To call Dark Souls one of the most important games of the last decade would be somewhat of an understatement if you actually look back at how it shaped the gaming landscape since its release in 2011. Thanks to From Software's brutally difficult but unique landmark RPG, the Souls-like sub-genre was born that housed any and all games that adapted some of the game's mechanics, features or styles - namely its difficulty and trademark game design. There have been plenty of admirable attempts to replicate the Souls formula, but few have succeeded - Mortal Shell makes a very compelling argument for itself too.
My impressions of Mortal Shell are based on the recent PC beta, and do not reflect the final product in any way as I did come across a few bugs, glitches and areas of the game that are still in need of some polishing. That said, I managed to get a good idea of what it felt like to play Mortal Shell. I was cautiously optimistic about the game as it had all the makings of a visually striking and grim dark fantasy world that I always find myself drawn to, but I wondered how it may differentiate itself enough to not feel like a carbon copy of Dark Souls. For the most part, Mortal Shell really nails its Souls-like combat and atmosphere, though lacks in other areas.
To get the positives out of the way first, the combat is fantastic. It's weighty, tanky in all the right ways, and you really feel the swing of these massive weapons as they connect with enemies. The beta starts you off on the Fallgrim Outskirts, the world of Mortal Shell. A small tutorial area with a quick boss fight introduces you to your husk of a character; a hollow-looking walking corpse that acts as your "default" appearance. You eventually learn the ability of "Harden", a useful tool that allows you to become a stone statue for a second to block deadly oncoming attacks, but the trade-off is you can only tank one hit at a time. It's good for surviving a potentially fatal blow, but I found myself relying on it less and less the more I got the hang of combat. Much like any From Software game, the levels are also littered with various healing and combat items featuring vague descriptions and lore bits.
Speaking of how combat flows, Mortal Shell is so similar in DNA to Dark Souls, that even the controls can feel just as tanky at times. However, this isn't a bad thing. The game forces you into a certain kind of rhythm, where it isn't as fast as Dark Souls III, but not slow enough that it feels like a slog. It strikes a great balance of tactical positioning and momentum in the action to be engaging. The attacks land with a satisfying crunch, and thanks to parrying, you're able to gain something called Resolve that allows you to perform specific weapon skills or counter attacks with a direct follow-up when parrying. On that note, parrying is not easy, unfortunately, as it can be deceptively tough to predict when an enemy attack will land, but it trains you to be attentive at all times.
Along your journey, you'll come across Shells that basically act as your different pre-rendered builds; bodies you can possess to gain their various abilities and gameplay styles. While there'll be more to choose from in the game, the beta only offered two shells, Tiel and Harros. Harros is the first that you come across, and seems to be your typical strength/dexterity build. It's meant to accommodate an all-purpose kind of playstyle, but it felt necessary in teaching you the basics. Tiel also opens up later on, and it's clearly focused on the assassin/stealth kind of approach as it allows you to dissipate into smoke (much like hardening) to avoid deadly attacks.
For the most part, the gameplay is this delicate - and very deliberate - dance of brutally tough gameplay. Where it most resembles Dark Souls is in its difficulty, and just how the game generally flows from one combat encounter to the next, forcing you to think strategically, consider your positioning, and use all tools at your disposal. It all gels together rather well, and there wasn't a second where I wasn't enjoying my time with Mortal Shell's beta.
Unfortunately, since this is just a beta, there is still evidently a lot of work to be done in polishing the game. Enemy hitboxes are questionable at times (some would say downright unfair), and there are instances of texture pop-ins, janky AI, and the combat sometimes having this weightless feeling depending on your weapon choice - though I encountered this problem with the faster weapon variants. It's also both an easy and tough game to sell to avid Souls players because it caters a lot to the Dark Souls crowds, but some would say it crosses that line of even being a clone. I don't personally believe that entirely since Mortal Shell has enough to distinguish itself, but there will be debate surrounding this.
Overall, Mortal Shell really surprised me. From the 2-3 hours that I did manage to play, I found a lot to love and a bit to be hesitant about. It's a love-letter to the Souls formula, and echoes all the right dark fantasy beats (and crushing sense of isolation and desperation) to feel like home yet again. If you're in the market for a Souls-like that comes pretty damn close to the tone, style and gameplay of Dark Souls (and does what Lords of the Fallen tragically failed to do), I'd wager that Mortal Shell is the closest one yet.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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