It's hard to separate talking about Mortal Shell from discussing the Souls games--Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice--because developer Cold Symmetry has obviously created a love letter to From Software's work. But Mortal Shell isn't a simple retread. It adds ideas and mechanics that shift your way of thinking about its duelist-style combat. Mortal Shell is a small-scale Souls-like game, demanding less of an investment of time and frustration. It feels tuned for more casual players--people who have been interested in this brand of experience, but who maybe struggled in the twitch reactions department--while still striking all the same essential nerves.
You play a faceless, voiceless being dubbed "The Foundling," more akin to a spirit than a person, who leaves what seems to be a sort of astral plane in order to venture into a decaying, poisonous world known as Fallgrim. There, you meet various characters who give typically spooky, cryptic speeches about the gradual degradation of the world and the religious zealots who populate it. Practically, just about anyone you come across wants to murder you, and in your white spirit-ish form, you're little match for them--one hit will destroy you.
To survive, you need a better body, which is where the name Mortal Shell comes from. You're able to inhabit the corpses, or shells, of some tough warriors you find along the way, which make you a little less prone to instant death. The four shells in the game each play a little differently from one another, providing a set of different character builds you can swap between as you play. Each also has unique special perks you can unlock in a typically Souls-like way by spending currencies you earn from killing enemies--currencies you can permanently lose if you're killed and don't retrieve them from your own dead body. The four shells keep Mortal Shell approachable, as you only need to learn how to handle each one (or just your favorite), rather than worry about developing the stats of an RPG-style character build.
Combat in Mortal Shell owes its underlying basics to Dark Souls and Bloodborne, functioning in almost the exact same way. You have a faster light attack and a slower heavy attack, as well as a backstep that you can convert into a roll to dodge your enemies. How much you can swing your sword and how many times you can dodge are dictated by a stamina gauge, which quickly refills when you're not swinging away or rolling like mad.
There's also a parry and riposte that's almost exactly like Bloodborne's Visceral attack, but with a different essential function. If you can time a parry correctly, the riposte attack you get afterward restores health, making it the most reliable way to heal yourself in the game--otherwise, you're reliant on consumable items you find around the world. You can't activate the parry unless you build up a meter called Resolve, however, which you get by dealing damage. So while harden is a defensive ability that gives you options for waiting and letting your opponents come at you, the Resolve system pushes you to be more aggressive, landing hits and making parries so you can stay alive.
The thing that sets Mortal Shell apart from its inspirations is the "harden" ability, something intrinsic to your spiritual form that you bring to each of the shells you inhabit. When you harden, you briefly turn to stone, allowing you to tank a hit before the stone breaks. Blocking a hit with harden will also often stagger your opponent as their blow bounces off you, putting them slightly off-balance. Harden has a short cooldown, so you can't use it constantly--it's meant for strategic activations, particularly as you're facing a volley of blows or even when you're in the middle of your own attack animation. You can start a swing and harden midway through, ignoring your opponents' attacks so you can land your own.
The harden ability provides a whole new set of essential strategies to Mortal Shell's combat. Hardening lets you turn yourself into a Trojan Horse, baiting your enemies to attack you so you can get in under their guard. Especially with tougher bosses, the key to victory is almost always to strategically harden yourself so you can score a hit when you'd otherwise be eviscerated. Used mid-fight, it can let you slam your way through enemies, keeping your own string of devastating blows going while knocking your prey off-balance and mitigating any punishment your aggression would earn you.
Harden makes Mortal Shell's combat calculating and deliberate, and along with a very forgiving dodge that leaves you nigh-on invincible, also lessens Mortal Shell's difficulty--without necessarily tipping you off that the game is somewhat less brutal than its inspirations. And that seems to be the alchemy Cold Symmetry is going for. Mortal Shell feels like a Dark Souls game, pushing you to build skills, study enemies, carefully dole out resources, and intelligently mix aggressive and defensive play. But it's also one where you can dodge through basically any enemy attack or ignore them altogether by hardening to score a free hit. These abilities still allow combat to feel intense most of the time in Mortal Shell, but the game also doesn't expect you to spend hours defeating a single boss.
The big drawback of Mortal Shell's combat system is that it's easy to become too reliant on hardening to slowly chip away at enemies and bosses, one slice at a time. One boss fight comes down to pretty much turning to stone, landing a hit, then dodging to avoid any reprisals, and repeating that process for five or 10 minutes until it's all over. This combination is actually a viable strategy in many of the fights in the game, and it can turn battles against some of your tougher opponents into lengthy, plodding slogs where you never feel like you're in any real danger.
