#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.

#REVIEW: Ghost of Tsushima (PS4)

I have had an absolutely ridiculous run of amazingly good samurai-themed games lately– in fact, it’s fair to say that it’s nearly all I’ve played this year. First there was Nioh, which completely devoured my life. Then Sekiro, which absolutely ate my life. Then Nioh 2, which ate my life worse than Sekiro did. And lately it’s been Ghost of Tsushima, which …

Holy shit, y’all.

Every so often while playing a video game I will take a moment, look around, and reflect that I started playing video games with Pong on an Atari, and now I play games that look like this:

To say that this is the most beautiful game I have ever played is an understatement, because it implies that there has been competition. I have played games that were graphically amazing. Tons of ’em. But I have never played a game that was anywhere close to as beautiful as Ghost of Tsushima is. The game is set mostly in fall, with the northern part of Tsushima island already gripped by winter, so you’re spending the majority of your time running around in sun-dappled, brightly colored forests or over fresh-fallen snow that glitters exactly the way the real thing does. The human models in this game are like nothing I have ever seen before– and that’s coming off of Last of Us II, which I thought set a very high bar for facial modeling. My first thought upon seeing Khotun Khan, the Mongol general who is the villain of the game, was that the man had an incredible intelligence behind his eyes. I have never encountered a character in a video game who I, personally, wanted to sit and have a talk with. Toward the end of the game, there is a sequence where a character knows he needs to do something that he very much does not want to do, and there are tears in his eyes. I have seen real people crying real tears who were less convincing.

But beyond the graphics: this is an open world game that has managed to keep to the outlines of what is expected of an open world game in 2020 with none of the associated annoyances. It seems like such a minor thing, but if a character has to go with you somewhere, and you start running? The other character starts running. The collectibles and flowers and crafting materials that are strewn everywhere can be picked up on the fly, without getting off your horse. Hell, riding your horse is fun and not an exercise in watching for a tiny rock or copse of trees that will send the two of you flying and kill the horse. (I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption II.) Controls, across the board, are tight and fluid, and combat is an absolute Goddamned joy; after the first third of the game or so it’s a little on the easy side on the default difficulty level but there are two or three above that, and I find that feeling like a supreme badass in this type of game is more fun than the challenging combat offered by Nioh 2 or Sekiro. I could have made it harder, but I didn’t want it to be, so it’s not much of a complaint.

(I was incandescently angry about the camera and the lack of a lock-on for about the first 10% of the game, until I got used to it. The reason no one was complaining about how terrible the camera was, which really confused me, was because you do get used to it and the game wants combat to be more fluid than a lock-on system allows. It works, it was just a rough transition coming over from Nioh 2.)

The game encourages exploration, because of course it does; there are things to do and little nooks and crannies all over the place with little bits of story hidden in them. One of my favorite things about the game was the way it used natural elements like the wind (there is an actual gameplay reason why the game is set in autumn), or birds, or foxes, or fireflies, to guide you toward points of interest. I didn’t figure out the firefly thing until maybe 2/3 of the way through the game; it’s subtle, and I’m pretty sure the game itself never mentions it.

You can pet the foxes, a lot of the time, and writing the occasional haiku is part of the gameplay. Being able to pet foxes made this game 22.7% better and it was already a great game.

I enjoyed both the story and the main character more than a lot of people seem to have; I’ve seen some gripes about him being a thin character or the story being a little cut-and-paste and I don’t agree with them. Jin Sakai’s emotional journey through the story feels real, and more importantly, his relationships with the other characters also feel real, and it’s those relationships that pull you through the game. The voice acting is … good, I guess, although you shouldn’t take my opinion too seriously because I listened to it in Japanese. Nobody struck me as goofy, though, which can be an occasional problem in these types of games. It’s possible that if I understood Japanese I wouldn’t like the voice actors as much, but I doubt it.

It would be reasonable, I suppose, to gripe that the game is a bit too dude-centric. Jin is male, and you can’t choose his gender at the beginning of the game or alter anything about his appearance. (Armor, yes. Facial features and hair, no.) His uncle, a major figure, is male. Khotun Khan is male. Nearly every random mook you fight throughout the game is male; all of the Mongols are, although you do fight a couple of duels against non-Mongol female characters at a couple of points. There is one female antagonist during one quest line who you never fight, and three of the major supporting characters are female. But, oh, man, Masako and Yuna, in particular, are amazing, and the sad little story the game tells with Yuriko, Jin’s childhood caretaker, is as nuanced and real as anything else in the game.

Yuna is the closest the game comes to a love interest; there are some very broad hints that she and Jin are developing feelings for each other that are never acted on, and the two of them get drunk together at one point (my God, Jin’s eyes during the bit where he was drunk were amazing) and maybe share a meaningful look right before some hell breaks loose, but she is a grown-ass woman and she is a badass and she has no time for anybody’s bullshit, including several men who at least on paper should be far more powerful than her, and I loved every second of her. She’s also never once used for sex appeal, which was damned refreshing. Masako was fascinating for other reasons– I could write another thousand words on how this game deals with revenge, especially, again, after TLOU2— but while you don’t get a lot of female or non-cishet representation in this game what you do get is definitely memorable.

