Mortal Shell is the latest in what can be described as the new wave of soulsborne games. These games have a tendency to play more with the formula, often being primarily of other genres, but with Soulsborne elements. A prime example of this would be The Game Kitchen’s Blasphemous, which is a Metroidvania with Soulsborne elements.
However, Mortal Shell is unique among this wave in that it doubles down on its Soulsborne elements. It aims to fill the same niche, although is not content to merely be a clone.
In Mortal Shell, you play as the Foundling- a strange creature with the ability to possess the bodies of fallen warriors. You possess these shells in search of 4 temples, to extract a sacred tar. While you level up, you learn more about the mysteries of the world you’ve woken up to.
Not Hiding Its Souls Roots
Mortal Shell definitely wears its Dark Souls inspiration on its sleeve. From the game’s loading screens to the generally bleak tone, the entire game is seeping in a reverence for Dark Souls.
However, while it visually captures the look and feel of Souls, being in the world of Mortal Shell doesn’t feel as immersive. Mortal Shell’s lack of easily accessible flavor text makes the world feel a lot more barren in comparison. That’s not to say there isn’t lore, however. Players can learn all about the game’s world through headstones scattered across the world and when leveling up their shells.
The fact that these are actions the player has to take means that only the truly lore-hungry will get to access this content. It can be argued this makes the lore more valuable, but part of the draw of a good Soulsborne is an immersive atmosphere. Even if it’s not relevant information, just seeing notes written by the inhabitants of this world would have done a better job of setting you into the tone for Mortal Shell. This is a minor gripe, however, as the gameplay more than makes up for it.
A Game Of Its Own Rules
Fans should not go into Mortal Shell expecting a carbon copy of Dark Souls. While the game definitely carries its spirit, Mortal Shell operates by its own rules.
One of the most noticeable rules is the game’s pacing. Mortal Shell has a much slower pace, especially compared to contemporary entries in the genre like Blasphemous or even Dark Souls 3. Patience is the key to this game, and new players should remember to keep a cool head and focus.
To further emphasize this, Mortal Shell has a much lower stamina regen compared to games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3. Running out of stamina is not recommended, and the game will fully punish you for not managing this resource better.
Fun, Unique Mechanics
The game’s key mechanic, hardening, is a great addition to the game. It functions like an instant block- hardening your character will make the next attack that hits it bounce off, opening the enemy to counter attacks. However, this skill is on a cooldown, so you’re going to need to clear your head and decide when is the best time to use this skill. At first it can seem tricky, but hardening absolutely tests your focus in the game.
Mastery of hardening, however, opens up all sorts of gameplay windows. You can harden in the middle of big animations, for example, allowing you to punish enemy moves with even more damage.
Another great mechanic is the game’s Last Chance. When you take enough damage, your Foundling will be ejected from their Mortal Shell. In this state, you can only take one hit, but can still parry and harden. Returning to your shell will raise you back to full health.
It really alleviates the frustration of dying just before a big win, allowing you to start back where you left off. Planning around your last chance is also great for bosses, since dying also leaves an extra shell that heals you on consumption. Play your cards right, and you get two full heals in any given boss encounter.
The game’s Resolve meter is a slightly more contentious addition, in my opinion. Resolve is a resource you generate to use abilities, including the game’s riposte. Weapons also have special moves, usable at the cost of Resolve. While I get that the developers didn’t want you spamming powerful moves, Resolve ultimately goes too far in making you not want to spend it when you have it. Instead, I find myself only saving it for ripostes, and weapon abilities being largely forgotten.
Weapon abilities could have just as easily been bound to a large chunk of stamina, and it would be much better communicated how often you were supposed to use them. Rather, choosing between ripostes and your weapon abilities feels more limiting than rewarding.
Coming Out Of Your Shell, Doing Just Fine
The game’s four shells act as a job system in Mortal Shell. These fallen warriors are yours to possess, inheriting their health, stamina and resolve meters. On top of that, levelling up the shells will allow you to unlock more abilities for them, granting buffs like damage reduction on kill.
This system is really cool, since all the shells are also accessible from the start of the game. Things like blocking and parrying are universal mechanics, meaning that your shell of choice largely comes down to what kind of build you’d like, rather than gating off mechanics.
The Shells themselves also look amazing, with different enough silhouettes to tell what they’re for. The cutscene of your Foundling possessing them is also amazing, and one of the most striking visuals in the game.
You’re also not bound to the shells for too long, as you can obtain items to let you swap out your shell on the fly. These are of course, consumables, so they should still be saved for special occasions.
Like A Boss
One of the biggest draws of this genre is the bossfights. A Soulsborne lives and dies by its bossfights, which make up the majority in the stories you tell your friends when you’re done with the game.
Mortal Shell’s flaw in this respect is a lack of unique bossfights. Close to half the bosses in the game are weapon tutorials for the game’s weapons, and several more of the bosses are just reskins of an early boss with an additional mechanic. Given the small size of the game’s team, this is understandable. However, potential buyers should temper their expectations accordingly.
When the bosses are good, however, they’re great. Despite the game’s slower pace, the game doesn’t suffer passiveness kindly. To make headway into the bossfights, many will need you to dodge through attacks, or the opening simply won’t last long enough to do any meaningful damage. Some bosses even mix you up, with variations of the same combo to keep you guessing where the break is.
Due to the game’s small team, however, these bosses lack any kind of atmospheric music. While understandable, it can break the immersion of the fight somewhat, as you’re stuck focusing on the game’s sound cues. After enough attempts, these can sound quite silly as swords are just whirring through the air with an almost comical tone.
Despite its humble roots, Mortal Shell is a solid entry into the Soulsborne genre. It does many things new with the formula, never being content to just lift from Dark Souls. The game excels at its strengths, and many of its shortcomings can easily be forgiven considering the game’s fifteen-man team.
Despite the game’s slower pace, Mortal Shell absolutely values aggression- it just does so in such a way that you have to be wary of overextending yourself. This game punishes hard, so expect a steep learning curve as you acclimate to this game’s language, so to speak.
In a way, the gameplay in Mortal Shell comes at the cost of the game’s atmosphere. While the game catches the initial macabre of a Soulsborne, it struggles to keep you interested in the world. Not everyone’s in it for the atmosphere though, and you may fine the game’s challenges motivational enough to keep playing.
On its own merits though, it is an absolutely solid adventure game. Mortal Shell is a great first outing for Cold Symmetry, and a great example of the carrying power of good gameplay.
|Satisfying combat with very fair enemy encounters.||Weak atmosphere|
|Hardening mechanic is a cool risk/reward feature||Resolve meter makes doing the cool things less fun.|
|The 4 different shells are all accessible at the start of the game,
Review copy provided by Playstack. Game reviewed on PS4.