From Software’s Dark Souls series slowly established itself as one of the most influential, and best, intellectual properties of its generation, setting a new standard in the fantasy action RPG genre for worldbuilding, lore, atmosphere, combat and—of course—most infamously, difficulty. It’s been four years since the last entry in the series however, with the creators going onto new IPs such as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Bloodborne, along with the latest new project, Elden Ring, on the very distant horizon, and Bluepoint’s remake of the game that started it all Demon’s Souls a forthcoming launch title for the PlayStation 5. There’s clearly room for a potential rival to fill the gap in the market, as well as smooth over the transition between console generations. It’s a facile comparison to make whenever a game of any real challenge comes out, to attribute the decision to the influence of Dark Souls’ infamy, however, some games out there really do merit the comparison. The samurai-themed Nioh’s shrines and graves were eerily reminiscent of Dark Souls’ bonfires and bloodstains. The newest rival to Souls fans’ affections now arrives courtesy of indie developers Cold Symmetry, with Mortal Shell, a game whose very title sounds like the product of a random Souls-like name generator.
The game’s similarities go beyond the title though, from the fantasy setting, doom-laden atmosphere, obtuse storytelling, looping level design, branching world design, boss battles, maiden assistance, in-game currency loss on death mechanics, and even narrative. There are so many points of comparison that it’s almost impossible to begin a discussion of Mortal Shell without first contextualizing the game against the backdrop of From Software’s flagship series. The imagery of fire and ash is here replaced by imagery of drinking: the in-game currency is tar, some fights are triggered by drinking from a goblet and levelling up is described as ‘sipping’. I’ll try not to draw too many more comparisons from here on out, but suffice to say that a good deal of the description that follows will sound uncannily familiar to Souls veterans.
In game, you embody a frail, featureless, and chalky creature able to take possession of the bodies of fallen warriors, of whom there are four discovered in the world, and which warrior you are possessing will determine your play style, with each having their own strengths, weaknesses and skill tree. Over the course of the game, you’ll have the chance to fully upgrade one warrior and one of the four main weapons. These weapons are acquired by performing a ritual that will allow you to fight a warrior Hadren, who will bestow on you the weapon he fights with each time.
Your character’s other advantage in a hostile world is the ability to ‘harden’, which makes you impervious to damage, while also immobile, for a short period of time. This is activated on a cooldown and should be used judiciously, but can be highly effective when combined with the standard attacking, parrying and dodging. The combat is solid for what it is, and when the strength of your character is matched to your opponents, it’s fair but undeniably challenging. Sometimes you’re pitted against too many enemies one after another and it can get draining, especially early on when you’re doing mediocre damage to them, and the enemies could do with more different attacks to keep these encounters engaging. Enemy attacks have very good tracking, so circle strafing will get you nowhere, sorry Dark Souls fans.
Once you reach the central hub area, you will meet two key characters. The first is a maiden, via whose ministrations you will be able to invest points into your host characters. This progression is ingeniously framed in the story world as uncovering the memories of your host’s previous life, achieved by discovering and spending ‘glimpses’. The latter key character is an imprisoned giant, who commissions you to gather sacred glands that will free him, and since we’ve no other clear objective, and there’s no chance we’re going to regret gathering all the power in the world and handing it to a mysterious, gravelly-voiced bird-fish-man we found chained in a deserted fortress, we do as he asks.
The quest for these glands will take you around the central bandit-infested hub, and off down three branching paths, each one themed around a particular sect within the game, of misguided scholars or zealots, each one devoted to achieving audience with an inhuman entity, whose glands you’re here for. Each of these areas looks impressive, some with layouts more organic than others, and has their own unique enemies. However, each area is equally labyrinthine and can shortly feel quite monotonous, particularly the grey, forested, marshy hub area. There’s a lot of backtracking through these areas as well, and although your return journey is shortened by shortcuts discovered on your initial traversal, and very mildly enlivened by a change in world state, these segments of the game can be rather unrewarding. Part of me wishes they’d borrowed from Shadow of the Colossus’ rulebook and simply teleported you back to the hub once you had completed a level.
Another key problem with the game, probably my biggest issue with it, is how this branching path world design affects difficulty. You can tackle each of the three progression routes in whatever order you choose. However, these paths are all roughly equal in terms of difficulty, so whichever you approach first will be almost insurmountably hard, while you stroll through the last, which you will approach with fully upgraded character and weapons. This results in a state of affairs where the game becomes perversely less challenging, and so less rewarding, as it goes on. The best designed encounter by far was the phenomenal duel with a knight in a frozen prism that ended the first path I took. It was the hardest battle in the game, and it’s no coincidence that it was the most rewarding, every subsequent boss encounter, barring the last, felt much too easy.
Clearly the bulk of the effort with Mortal Shell has gone into the aesthetics. The look isn’t exactly next gen, being the product of a small team and an indie studio, however the designs are striking and have a unique flavour and atmosphere. There’s no online or customisation options: you can vary which character uses which weapon, giving a light, fast character a big heavy sword for example, and you can decide which order you unlock your abilities in, but that’s about it. You may choose to upgrade your characters unilaterally, but the most efficient path to a strong character will obviously be to invest in one vessel and one weapon.
For my first playthrough I went with the biggest sword and the vessel with the most health, since healing items were rare and had little effect, mostly you have the health you spawn with. However, when your health is depleted, instead of immediately respawning at the start of the level, you are knocked free from the vessel you were inhabiting, once more a fragile husk who will die in a single hit. If you can get back to your body, you’ll be able to retake control with a full health bar. Barring the use of rare recovery items and end game upgrades though, this lifeline is a once-per-lifetime deal.
In their quest to make a potential rival to, or perhaps simply, placeholder for, a new Dark Souls game, Cold Symmetry have created a game that is streamlined, possibly to a fault. In terms of atmosphere, Mortal Shell reminded me less of Dark Souls and more of the fantastic Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which was even more stripped back and basic. However, Hellblade made up for the skeletal gameplay with the most emotionally impactful and intensely psychological story I’ve ever played, while Mortal Shell‘s story of ambition, decay and loss of one’s humanity is yet another aspect that feels recycled from the Berserk-inspired worlds of Hidetaka Miyazaki. As a result, Mortal Shell is a rewarding enough standalone experience for genre enthusiasts, with enough gutsy and macabre imagery to carry itself through its often repetitive gameplay, but is unlikely to escape the long shadow of its clearest influences.