Back in the day Dark Souls (or Demon Souls if you’re truly old school) made a big mark on the gaming community with its punishing gameplay, dark aesthetics, and slurry for forum posts that simply said: “lol, get gud”. It’s a formula that studios have been trying to perfect since and, while simple in concept, is hard to nail for many aspiring developers. There’s a certain balance that needs to be struck between being entertaining and punishing difficulty mixed in with mechanics that, if executed incorrectly, make for a frustrating experience for the gamer. If your i-frames aren’t done right or, worse yet, you’re locked in an animation that’s longer than it takes an enemy to hit you the player in the end feels that continuing is pointless. The game mechanics should be hard to master but ultimately work for you - not against.
Enter Mortal Shell. Developed by Cold Symmetry Mortal Shell unabashedly takes the Dark Souls formula and utilizing the power of Unreal Engine (UE4) delivers one of the best Souls-like I’ve played to date. In my opinion, they’ve accomplished this by not trying to stray far from the path in an effort to make something unique but to add just enough on top of what would otherwise be a clone. Make no mistake about it: Mortal Shell looks like Dark Souls. From the UI and loading screens to the different player aesthetics and enemies one could forgive you if you forgot which game you were playing.
In Mortal Shell the player is, well, a husk of sorts. A blank humanoid devoid of our typical features. After a tutorial area of sorts, you’re dropped into the world in the outskirts of Fallgrim. No fanfare, no class selection, no character creation - just you and your tiny sliver of health and massive stamina pool set to take on the world. Shortly in you’ll come across an armored out knight-like body slumped against the rocks. Dare you approach it? You certainly don’t have to if you want to try the game on super-hard mode (and I mean super-hard, you essentially will have to no-hit the entire game). As you inch closer you’ll find you can interact with the body and in short order possess it. Congratulations on inhabiting your first shell. In Mortal Shell the shells act as classes, of sorts. Harros, the one you just found, is your all arounder. Decent stamina pool, decent health pool, a few points of resolve (which is used for abilities), Harros is clearly the most balanced of the bunch. All in all, there are four Shells to inhabit (that I’ve found so far), some with massive health pools and little stamina and vice versa, they all have their own unique set of abilities to aid your specific style of play
As you progress through to your first objective, a tower that you’ll want to visit if you ever want to parry enemies, you’ll come across a few items and your first look at the ‘currency’ of Mortal Shell. The idea of souls in Dark Souls are replaced by two different points to collect: tar and glimpses. Tar would be the best comparison for souls: fairly easy to acquire, completely lost upon death until you retrieve them, and the main currency of the game. You’ll use tar to unlock abilities and buy items from vendors. Glimpses, on the other hand, are more rare and are the key resource you’ll need to unlock abilities. If you want to be able to spend resolve to kick an enemy, you’ll need tar and glimpses and the bonfire replacement, the sester. Sester’s are masked, statue-like NPCs that act as upgrade stations and save points - and they are rare. There are maybe eight that I’ve come across total while playing, spread far apart, and found near weapon unlocks and entrances to the various ‘zones’ of Mortal Shell.
I don’t want to bog you down with all the game mechanics that exist, however. Apart from what I’ve mentioned, it’s largely like playing Dark Souls, but with a little more danger. In Dark Souls you get more powerful and some enemies stop really being a threat. In Mortal Shell everything is a threat. Your weapon may be able to cleave them faster, but you never level up and gain more armor to make them trivial. You’re always on your toes to dodge, parry, or harden through every attack. Not once did I face tank a hit on purpose because it’s quite possible to be 30 hours into the game and still die to the first two junk mobs you come across. I found that this made every battle engaging and exciting. It was no longer boring to take care of the trash as every moment could have been my last.
While all the mechanics and encounters are great and all, they would be nothing without some sort of story. Rest assured that it exists and while it’s not an entirely unique trope it does the job and gives you a reason to move forward. I don’t want to give anything away about the storyline but you’ll begin to uncover it after talking to a certain chained someone in the first derelict castle you come to at the start of the game. Lets just say you’ll be collecting things from the bosses and seeing what comes of it for your character, with each collection proving to be meaningful in some way for how you play the game.
Wrapping up, as a big fan of the Dark Souls series, I have to say I am impressed with Mortal Shell. It may not be the most original game of it’s kind but I don’t think it matters when everything is executed so well. I never found myself frustrated with game mechanics feeling wonky and as a fan of the Dark Souls art style I felt right at home during my time with Mortal Shell. If you’re looking for a beautifully crafted, dark and twisted world that quite literally feels like it was made by the team at FromSoftware you need not look further. Mortal Shell has earned a place in my games list as a title I will continue to play and replay, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing speed run and no-hit attempts in the future.
A copy of this title was provided for the purpose of this review.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this review stated "Dragon Souls" when our reviewer meant "Demon Souls." This has been edited and we apologize for the error and confusion this caused.