I’ll never forget the moment when Dark Souls—a near-perfect video game—began to show its flaws. It was in the Demon Ruins, a brown, rocky, lava-filled zone with large open areas. In a game that had, up to that point, challenged me in an almost endless series of new and surprising ways, I now faced a line of huge Taurus Demons. These creatures were all the same, all standing around, strategically spaced out, waiting for me to approach. In numbers they would easily overwhelm me, so I got to taking them out, one by one, repeating the same tactics over and over. And if I died? Over and over again.
This stretch of challenging-but-repetitive, copy/paste enemies was one of many. After seven Taurus Demons, five Capra Demons stood idly. The Demon Ruins were the worst of the game’s later areas. It was indicative of a game that went on a bit too long.
By my count, From Software never made this mistake again. I’ll never forget my first time with the opening half of the original Dark Souls, but it’s their last three games—Bloodborne, Dark Souls 3, and Sekiro—that take the top spots in my eyes.
That’s all to say that From Software has made a lot of these games, and they’ve learned a lot. They’ve evolved them, intentionally straying from some elements fans loved in order to forge new ground. All the while, other studios have attempted to emulate the formula, to varying degrees of success.
I’ve played a lot of them too. From Nioh and The Surge, to Salt & Sanctuary and Ashen, I’ve seen a sort of action RPG subgenre emerge firsthand: the Souls-like.
Remember Doom clones? If you grew up in the 90s, games like Duke Nukem 3D, Hexen, and Marathon weren’t called first-person shooters. They were called “Doom clones”. The idea that Doom and Wolfenstein were the heralds of a new genre hadn’t really been established yet, and the games that Doom inspired didn’t always have a clear identity of their own.
The Souls-like genre has a lot of “Doom clone” energy to it. Everyone is still figuring out what the genre conventions are. Some games copy the mechanics, others copy the tone or storytelling style. And few of the games can truly compare to the series that started it all.
Which brings us to Mortal Shell. It’s impossible to talk about Mortal Shell without talking about Dark Souls. It’s impossible to talk about Mortal Shell without talking about this weird subgenre.
I should probably just talk about this game already, but I’m talking in circles for a reason.
It started in a group chat with my friends and my wife—all fans of From Software games—and we got to talking about Mortal Shell. My wife saw I was having fun with the game, and she was excited to share a recommendation with a group who technically should be interested.
The thing was, while I was truly enjoying my time with Mortal Shell, I really had nothing to say to them. Why would I sell my friends on a game that, while great in many ways, sat several rungs down a massive ladder of original Souls games and clones? Some of these people haven’t even played Sekiro yet!
My wife reads a lot of Young Adult (YA) fantasy and sci-fi novels. Like, a lot a lot. It feels like every week she’s reading a new book about witches—blood witches, tree witches, light witches, dark witches, witches of every element and style you can imagine—and yet she can’t seem to get enough. The fanbase knows these books. They all talk about them together, and they voraciously devour the next one.
That’s what Mortal Shell is like. It’s the seventeenth YA witch book in your collection. You wouldn’t recommend it to the friend who read Harry Potter once and thought Hermione was cool.
Have you played Nioh 2? Have you played Remnant: From the Ashes? Have you replayed Bloodborne lately? If you didn’t read the five REALLY good YA witch books, why are you eyeing number seventeen?
And just like those YA witch books my wife can’t get enough of, Mortal Shell is steeped in all the tropes and idiosyncrasies of its subgenre.
Remember the Demon Ruins? The seven Taurus Demons and the five Capra Demons? Remember how From Software never made that mistake again?
You fight the same enemies A LOT in Mortal Shell. The hub world is a forest-y swamp with maybe five different enemy types. The game’s three dungeons offer up their own unique sets of enemies, but even then, most of the enemies wear out their welcome.
In one dungeon, a vast open-air network of obsidian bridges and stairwells, I was transported back to Dark Souls’ Demon Ruins all over again. Before me was a huge floating bridge of shattered crystals, and dotted all over it were the same enemies copy/pasted over and over. I was already tired of fighting them by the time I made it to this bridge, and I immediately started running past all of them.
