I have a confession to make: I have never played Dark Souls. Actually, that’s a lie. I did play a bit of the first one back on the Xbox 360 when it originally released. It didn’t click with me though as the frustration caused by retreading an hour’s worth of ground in order to get back to where I died proved far too irritating despite the game’s fantastic visual aesthetic.

Ever since then. I’ve never even thought about returning to the series, although I have played many games since that supposedly have ‘soulslike’ design. Mortal Shell, however, is the first indie game I’ve come across that evokes the FromSoftware classic both in terms of visual and gameplay style. With the trailer looking absolutely stunning, I couldn’t resist giving it a try.

Why do I open with this lengthy prologue, I hear you ask? Well, my history with the game means that I have very little experience with the Dark Souls series and as such will be only to make vague comparisons. This will allow me to judge the game on its own merits, but it also means that I’ll also be incredibly bad at the game compared to hardened veterans of the Souls series.

Let’s see if I can actually get through this one!

Many thanks to Playstack for the review code.

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HIGHWAY TO SHELL
The game throws you into the action without so much of a care for plot, as you find yourself in control of a pale androgynous husk in a smoky dreamscape. The basic movement controls are introduced to you before you’re given access to a sword and a strong opponent who you’ll no doubt die to. Before he can deal the killing blow, however, you’re transported to the murky swampscapes of Fallgrim wondering what the hell is going on.

Shortly after exiting a rather cramped tunnel, the main conceit of the game is introduced. A fallen warrior lies on the floor, and you’re able to take control of his body to use as your puppet.  Whilst this concept may bring back memories of Geist, an underrated Gamecube classic that had you taking control of various bodies in order to use their weapons and abilities in order to fight, it’s actually not like that at all. Rather than being able to take over any body, you’re only allowed to take control of a handful of vessels that are scattered across the central hub. They largely control the same, albeit with varying health, stamina, and so on, but their unique unlockable abilities are what sets them apart from one another. My particular favourite was a chunky Knight fella that has an obscenely large health bar, but the fast rogue with his essentially endless stamina is also a lot of fun to use.

I’m digressing though. Where were we? Ah yes, I was about to talk about the plot. Well, you’re a walking husk that can take control of fallen soldiers. And, well,… the game’s a bit sketchy on the rest. There’s plenty of lore filled throughout the game that can be discovered to fill in some of those gaps, but the game doesn’t really want to tell you much – something that is very much a running theme throughout the entire game. The central structure of the game revolves around you finding the three shrines across Fallgrim, and obtaining the sacred glands held within in order to appease the Dark Father. But to what end? I’ll leave you to find out.

The story is surprisingly quite minimal compared to what I expected, but that’s because the emphasis here is quite clearly on lore. Everything is left for you to discover more about this world and what your place in it is. Even the items are unhelpfully lacking descriptions, requiring you to actually try them out in order to discover what the hell they’re supposed to do. What does this mushroom do? Will it poison or heal me? Why have I picked up a lute? Spend time using it and eventually you will find out.  

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GETTING HARD
What Mortal Shell really does right is the combat. At first glance, it may seem reminiscent of Dark Souls, however it manages to use the game’s concept to its advantage as it crafts its own unique mechanics. Attacking with your weapon of choice (the game has a small handful that can be earned via completing special trials) is pretty simple as the right triggers will perform either a heavy or light attack; but it’s in the game’s defensive manoeuvres where you’ll find the game comes into its own. As expected from the genre, you’re able to dodge roll to avoid enemy attacks – but that comes at the cost of stamina that is shared with your weapon’s attacks. The dodge is useful, but it’s quite easy to find yourself without the energy needed to actually evade your opponent. So, what do you do? Get hard, of course! That’s right, your walking mannequin can get as stiff as a rock at the press of a button, and it’ll protect you against any incoming attack. It will break, of course, but that time will have enabled you to recover enough stamina to properly get away. Even better, you can become rigid in the middle of an attack, which will allow you to perform a quick heavy attack whilst the enemy is still recoiling from theirs.

