Opinion: Mortal Shell is the ‘Dark Souls with training wheels’ I always wanted

As of this writing, I have played and successfully beaten a large number of “Souls-like” games, including all three entries of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls trilogy, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and even more obscure indie entries like Salt & Sanctuary, Death’s Gambit, and Immortal Planet. I don’t intend for that previous statement to come off as bragging, merely that there’s clearly something about the genre that speaks to me. Anytime a new Souls-like game is released I can’t help but be drawn like a moth to a flame, even though I know that flame’s gonna burn me with no small amount of frustration, tedium, and hard-taught lessons.

It’s with that same familiar mix of anticipation and trepidation that I booted up developer Cold Symmetry’s recently released title Mortal Shell. Initially, I was put off by the game’s brutally punishing (even by Souls-like standards) combat and total lack of RPG mechanics, so much so that I seriously contemplated just quitting outright (in my defense, I’d just come off of a many-hours-long run of yet another Souls-like game, Cradle Games’ Hellpoint). However, I’m glad I ultimately stuck it out since the more I played, the more I realized that Mortal Shell is much more than yet another Souls-like game.

If you’ve ever had even a passing interest in games like Dark Souls but you’ve been put off (as I once was) by their reputation for unrelenting difficulty, Mortal Shell is an excellent (and cost-effective) barometer for measuring your Souls-like tolerance.

Walk Before You Run

It’s funny now to look back on my initial forays into the Souls-like genre since they were anything but smooth. I hemmed and hawed and fretted and agonized over whether the then $40 purchase of the original Dark Souls would be a wise decision to make considering I didn’t have a whole lot of spare cash to throw around. I had friends who raved about Dark Souls and who assured me multiple times that I wouldn’t regret buying it, but that nagging worry kept scratching at the back of my mind.

When, after weeks of internally debating with myself, I finally took the plunge and bought the game, I did end up having a mostly positive experience, especially after I discovered that the difficulty, while tough, really wasn’t all that bad. However, even after buying and playing it for a bit, I still struggled to make up my mind over whether the whole “Dark Souls thing” was really for me. I must have “quit” Dark Souls a good four or five times, deciding I’d had my fill after reaching certain milestones or defeating certain bosses, before my persistent desire to get my money’s worth finally pushed me to beat the game in full.  

I can’t say for certain whether having a game like Mortal Shell to sample in its stead would have made it easier for me to eventually find my Souls-like calling. What I can say, though, is that Mortal Shell manages to distinguish itself from all the other Souls-like games out thereby presenting a surprisingly compact world where the rules of engagement and exploration are tough but fair. In many ways, Mortal Shell streamlines the key components that make for an engrossing Souls-like experience, providing a more accessible alternative to the big-name heavy hitters which still has a few unique tricks all its own. 

From Souls-Like to Souls-Lite

Most Souls-like games, even the 2D ones, involve exploring a large interconnected world that’s divvied up into different themed regions and/or dungeons but also lacking clear waypoints. This in turn makes such games an intimidating prospect for Souls-like newbies, and that’s even before you factor in the tough combat, bizarre enemies, and obtuse lore which also define many of those same games. Mortal Shell finds a happy medium by dropping the player into a central “hub” region and leaving them to figure out how to get around on their own.

Mortal Shell has no overhead map screen, but as the player ventures further and further out from the relative safety of their home base (a dilapidated ruin called Fallgrim Tower), they’ll inevitably learn the lay of the land. This is because the total amount of explorable space in Mortal Shell is surprisingly small, much smaller than what’s in a game like Dark Souls or Bloodborne. The world still seeps with a grim and oppressing atmosphere (once again following the Souls-like coda), but it only takes a few hours of exploration to ensure you’ll always know where you are in relation to Fallgrim Tower and other important landmarks.

While it’s true that Mortal Shell doesn’t include any sorts of RPG mechanics such as leveling up or improving stats, there’s still ample opportunity for players to try out different playstyles (or “builds”) to determine what works best for them. These playstyles are embodied by the different “shells” a player can find and inhabit as they explore the world. Each of the game’s four shells offers a different configuration of total health, combat stamina, and the “resolve” needed to execute special attacks.

When combined with the four different weapon types the player can also unlock, Mortal Shell’s titular shells offer diversity without complexity. Players can freely switch between different shells and weapons until they find what works best for them, and they can also upgrade their favorite shells by gathering a currency called tar. The upgrades they unlock, however, only provide new attack functionality or passive shell-specific buffs, the shell’s inherent health, stamina, and resolve totals remain unchanged.

And lastly, there’s Mortal Shell’s “harden” mechanic. During combat, players can dodge and even parry enemy attacks with the right timing, but they can also temporarily harden their shell into stone, deflecting incoming attacks and in some cases staggering their would-be-attackers. This harden mechanic is an invaluable tool for surviving Mortal Shell’s early combat encounters, but there’s also room for more advanced use as a player’s skill grows.

With proper timing, a player can harden their shell after they’ve initiated an attack, giving an enemy who tries to strike them a nasty surprise when they un-harden and complete their swing after deflecting the enemy’s strike. When combined with Mortal Shell’s dodging, parrying, and light/heavy attack combos, the hardening mechanic slots in as the final piece of a combat blueprint that’s both easy to pick up and rife with potential for further mastery.

Dipping Your Toes In

None of the above is meant to imply that Mortal Shell is an easy game. As with any other Souls-like game, enemies will happily punish you for even the smallest mistake. Indeed, since the inherent “stats” for each shell can’t be significantly altered, even minor enemies still technically pose a threat no matter how much you upgrade your shells and weapons. That being said, I still can’t think of a more appropriate starter game for Souls-like newbies than Mortal Shell.

Mortal Shell won’t hold your hand and it won’t take pity on you, but it also won’t overwhelm you with a massive overworld and convoluted RPG progression mechanics. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it more than any of the more “traditional” Souls-like games, but in all my time spent with the genre, I’ve never found a more accessible Souls-like experience for newbies. Plus, with its $30 price tag, Cold Symmetry’s latest is certainly less of a financial risk should you be on the fence like I was all those years ago.

I’m sure there are some hardcore fans out there who would say that a “Dark Souls with training wheels” defeats the entire purpose of the infamously punishing Souls-like genre. Personally, I’m all for a game that makes a genre I’ve cherished deeply for many years more accessible. I’ve talked before about my desire to see the Souls-like genre move in a more accessibility-driven direction. With Mortal Shell, I’m happy to report that desire is now a little less fanciful dream and a little more hardened reality.

Mortal Shell is available now for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.