplay clips, Mortal Shell really turned into something special. It’s short, and has a lack of variety in both weapons and enemies, but it has satisfying combat, and an incredible atmosphere. Mortal Shell is, by far, my favorite Dark Souls clone—and even manages to do a few things better than the original.
Mortal Shell is available tomorrow Epic Game Store for PC as well as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
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