It’s somewhat cliche these days to describe a game as a “Souls-like” type of role-playing game. Hell, I just made the comparison in my review of Othercide. Admittedly, that’s because many games have tried to mirror the success of FromSoftware’s games by emulating that skill-based combat, unforgiving difficulty, and obtuse lore, and Mortal Shell falls squarely into that category.
The difference with Mortal Shell is that it wears this influence proudly, borrowing not only the gameplay pillars of the Dark Souls series but also much of its aesthetic in the environments, characters, and even menu items and user interface. In a lot of ways, you could be easily forgiven if you believed Mortal Shell had been developed by FromSoftware itself.
However, Mortal Shell sets itself apart in its lore, especially in the way that the player character changes combat roles and in how the story evolves. And that, my friends, is what will determine if this is the game for you if you’re already a fan of games that are considered “Souls-like”. It’s in this system that Mortal Shell sets itself apart, but may be doing so in a way that might turn some RPG fans off.
It’s also even more difficult than your average game of this genre, so player beware!
A Humanoid Hermit
Let’s start by talking about what sets Mortal Shell apart: the titular shells. Much like some disturbing variation of the beloved hermit crab, the player character embodies shells that it comes across, which take a variety of forms. Possessing these “lost warriors” is Mortal Shell’s unique take on the tried-and-true class system that most other RPGs use.
By possessing the shell of the lost warriors, you take on their attributes. The starting shell, Harros, The Vassal, is your jack-of-all-trades warrior, capable of doing everything pretty well, while Tiel, the Acolyte, is much more nimble - and as a result, much more squishy - but that shell is much more capable of overcoming certain enemy types. There are a few to find and each fills a particular niche.
You can further strengthen these shells by investing a resource called tar, which is gained from each enemy you kill, into a variety of different skills. Unlike the FromSoftware games, though, you’re not improving your stats, which is perhaps the biggest departure in terms of character development that Mortal Shell takes.
Some of the skills you’ll unlock will dramatically increase your ability to inflict harm on your enemies or bolster your ability to survive through maneuverability or hardiness.
It’s a unique system that provides an interesting twist on the formula, but if you really enjoy improving your characters in a way that’s a bit more personal, you may be a bit disappointed here.
There’s also a system by which you’ll find items to improve your weapons, thus giving them new capabilities and prowess. There’s an added layer of depth here that affects combat and your ability to survive that makes hunting down these upgrade items well worth your time.
Few things excited me more than locating the variety of items that you’ll require to upgrade your weapon, as perhaps even more so than the skills you’ll acquire, they significantly improve your ability to impart death and destruction against the minions of the Fallgrim Outskirts or the Obsidian Cathedral.
Another departure from the aforementioned “formula” is that items in Mortal Shell don’t start off telling you what, exactly, that they do. Instead, you’ll have to use the multitude of items you find through the Mortal Shell universe a set number of times before you truly understand their effects. The system is called “Familiarity” and honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about it.
In a way, it does help set Mortal Shell apart by creating an exploration element that is absent in similar type games. However, it doesn’t provide any useful lore or story insight for the most part and can be a bit frustrating at times when you’re ingesting something that is clearly having some sort of harmful effect multiple times just to find out what sort of positive benefit it might have.
There are a decent number of items, too, so this mechanic carries on throughout the majority of your playthrough. However, I’m just not sure how exciting the discovery of it all will be once everyone gets their hands on Mortal Shell and the inevitable wikis start providing players with this information.
A Hellish Set of Hurdles
Mortal Shell is easily the most difficult “Souls-like” game that I’ve ever played. Having played and beaten a large majority of games in this niche category, I was surprised by how many times I nearly threw my controller (which is, by the way, the best way to play Mortal Shell) out of frustration.
Despite the fact that you are basically given two lives, the enemies of Mortal Shell can be quite challenging. As this creature that assumes these forms, when you lose all of your hit points, you’re ejected from the shell that you’re embodying. Thankfully, you’re allowed to re-enter the shell after being blasted from it, but only one time. While in your true form, and outside these bodies of armor, you’re incredibly weak and can only absorb one hit.
As an aside, I noticed that while in your true form, the NPCs interact with you differently and I can imagine that there will be many players that uncover some unique easter eggs or even more if they play the game entirely in that form. It’ll certainly be an ultra-hard mode for those that need it.
Back to my point, Mortal Shell does eventually have a bit of a tipping point, wherein I became very powerful with my large skill set as a player character and as a more capable player, in real life. But it took a longer time than I’m used to in order to get there, and I wonder if that won’t turn off the more casual players and understandably so.
Patience will win over, though, as learning when to parry, when to use your ability to “harden” (which deflects incoming blows and causes your enemy to lose footing), and when to roll to safety, will eventually come together in a beautiful and devastating way, much to the chagrin of your enemies. Hopefully.
A Hauntingly Good Presentation
Everything about Mortal Shell’s presentation defies its smaller studio development. The visuals are of a very high quality, the sounds and ambiance are top-notch, and the voice-over work is extremely good. The NPCs are all well-voiced and lend themselves well to a deeper interest in the game’s lore, too.
It’s just a really good looking game with above-average sound design. It made it really easy to keep coming back death after death after death, as the world, its lore, its story (though vague), and the characters within it all led to an increasing desire to know more.
Where to Buy Mortal Shell
On PC, Mortal Shell is available exclusively on the Epic Games Store until 2021, when it will eventually be released on Steam, too. It’s going to set you back $29.99/£24.99, which is a great price for what you’re getting here.
MORTAL SHELL VERDICT
With a haunting and beautiful world as a backdrop to a solid “Souls-like” RPG, Mortal Shell is a much better game than it has any right to be. The magnificent presentation, mixed with the unique take on character progression, steals the show here and despite dying dozens upon dozens of times, I was hooked from the moment that combat started making sense to me.
Embrace dying. Embrace learning the ropes through hardship. Embrace the strange. You’ll be rewarded with a very solid title in a slightly tired sub-genre of games.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Unlocking some of the more potent skills and becoming very capable with the different shells. The first boss takedown was a triumphant moment, too.
The strange and beautiful world
The unique take on classes
The AAA visuals and sound design
The nuance to combat
The difficulty curve is exceptional
The item familiarity mechanics aren’t fun, really
About Robert Honaker
Rob has been gaming since the Atari 2600, but ever since his first IBM 286, he's been a PC gamer first. Strategy, RPG and 4X games are his gaming passion!