Mortal Shell is Dark Souls without the baggage

Mortal Shell is described as a “soulslike” game on its official site, but it’s really a version of Dark Souls designed for people who don’t have enough time for Dark Souls.

Mortal Shell is a fraction of the size of other soulslikes, and that’s reflected in its $30 price tag. There are no side quests, distractions, or minigames. The reduced size and scope compared to similar games doesn’t restrict Mortal Shell as much as it focuses and concentrates it, leaving no room for bloat.

It maintains so many of the hallmarks and mechanics of a soulslike game — like the inter-connected level designs and unrelenting difficulty — in such a small package that it all feels distilled and more potent. It’s pared down, but that doesn’t make it less than. It makes it elegant.

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I play as a nameless, faceless, and voiceless protagonist that looks a whole lot like a blank host from Westworld. My purpose is somewhat unclear as the game begins, but being stubbornly obtuse is kind of a theme with Mortal Shell. I’m given a new body to inhabit like a ghost possessing someone as I go through the tutorial, and then I’m granted a sword. Shortly after that, I’m dropped into the game itself.

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I start walking through a generic, hallway-like swamp that leads me forward toward … something. When I reach the first branch in the path, I’m given a vision — glimpses of a goal. I find the landmarks and follow that vision to a place called Fallgrim Tower that will become my base of operations. I meet Sester Genessa, an enigmatic guide, who will help me with my goal of escaping this place. That goal is very vague, but it’s video game logic: the journey exists to justify the game more than to satisfy a story arc.

In Fallgrim Tower, further visions give me more clues about the locations of three more bodies in the area — other shells for my character to inhabit — and three more weapons to find.

Image: Cold Symmetry/PlayStack

Mortal Shell is somehow an action RPG (like any soulslike game) with very few RPG elements. You don’t level up, control an array of stats, nor do you choose a class. Instead, over the course of the first couple hours, you find four titular “shells.”

Those shells — the bodies that you inhabit and control — act as classes. There’s the balanced fighter-like shell I started with, but I’ll soon find a high stamina, low health rogue-style shell; a high health, low stamina tank shell; and a special attack-focused shell.

Each shell has an array of upgrades that you unlock by earning tar, an in-game currency collected when you kill enemies. These upgrades are mostly buffs and bonuses, and the occasional new attack, but they never upgrade your stats — you never see your stats at all, in fact. It’s all very hand-wavy, as the game just tells me I’m discovering or remembering aspects of my shells whenever I spend my tar on one of these upgrades.

Finding those shells becomes my first goal. The shells all lie relatively close to Fallgrim’s tower, but between me and those shells are dozens of the game’s early enemies — grumpy not-quite-humans who hate me on sight. It’s not really clear why they attack me, or why I feel the need to kill them, but I’m willing to hand-wave that off as just another video game conceit — the experience and mechanics of combat are the reason for it.

Even as a stripped-down version of an action game, Mortal Shell finds ways to innovate. There are no shields, but every shell has the ability to “harden” — becoming rock-like and invulnerable for a moment. Hardening also freezes me into a statue. It’s a weird mechanic to figure out — becoming a statue mid-fight just to block a single hit feels short-sighted at first.

But hardening freezes me in the middle of any action, even in the middle of a swing of my sword. Getting hit while hardened knocks me out of my statue form, or I can also choose to come out of statue form early if I miscalculated.

Eventually I realize I can freeze myself mid-swing, and wait for their attack. They hit me, I take no damage, and resume my swing while they’re still in range. I wait for the cooldown for the harden move to reset, and repeat the process. Suddenly, I’ve finished a fight without taking damage. This is something the game tried to teach me during the tutorial, but it didn’t sink in until I started playing for myself.

Similar to the shells, there are only four melee weapons in the game: a one-handed sword; a slow and heavy mace; a two-handed sword; and light, pickax-like hammer. Combat is punishing, exacting, and unforgiving. Every swing needs to be justified. Every dodge has to be accounted for in my stamina gauge. Every incoming attack needs to be acknowledged and planned for.

Image: Cold Symmetry/PlayStack

The thing about never upgrading your shell’s stats, though, is that enemies never become less dangerous. On the offensive side, my sword gets sharper, but never improving my armor or defense means I never stop having to worry about every single hit from even the lowliest enemy. Twenty hours in, I’ll still get killed by the first two enemies in the game if I let my guard down.

Save points, the places I’ll return to when I die, are rare — like, a-total-of-10-in the-entire-game rare. And, as per the rules of the genre, visiting them saves your progress while also resetting all the enemies. Every step I take away from that save point is a step I’ll have to repeat if I fail before finding the next one.

Sometimes that means replaying a brutally taxing hour, which makes every hallway feel like a high-stakes adventure. Every corner feels like a make-or-break moment. Every enemy feels like a boss fight.

Soon, I’ve explored the area around the hub, learned to defeat all the enemies, and claimed all four shells. Instead of wondering how I’ll ever progress past the starting area, I begin to wonder if this is really all there is. The area surrounding Fallgrim Tower is interwoven and complex, but I quickly feel myself bumping against the edges, both literally and figuratively. I find myself looping back to places I’ve been and cleared of enemies, and running out of new places to go.

And then I find my first new weapon.

Weapons are stashed in mini-temples resembling Fallgrim Tower. I have to beat a boss wielding that weapon to claim it as my own, which makes earning each new weapon a satisfying and rewarding endeavor. Then I notice that each weapon temple has a door that leads to a new, themed area.

Image: Cold Symmetry/PlayStack

These three temples are where the rest of the game was hiding. They’re self-contained in that they don’t connect to each other or back to the overworld (except through the temple). They’ve got their own visual and thematic styles, and unique enemies. I travel to a vertical labyrinth covered in snow, a fiery forge, and a dreamlike cathedral sculpted out of obsidian. Each new area feels fresh and cohesive, and builds on to the mysterious world even without the deep and inscrutable lore that these games usually come with.

Once I leave the generic swamps of Fallgrim, things take on a decidedly more gothic, H.R. Giger-style look. Enemies go from being just some dude with a cudgel to sword-riddled human pincushions who rip off their own head and throw it at me as they die. No matter what enemy I face — a towering, hammer-wielding giant or a monstrous baby sitting in a cauldron of lava — combat stays within the bounds the game laid out in its first few minutes. Fighting is always hard, but it’s also narrowly defined. And that makes the system understandable — not easy, mind you, but understandable.

At the end of those levels, I collect an object that I need to return to Fallgrim Tower — as the game drip feeds me information, I learn I need all three of them to escape. I fight my way back, deliver the item, and then start off again toward a new temple. The premise is concise and understandable — go here, collect this, come back, repeat two more times, win.

That’s the elegance of Mortal Shell. It is small, and has a limited number of things for me to do and goals to achieve. It makes me fight for every inch of progress, and that makes it feel bigger than it actually is. I don’t get to level my character into godhood, so I can’t become immune to even the most basic attacks. Without save points, and with limited shortcuts, it takes away any semblance of safety or speed, leaving me to fight for every goal and brutally punishing me if I get complacent.

Mortal Shell becomes great by not being afraid to offer less. It’s refined and elegant in its simplicity, without sacrificing quality, mechanics, or challenge. And that makes Mortal Shell incredible.

Mortal Shell is out now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using a download code provided by PlayStack. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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