If you know anything at all about Mortal Shell going into this review, it should come as absolutely no surprise to you that the game borrows heavily, and I mean very heavily, from the Dark Souls series of games. In fact in many ways, Mortal Shell just looks and plays like a different iteration of a Dark Souls game, and the developers are not trying to hide that fact here.
Mortal Shell wears it’s influences very proudly on its sleeves, and the game is much better for it. The tone, the story, the dialogue and even the core combat are ripped straight from Hidetaka Miyazaki’s iconic series, but the game still manages to introduce some very welcome twists to the gameplay.
In Mortal Shell you take on the role of a mysterious being called the Foundling, who can possess the remains of fallen warriors that can be found around the game world. These are called shells, and they essentially function as different classes in the game.
There are four shells in total, and each of them possesses their own Attack, Defense and Stamina values. Each shell also has access to its own unique set of perks and abilities that can be unlocked using Tar, the currency in this game.
Each shell feels useful and you can switch between them, but I think most players will tend to pick the one that best suits their playstyle and stick with that for the whole game (That’s certainly what I did).
When you die, not only do you restart back at your most recent checkpoint and lose all of your acquired Tar, you temporarily lose access to your shell as well. To get it back you need to find the location of your death and then possess the shell again.
The core gameplay revolves around the management of the stamina meter, and it really shouldn’t need any explanation at this point in time. It depletes whenever you run, dodge, attack and essentially take any action apart from regular walking.
In combat you have access to a light and heavy attack, and can also make use of an item called the Tarnished Seal to parry enemy attacks. You can follow up these parries with flashy Riposte attacks that recover health. All of this so far is mostly standard Souls-like fare.
What makes Mortal Shell’s combat truly unique however is the fantastic hardening ability. You see, there are no shields in this game, and the hardening ability is what players make use of instead to block damage. Acquired during the very beginning of the game, hardening allows players to temporarily turn themselves into stone whenever they want.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the beginning or end of an attack animation, players can make use of this at any point in time, and it allows them to both defend themselves and stagger enemies when they hit you. You can even make use of hardening in mid air if you want, there are no restrictions on when you can use it. It’s a fantastic ability that offers a lot of creativity in its use, but it does have a countdown timer that determines the frequency at which you can use it.
Also unique to the game is Resolve, which appears as segments that fill up as players fight and kill enemies. You can use Resolve to perform ripostes, as well as activate devastating weapon abilities that deal a lot of damage.
Speaking of weapons, there are only five of them in the game: A longsword, a two-handed sword, a hammer and chisel combo, a mace and a ballista/crossbow hybrid. The selection isn’t great obviously, but each weapon possesses its own moveset, and they can be upgraded to gain access to their own unique weapon abilities.
And when we take all of these different features (shells, abilities, weapons and hardening) and add them together, what we get is a thoroughly enjoyable combat system that is a lot of fun to play around with.
In terms of items and consumables in the game, Mortal Shell makes use of a very interesting familiarity system. Your character more becomes familiar with an item the more you use it, and after crossing certain thresholds their effects are enhanced.
Similarly, some items provide useful buffs after developing a resistance to them, and some items only reveal their effect after you use them for the first time. It’s a system that rewards you for being curious, and repeatedly using a particular item, making it so that your go-to consumables get better with use.
Story-wise, the game does the whole Dark Souls thing of giving players snippets of the greater narrative as you play through it. Upgrading shells specifically, allows us to learn more about who these warriors were in life and how they perished.
It’s an interesting story, and it’s helped along by the fantastic voice acting that often accompanies the memories of the shells. There are also some fascinating NPCs you encounter throughout the game that help push the story along.
When talking about the setting, the game world is separated into 4 different locations. And while they look very visually distinct from each other, I have to say that there is a sameness within them once you actually go exploring. Fallgrim in particular is so confusing and repetitive, that I found 4 different enemy campsites that were literally undistinguishable from each other within my first 30 minutes with the game.
This is also not helped by the fact that enemy placements in the game are really really bad. Clusters of different enemies are dotted around the locations like they were just thrown in at the last second. There are multiple moments in the game where you’ll kill a group of difficult enemies, and then just turn a corner to find another bigger group just waiting there to ambush you.
It just doesn’t make any sense how they’re positioned, and this often leads to moments where there is this sudden spike in difficulty because you can’t really figure out how to kill enemy after enemy in rapid succession. It’s really frustrating.
Players should also know that while this game is inspired by Dark Souls, it’s not as highly polished as those games. I’m not talking about bugs here, I’m talking about the physicality of the combat. Attacks just don’t feel as weighty as in other souls-like, and that’s kind of a bummer.
In conclusion, the issues I have with this game are minor compared to what I like about it. Combat is great, if a little less weighty than I would have liked, but still extremely satisfying. The Hardening ability is a game changer when it comes to blocking and timing attacks, and it’s what’s going to bring me back to the game again.
The voice acting is incredible, and the story overall is decent enough that you’ll want to see it through.
Mortal Shell is out now on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. It was developed by Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack. This review covers the Xbox One version of the game.
The review code was provided by the publisher.
Mortal Shell Review
Mortal shell is a great homage to the Dark Souls series of games. It’s not perfect by any means, but it should appeal to fans of the Souls-like genre.