And while you get a smattering of weapons and shells, there are definitely major incentives to sticking with just one of each for most of a run as you unlock upgrades and damage increases. I'd loved to have spent more time with the huge Martyr Blade or the fire-infused Smoldering Mace, but being comfortable with the first sword you come by makes it a lot more reliable for winning fights and avoiding the punishment of death.
Mortal Shell's big focus outside of combat is on exploration, and it's part of every other system of the game. You spend most of your time exploring Fallgrim, and as you do, you'll soon happen across its three huge temples, which stand as Zelda-like dungeons and house three Sacred Glands you need to claim from the bosses within. Each temple is markedly different from the others and provides some gorgeous, inventive locales to fight through, including a deep, icy cave, a flaming crypt, and a twisted obsidian tower that would be right at home in a game like Control or Destiny 2. Each location feels specific to the challenges within, and exploring them is a treat as you're rewarded with lore and weapon upgrades for checking every corner.
You're not just exploring the physical space of Mortal Shell, but also what you find there. This manifests in the Familiarity system, which implores you to try the items you come across in the game and to deepen your understanding of them. You might find a strange mushroom, a hunk of rotten meat, or a batch of dubious moonshine, but you won't know how any will affect you until you stuff them in your face. Using an item once uncovers its properties, but continuing to use it builds Familiarity, making it more effective. You can even build Familiarity with inconsequential items--use a lute enough times and you'll get really good at playing it, even though it serves no purpose except to listen to a short bit of music and maybe entertain the occasional non-player character.
The Familiarity system pays off experimentation and encourages your curiosity, helping to ground you in Mortal Shell's world in some cool ways. Snacking on a mushroom got me poisoned and then immediately killed in one early fight, but after eating a few more (despite my better judgment), my Familiarity made poison mushrooms give me poison resistance. You find Effigy items that allow you to switch between shells while you're out in the world, but you take damage every time you summon one--unless you build Familiarity with the effigies, which cuts back on the penalty. You also can unlock additional lore tidbits on items the more you use them, to further play up the sense that you're learning about Mortal Shell's world as you wander through it.
You even can explore the shells you find, which is where the drip-feed of Mortal Shell's story mostly resides. As you unlock perks for the shells, you're treated to "glimpses" into their former lives and the people they were, which show connections to other characters you encounter and give you some information about what's going on in Fallgrim through your shells' experiences. In typical Souls fashion, however, you'll have to make the major leaps on your own, and after one run through the game, I'm not sure the story ever comes together into anything more coherent than a bunch of interesting lore tidbits from shells, item descriptions, and short snatches of dialogue.
And it's in some of that exploration that Mortal Shell stumbles most. The swampy Fallgrim area that connects the dungeons all tends to look the same, with few clues as to where one section is in relationship to another, or how they link together. You only need to get to those three temples to advance the game, and yet I wandered around for a while trying to find the right path forward, often accidentally stumbling back over ground I'd already covered, or winding up back where I started.
There are also times when enemy placement can feel frustrating or cheap. Mortal Shell really likes to ambush you with combatants you can't see until they show up, so much so that it's easy to get overwhelmed at a few points, forcing you to run back through big, confusing areas that can feel like a drag. Mortal Shell is built to put you through a gauntlet every time clear a dungeon, forcing you to run back all the way to the starting point while facing a new onslaught of enemies, and save points are just distant enough that dying feels irritatingly prohibitive if you make a mistake or get caught in a corner. With Mortal Shell placing a premium on healing items, you can easily find yourself fresh out of roasted rats and medicinal mushrooms, leaving you pretty much dependent on a lucky break to make it to the next checkpoint.
Still, Mortal Shell succeeds more often than not at capturing the specific feelings intrinsic to Souls-like games. The twists it adds to From-inspired mechanics do well to help this sort of game become more approachable than most, while maintaining the same air of mystery and foreboding that makes the genre itself so intriguing. Mortal Shell makes for a strong introduction to Souls-likes, a demonstration for new players of what so many have found so interesting about From Software's games and those like them. But Mortal Shell is also a lovingly crafted, weird, and deceptively deep game in its own right that rewards you for wandering its twisted paths and challenging its deadliest foes.