#Review: Mortal Shell (PS4)

I did a curious thing while playing Mortal Shell. I was enjoying myself, but it’s a short game, and when I realized that basically all I had to do was to beat the final boss and I was done with it I actually stopped playing for almost a week. I feel like there’s something inherently contradictory about not playing a game because you don’t want it to end, but that’s what I did, and I just sat down and actually beat it on Friday.

Mortal Shell is a soulslike, a $30, 12-15 hour game created by a dev team of less than 20 people, and I think how much you like it will be determined by how much you like the Dark Souls/Bloodborne/Nioh/Sekiro style of games and how much you have been itching for a new one lately. For my part, I enjoy them very, very much, as anyone who pays attention to my game posts is surely already aware, so it was a pretty good time for me, especially at only $30. Your mileage may vary, of course.

The good stuff: Combat is surprisingly fun, and the weapons feel like they’re hitting and doing damage; there’s a good tactile sense to battles, and the game’s decision to replace blocking with a shield with a “hardening” mechanic, where you can basically turn your body to stone on a moment’s notice, mixes things up interestingly. Healing is tied to a few items that heal over time and don’t heal much at that, and a parry mechanic, where your counterstrike to a parry will heal you as well. I was never especially good at timing parries, but the better you are at that the easier time you’ll have while you’re alive.

There is no level-up mechanism for your character at all, although you can unlock passive bonuses and attacks for your characters by earning “glimpses” as you play. There aren’t really classes either, being replaced with four “shells”– basically bodies that your spirit can wear that have differing levels of health and stamina and different unlockable abilities. There are four weapons, each of which has two additional special attacks that can be unlocked by finding items in the game world, and each of which can also be leveled up in damage.

The thing is, unless you’re willing to do an enormous amount of grinding, there’s no way to unlock all the abilities for all of your Shells over the course of a single playthrough, and while you can (and probably will) find all of the extra-ability items for all four weapons in one playthrough there are not enough of the damage-increasing items to go around, and you can’t grind for those. So in practice, while the game offers some choice, you’re going to settle on one Shell and one weapon that you like pretty quickly (and the weapon will be the hammer and spike, because it’s notably superior to the other three) and you’ll max those out and that’ll be all you use. The weapon imbalance is so stark that I really don’t see anyone disagreeing with me about it; even people who are using other weapons online have been framing it as using the sword “instead of” the hammer, for example.

I was a fan of the sound design, although the music is forgettable– having beaten the game I can’t remember any of the main music themes, but the thwacks and thumps and ambient noises are pretty damn good. The graphics are … okay. Graphics are not something I usually even notice unless they’re especially noteworthy, but this game absolutely loves muted colors and grey and brown, and that’s really all you’re going to get. Level design is excellently twisty and turny and everything connects together nicely, but the quick travel item that you unlock toward the end of the game is very welcome and I never did get especially good at finding my way around, mostly because of the aforementioned sameyness of the graphics. There are a few clear landmarks that will help, but it’s mostly a matter of remembering what’s near each of the landmarks and then wandering around until you find whatever you’re trying to find.

The difficulty level is weird, too. The lack of healing items means that unless you master the parry and hardening mechanics you’re going to have a hard time until you get the hammer leveled up, at which point nearly everything becomes trivial. I had to fight the first boss with an unfamiliar weapon (the game doesn’t tell you what items do until you try them, and it turned out that the item I tried summoned a weapon I didn’t want, and didn’t have a way to turn it back because the level I was on was the one level where something happens and you can’t leave until you kill the boss, and I didn’t have the item to summon the weapon I wanted back) and that took probably an hour of trying, but every other boss, including the final one, I absolutely annihilated. I needed two tries on the final boss because it turns out that there’s a bug involving one of his attacks and your dodge, and if they both happen at the same time you get slammed through the floor of the arena and die. That was it.

Boss design was pretty cool, though, especially the boss of the obsidian palace.

So, yeah– Mortal Shell is probably a 7/10 or an 8/10 if you’re being generous, but if you’re as into the Soulslike genre of game as I am, it’s still worth checking out, particularly at the $30 price point. It’s not going to change your world, but it’s a pretty good time.

Next: beat Desperados III, which I bailed on when Nioh 2 came out.