Soulslike fans are gonna eat this up like tar.
Mortal Shell, the next title in a long line of games that have attempted to emulate the formula that Fromsoftware created with its Demon’s Souls / Dark Souls titles, is an interesting one. Much of this game is very similar to that of the aforementioned games, and for a good reason. Mortal Shell pays homage to those and manages to offer several fresh takes on the formula that many deem as some of the best dark fantasy games ever made. After playing Mortal Shell for hours on end, I’m hooked on it.
Game Name: Mortal Shell
Genre: Action RPG
Platform(s): PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Publisher(s): PlayStack London
Developer(s): Cold Symmetry
Release Date: August 18, 2020
How long did it take to beat the game: 8 hours
** Early Access provided by PlayStack **
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, I’m a huge fan of Soulslike games, and Mortal Shell is no exception. Even after beating the game for this review, I’ve dived back into the game several times since then because I adore it.
That all said, it’s not perfect, and yes, the story or lack of the story is just as cryptic as that of the games’ main influence, Dark Souls. So if you’re looking for even an inkling of a story, you want to wait for those YouTube videos that dissect the world. But if you’re here for gameplay, well, let me be the first to open the door for you.
As previously mentioned, Mortal Shell borrows many elements from the Dark Souls titles. Yet, it offers its own spin on what we’ve all played for the past few years. Combat, item usage, even character selection have all been changed around to the point that even the most veteran of Soulslike games will need to adjust when playing Mortal Shell for the first time. Yes, this is a Dark Fantasy game, but that’s not a bad thing as there’s more than enough personality here that allows for the game to stand out amongst the crowded genre. Then again, it just could be that I’m a fan of the game, but after hours with this game, I feel that the love is warranted.
While I’ll touch on both combat, character selection, and more later in this article, I did want to mention a bit regarding items and their usage in this game. While games in this genre offer a clear indication of what said item does, you won’t find any of that here. Instead, when you come across an item, it doesn’t tell you much of it, and you’re left with using that item to understand its usage.
This is an odd decision, especially if you’re hunting around for an item that heals you, only to use one that instead buffs your stamina. Trial and error is the only way to identify what these items can for you. Along with that comes a familiarity system. The more you use an item, the more familiar you become until you max that out. In doing so, that item will become boosted. For example, that rotten food that grants you some health, once maxed out, will provide more health. It’s an odd system at the onset, but I grew to understand it.
There is an in-game currency called “tar,” which is the equivalent of “Souls” if you’re of the Dark Souls school. Gather enough, and you’ll be able to exchange them for upgrades via Sister Genessa, an NPC that you’ll be very acquainted with during your time with the game, and purchasing items via the grotesque but friendly merchant. There are a few others, but then I’d be getting into spoiler territory, and I rather not do that. Oh, and Sister Genessa is a hottie… but don’t tell her I said that.
This game makes me hard.
No, not like that… get your mind out of the gutter. Mortal Shell features a unique mechanic called “Harden,” one that is perhaps going to be the next thing that countless other games in this genre will copy. Harden is exactly how it sounds. At any point during the game, you’ll able to become harder than a piece of a petrified tree, providing a few seconds of invulnerability. It’s like blocking, but not having a block or at least one you can spam. You’re able to perform this ability before you’re able to take a hit, even those that seem to be death-causing blows. You’re also able to use this during combat, such as striking and then using harden to negate the incoming attack and causing blows and even projectiles against you to bounce off. Pulling it off is satisfying, if not cool looking.
When I first played Mortal Shell, I’ll be honest. I was expecting more of the same; Dark Souls combat, and I wasn’t that far off. Combat consists of you using both light and heavy attacks, which can be chained into combos, or you can charge the attacks by holding down the buttons. This, of course, comes with increased stamina usage. Yes, there’s stamina in this game, and yes, it will make you think before you spam your attacks, less you want to get winded. You also have access to a resource called resolve, parry, dodge, back steps, and even weapon/class-specific special moves. The resolve is important as this is necessary to pull off parries and further pull off a riposte that rewards if done correctly. You’ll earn resolve by attacking enemies and using various items. That’s not all, as storing enough resolve will also allow you to pull off a special move that not only looks flashy but has some invincibility frames to it if timed correctly.
After getting a grasp of how the resolve meter works, it opened up the game more as it presented options that weren’t available if you lacked the resource. Dodging works is just how it sounds, but with a twist. Moving left or right and pressing the dodge button will make you do a quick step in that direction, while double-tapping the button will turn the quick step into a roll. While just pressing the button will perform a back step, with a split second of hardening along with a visual effect. This will get you out of danger if your “harden ability” is on cooldown, assuming you have the stamina.
The only issue I had with combat is when I occasionally ended being surrounded by enemies and was pretty much screwed. With the lack of a block, faster pacing enemies can close the distance, wreck your stuff, and knock you out of your shell. That wouldn’t be so bad except for when you’re hit out of the shell; you’d still be surrounded and land right in the arms of those wanting to harm you. Now, this isn’t a concern that only Mortal Shell is solely guilty of, but it needed to be pointed out none the less.
I’d be remiss not to touch on the enemies in the game. Each nasty creature that wanted to tear me limb from limb looked amazingly detailed from the savage lizardmen to the giant hammer-wielding, armor-wearing knights, eerie spectral floating things, and more. If you played the Mortal Shell preview and was disappointed with the enemy selection, the full game covered that area.
There’s some damned good looking stuff going on here that you need to play the game to appreciate it truly. So far, my favorites are the ice-clad area and the trippy floating stone area, but that’s not to discredit the other locations as, again, they all look well done. This game does make me wish there was a photo mode because I’d love to get some pictures of all areas without a HUD in the way.