So, yeah– if this isn’t Game of the Year it is awfully close, and while I’ll get more hours of gameplay out of Nioh 2, on the balance this is probably a better game and it’s certainly a more impressive achievement. If you own a PS4 and don’t pick this one up you are doing yourself a disservice, and frankly this is probably worth buying a PS4 for all by itself. I loved the hell out of it. You should play it.

In which I review THE LAST OF US 2 without ever playing it

I loved The Last Of Us— I bought a PS3 basically just so that I could play it, and I called it the best game of 2013 after I beat it. If you’re not familiar with that review– and why would you be, since I wrote it seven years ago– you might want to give it a quick read before you read this. Also, I intend to spoil the hell out of the sequel, so if you’re going to read this you should probably have either already beaten the game or not plan to play it. Lemme throw a separator in here to help you out:


If you didn’t read the previous review, here’s the important parts: I really connected with this game as a dad, and that resulted in 1) paternal feelings toward Ellie that made the part where you play as her, and thus get killed over and over and over again, really emotionally difficult, and 2) totally understanding why the game ended by forcing you to gun down the scientists who were trying to find a cure for the Cordyceps fungus– because it would have killed Ellie, and there’s just no universe where Joel would have ever allowed that to happen.

I got all kinds of whispers and rumors about this game before it came out that made me feel like playing it– especially right now, with all the other shit going on in the world and in my life– was not going to be an emotionally sound decision. Kotaku called the damn game a “misery simulator.” I don’t need that. But … damn, it was the sequel to what is still one of the best games I’ve ever played! Made by the same people! How do I just ignore this?

I decided to watch a Let’s Play on YouTube instead, which would provide me with the game’s story– in this case, most of what I cared about– and allow me the ability to either 1) buy the game if I decided that’s what I wanted or 2) nope out at any time. And so for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a couple of half-hour episodes a day as they’ve been being released, and up until last night I was more or less still secure in my decision but also thinking eeeh, I probably could have bought this, but never really coming close to the point where I needed to. Plus, it’s violent as hell, to the point where I don’t want my son exposed to it yet, so I’d only have been able to play after he went to bed. This decision worked for me, is what I’m saying.

Well, the guy I’m watching isn’t as into the story as I am, and after having to watch him complain through one of the quieter parts in the denouement at the end of the game, I decided fuck it and went ahead and Googled the spoilers for the rest of the game. And this is where I’m exercising my nope the fuck out option and not even watching the rest, because despite having watched probably 90-95% of it the game has somehow saved a good 2/3 of its assholery for the final minutes.

Huh. I haven’t actually spoiled anything yet.

Here’s the thing: The Last of Us 2’s central thesis is that every decision you can possibly make is going to lead to loss and heartache. That there are no good people, that there is no forgiveness in the world, that where forgiveness does exist it is a fatal mistake, and there is no way, ever, to do the right thing. That the right thing is in fact an illusory concept from the beginning. It’s going to come back and bite you in the ass eventually no matter what you do. Literally every decision any character in this story makes leads to pain. Every single one. There are two moderately sympathetic characters, neither of which are playable, and both of them are put through utter hell. The two protagonists, Ellie and Abby, are both repeatedly shown to be awful people, and I think Ellie absolutely gets the shorter stick in that regard, so if you, like me, came into this game predisposed to like her as a character because you viewed her as a daughter … well, be prepared for the game to hurt you for that as well.

Every decision every character makes in this game leads to the death of their friends and family members. Every single one. And in case you’ve picked up elsewhere– because I haven’t talked about it yet– that revenge is a major theme of the game, be aware that the game shits on its characters both for seeking revenge and for not seeking revenge. Both are terrible mistakes. You cannot escape them.

I, uh, don’t need this in my escapist fiction right now. There’s a place for depressing entertainment out there, but I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that your average Holocaust movie is told with a lot more hope for humanity than The Last of Us 2. There is nothing but nihilism here, nothing at all, and I don’t need it.

The gameplay looks to be about exactly the same as the first one, by the by. That’s a recommendation; if a semi-stealth shooter with absolutely gorgeous graphics is what you’re looking for and you’re capable of ignoring the story you probably will have a good time with this. I can’t; or at least I can’t with this particular series. I’m not even watching the last couple of episodes now that I know how it ends. I’m fucked up enough from reading about them; I don’t need it in my head. I’ve got enough real emotional stress right now without letting fictional misery in.

Ignore this one

Be it known that after 132 hours spread across my first two playthroughs and an additional 85 hours spread across my second two, and three months and five days after the game’s release date, I have now played through Nioh 2 four complete times, and that unless I decide to go through all of the Twilight missions and beat all of those, I have well and truly exhausted all of the game’s content until the DLC packs start releasing.

… and let’s be honest, I’m probably going to go through those Twilight missions too. Maybe not twice; my Onmyo build has definitely emerged as my favorite, so I’ll probably just do them on that build.

Favorite game of all time? Entirely possible. While I own games I’ve played through four times (at least a couple of the Soulsborne games, all of which I’ve played through at least twice, and I think I’ve got 4 playthroughs of DS3 and Bloodborne by now) I have not ever since the days of the old-school original Nintendo played through the same goddamn game four times before moving on to something else. Nor have I ever ponied up money for DLC before it was released, and I’ve already bought all of it. Nor, to this date, have I gotten every single trophy for any PS4 or PS3 game, although there were a few Xbox 360 games I did that with.

Good job, Team Ninja.


Damn right I am Nioh.