It’s rare that I find myself totally unprepared for what has been set out before me. Making me feel like I did back in 2010 when I first got my hands on Demon’s Souls, Mortal Shell has reminded me just how well I’ve had it between the likes of Sinner Sacrifice for Redemption, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro and The Surge. Hard as hell and basically calibrated to kill you over and over again, while Mortal Shell has my number, I haven’t felt this blown away by a Soulsborne in a long while and the overall sense of achievement of pulling things off both makes you worry for what comes next and gleeful that you actually pulled it off.
Now I use the words “Soulsborne” but unlike the rest defined by this description, you won’t be levelling yourself up and putting in stat points in order to have a better chance at defeating what awaits you. Oh no. Instead, you’ll be able to unlock new skills in order to help yourself out. While some of these may increase your attack power, your health or allow a shell to sprint indefinitely, if you want to survive you’re going to have to figure everything out and fast. From how you move to how your enemies move, because there’s no real “blocking” and it’s all about timing and parrying, if you want to stay within your current Mortal Shell you’ll have to learn how to do things very fast.
Having missed out the opportunity to play the Open Beta not that long ago on the EPIC Store, I didn’t realize just how apt the title was to the experience. You, a being of humanoid shape and sineu that can harden itself for protection, will be taking over shells to further protect yourself as you explore this twisting and turning land with danger around every corner. Starting off as just yourself before finding your first shell, you’ll soon be within its protective layers that offer three benefits to you. Durability (Health), Stamina and Resolve which amounts to using fancy parry attacks or weapon skills. Acting a bit like “classes” not each of these will appeal to everyone and in my case I went with the Scholar who until finally laying my hands on the Venerable.
Staying “true” to the nature of a Soulsborne though, Mortal Shell aces it in several regards. The first, and perhaps the most important (other than outright finding ways to kill you over and over) is giving you next to no information. Why are you here? Who are these shells? At least in terms of the second of these questions you can slowly find out who they are by accumulating tar and speaking with an NPC known as Sester Genessa that facilitates the learning of skills and the remembering of a shell’s past. This too took both me and Sester Genessa by surprise once she was taken aback as she once knew one of the shells and they were much more than acquaintances. I found myself feeling sorry for her as you could feel the emotions behind her words, however, are not this person and like other NPCs and the shells that you can pick up and speak to them in, you are not who these people once were and this adventure is not defined by their pasts.
Each shell offers different combat approaches as your default one, Harris the Vassal, is well rounded, while the second that I found, Solomon the Scholar, was a bit tougher and specialized in parrying compared to the third, Tiel the Acolyte, who is much more agile. While Tiel’s shell can’t take a hit compared to the other two, their stamina is off the charts. Finally, the fourth which took me much longer to find is Eredim the Venerable, and by much longer, I mean after the first major boss because I just couldn’t find the location. Totalling four, each of these shells can be changed between in one of two ways. The first of these is to go back to the fortress that acts as your first hub and find the shell laying in its alcove and switching carefully. The second, and this one was a great addition, is by using one time items to switch your shells and the action is done on the spot though the hit to your health isn’t pretty so you’ll want to be prepared.
In regards to your shells, and you’ll want to switch between them in order to get to better know both them and what they can do, is that the tar and glimpses that they accumulate are not sharable. The only thing that will ever be shared is your inventory of items as they belong to you and your weapons. The shells themselves though have to re-accumulate the “experiences” themselves which brings me to perhaps the craziest of the adventure, your actual mentioned items.
Items in Mortal Shell are just as much as a mystery as everything else. What does it do? Honestly you’ll have no idea until you use it for the first time. So in order to properly know what you have on hand, you’ll have to use it the amount of times that the item dictates being needed to be used before you properly understand it. Standard healing mushrooms will heal you for about 30 health over 30 seconds but if you become familiar with them, you can eat them faster as you know exactly what you’re going to be ingesting which brings me to the next element, healing.
