This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Mortal Shell.
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Oh Yahtzee, have we got a surprise for you! A surprise, games industry? Is it… a PC release of Infamous 2? Nope! Is it… Silent Hill entering the public domain? Nope! Ooh, did the entire management team at EA contract cholera from giving each other rusty trombones? N- I don’t even know what that is. No, the surprise is… a game that’s an awful lot like Dark Souls! Oh Jesus fucking Christ. I thought you liked Dark Souls, Yahtzee. I did! I also had a nice time at Disneyland when I was ten but I never wanted to fucking live there. I might just be over the whole Soulslike thing. Lovely meditations on the inevitability of entropy and death as they are, I feel like I’ve meditated enough. I’m confident if I’m ever in a sinking ship or a crashing plane I could probably be philosophical about my impending doom, now, and I’d like to move on and meditate on some other things. Like prawn cocktail flavour crisps. So the game is Mortal Shell, and this is normally the point where I’d summarise the plot and the setting, but I think “it is a Dark Souls clone” will do the job well enough. You’re a walking husk of a person in a dying dark fantasy world and everything else in the world has apparently been led to believe that if they hit you hard enough then prizes will come out.
I feel like Mortal Shell doesn’t do enough to set the scene. Hello, we’re like Dark Souls, is all it seems to say. Dying fantasy world, inscrutable plot, you know the drill, bish bash bosh. But Dark Souls at least gave you something to go on. An intro movie that wouldn’t start making sense until around the second playthrough and the instruction “go ring the bells of awakening,” which didn’t do a whole lot of justice to the several hours of ultra violent directionless urban exploration between you and that goal. But it was something. Mortal Shell seems to be trying as hard as it can to out-inscrutable Dark Souls. The game won’t even tell you what consumable items do until you consume one, and that’s the kind of learning process that got me kicked out of medical school. You’re a white ghosty dude who looks like Pepsiman contracted the ebola virus and you’re in a forest, and before long you discover you have the ability to inhabit certain dead bodies. Oh. Mortal Shell, I see. There was me thinking the title was about the plight of the oil industry.
So while the plot and setting do very little to discourage comparison to Dark Souls like a Chinese bootleg toy that somehow got through the entire manufacturing process without anyone noticing that “Batman” was misspelled, Mortal Shell offers some unique twists on the gameplay formula, most uniquely, the body inhabiting thing. Instead of constructing a custom character to cathartically carve a chasm through the cartilage of countless craven creeps you have to take a character off the peg, as it were. No customisation, no levelling, every shell you can wear has fixed stats and armour that can’t be changed, and which has probably gotten very whiffy. Not that you can occupy ANY corpse, mind, this isn’t the Dark Souls clone in which you can get revenge on those fucking poison swamp zombies by possessing one Mario Odyssey style and running around telling all its relatives its embarrassing personal fetishes, amazing an idea as that sounds. There are four highly specific bodies scattered about the starting forest and that’s your lot. Really it’s more of a class switching mechanic. Because there’s the one dude with lots of stamina, the one dude with lots of health, the one dude with lots of that third kind of stuff what you do special attacks with, and the default all-rounder dude who wonders why he doesn’t get invited to parties.
To the usual Dark Souls style combat of long windups, stamina management and rolling like a cannabis dispensary just before the bank holiday weekend, we add the unique ability to press a button to very quickly think about Jenny Agutter, make yourself go rock hard and deflect the next attack. And importantly you can do it at any moment, so if you’ve mistimed your swing and the next enemy attack is gonna hit you first you can say a quick prayer to Jenny Agutter, let their attack bounce off, unfreeze when you remember Jenny Agutter’s getting on a bit now, resume your swing and biff the enemy while they’re still reeling from their failed attack on your invincible stiffy. It’s enough of a twist on the usual Soulslike blow-trading to require a shift in thinking, and it’s probably just as well we have the advantage, because there’s something faintly off about the general handling. There were times I pressed the dodge button and my dude just didn’t dodge, overdoing the Jenny Agutter fantasies perhaps. And there’s this one regular enemy early on that I swear can go from sitting bored by the campfire to a sprinting charge attack with no animation in between like he just saw his dog go over to the new shagpile carpet and start making retching noises.
So what with Mortal Shell trying to out-inscrutable Dark Souls you don’t even start off in whatever the local equivalent of Firelink Shrine is, you get dumped in a swampy forest full of paths that all look the same and receive a vision of where to go next: a random part of swampy forest that looks like all the other parts. But I made it to not-Firelink Shrine and received a whole bunch of more visions showing me where I could go next, all of which were also random parts of a swampy forest that looked like all the other parts. So if I were to summarise Mortal Shell in one word, it would be “Jenny Agutter.” Then, after jerking off, I’d update the word to “demoralizing.” Not that one ever plays a Soulslike for a positivity boost and a biscuit, but I find very little about Mortal Shell drives me to keep playing it. The fixed character stats and lack of levelling or ability to change equipment beyond four fixed weapon styles makes it hard to give me any sense that I’m progressing, or improving, or that one day I might return to a starting area and take revenge on all the level 1 assholes for making me think I had a chance with Jenny Agutter. Whoops, need to jerk off again.
The eternal paradox of copying Dark Souls is that copying things is what a lazy person does, but making a game like Dark Souls is actually really hard, turns out. I’d say Mortal Shell gets full marks for atmosphere, loses a few for general gameplay feel and gets them back for its interesting twists on the combat. But at the end of the day, high difficulty, inscrutable plot and a general sense that this would be a bad game to recommend to anyone on suicide watch do not a Dark Souls make. The relevant point, I think, is that Dark Souls is an incredibly majestic game as well. Yes, you spend a lot of time in gloomy tunnels playing sword pattycake with people in burlap sack nighties, but every now and again something will hit you like an unexpected pair of buttocks in a ball pit and you’ll go “Blimey, I’m in a cathedral-sized room fighting a gigantic inside out roast chicken and it feels like the worst guilt-ridden anxiety nightmare Colonel Sanders ever had.” Whereas in Mortal Shell when I took a moment to reflect I’d usually go “Yep, still surrounded by confusing, dreary environments and smelly dudes. All the poignant majesty and introspection of walking home from the pub in the north of England.”