Another important defensive tactic is the game’s parry system, which can be obtained by speaking to a character near the start of the game who is easily missable if you don’t know where he is. Parrying allows you to block an incoming attack, but if you have enough resolve then you can perform a weapon’s special riposte that can deal very heavy damage to opponents and even restore health. Resolve takes ages to fill up without using a restorative item, but at least the parrying window is lenient enough to make it quite easy to master. 

It’s an unusual system, but once mastered it feels right. That doesn’t make combat easy though, as even the basic enemies in the hub area of Fallgrim are punishing. Menial foes are easy fodder, but can still hit hard; and the hefty dudes and poison chappies (note my extensive knowledge of the game’s bestiary) can take even more experienced players down with ease. Fallgrim itself is also incredibly oppressive, with its labyrinthian passageways that all seem to lead to places you don’t expect. The start of the game had me getting lost, killed, and then unable to trace my steps back in order to obtain my dropped goodies. The game’s failure to even grant you the most basic of maps will no doubt make deaths all the more frustrating, and in the end I resorted to an online one just to be able to get around. Sure, these maps contain spoilers that ruin some of the exploration – but given that the game doesn’t bother giving you anything and doesn’t have much in the way of notable landmarks, it was the only way I could actually get around.

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What you’ll actually be looking for as soon as possible is Fallgrim Tower – a structure that only really hints at its importance by the way of an open doorway that you can enter. Inside is where you’ll meet Sester Genessa, a mysterious lady who will allow you to upgrade your current shell (for a high price), heal you, and act as a save location. Much like the bonfires of Dark Souls, speaking to her will cause non-boss enemies to respawn but at the benefit of having an actual checkpoint. The tower is also home to a couple of other notable NPCs that can give you some help (including the aforementioned parry move), a workbench, and some glimpses that hint at the locations of some important things to find in Fallgrim.

After speaking to Genessa for the first time, I recommend that you head to the cave across from the entrance where you’ll meet the first boss of the game. He has a load of health, but he’s not too difficult once you’ve got to grips with your hardness and the parry. Defeating him will give you a load of tar, the game’s currency, to spend and you’ll also find a major weapon upgrade and new shell here too. The good thing about this boss is that he’s so close to Genessa that even when he kicks your ass, which he’ll inevitably do for the first time, retracing your steps isn’t much of a hassle. When he’s finally beaten, the workbench can give your weapon a boost and give you a little more of an advantage as you hunt for one of the game’s shrines.

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These shrines are where the real game comes into play. After likely spending hours traipsing around the murky depths of Fallgrim, entering a shrine is like being transported to another world. Despite there being only a few in the game, the otherworldly aesthetics really complements the bleakness of the world outside. The alien-like obsidian Seat of Infinity proved to be my favourite, with its breathtaking art style and creative enemy design, but they’re all a wonder to behold.

This is where I have to address the elephant in the room. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that some of the screenshots looks decent, whereas others are a little questionable. In general, the visuals are as great as the art style and runs pretty smoothly too. However, in order to ensure that the framerate doesn’t let you down during the action, Mortal Shell also resorts to dynamic scaling – similar to what games such as Doom Eternal do. However, Eternal hides those ugly action sequences by having action so fast paced that you don’t notice the change unless you’re actually taking a screenshot. With the action  here being far slower and more methodical, the visual shift is far more apparent with the game taking a bit of a dive as soon as enemies get wind of your presence. It certainly is an unfortunate concession for those wanting to play on the Switch, but it also ensures that the game is only sometimes ugly and always performs well.

All in all, Mortal Shell is a decent port of the indie classic and comes with all the extras that were added later, which includes extra music, an extra shell, and so on. The most notable addition is something known as ‘The Virtuous Cycle’, which is accessible after making a small amount of progress in the main game. This extra game mode offers a roguelike experience for players, giving players random weapons and shells, which they’ll be able to upgrade for as long as they can stay alive. The objective is largely the same as the base game, but this added difficulty and randomisation will give experienced players a reason to come back to the game. It’s a very welcome addition, even if the difficulty and the slightly less stable framerate will be offputting to some.

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Mortal Shell is a great attempt at an indie version of Dark Souls, with its tight controls and beautiful aesthetic wrapped up in a smaller scale world. Its unrelenting difficulty will still prove gruelling to those who aren’t a fan of the Souls series due to death setting you very far back, although the difficulty here certainly isn’t quite as brutal.