Xbox One, PS4, PC
August 18, 2020
Mortal Shell is a new Action RPG in the style of Dark Souls, whilst there are many games within this Souls-like genre now, does Mortal Shell have enough to shine its soul into your life? Mortal Shell is developed by Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack, being Cold Symmetry’s first title.
A debut release is always daunting for a developer, there are so many expectations to meet. I think that Cold Symmetry (which is only a team of 15 people) has done a fantastic job with Mortal Shell in crafting something familiar, yet unique that is sure to please fans of the genre. They should be proud of their efforts to create a tense and challenging experience that stands on its own, albeit whilst leaning heavily on its inspiration sake.
Mortal Shell can most easily be described as a Dark Souls clone; it has all the traits from that series such as a dark and brooding atmosphere, light story elements, challenging and precise combat, along with losing your gathered experience upon death. In saying that, there are several differences that make Mortal Shell feel different compared to other titles in the genre.
Mortal Shell takes place within Fallgrim, a dark, twisted, and disturbing landscape that just begs for its dark corners to be explored. There are a few different locales within the game, but my personal favourite was the obsidian temple that just gets better the further deeper you delve. The rest of the locales are fairly by the numbers with swamps and ice-caves, but they do just fine in providing beautiful scenery for enemies to inhabit.
Don’t expect to have your hand held and be guided each step of the way, this is as Dark Souls as it gets, with a very basic tutorial provided before you are set off to perform a very vague mission for a giant being who wants 3 glands returned to him. What can go wrong?
The first difference with this game is the namesake of the title – shells. You start as a white skeletal creature, with barely any HP or chance of surviving. Your only option here is to inhabit a shell; the corpses of fallen warriors scattered around the world that provide further abilities and stats for your hermit crab-like warrior.
Each shell has its own name, backstory, and lore, along with varying stats and 10 unlockable abilities that will provide you with a better chance of surviving the countless roaming enemies of Fallgrim. The first shell – Harros, The Vassal, can be located just to the left of a cavernous hallway after the intro section, allowing you to possess his fallen corpse, something that you will do a few more times on your adventure as you stumble across the other 3 unique shells laying out there waiting for you.
With the acquisition of the first shell, you are free to explore and discover the swamp setting that is your first area of the game with a full HP bar and the confidence to take down anyone who steps in your way. The shells also act as a second life, which gives you the ability to return to battle once more.
If you are downed whilst in a shell, you are ejected out as your white-skeletal creature form and allowed to continue fighting, though this is not the best method as you will be downed in one hit. What you can do from here is dodge your enemies and work your way back to shell to inhabit it once more with full health and return to glorious battle. This only has one charge, but can be refilled when visiting a Genessa (think the fire-pits in Dark Souls), which will also restore HP and respawn the enemies you previously downed.
“…there were many times I thought I was done for before I would be able to make it back to my shell to continue the fight.”
The Genessa will also be where you spend experience points, known as tar in Mortal Shell to unlock the various abilities that each shell has, with you first having to spend tar to discover the name of the shell you are inhibiting.
Combat in Mortal Shell is challenging, tough, and at times downright frustrating, but this wouldn’t be a souls-like game if it wasn’t, and thankfully there are a few unique aspects to combat that sets Mortal Shell apart from its contemporaries.
First is the ability to harden, which essentially replaces the ability to block. Using harden can be a very good tactic in battle and will turn your shell into stone for a brief time to deflect enemy attacks. This does have a cooldown window after use, but it can be activated any time; during a dodge, mid weapon swing, or whilst just standing still. This opens up new ways to defeat your enemies in combination with the parry ability that can be acquired within the world.
There are no Estus Flasks in Mortal Shell, so to say, there is no permanent item that will replenish your health. There are some items scattered across the world that you can collect to provide different benefits like faster regeneration of stamina or health, or other buffs like poison attacks. But your main method of replenishing your health will be using the aforementioned parry feature. Each shell has a resolve limit (up to 5 bars), which can be built up during combat, and with each full bar, you can follow up a successful parry with an attack that will drain the health of your enemy and place it into your own HP bar.
An interesting component to the various items you can collect and use is that each item will have its traits hidden until the first time you use it, so you won’t know what a new item does until you actually utilise it. Further to this, the more you use an item, the more familiar your character becomes with it enabling an extra effect and understanding of these items. Some items in the world also have a respawn rate, so you can return to this spot after a set amount of time to collect the item once again.
Juggling and combining the ability to parry, roll-dodge, and harden is the key to success, and will prove to be the foundation of a successful combat encounter in Mortal Shell. I found all the above mechanics to flow nicely together during combat, and there were many times I thought I was done for until I was be able to make it back to my shell to continue the fight. This proves to be an exhilarating time as you are constantly on the verge of death, so having the ability to get a second wind certainly proved useful, but is not a crutch to rely on.
There are a variety of low-end tier enemies to use your skills on that are challenging enough at first but are quickly able to be overcome in small groups once you learn their moves and patterns. This wouldn’t be a Souls-like game without difficult enemies and bosses, and for this, Mortal Shell has you covered. Although I did find the variety to be lacking when compared to the Dark Souls games, most of the designs are quite captivating; it is just unfortunate that there were not a great number of standout moments.
The bosses in Souls-like’s are usually the show ponies, offering an extremely tough and visually impressive encounter that you will no doubt be forced to attempt a few times before finally being able to down them. Mortal Shell does have these moments, but they are few and far between in terms of being truly awe-inspiring.
Mortal Shell is an engrossing and challenging experience, although I would have liked a little more lore upfront, more varied enemies, and somewhat quicker progression as I found it difficult to level up your character early on to give you that little edge over your enemies; but then, you don’t play these types of games to have a “jolly old time”.
There are plenty of surprises awaiting you within Mortal Shell though, with one moment having me encounter an enemy just sitting atop a hill. I approached with caution as his design was the same as other enemies that have lunged at me before, but discovered he was non-combatant and was instead more interested in having a chat. This led to a brief but very captivating interaction that I was not expecting where my character played the lute as the NPC broke out into a little song contrasted with scenes of enemies being overrun by ghoulish looking creatures. I appreciated the little moment that was presented here, but other surprises also await players without spoiling anything further.
- A unique take on the Souls formula
- Interesting world and atmosphere
- Engaging and challenging combat
- Disturbing character designs, although limited
- Little is explained upfront
- Some lower-level enemies can be repetitive at first
- Lack of weapons, with only 4 offerings for melee
I heavily enjoyed my time with Mortal Shell, and if you are a fan of Souls-like games then you will certainly enjoy this one. The combat is extremely engaging, and the atmosphere and setting provide a disturbing and dark would to explore. At times, if I did not know the title of this game I would have assumed it was a Dark Souls entry. The theme, title cards, item descriptions, and lore are all very reminiscent of that series.
It is a difficult game, as is to be expected, and it will not hold your hand, but there is certainly a lot to enjoy with this title if you are a masochist. There are just enough differences here that this game won’t feel like a complete rip-off, just be sure to take a breather when you continuously get downed as you will always learn more about how to overcome that one difficult enemy with multiple tries. For Souls-like lovers, Mortal Shell is a worthy entry into the genre.