It should come as no surprise to say that Mortal Shell celebrates what makes the Dark Souls games so great and compelling.
Which also comes with the caveat – if you can’t stand Dark Souls games then this is probably not going to be for you. Sorry.
There’s lots of dying, plenty of corners to carefully cut, respawning enemies with each save state and big, imposing bosses that are massively overpowered and grossly unfair.
It’s another ‘Soulsborn’ in all but name, but there are some really clever twists which help this stand apart from the legions of clones that have spawned since FROM Software’s divisive slasher.
The big one is the Mortal Shell itself. So, in the game you play as a roaming essence that goes through the course of the game ‘possessing’ forgotten warriors.
Once these warriors are discovered, you gradually learn more about them by unlocking their skills and attributes. Their war stories are told in brief prose as you unlock each skill, until a full picture is painted.
Similar to Souls, you earn tar from defeating enemies, and then that tar is used to spend on the aforementioned abilities.
It’s a really clever way to build character, to add an intriguing layer of narrative to the game, but also create some fresh gameplay as each character has different skills, specialising in different forms of combat.
But it goes deeper still as if you lose all your health in combat, your essence is ejected from the mortal shell and you’re left in your original vulnerable state. You’ll have another chance to dive back into the shell and ‘live again’ but if you’re caught by the aggressive enemies, one hit and you’ll need to start over.
Another way to defend yourself is using a ‘hardening’ skill which essentially turns your shell into stone, blocking a strike from an enemy and sometimes staggering them backwards. This leaves them open to a neat counterattack but must be timed perfectly.
It mostly replaces the shield defense in the early stages, but can also be accompanied by some clever evading. Overtime, this ability also evolves in some really interesting ways to help you keep pace with your enemies.
Mortal Shell is all about timing, some enemies are slow paced and scrappy, whereas some enemies will surprise you with startling agility and more strikes than you’d expect.
And by removing some of the features from more recent Souls games, splicing in some elements of its own, Mortal Shell feels closer to a throwback of the OG Souls. A charm which is sure to delight some fans and send shivers down the spine of others.
Mortal Shell is a pretty solid video game all told. It’s got decent polish, there’s a diverse army of enemies, and the game is good at signposting / telling you where to go without being intrusive using a unique visions system, showing you where you need to go next.
The area is open wide for you to explore, though, enabling you to find a way around that feels natural and logical to you, and you can gradually unlock different weapons – some more effective than others against certain enemy types.
Unlocking weapons is also pretty unique, forcing you to fight a mini boss in a dark, water soaked arena, with the only way out being to win or consumed by an oversized worm. The Nidhogg vibes are strong.
Oh, and the only way IN to the battle is to get bitten by a page that morphs into a spider. So it’s all a pretty big giant nope, really.
When all these things are in play, the world of Mortal Shell is usually a good one to explore. There’s not a lot of narrative explanation outside of the character prose and you’ll often find yourself creeping into every room, staying on your toes from enemies trying to jump out and claw your face off. That can get a bit tedious, at times.
But as Dark Souls clones goes, this is absolutely one of the best ones I’ve played in recent times, and it evolves the formula in some really smart, intelligent ways.
There are rumours the Demon Souls remake might be closer at hand than we first thought, but even if it is, Mortal Shell more than makes a good accounting for itself as the Soulslike of choice in 2020. If you’re looking for that hard as nails, gripping adventure that rewards patience and precision like few others on the market right now, you’ve come to the right murky swampland.
Mortal Shell is now available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One
Tested on PS4 and Xbox One
Code supplied by publisher