Mortal Shell: first impressions on the latest indie soulslike

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I guess 2020 is the year I learnt to appreciate the soulslike. Earlier this year, Nioh 2 opened my eyes to a genre I’ve long had a conflicted relationship with, and now Mortal Shell is here to seal the deal. I can’t stop playing this game, even when—especially when—it kicks my ass. I’ll have a review in due time, but for now, I just wanted to get down some early thoughts on why this game is resonating with me so much.

The thing that most makes Mortal Shell stand out to me, even more so than the titular Shells you occupy, is the harden mechanic. Combat mostly follows the established soulslike formula of stamina management and weighty, high-commit attack animations, with the noteworthy difference being that you can’t block. Instead, you can “harden”, turning yourself to stone for a brief period, during which you stop moving and become immune to exactly one physical attack.

The key thing here is that you can harden at almost any time—in the middle of an attack; in mid-air as you leap forward; while you’re dodging—opening the door to a wealth of different creative possibilities. It can be a very useful “oh shit” button when you realise you’ve overcommitted to an attack and are about to eat a face full of greatsword. It can be a way of pre-loading a heavy counterattack: start your swing from a relatively safe distance, harden just before hitting the active frames, then unleash a near-instant heavy blow as soon as your enemy gets close. When you get familiar with a particular foe’s attack patterns, it can allow for a more aggressive approach—you can rush in, harden at exactly the right moment to brush off the enemy’s response, and continue your assault unimpeded.

But it can also backfire. After un-hardening, there’s a cool down before you can use it again—just a couple of seconds, but enough to mean a poorly-timed defence can be fatal. Some smarter enemies will find ways to bait it out, and there are even a few bosses who can have the same power, creating an interesting little game harden chicken. It can also lead to good old-fashioned hubris, that thing that every soulslike game wants to force you to confront. It’s easy to get overconfident when you learn to really exploit the harden mechanic, which inevitably leads to semi-accidentally wading into a big group of foes—where harden suddenly becomes much less reliable.

I’m in two minds about how Mortal Shell approaches its levelling system, though. Your typical soulslike offers a lot of choice when building your character, with a web of different secondary stats and equipment dependencies tied to the core stats that you can freely level up. That freedom can be overwhelming, though, especially for a new player, and it’s easy to really hamstring yourself with poor stat placement when you don’t know any better.

Mortal Shell opts for something far more linear. There are four different “shells” to find, each with its own pre-determined stats. Instead of levelling up in the traditional manner, each shell has its own skill tree with abilities that are mostly designed for utility than raw stat bonuses. Equipment is likewise limited to half a dozen different weapons that you can then upgrade in various ways over the course of the game, though power upgrades are a big part of that.

On one hand, it’s nice to be able to just play the game and not have to think too much about where I put my points. It doesn’t seem like you can really shoot yourself in the foot with a bad build like you can in other games—once you find your preferred shell and weapon, there’s a neat, linear path to maxing those out.

On the other hand, there’s a lack of meaningful short-term progress; instead of those incremental steps toward getting stronger, your character’s strength in Mortal Shell is quite static. New skills are always useful, but they’re much farther between than a typical soulslike level cycle, and the raw power of weapon upgrades are even slower to find. It also means you’re mostly locked into a pre-determined playstyle based on the shell you’re using, with comparatively little room for experimentation.

But on balance, I think I like the simplicity of Mortal Shell‘s levelling system. With its unique twist on the soulslike combat system, it still captures that feeling of adversity and triumph that’s so important to the genre. But without the need to constantly mind stats and equipment, it’s easy to just dive in for a quick session of getting your ass handed to you until you finally come out on top.

For now, at least, that’s enough to keep me coming back for more.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.