mortal shell should be more interesting

the thing about dark souls is that apparently only From Software understands how to make it work.

I was thoroughly souls-pilled by ELDEN RING and spent my gaming time after that experience cruising through the entirety of From’s entries. I’ve now beaten every souls-y game they’ve put out with one exception (fuck you sekiro and your inexplicable timing windows). I loved every single one, even dark souls 2 with its idiosyncrasies and one-off design choices. DS1, ELDEN RING, and bloodborne. are now easy answers for me if anyone asks me for an arbitrary assortment of my favorite games (not a question I get a lot but it’s nice to have newer answers than mega man x and final fantasy tactics).

straying outside From’s comforting polish has not borne much fruit, unfortunately. I’ve played a number of souls takes from other studios, large and small. note here that I’m being a little narrower than what “soulslike” is usually taken to mean in larger discourse; what I want at the core is that sweet, sweet third-person character action with animation-rhythm-based combat.

turns out most of the non-From takes on this game style focus more on the set dressing outside of that, much to my chagrin. whether it’s smaller-studio attempts like hellpoint or mortal shell or a AAA take like lords of the fallen, it appears no one except the teams at From knows how to make these games feel good to play. lords of the fallen in particular is a travesty, melding disposable World of Warcraft aesthetics with some of the clunkiest mobility games have to offer. seriously, why does my character in that game roll slower and less athletically than I would if someone asked me, an unfit 30-something who had back surgery once, to do a tumble? I can hear his lower back aching. I want to give him ibuprofen, or a lidocaine patch, or a good pillow for a nap.

I want to focus on mortal shell though because it’s the most recent one of these that I’ve played but also because it’s both the most intriguing and most disappointing of the lot so far. quick summary: mortal shell is a 2021 game released by the very small studio Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack. look at a screenshot or a short video clip and you will be forgiven for thinking it came from an unreleased Dark Souls 3 DLC; the aesthetic borrowing is, ah, let’s say liberal.

when it’s on target, this game comes closer than other clones to nailing From’s gameplay instincts for rhythm and heaviness and its aesthetic concerns with decay, stale grief, and futile clutching for power. all the weapons feel and sound chunky and satisfying; the animations are well made for character and enemy alike; timing windows are transparent and consistent enough that you can get very good at killing enemies in a way that echoes the flow-state in the best moments of bloodborne, which to me is still the best representation of this combat style that we’ve seen so far.

but it’s not on target very often. let’s start mechanical and go thematic later. this game is a buggy mess, which isn’t unexpected for a small studio but disappointing hitches in the flow. there are small issues similar to one’s I’ve seen in souls games too — wonky ragdoll physics, enemies phasing through floors, texture issues. but the bigger stuff is more of a problem: there are occasional major hitbox issues that really break your ability to understand what will or won’t hit you, there are real problems with collision and floor detection that make the more cliffside-y levels a frustrating nightmare, and so on. you just feel where the budget probably suffered toward the end of development.

the game’s difficulty is also a good example of how so many people misunderstand what makes souls games “difficult.” I would describe them, in their platonic state, as exacting but fair: you know your dodge windows and your weapon’s reach, you can learn enemy patterns, so success is a matter of playing the notes Guitar Hero style and matching the game’s desired rhythms. yes, souls games occasionally just hit you with a guy who steps out from an unseen corner, but they do that rarely and more to emphasize that you should be paying attention, that this is a rhythm game with narrow hit windows.

mortal shell plays unfair, all of the time. it stacks ranged enemies in combinations that guarantee you will take damage; it hides enemies everywhere, to the point where it’s less surprising than tedious and annoying. it is as sparse with checkpoints as the original demon’s souls without nearly enough of the shortcut-unlocking level design common to those games to compensate. the final boss has several of the most annoying attack patterns I’ve seen in any video game. it feels more like an old arcade game that wants you to put in more quarters; success feels like stupid luck, or simply a matter of figuring out the right cheesy approach, rather than the accomplishment of growing skill.

