“A man is more than just a sleeve.” The game reminds me as I take a new body. It begins nameless and forgetful, a collection of stats without any distinguishing traits. More stamina, less health, middling Resolve. I push through the wet heat of the forest, stillwater filling the boots on my unfamiliar feet, as I try to find somewhere to rest. Along the way, violence happens. A broken man’s wide swing leaves him open and in three strikes he’s gone, for now. Later, I’m caught off guard by a man twice my size wielding a halberd, he throws me from my body and my newborn back slams into the dirt. I scramble up, desperate to return to the Shell I’d been inhabiting moments before. I lunge for it, only to meet a halberd’s blade mid-flight. The death is quick and not my first. I awake in a body I still don’t understand and wonder if I sweat in all this heat. Mortal Shell hasn’t answered that particular question for me, but it has answered many others.
The Souls-like (Soulsborne? Souls-adjacent? Third Person Action RPG With A Heavy Focus on Animation Based Combat and Pattern Recognition?) subgenre has exploded in recent years, taking on a wide variety of settings and aesthetics. The recently released Mortal Shell sticks close to the vision that started it all, a dark western fantasy with a complicated relationship to death and undeath at its center. While the game initially lacks a distinguishing aesthetic (which it more than makes up for in one particularly gorgeous later area) it has an incredible grasp of how to make a Souls game feel good.
Mortal Shell’s combat is based on the relationship among the game’s four primary resources. Health, Stamina, Resolve, and your ability to Harden. Dodging and attacking use stamina. Parries (which restore health) and weapon abilities rely on Resolve. Hardening, your character’s ability to block damage by turning their body to stone, is on a cooldown.
When I engage a hammer-wielding giant, I dodge through his first heavy slam before unleashing a flurry of attacks. This fills 2/3rds of my first Resolve gauge and leaves my stamina on empty. I realize all too late that I don’t have time to avoid his next lengthy attack animation, so I Harden early. His massive windup gives me time to recover my stamina, and his hammer bounces off. I dive in for another flurry of attacks, driving his health lower and lower. I over-commit and run out of stamina again, only to see my first Resolve gauge is full. He starts a slow horizontal swing and I raise the Tempered Seal. A wave of magical energy knocks his hammer back, throwing him off balance. I drive the point of my chisel into his chest and he falls before me, my own health restored.
Yes, the enemies of Mortal Shell do a lot of damage. But the game offers you so many ways of avoiding and mitigating said damage that it rarely feels unfair (and you’re offered two lives every time you journey out into the game’s harsh world). The basic interplay between each of these systems is incredible, and that’s before you account for how different Shells (the four bodies you can inhabit in the game) alter these relationships. Once you discover the name of a Shell by successfully taking it to Sister Ganesha, you can unlock a suite of abilities using Tar (the game’s primary currency) and a resource known as Glimpses. Glimpses, in fiction, are fragments of memory that people leave behind in death. Tar is used to fuel the abilities, but Glimpses are what actually lets any given Shell remember what they were once capable of.
My favorite Shell, Solomon, focuses on using Resolve to use Empowered Ripostes and powerful weapon abilities to keep his health topped off. Unlike most Shells, he gains Resolve from being struck while hardened, and if he kills an enemy with a parry attack, he has the chance to restore all seven segments of his resolve bar. What he lacks in stamina and health, he more than makes up for in his ability to quickly dispatch enemies — once you learn their parry timings. While playing Solomon, stamina is a resource I learn to trade for Resolve, which allows me to always keep up my offensive. He feels so distinct from Eredrim, whose massive health and low stamina make him suited for dealing and receiving heavy strikes, building strength with each enemy he defeats.
The process of learning each Shell is incredibly rewarding. Learning is, for me, one of the best parts of the Souls-like subgenre. Defeating a new boss is a process of learning how they move through space, what attacks you can dodge, and when they’re vulnerable. The same goes for approaching a new area. Finding a safe place to heal, discovering a shortcut, and figuring out how to isolate enemies from their allies.
Souls-likes are about learning by doing. This is why Mortal Shell’s item system is so good. When you first pick up an item, the game doesn’t tell you what it does. To understand something you have to use it first, you have to build a relationship to the item. Tarspores are mushrooms you’ll find scattered throughout the world, when eaten they poison you. After eating ten of them however, you build a tolerance and they instead act as the game’s antidote. Not only removing any active poison effects on you, but making you invincible to all poison damage for a short period of time. With the item description finally revealed you have access to both their utility and their story, because in Mortal Shell those things are inseparable.
Each ability you unlock comes with a snippet of lore. Learning a shell’s name requires you to use them in combat to earn Tar. “A man is more than just a sleeve.” Every Shell has a history. Has a story that they tell. When the Old Prisoner, a cryptic being who exists at the heart of the hub area, speaks to Solomon, he does so as an old friend. There is weight to his voice absent from his normal interactions with you, until he realizes that you’re simply borrowing Solomon’s body. The loss is palpable. The body is there, and so is its history, but the man himself is long gone.
In fact, everyone is gone. In my initial impressions piece on the game’s beta, I wrote about how I hoped there would be some fragment of humanity amongst the dessicated corpses and quiet hallways of Fallgrim. I was specifically interested in the lute, an optional item you can find early in the game.
Every time you use it, you improve your playing. Practice makes perfect after all. I like to use it in quiet moments, like the long walk back to Sister Ganesha after I find my breaking point two-thirds of the way through a dungeon. A nice moment of solace, something human. I wish there were more moments like that in Mortal Shell, glimpses of anything else in the dark. I don’t need people to be doing well, I don’t need joy here. I just need to see people living and hoping or despairing, or anything. Mortal Shell’s world is broken and lonely. I will never feel at home in it and it isn’t worth saving.
And yet, I press on. I think it’s that process of discovery, the opportunity to keep learning, that keeps me going.