I picked up Mortal Shell mid-way through a Souls-Run that started last year with The Surge 2. I had seen it played on FightinCowboy’s channel back in 2020. It looked somewhat interesting. While perusing the Playstation Store for new releases, I noticed that the “Enhanced Edition” had been released for the PS5.
Mortal Shell is a small-budget, small team Souls-Like game in which you play as a Foundling. After spending time with the game and only vaguely paying attention to the lore, I’m still not entirely sure what that means.
I enjoy Dark Souls because your character’s context is pretty clearly established, usually with a brief line of dialogue or an opening cutscene. Mortal Shell is a little more obtuse. That is not a criticism, but something I noted as I played. Much like Dark Souls, Mortal Shell hides its story in lore and vague statements by NPCs. It takes place in a fallen kingdom known as Fallgrim, which is certainly on the nose. Still, I appreciate the occasional bluntness in naming.
The game starts with your Foundling in a tutorial world. For those of you with a primary Catholic education like myself, a lapsed Catholic, it made me think of the concept of Limbo. Limbo is a place that is neither heaven nor hell. It just is. Unlike purgatory, which more people might be familiar with, there is no suffering. There’s no repentance needed in Limbo. You take the Foundling through this tutorial limbo and face off several times against someone named Hadern (who, as an aside, seems like a significant character yet gets almost zero definition).
Something that separates Mortal Shell from other Souls-likes is the inability to block on demand. What Mortal Shell uses instead is something called “harden.” Harden turns your character into a statue. It gives the ability to
make step-back three-pointers absorb all damage on the next hit. It’s an exciting ability because you can play with the timing of its activation. One of my favorite moves would be putting my character into a heavy thrust and then hardening. Enemies would impale themselves multiple times on my sword before managing to get a hit in.
The drawback of the hardenability is it’s on a cooldown. That being said, the game would break in favor of the player if it wasn’t on a cooldown. Paired with the ability to harden is a parry. I never quite got used to the parry window. There is also a dodge and roll that feels more like Bloodborne rather than Dark Souls.
Yes, I’m comparing this game to Dark Souls, perhaps a bit too much. But the game down to the studs leans into a Souls-like, “adventuring through a fallen kingdom, and there’s some other supernatural stuff going on” aesthetic.
Once you enter the “real world” of Fallgrim from Limbo, your player stumbles upon the first of four Shells, Harros, which brings us to another neat wrinkle in the game. The shells are four character classes that you can play in the game. The first that you find has mid-level stats, and as you level him up, most of his abilities allow you to reduce the hardened cooldown.
The other three shells are: Solomon, who focuses on weapon arts (special moves) and parrying; Erdrim, who has a ton of health and defense; and Tiel, who has the smallest amount of health and resolve but has a ton of stamina. Although the game wants you to use each character in different situations, there isn’t much motivation to switch. I played the game almost entirely with Solomon because he has just about the same base stats as Harros, except he has more resolve. Similarly, there are four weapons in the game, each with different special moves and move sets, but not enough differentiation in movement speed or damage is done to motivate me into switching.
Especially once you start investing in a weapon, as in other souls games, weapons are upgradeable. However, the resource needed for the upgrade, Quenching Acid, is in short supply. In a guideless run, you may only find enough to max out one weapon and then put a couple of levels into another weapon.
Fallgrim is a world that seems expansive at first because of how easily lost the player can become. It sprawls basically in three directions with interweaving paths all around. Ultimately, once you find your way, it becomes a lot easier to identify where the game is leading you. At the beginning of the game, you meet a giant bird called the Dark Father. He asks you to fetch him the true Nektar contained within something called a sacred gland inside the three temples in the outskirts of Fallgrim.
The game is basically “mini-souls.” Once you get the combat under your belt, explore the area, and understand what the Dark Father is asking for, you have three moderately sized temples to beat. Each one is capped with a boss.
I felt like the bosses came out of nowhere. Instead of fighting them in the temple environment, your character gets transported into a dream world of an arena to face off against them. Each of the bosses has a classic two-phase approach of killing them once, they do a little “get angry” animation, and then they move onto phase two.
Earlier in the game, there are a few instances where you stumble upon in-world minibosses. You can run away from them if you want, but they persist until you kill them. I thought that was SUPER interesting and wish that there was more of that than discrete boss arenas for the four final bosses in the game.
After you kill a temple boss, the world enters a “fog state.” The temple turns dark, and you have to fight your way now out, aided only by the light of the sacred gland that you’ve acquired. To me, this was the most exciting part of the game. In addition to darkness, the enemies have respawned, and several extra enemies have appeared where there were none before.
Overall: I liked Mortal Shell, combat is fun but might be too cheesable, and the story is, well, it’s there, and I’m sure some people will get something out of it even if I didn’t.