Played it on: PC
Played it for: 25 hours
This was really refreshing.
As readers likely know by now, I'm a pretty big connoisseur of the Souls-like genre. I've played Demon's Souls, every Dark Souls, I've played Bloodborne, and I've played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. For most of those, I've earned 100% of the achievements. But it's always nice to see other developers taking on the FromSoftware mantle, especially when they have unique ideas of their own to add to the table, and boy did Mortal Shell deliver.
Coming into this game, it's clear where the inspiration lies. It's got the health bar, it's got the stamina management, it's got the obtuse exploration and the obscured lore, it's even got the same oppressive atmosphere of the Souls series. Even the tutorial is a bit bizarre, throwing you into a boss battle within the first five minutes that it expects you to lose, and then boom, you're out in the game world... after you get eaten by a giant fish. Yeah, I don't uh... I don't even know the right questions to ask at this point.
Getting out into the proper game world, Mortal Shell wastes no time teaching you its two primary mechanics. You find your first Shell, a dead mercenary, right outside the tutorial area, and there are 3 more to find as you explore the central hub swamp. Unlike the Souls-borne games, there is no leveling up to get more health or damage stats. Once you get a Shell, that's pretty much the stats it will always have, so whether you want something balanced or something with very high HP or endurance, get used to sticking with a shell for quite a while as you learn to master it. The other important mechanic is called hardening. During just about any point in combat unless you're knocked down or in the middle of being grabbed, you can harden your shell into stone and pause your animation. Until you release the button or are hit by an enemy, you stay that way, and you don't take damage when you get hit. This completely changes the flow of combat from the usual Souls-like rhythm. Getting stuck in a combo? Harden. Getting low on stamina? Harden, and regain it while the enemy is recovering from being stunned. About to get slammed by a massive attack because you positioned poorly? Harden! It's an amazing get-out-of-jail-free card, and its cooldown of about 6 seconds is short enough to always be useful while remaining long enough that you can't abuse its power.
Even the first enemies in the swamp area have a very real chance to kill you. The first time your HP reaches zero, you'll be knocked out of your shell and have an opportunity to get back in it (though a single hit in this form will put you down). The second time you get knocked out, it's game over, restart at the checkpoint. This gives the player the same incredible tool that Sekiro does, allowing death to not just be an instant game over. But because it's so easy to get knocked out of your shell, the main thing this teaches the player is that hardening is extremely important. There is no block button in this game, so learning when to harden is essential to mastering the combat. From there it's just about exploration and finding a playstyle that fits well, as well as mastering the parry once you acquire it.
Between hardening and the extra chance to get back in your Shell, the game is much more forgiving than most Souls-likes. The default parry also lets you regain HP, giving you yet another option to stay in the fight, and the item that lets you parry will flash and make a noise when you're about to get hit by an un-parry-able attack, which you can escape by either dodging or hardening. The game is very clear about what it wants from you in battles. On top of that, the healing items can be farmed in the world, and will either be dropped by enemies or picked up at set locations that will respawn after a timer of about 3 minutes. If you just spend some time wandering the swamps, you can easily go into a temple with 20+ healing items. There are still combat sections that are tough, but I beat at least half of the game's bosses on the first try, including the final boss, simply because I picked up what the game wanted me to do. It felt amazing to play a game in this genre that was almost relaxing at points.
The locations are probably the best part of this game. Aside from the central hub of Fallgrim, there are three temples to explore. Each one contains a new weapon to try out along with a slew of unique enemy types, each of which requires time to master. And the level design, both from an artistic and gameplay perspective, is just awesome. The most difficult temple features a huge sprawling structure of obsidian, not unlike something you'd see in The Lord of the Rings. But this gives way to an assembly of jagged blocks that barely make a coherent path in the sky. This, combined with the obscured lore and cryptic inscriptions, makes for a world that feels very alien and just out of reach, and that makes it all the more enjoyable to explore.
The four weapons of the game all play quite differently as well, so while it may seem strange to go from Dark Souls where the combinations are nearly limitless to a game with a mere 16 possible combinations of Shells and weapons, each option is so different that I found it quite refreshing to ultimately find the combo I liked best. And sure, it only took me about 15 hours on my first playthrough, but this is absolutely a game I plan to revisit. I'm already about halfway through my new game + run, which is significantly more difficult than the base game, and it's clear that this is the sort of game for which I could get a random craving, play for a week, and walk away highly satisfied. It's exactly the kind of direction I'd like to see this genre move as more developers work out their ideas. Keep things unique, keep things fresh, and above all keep things fun. And that's everything that Mortal Shell accomplishes.