Videogame genres have cross-pollinated in the last decade. It's hard to find a game that doesn't have at least some RPG elements. Spending XP on skills and stats provides a good sense of progression across a 40 hour experience, even if the systems are just designed to let you raise damage to keep up with enemy health pools. It's a neat psychological trick, but I'm truly bored of it.
Mortal Shell is a refreshing example of a game that does just a few things very well, and that's okay. You play as a pale weirdo who has to acquire the bodies of dead soldiers to survive. Each one of these shells has its own moveset and storyline, subtly told through skill descriptions and opaque NPC dialogue.
You can acquire 'tar' and 'glimpses' from enemies that unlock new skills, but importantly there is no character sheet. Your attack power, constitution level, speed, and stamina levels are all hidden. The result is a game that rewards perseverance as you learn, through trial and error, exactly what your shell can and can't do effectively.
That ought to be frustrating, but I love it. Remarkably, Mortal Shell has fewer plot cues than Dark Souls—a game that takes several playthroughs to decode. As a consequence Mortal Shell's world is a strange, enigmatic, and rewarding place to explore, even though the Shell movesets will be so familiar to Soulslike players. It's a staid, predictable action game, but the combat feels great nonetheless. There are moments of jank, like the repetitive roars of the first boss, Grisha, but generally Mortal Shell is a smart extension of the Soulslike genre with a few new ideas of its own.
The Souls games are remarkable for many reasons, but one of the undersung traits of the series is the way it treats death. For Souls players the "YOU DIED" screen will be etched into memory forever, but you always get a second chance. If you find your corpse you get all of your souls back. It's a brilliant rule that softens the impact of failure in a series that has become famous for its difficulty.
Mortal Shell builds on this by giving you several chances. You can recover your lost tar by finding a glittering red item where you died last, but in addition your first death in a run doesn't kill you. Instead it knocks your pallid, weak self out of your shell. You can keep on fighting in this state, but one hit will kill you. What follows is a very cagey fight where you're trying to dodge enemies and get back to your calcified shell so you can return to full power. Genius.
I'm surprised by the game because I don't want anything more than it's providing. I don't miss interactive conversations, long cutscenes, levelling screens, or gear screens. All that stuff feels like pointless padding now. The Mortal Shell devs have streamlined the Dark Souls formula magnificently, and it's going to be one of my favourite games of the year.