Mortal Shell PS4 review – Dark Souls for beginners
It may be yet another Dark Souls clone but this new indie release is the most accomplished, and accessible, there’s ever been.
We’ve already played one Dark Souls clone this month, in the painfully derivative Hellpoint, and we’ll be honest and say we weren’t particularly looking forward to another one. Especially as, on the face of it, Mortal Shell seems to be an even closer copy of the FromSoftware formula, with no sci-fi setting to try and make it seem at least superficially different. But there are new ideas in Mortal Shell and a confidence and verve to its presentation that makes being second best seem like no small achievement.
The first thing you expect from a Dark Souls clone is no clue as to where you are and what you’re doing, and that’s exactly how things work in Mortal Shell. Who or what you are is not even hinted at in the beginning, and instead you’re quickly pushed through a series of simple combat tutorials before being murdered by an enemy boss you had no hope of defeating. So far, so From.
But there’s a key difference from Dark Souls in that while you start the game as a spectral figure, living in some kind of spirt world, that’s not how you play most of the game. Instead, you’re able to possess various dead bodies that you discover in the mortal realm and use them to fight as the titular mortal shell. Which not only adds an unexpected level of variety to the game but also means it’s noticeably easier than you might expect. And by noticeably easier we still mean very hard indeed.
You do get a clearer picture of what’s going on as the game progresses, but only if you pay careful attention to the various people and entities you meet. Although the clearest explanations come from earning ‘glimpses’ into your shells’ previous lives, showing some unexpected connections and clues as to why the world of Fallgrim is in such decline.
There are four shells in total, with each handling differently and having their own builds and perks. Even with four of them though the game’s role-playing elements are greatly simplified as a result, so if you were put off by all of Dark Souls’ arcane stats and purposefully obtuse class types this is an interesting way to avoid all that while still providing something interesting in its place.
In terms of combat the game relies on a predictable mix of light and heavy attacks but there is another unique element in your ability to ‘harden’ your spirit form and turn to stone. This naturally increases your defence, and the chances that your enemy will be staggered, but if you activate it just as you’re making a swing then when you come back out of it you can interrupt the enemy and performer a stronger attack while you’re about it.
Harden has a cooldown effect before you can use it again but it’s a useful fallback for when you suddenly get ambushed by enemies you had no way of anticipating, which happens quite a lot. It’s also interestingly at odds with a counter-attack move very obviously borrowed from Bloodborne, which restores health as long as your ‘resolve’ meter is sufficiently built up from previous attacks to power it. So on the one hand you’re tempted to hold back and stay defensive but on the other being aggressive is the best way to restore to health.
Other aspects are also borrowed wholesale from Soulsborne, with the equivalent of souls being used as currency, which you lose if you die and have to go back to reclaim from your dead body. But others are brand new, such as the concept of familiarity – where at first you have no clue what items do until you use them. Your first try will reveal all but the more you use an item the more beneficial it becomes, so that while a mushroom may kill you at first a few more tastes, once you’re restored to life, will start to give you poison resistance.
Describing Mortal Shell as being easier than Dark Souls is technically true but, as we’ve already intimated, it is not an easy game by any other comparison. If you’re not confident of your skills though it is certainly the best way to acclimatise yourself to the From way of thinking, with the harden ability also helped by a dodge and roll which is much more generous in helping you avoid enemies than you might expect.
There’s also the fact that the game is only around 12 hours long, which is but a tiny fraction of the time most people spend on a Soulsborne game. Your mileage will vary but the fact that boss battles are not the unassailable mountains of difficulty you’d otherwise expect (assuming you get the hang of using harden) this drastically cuts down on the amount of time it takes to get through the game.
The relatively modest length is a positive, not a negative, and while this isn’t cheap for what is essentially an indie game the presentation is excellent, with impressively good graphics. We just wish the fantasy setting wasn’t all so familiar. That’s not to say that Mortal Shell doesn’t feature plenty of variety in its landscapes – especially the three large dungeons you have to battle through – but it’s all still very familiar fantasy staples and that’s a shame.
Many of the areas and enemies could be mistaken for lost levels from the real Dark Souls and while that’s obviously intentional we really don’t see the point. There are plenty enough official Soulsborne games at this point without needing to create clones, and a different setting and art style would’ve really helped to establish a unique identity. And yet in Mortal Shell even the message windows look indistinguishable from the Soulsborne games.
Surprisingly, checkpoints are almost as harsh as the real Dark Souls in how far they put you back when you die and while that’s not necessarily a problem the highly confusing map layout is a lot harder to read and memorise than a From game, to the point where a map would’ve been really helpful. Making an ‘easier’ Dark Souls is a difficult balancing act though and, in most cases, Mortal Shell gets it right.
This is the first game from developer Cold Symmetry, although their key team-members already have experience working at more established studios. That clearly shows in Mortal Shell, which is extremely well made and full of interesting new ideas. Next time we hope they can switch from making a homage to creating something truly original, but if nothing else they’ve raised the bar for Dark Souls wannabes.
Mortal Shell review summary
In Short: The best Dark Souls clone so far features a number of interesting new ideas and also offers an experience that is easier to acclimatise to for new players.
Pros: The whole shell concept is a great idea, including the harden ability. Solid combat and interesting new ideas like familiarity. Excellent visuals and enjoyable bosses.
Cons: The huge debt to FromSoftware is obvious at every turn and the game is always at its least interesting when the copying is most obvious. Overly confusing map layout.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Developer: Cold Symmetry
Release Date: 18th August 2020
Age Rating: 16
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