There are no health flasks. There are no injectors. There are no auto restockable potions on hand. Instead, you’ll have to rely on what can be picked up within the environment which does thankfully respawn and you can see the cooldown timer as you run by. You can also buy items from a merchant with your accumulated tar, but really, you’ll have to get REALLY good at combat and parrying. Sort of like Bloodborne’s Visceral Attacks late game when you can add the ability to heal from them, in this adventure you’ll need to save up on your Resolve which is generally earned through combat to be able to both parry and leech health back. Timing is everything and while certain enemies have tells, others have fakes making you try to parry only to realize you fell for it and the attack connects with you but it doesn’t have to cost you any health. I’ll admit it, start to finish? I got maybe a few parries in. Super effective, but I personally just couldn’t get the timing right so I did what any souls player would do. I dodged.
Keeping in line with timing being everything though, you can harden yourself to avoid taking damage and in the case of lesser enemies, have their attacks bounce clean off allowing you to strike while they are off balance. More than this, and it isn’t a figure it out as much as the tutorial makes you learn it, you can start to swing, harden to avoid an oncoming attack, take the attack, and then un-harden to slash at your foes a few times. It’s fantastic, but it’s not a holy grail as there’s a cooldown to it and you can only harden for so often so you’ll need to parry or dodge in the meantime.
Most of the basics are all given to you through an early game tutorial but there’s a vast difference between being given the knowledge that you’ll need and knowing how to use it. Parrying can save your life but you actually have to parry otherwise you can find yourself once again at death’s door which like in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, so can you. Once your shell’s hitpoints land next to zero, you’ll be thrown out of your shell and everyone will be hardened for a few seconds allowing you the opportunity to evaluate your situation. Sometimes racing right back to your shell is a bad idea unless the timing has been increased as if someone was swinging and it hits you? You’re dead. Otherwise if you can manage to get back into your shell you’re given a second go at things though the next death will stick without certain items or abilities.
Dying, other than being embarrassing brings you back to the last “safe” place you visited. If you’ve met Sester Genessa, it’ll be by her. If you’ve changed locations, it’ll be that entryway. To re-change it, simply speak with Sester Genessa and you’ll be good to go. In terms of loss though, you’ll lose the tar that had been accumulated however you’ll keep any glimpse that you had on hand. Also on death, almost every enemy that you had defeated will be revived short of some of the more special ones or those that had boss like health bars.
It sounds rather mechanical, but it’s how all of these features come together in order to bring about something familiar enough but not familiar enough to prevent you from having the carpet pulled out from beneath your feet a few times. Exploration just doubles down on this. The environments are huge and it’s easy to get lost as everything looks the same. Shortcuts exist but in some cases they are a lot more subtle as they can simply be holes in a rock face that happened to be covered by dead branches that need to be broken out of the way. The tunnel that you can then crawl through can bypass loads of enemies and bring you closer to where you need to go, but, are you sure that you’ve missed nothing along the way?
Because I thought that I had it all under my belt and was ready to face the world while going up against the first boss, I was unprepared for what came next. Mortal Shell just keeps on giving and turning it up after everything that you do. After defeating the first boss and claiming the first of the Sacred Glands, the lights went out. Bathed in nothing more than a vivid red light, my trek back the way I came was even more perilous than the way there. Unlike every other Soulsborne, beating a boss makes things harder as the world itself doesn’t like what you’ve done. More monsters. Tougher monsters. And when I finally made it out of where I had gone down into? I was greeted by a fog that seemed to warp where I had first been and the enemies within it were just ready to kill me from every angle. It was nuts.
Finally, this happens after every boss which leads me to something else that I noticed making Mortal Shell just that much better. Like the four shells and the four weapons that you can pick up from the environment, and you don’t have to, which is a crazy trophy to do it all with no shell, you can decide how you want to tackle getting the Sacred Glands. There’s no order as my one, two, three could have easily been someone else’s three, one, two. Clocking in at around a dozen hours or so depending on how much you explored and how much you picked up, this format works very well as each offers basically six different dungeons as the ways in and the ways out are fairly different experiences.
If there’s one thing that Mortal Shell could work on? It would be load times. Playing on a PS4 Pro I can only imagine what it would be like on a standard one. More so, and the loading screen tips or item descriptions, they only appear at the beginning or the end of the loading, not during which is just a black screen with Mortal Shell written in the bottom right. They are long, and by long, I mean Loadborne long if you played Bloodborne in the first days. Otherwise? While I found the text and the HUD to be on the small side, there are options for both so I increased the size of the text and of the HUD making it perfect for what I enjoyed.