Ever since FromSoftware created the beloved Soulsborne series there have been many imitators, determined to replicate their success. And while some have been better than others, none have truly captured what made the Soulsborne games so great. But with the Dark Souls series wrapped up and no sign of a Bloodborne sequel, those of us hungry for another bollock buster of a video game are forced to look elsewhere. Enter Mortal Shell, the latest pretender to the Dark Souls throne.
Ah, but this imitator comes with a twist, you see rather than allowing the player to create their own custom character, like every other RPG game in the world, Mortal Shell forces you to play as an “Empty Vessel”. A sort of undead humanoid that must take possession of several fallen warriors scattered across the land called “Mortal Shells”. And if you think that it would have made more sense to refer to the Shells as empty vessels then welcome to the club.(“Yoink!”)
But dumb terminology aside your character is tasked with doing the bidding of the absentee “Dark Father”, while traversing a world designed by someone who has definitely played Dark Souls, but who has also entirely missed the point. The writers have taken the lesson of using the world and its inhabitants to tell the story to heart, but do so in a way that befuddles rather than intrigues. But a game can make up for a weak story if it has fun gameplay, right?……oh…..oh.(At least you can pet the cat.)
Mortal Shell’s gameplay hits roughly all the same beats as Dark Souls or Bloodborne, but always seems to do it in a way that is slightly worse. Take the combat for instance; while the dodge works well enough (if you have the right shell, but we’ll get to that later) the attacks seem to operate in a completely different time zone. Resulting in an almost 2 second delay between a button press and an attack. And for a soulslike those precious seconds can mean the difference between survival and perianal intrusion. And if you thought the rules of space and time would apply to your enemies, you can think again sunflower, because the bastards you encounter seem to have no such issues as they fashion your innards into couture.(Even their death screen is worse!)
Oh and yes I did say space, because not only can they hit faster than you, they can also damage you even if you’ve dodged. Oh yes, that old chestnut, “finishing off an attack where you end up and not where you were”. Of all the shitty, shitty things that a souls-like could do, this is the worst.
Combat is exacerbated further by the fact that everyone must start out with the same “Shell” meaning that everyone starts with the same play style, think the “Knight” from Dark Souls. But if like me you’re a quick, dodge focused player, you’re shit out of luck until you find the right “Shell”, which I only managed to find because I was running from an enemy and fell off a cliff. I respect game design up to a point, but developers have to understand that by being so ridged in their design right at the beginning they are going to alienate a large portion of potential players who were turned off because their play style wasn’t catered to right away. And even if you manage to get the right type of “Shell” you will still have to contend with the starting weapon, which is slower than America’s response to Covid.(“Okay, I’m gonna need you to stay still for like 3 seconds while i hit you!”)
While I do have my share of issues with the combat I do like the harden function, which acts as this games block function. Basically the player hardens the “Shell” like a statue, tanking the incoming attack, and if they harden while in mid-attack, they can resume said attack when they return to normal. It is an innovative twist on a classic manoeuvre, I just wish that the rules about is use were better explained.
Mortal Shell’s issues aren’t limited to just the combat; it also happens to be one of the most poorly optimised games of this generation. There are frame rate dips, texture pop ins, unbearably long load times and I am forever getting stuck on scenery. Now, these issues wouldn’t be deal breakers on their own, but given the type of gameplay that the devs decided to go for, these issues are unacceptable. Think of it this way, you have just been killed by a simple enemy because their attacks are faster than yours, you couldn’t evade because you’re stuck on a piece of scenery and then you are forced to endure a minute long load screen. That dog won’t hunt monsignor!(“Fuck You!”)
Also, who the fuck came up with the notion of crawling through elongated tunnels? Obviously this is a way to render the next area without using load screens but come on, they take 30-40 seconds each time and they’re fucking everywhere. Oh and if you going to force us to use them, don’t spawn enemies at the exit that can damage us in an animation sequence were we can’t control our character, you fucking amateurs.(“I swear…if I get killed again…”)
And if you thought that the dick moves would end there, you are a fucking optimist. Throughout your journey you will discover medical items, upgrade materials, items that give you xp and items that inflict poison damage. But if you thought that the game would tell you what they do then you are clearly used to playing games developed by humans and not chimps. If you want to know what an item does you have to eat it or use it and if you use it before you need it tough shit. Did I also mention that one of the items similar to the healing item poisons you? Because of course it fucking does.(This bastard, right here!)
As a massive Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Nioh fan I was desperate for something to fill the void until Elden Ring comes out, and Mortal Shell could have done just that. But it is too bogged down by poor game design and sub-par gameplay to keep me invested. Add to that the frustrating combat, the uninspired environmental design and you’re left with a video game that’s all Dark and no Soul.