I've made it no secret that I love Souls-likes, so much so that I tend to get excited when a new one appears. I enjoy the brutal challenge, engaging combat (most of the time), and the tendency toward obtuse storytelling. I love the Soulsborne franchise to death, perhaps even to undeath, and I'm obviously not the only one. Since Dark Souls debuted in 2011 and became a hit, we've seen plenty of copycats arise.
Some have even been good. Though we'd like to forget about Lords of the Fallen (aka Clunky Souls), there have been some genuinely good ones. I really enjoyed Code Vein and Salt & Sanctuary, for instance, and The Surge 2 received favorable reviews. Where the notable ones succeeded was not just copying From Software's winning formula, but rather by adding to it. Code Vein had plenty of things like Blood Codes, Gifts, etc. Meanwhile, The Surge 2 presented a sci-fi take with plenty of nuance.
That brings me to Mortal Shell, a game that you can't talk about without mentioning Dark Souls. It's not some cop-out about how difficult the game is; Mortal Shell takes heavy amounts of inspiration from From Software's franchise, such that you can barely tell it's its own game in some screenshots. I got to spend some time with a press demo over the last week, and I have to say, I both really enjoyed what I got to play and also came away ambiguous.
A love letter to Souls
The truth is, Mortal Shell, at least the slice I played, is very, very well-done. Developer Cold Symmetry did a fantastic job. The game is grim, dark, haunting, and unrelenting, but the environments are simultaneously gorgeous — even if they reminded me strongly of some areas in Dark Souls II and III. The models and enemy design are fantastic. Animations are definitely smoother than we've seen them before. The combat is excellent, with plenty of weight behind each swing and hit. Souls veterans will find a lot to love.
There's a foreboding mood here that attempts to repress any light or hope — that also might be because I was dropped into a swampy area and claustrophobic catacombs. My demo was a slimmed-down version of what will be in the final product, but the story thus far has been presented in item descriptions. This sort of thing excited me as I absorbed every bit of lore that I could.
Unlike Dark Souls, however, there is a serviceable tutorial that teaches you basic movement and attacks. I had a much easier time getting going than I did the first time I played Dark Souls, that's for sure. Healing is accomplished in a few ways. You can riposte to get some health back or find consumable items like mushrooms that provide healing over time.
I don't want to demean or minimize the work Cold Symmetry has done. Mortal Shell looks and plays great for the most part (more on that in a bit), so I want to commend them for what they've accomplished. I love Souls-likes, and I love indies, so Mortal Shell is, on paper, a match made in heaven.
A bit too familiar
So what's wrong? The short of it is, Mortal Shell doesn't offer anything new. It's like looking at Dark Souls through a dirty, distorted mirror. Everything feels familiar, but it doesn't quite look like the original. The game does have its own gimmicks, but they're not unique enough to draw attention away from the Souls-like label.
Other games in this genre have tried to add their own spin. Mortal Shell tries so hard to evoke memories of Dark Souls that it begins to feel like a clone. Not just a copycat, mind, but an attempt at a carbon copy.
Now, from what I can tell, the developers are unabashedly Soulsborne fans themselves, and it definitely shows. Hell, the loading screens with random item descriptions are there. There's even a new Maiden in Black/Emerald Herald/Doll/Firekeeper for you to interact with. It follows the formula to a T, except that when you die, you have one chance to return to your shell. If you get hit before you reunite, you're actually dead. Assuming you manage to return to your shell, you only have one more shot. Die again, and you're thrown back to the last checkpoint.
Other Souls-like staples are here, too. Souls are called Glimpses in Mortal Shell, opening the menus doesn't pause the game, and parry gods are rewarded for their skill. But you need a resource called Resolve to parry, which is acquired by killing enemies and consuming certain items.
Your block ability is on a cooldown, so no turtling up in this game.
What does Mortal Shell do differently? Well, throughout the game, you can acquire different shells. These act as the class system, affecting your appearance, movement abilities, and so on. In the demo, I got to play with two shells: a knight-like warrior and a thief. The latter trades health and defense for a shade step dodge and a boatload of stamina.
These shells all have subtleties in their combat styles, different strengths, and a variety of ways to play. They essentially act as your build, but instead of speccing your character for STR, DEX, INT, etc, you use the shell that feels best to you and expands upon it once you "learn its name."
Also, you need to block intelligently. Your blocking ability is on a cooldown, so no turtling up in this game.
Stability-wise, Mortal Shell presented me with a lot of cheap deaths. Enemies have insane tracking abilities, so your dodges have to be on point. Twice, I parried an enemy, and then I went flying in the air, landing some small distance away on my back and obviously missing the riposte window.
Enemies teleported a lot, suddenly appearing before me in an attack animation that was impossible to dodge or block. Granted, I played a pre-launch build, so I expect many bugs and glitches to be ironed out before the actual release. Cold Symmetry sent me the PC version via the Epic Games Store; the game crashed to my desktop several times, and it didn't handle Alt+Tab or Nvidia's In-Game Overlay well at all.
I always play Souls-likes with a controller, but the keyboard and mouse set up worked much better than From Software has ever been able to accomplish. Still, I have over ten years of experience with Soulsborne using a controller, and muscle memory is difficult to overcome.
Overall, I don't want to sound negative, and it was never my intention to do so. It's not that aping Dark Souls is a terrible thing. Frankly, if you wanted a harder version of From Software's classic, Mortal Shell is for you. It captures what made Dark Souls' difficulty so endearing: once you overcome that obstacle that's had you stuck for a while, you get this intense feeling of euphoria and satisfaction. Mortal Shell did an excellent job at this in the bit I played, and I can't wait for the full release to really punish myself.
Mortal Shell will be available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC via the Epic Games Store later this year. You can pre-purchase the game on the Epic Games Store for $30. It will be available on Steam in 2021.