The game didn’t really have a problem with this. Running is a pretty common tactic in Souls games, and Mortal Shell sticks to the playbook. It’s still bad design, but it doesn’t cause a lot of friction either.
Mortal Shell is full of small issues like this. In Dark Souls, the occasional enemy will hide around a corner to jump out and surprise you. Here, half the enemies in the game are lying in wait, just out of view. In Dark Souls, some of the bosses have a surprise second (or third) phase, where they change forms and introduce all new attacks. Here, almost every boss has a second phase and an extra health bar, just because. They barely change up tactics at all.
On paper this stuff is pretty annoying. But in practice this is a game for the seasoned fan of Souls-like games. Mortal Shell is just like that seventeenth YA witch book. It’s for the fans of the genre. No one is surprised reading the YA witch book when a love triangle is introduced or the heroes miraculously survive due to a cheesy deus ex machina. And no one gets too mad when the fun Dark Souls knock-off doesn’t totally understand what’s good and bad about the original games—as long as it’s reasonably fun.
The other thing about the book or game or comic or whatever-it-is that’s so far down the fan rabbit hole that you can barely recommend it to anyone, is that sometimes they have some cool new ideas too. And Mortal Shell, as derivative as it is, still managed to surprise me.
Remember that pesky blood vial system in Bloodborne that led to hours of unnecessary grinding? Here, the primary health items are mushrooms picked from familiar spots in the world. They regrow on a timer. Additional health items can be purchased from a shop at the hub, but for the most part you can play organically and get by. Mortal Shell is 1/4th of the length of Bloodborne and nowhere near as difficult, but it still feels refreshing to just play and not worry about resources running low, or having to spend an hour grinding to prep for a boss fight.
All of these games handle leveling up your character in different ways. Some let you grind enough to lower the difficulty to your preference, where others simply reward new perks that keep the game interesting without adjusting the challenge. Mortal Shell splits the difference.
The shell system provides a sort of swappable character class. Each shell is essentially a dead warrior’s body that you inhabit, taking on their stats and abilities. While they each have a unique set of perks to unlock, you can’t level them up beyond that. If one warrior has a tiny health bar and a stamina bar that stretches across half the screen, that’s just how it is. But, if you want a lot of health instead, you can swap to the shell that suits you. This makes it easy to change up your playstyle on the fly, without having to respec your entire character sheet.
The game also handles blocking quite a bit differently from other Souls-likes. Rather than carry around a shield, your warrior has the ability to “harden”, turning to stone until you release the block button or take a hit. Once broken from this state you can’t harden again until a brief cooldown timer passes. Enemies that hit against your stone statue body also get knocked back briefly, allowing you to go for some risky counterattacks.
Beyond that, you can knock away attacks with a properly-timed parry and (if you have a segment of your resolve meter filled) follow-up with a powerful riposte that can regain health, slow down time, or cause enemies to explode.
A generous dodge roll seems to have an almost endless supply of invincibility frames, making it pretty easy to get out of trouble as long as you can keep your stamina up.
And if that wasn’t enough, Mortal Shell has a riff on Sekiro’s “die twice” mechanic. When you run out of health, you’re knocked out of your shell and left with very little health. If you’re careful, you can run back to your shell and inhabit it once again.
These layers of mechanics strip-mined from various Souls-likes all work together to provide a baseline of survivability beyond what I was used to. The result was long, risky runs through each dungeon, sometimes without dying, moving from one safe point to the next. It felt dangerous and exhilarating, without the usual friction of replaying the same sequences again and again that’s a hallmark of these games.
The end result was a sort of ideal, comfortable difficulty level. Mortal Shell is harder than a lot of other games, but in terms of Souls-likes—especially after playing so many of them—it’s very forgiving. I still died, I still ran out of healing items and scrambled with a sliver of health, but I spent most of the game in a sort of Souls-like comfort zone.
And so that’s where I land with this game. It’s for a subset of players that devour every one of these games. It’s not a good intro to the genre, nor is it as good as the originals or many of their copycats. It’s not the game that will give you a lot of street cred or challenge those who are on their tenth Sekiro run. It’s just a fun, atmospheric, moody one of these games. I don’t know anyone I’d recommend it to, but I hope you’re the person that makes it to the end of this review and realizes this is the game for you.