Not only was this haunting, polished action-RPG created by a core team of only about 15 developers at the indie studio Cold Symmetry, but it might be the best Dark Souls game ever, despite not having any official affiliation with the franchise. What this small team does with a short playtime is nothing short of astounding.
Everything from the core gameplay loops to the overall aesthetic — including game menus and loading screens — make it abundantly clear that Mortal Shell is an exhaustive love letter to everything Dark Souls. The official website even overtly describes it as “soulslike,” an overused term applied to virtually every action RPG. Many games struggle to emulate the experience and fail (I’m looking at you Jedi: Fallen Order), but Mortal Shell feels like a spectacular homage to the work of FromSoftware’s Hidetaka Miyazaki that carves out its own path.
Soulsborne fans will love Mortal Shell immediately, but newcomers to this subgenre might find it even more approachable. It feels more like an actual video game and less like torture porn for people who love challenging themselves. Thanks to a brilliant introductory sequence that feels like something ripped out of a heady sci-fi movie, Mortal Shell clicks in a special way.
I love it.
The player character in Mortal Shell is an androgynous, otherworldly being who inhabits a series of four dead warriors — they’re the “Mortal Shells” — that they find across a bog-filled landscape full of grimy thugs and nasty high fantasy monsters. You first awaken in what can only be described as a moist alien nightmare. Are you yourself an alien? A god? A cursed prisoner? An animated magical statue? All of the above?
Your key resource in combat is a Hardening ability that allows you to transform into stone with a single button press, even if you’re in the middle of swinging your sword. This novel mechanic forces the player to completely unlearn everything they know about Dark Souls, deconstructing hours and hours of muscle memory to approach combat encounters in a totally new way.
Early on, you force your gangly body through the narrowest of anxiety-inducing tunnels before you’re thrust into a more familiar-looking terrestrial environment. The heavy-handed nature of this metaphor for birth is obvious as you’re thrust naked into this dangerous world, the kind of potent symbolism that evokes something like Alien. The general sense of unease and tension in these early sections is palpable and feels disorienting by design. The jarring contrast between immense vulnerability and raw untapped power simmers within you — maybe that’s because you’re running around stark naked and carrying a huge sword.
A brave new world
Early encounters in Mortal Shell feel impossible, even after you’ve enslaved your first of four total Shells. You’ve got armor and a big sword, but everyone is faster than you. Unarmored peasants group up together, and the lumbering, spear-wielding soldiers that protect them are faster than you with better reach. These power dynamics force you to experiment and explore.
The core gameplay loop involves memorizing enemy spawns, mapping the environment in your head, and learning how to predict and counter every adversary’s movement. You’re rewarded a mystical resource upon killing enemies, you lose everything if you die, and if you die again before reclaiming said resources, they’re gone for good. Any sloppy-fingered gamer can be butchered by the weakest of enemies at any point in this game and lose a lot of progress.
Dark Souls fans will feel right at home.
Mortal Shell occasionally feels less mechanically polished than the iconic series it pays homage to, but it iterates upon the core concepts in enough interesting ways that make it so much more than just a copycat. The visuals look far more polished than even the most recent FromSoftware games. The story, rather than being suggestive and obtuse, is more overtly engaging, particularly in the way it expands gradually over time into a sweeping scale at the intersection of dark fantasy with gritty science fiction.
A lighter Dark Souls with some dark twists
Rather early in the game, you get a magical sigil that can be used to parry attacks. Functionally, it’s identical to a gun in Bloodborne. Executing a parry-counter here is also your best and sometimes only means of healing. Budgeting hardening and parrying as resources, each with their cooldowns and charges, achieves a feeling of combat flow normally relegated to esports games like League of Legends or Overwatch.
Details like these make it feel more like a game, for better or for worse. Mortal Shell also knows how to have fun: You get to have a gun device called a Ballistazooka! There’s also a strange-looking merchant with an overly large pet cat. (A real highlight!)
The first early checkpoint is where things start to get really interesting from a narrative standpoint. You’re able to gradually unlock echoes of your Shells that grant access to abilities and memories in tandem, so as the character progresses, so does the story. Eventually, you’re set on a path to do the bidding of some Dark Father who wants some kind of … “glands.”
Bloodborne thrives on obtuse references and little to no explanations to foster a sense of unease in the player, pitting you against full-on monsters within a horrific nightmare. Dark Souls has you play as an undead person in a high fantasy setting riddled with dark magic. Thanks to the gradual rolling out of Mortal Shell’s deeply compelling narrative, it lies somewhere in between with a mythos that’s just as mystifying but arguably even better told than your typical FromSoftware game.
You learn about the humane struggles of these dead people you inhabit in as you discover more about your own otherworldly nature. The campaign is open-ended and non-linear. Early clues hint at landmarks you can seek out where you might find new Shells or weapons and weapon upgrades, and every new milestone truly feels like a triumph
All things told, Mortal Shell is a breezy but thrilling game experience that should take most players less than 15 hours, and at a starting price of only $29.99, who could possibly say no to the best Dark Souls game this decade? 9/10
Mortal Shell will be released digitally on August 18 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Epic Games Store.
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