Mortal Shell Review: A Haunting and Refreshingly Focused Souls-Like

by David Sanchez September 16, 2020 @ 7:30 am

Mortal Shell boss fight.

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

There’s something really tasty about a fat, juicy burger topped with cheddar cheese, crispy bacon, and grilled onions. Maybe you even throw on some jalapeños. Oh, and did I mention this is an Angus burger? Yeah, it’s the epitome of a burger done right. Sometimes, though, I just want to go to the local mom-and-pop and grab a regular ol’ plain cheeseburger. And you know what? It’s delicious, and I love it. That’s what Mortal Shell is to me: a cheeseburger that satisfies, gets the job done, and is genuinely awesome.

A Lost Soul

Mortal Shell combat gameplay.

There’s no getting around the parallels that can be drawn between Mortal Shell from Cold Symmetry and Dark Souls. The games share many similarities, starting with the bleak, ambiguous world. There’s a somber, moody tone to the whole thing that creates this helpless emotion. The desolate setting does an incredible job of making you feel like you’ve been dropped into a dying land filled with lost souls.

You’re not given much information about the game’s protagonist. All you really know is that he’s naked and decaying. He kind of looks like something you’d see in a ’90s horror anthology like Creepshow or Tales from the Darkside. It’s a neat character design, but you won’t see much of it. That’s because it isn’t long before you inhabit your first “shell” in the game. Shells are the bodies of fallen warriors, heroes, and scholars, and you’ll take control of these bodies along your journey.

Shells act as classes, each with their own attributes and abilities, so finding them and choosing which one you like best makes for some fun experimentation. With four classes to discover and take control of, Mortal Shell keeps things light — you won’t feel overwhelmed with an abundance of classes to choose from, which works in the game’s favor.

Hard Shell

Mortal Shell combat.

Combat in Mortal Shell is slow-paced, methodical, and challenging. Attacking, dodging, and running strikes all use up chunks of your stamina meter, which refills automatically. If you’ve played this style of game, you know you’ll have to keep an eye on your stamina meter at all times. Depleting your stamina by wildly swinging your sword could cost you if the enemy is attacking or you’re surrounded by multiple foes as you’ll leave yourself open to incoming attacks.

One aspect of Mortal Shell that makes it stand out greatly from other games of its ilk is the main character’s harden ability. Pressing L2 on the DualShock 4 controller will harden your entire character’s body momentarily, negating incoming damage if you’re struck by a foe while in this state.

The cool thing about the harden ability is that you can do it mid-attack — so if you’re swinging your sword and it looks like the enemy is about to get you first, you can harden to essentially block against the incoming blow. This will stun the enemy and take you out of your petrified form, at which point your attack animation will continue where it left off before you turned to stone.

You won’t be able to spam your harden ability freely, though. I mean, come on, that would make things too easy, and Mortal Shell is anything but easy. Like stamina, the harden ability takes a few moments to replenish, so in that time, you’ll have to attack, dodge, and counterattack to the best of your ability.

Hard as Hell

Mortal Shell action combat.

By now, you’re familiar with how Souls-likes work. Mortal Shell doesn’t take too many liberties with the formula, but that’s fine because everything it does works incredibly well. The game is tough — really, really tough. The challenging combat gameplay is slick and makes you feel like you’re in a crazy, cinematic battle.

If you’re a Souls-like veteran, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll probably adapt to the game pretty comfortably. Even then, there’s still a high level of challenge here.

On the flip-side, if you’re a newcomer, fret not, because Mortal Shell is difficult, yes, but it still manages to be inviting. It strips away some of the deeper RPG mechanics found in similar games. That’s not to say the game itself feels stripped or basic, but rather, Mortal Shell does an excellent job of providing a focused, action-and-exploration-based experience that’s on par with other Souls-likes while also being more straightforward.

It’s worth mentioning that there are still RPG elements present in Mortal Shell. You won’t be leveling up the typical attributes like you traditionally would in most RPGs, but you can still unlock new abilities for your shells. In addition, most consumable items you find along the way remain a mystery until you actually use them. Doing so will reveal what they do, and multiple uses of these items will increase your familiarity of them, which unlocks further abilities for those items such as faster healing times.

Mortal Shell enemies.

As much fun as I had with the challenging combat in Mortal Shell, one of my favorite aspects of the game was the world itself. This is a smaller game than the average Souls-like, so everything is much more condensed and packed a lot more tightly. That said, there are still maze-like ruins and hidden caves to discover and explore. Even if you stick to the main path, moving through the world of Mortal Shell is creepy and unsettling, and it gives off some really rad horror-fantasy vibes.


Like its genre predecessors, Mortal Shell has a heavy, sulky tone to it. One look at the game and you’ll be reminded of everything from Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls to Ashen and Lords of the Fallen. Heck, if you’re tapped into indie horror films, you might even recall last year’s The Headhunter. It’s a very specific mood, and this game captures it like the best of ‘em.

It’s not quite a technical marvel, but graphically, Mortal Shell does an amazing job of creating atmosphere. The world design is filled with dilapidated architecture, dark caves, and ominous forests. The ever-present overcast sky further captures the sense of dread and gives the game an almost supernatural vibe. Dark skies and gray ruins aside, you’ll also see a lot of bold greens and blues as you make your way through the diverse landscape.

Mortal Shell PS4 gameplay.

The sound design of Mortal Shell is minimalist, utilizing a lot of ambient, atmospheric sounds. Enemy grunts and growls range from creepy to straight-up terrifying. Once you deliver a deathblow, most enemies will release a long, withering groan. You’ll hear this groan a lot, and after a while, it does sound a bit silly when you kill five dudes in a row and they all let out the same final breath.

Mortal Shell Succeeds Thanks to Its Focused Gameplay

It’ll take you about 15 hours to finish Mortal Shell. If you take your time enjoying the world like I did, you could hit 20 hours before you know it. Still, that’s not very long for this style of RPG, which may be off-putting to some. But in a lot of ways, the game’s length feels perfect. It does a lot to pull you in and keep you entertained throughout its duration. Not to mention, for folks who love the idea of a Souls game but don’t have the time to dedicate to it, Mortal Shell is wonderfully convenient.

Mortal Shell dungeon exploration.

The focused approach that Mortal Shell takes is what makes it really stand out. The game doesn’t attempt to revolutionize the RPG genre but instead offers a tight experience that will sink its hooks into you and captivate you from start to finish. It’s a challenging game and offers an incredible gameplay experience that’s true to the genre in all the best ways while also offering a slight, welcome shift.

Score: 9 out of 10

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