OK enough IGN 7/10 review talk. thematically mortal shell sets up a fascinating premise and, because it’s too beholden to a lot of tropes and standards established by From, doesn’t do nearly enough with them.

in mortal shell you are something that another character refers to as a “foundling.” you’re not quite undead like in souls, not a castaway severed from Destined Death like in ELDEN RING. you are instead a skeletal, ethereal thing, weak and semi-human with no mouth and no skin. you rise in a spiritual plane (complete with something called a “wormfish” that transports you to and from the mortal realm) desiring ascension of some sort.

when you take on a form of physical flesh in mortal shell, you do so via the titular shells, which are in fact the corpses of dead warriors past.

mechanically this is a neat but not especially revolutionary idea. once you’ve inhabited the full set of shells, you can swap between them fairly freely. each has its own distribution of health, stamina, and energy statistics, as well as a few less-visible distinctions. but the weapons you use (and their respective special abilities) are interchangeable across the shells, so I didn’t find myself swapping to accommodate a new situation so much as finding the one that fit my playstyle and sticking with him.

thematically, this is a very weird angle to take on the typical protagonist of these games. you’re something of a speaker for the dead in this world; the “humanity”-esque resources you collect are instead glimpses of these dead men’s former lives and thoughts. before you can power up your shell, first you must discover its name.

there’s a compelling power to this idea of bodies as shells. first of all it emphasizes what has been lost in death, the void you are filling in your role. a moral question is posed by the premise: in inhabiting these bodies and rekindling their memories, are you honoring their legacies or mocking them, reliving their glory or propping them up as crude marionettes? several NPCs recognize and remark upon the visages of the dead men, their reactions varied based on the emotional connection they may have had to that person—brother, lover, friend, nemesis.

finding glimpses and buffing characters rewards you also with sound clips of the shells’ lives and thoughts, anxieties and confidences. some are afraid to the end; some welcome death. in those moments it certainly feels more like a process of memorializing, or of reconstruction in the manner of a biography or an especially complex epitaph, remembering first a name and then trying to rekindle the core of a person, even as you know the core itself has long since hollowed.

there is also the question of what inhabiting these shells means about what you are, and it’s here where mortal shell stumbles, I think. your protagonist character is a cipher, in this case more literally than for a standard souls silent protagonist. perhaps some of this comes in lore dumps I missed, but I found no evidence that my character had “goals” or “ambitions” beyond existing in the mortal realm itself and then, later, a vague ascension to something like godhood.

that first instinct—existence itself—is a really interesting one, and where I wish the game did more interesting story work. the shells do not decay or change; they are static frames of bone and sinew. a character remarks that when you inhabit them you feel thirst and hunger and the other crudities of the flesh, but this isn’t mechanized in any way and isn’t reinforced by any cutscenes or narrative momentum.

mortal shell literalizes the mind-body problem but doesn’t consider the implications, then. what does it mean to cast ourselves from one body to another? how central is the body to our conception of self? apparently not at all, for the foundling, which is theoretically fascinating but we are given no insight or hint as to what it might mean that the foundling is so transient or that it/he seems compelled to seek even the façade of humanity that a shell represents.

this game pulls out a lot of religious imagery and phrasing, which feels both appropriate for its thematic concerns and also ultimately half-baked. its narrative ends with an extremely predictable “twist” of a final boss. apparently what it means to ascend to godhood is that you get to start new game plus.

here’s the thing about souls games: they are insanely compelling worldbuilding engines, even as their stories are sparse or half-uttered. they use mechanics to tell both micro stories and to reinforce larger themes. rebirth, stasis, and decay are all constant facets of the background and foreground. the dark souls trilogy hinges on both the beauty and horror of cycles; bloodborne takes as an aspect of cosmic horror the notion of being trapped by time and destiny too far beyond comprehension, played as a pawn in someone or something else’s game.

so even as I can come to the end of one of their games and go “huh. yeah no idea what happened there” the themes and subtextual patterns stick with me, keep me thinking, reframe my perspective even as I also just consider how much fun it is to fight a dog with a big sword or whatever.

mortal shell creates a context that could, maybe even should be just as compelling and weird, just as obsessed with death and rebirth but with a fresh angle, from which you could sprout a lot of unique horrors or possibilities. I can think of countless ways to pay off that context with a richness that would have made the most frustrating bits of gameplay significantly more tolerable.

and to be clear it’s OK that they didn’t pick any one of the angles I can think of—my problem is that they didn’t really pick an angle at all. the shell thing ultimately is a distant-background mechanical quirk, half a step above a gimmick. by the end of the game no one remarks on it; a new body inhabited may as well be a new suit of armor for all its intrigue.

there are some beats of this game memorable enough to stick in my head as well as something From built, but mortal shell is ultimately a disappointment, flatter than it should be, ironically quite dead inside for a game about filling up a dead vessel with a new life.

and also it sometimes combines poor level design with silent hill volumes of fog and enemies that keep jumping on me from behind and I get the worst kind of lost and angry for an extra hour, and I yearn for the frustrations of FromSoft’s finest.