Let me glimpse into your Soul.
As the name suggests, the game revolves around the usage of Shells or deceased bodies left from former adventurers that you can process. Once you find a shell and possess it, you’ll have access to that shell’s skillset, or will once you unlock them. Each of them has different attributes, advantages, and disadvantages. This means that your character choices are preset with no character customizations to be found. This also allowed Cold Symmetry to simplify the otherwise overcomplicated mechanics that far too many Soulslike games adapt. There is no encumbrance, no worrying about what points to place into which stat, no constant upgrading of a thousand different weapons, none of it. Instead, we get a simplified system that revolves around the four shells found throughout the game. All of which vary just enough that you’re bound to find one that suits your style of play.
The shells also play an important role when it comes to granting you a second chance at survival. At anytime that your health gets low, you’ll find yourself being ejected from the shell, where you can either finish off the enemy just as naked as you were at the very beginning of the game. Or you can scramble back to the shell, with full health ready to go again – it’s a free resurrection. There is a catch here that you can only do this once per life unless you head back to Sister Genessa, and you’ll give back that second chance as many times as needed. Several items are used to give you back that second chance or forcibly eject you out of the shell. The latter I found useful when I was able to head into a boss fight, and I wanted to consume my sparse healing items. I’d force myself to be kicked out of the shell, retrieve it, then use the other item to give my second chance back.
Or, you could play without the usage of the shells, thanks to a hidden monument that will stripe you of being able to equip any shells at all. The big disadvantage here is you have little to no life, you won’t be able to take a hit, and it ramps up the challenge.
While I think the shell system is a nice addition to the Soulslike genre, some shells will be used more than others. Again thanks to the differences in the shells and two of the four feel OP. Now, they could be nerfed, or the others buffed, but this is why I stuck with a specific shell until the end of the game.
Yes, there is still a weapon upgrade system in place, but again it’s as simple as they come; you have a weapon, and you find items to increase its strength, that’s it – Simplistic. Now, I don’t want it to sound like you won’t have access to more than just one weapon as you will. Unlike a certain title that had you using just a single main weapon, you have access to three more melee-type weapons and one ranged secondary weapon. However, you won’t have access to them at the start, and you’ll have to earn them as you progress through the game. That said, even though I had unlocked them all, I ultimately stayed with the default weapon – mainly because I had a few upgrades on it, I couldn’t be bothered to switch it up.
That said, this also means that there’s no way to overpower the game, or more specifically, boss fights. Now, most of us are guilty of doing this, including me. Where we’d level and level and level our way to victory. None of that excepts here, meaning you’re going to have to pay attention to the enemies and learn their moves and their tells to succeed here. And trust me, that’s damned important. The last thing you want is to get surrounded by two or more enemies and suddenly find yourself playing the role of a punching bag.
What surprised me regarding Mortal Shell is that the game is completely non-linear, except for the game’s starting area and final section. Everything else is completely up to you, as I found out the hard way. In my pursuit of finding every nook and cranny, I had wandered into one of the later parts of the game, all during my first few hours of playing. Thankfully, I managed to beat that level, thanks to my prior experience with games of this sort. However, when I eventually went back to the lower levels I needed to access to complete the game, they weren’t as much a challenge easy. While I appreciated this freedom to choose my path, it did spoil the experience.
Let’s talk about the PC version.
My time with Mortal Shell was done via the PC (Epic Game Store) version. We PC gamers like to have options to customize our playing experience, cranking everything to the max or being so we can squeeze every ounce of performance that we can. I can happily report that Cold Symmetry did a bang-up job with the PC version. There are various toggles and sliders more multiple settings, such as the resolution, frame rate, V-Sync, and effects and quality settings. There’s plenty here to min/max your visual fidelity.
It doesn’t stop there as you’re able to remap your keyboard/gamepad settings, as well as countless other gameplay, audio, and control settings. This feels like a proper PC port.
Performance-wise, I played Mortal Shell on three different PC builds; standard, mid-range, and high-end. The standard PC, which consisted of a Ryzen 1700 and an Nvidia GTX 1080, was able to run the game with med/high settings at both 1080p and 1440p, managing above 60 frames per second. Both the mid-range and high-end builds were zipping along at both 1440p and 4K with high/ultra settings, 60 frames per second, and beyond. I will add that at times I’d see the game drop frames for a moment, but that was few and far between. Other than that, this game appears to be optimized, though given the nature of PC gaming, what may hold for me may be different for you.
I know there will be some complaints about the game not including Nvidia’s DLSS or AMD’s FidelityFX, but honestly, I don’t think this is an issue. Sure, both would have boosted the games’ performance, but since Cold Symmetry’s first go at a game, it’s not a deal-breaker. Who knows, we could see it patched in.
That all said, I still had some issues while conducting my review. While I chalked it up to be a review copy and possibly not the final code, I did encounter several crashes while playing. Some of which happened right smack in the middle of a boss fight. As you could imagine, I wasn’t too thrilled about that happening. I’m not sure if there’s a patch that will accompany the launch, but if not, I hope the crashing issue is addressed.
I’m just going to be blunt and admit that there’s not much I didn’t enjoy about Mortal Shell. And to think this game was created by a team of 15, and it’s just their first game. While some quirky moments occur in the game and some funky ragdoll physics at work, this game rivals big-budget titles.
My only issue with the game isn’t very long, and once you get the hang of it, you can blast through the game in a few hours. My first playthrough took me about 8 hours, but that was due to me finding new things and documenting them. My second playthrough was much shorter as I blazed through the content that I was now familiar with. While that might vary for you, I just wished it was a bit longer. While there is a new game mode that becomes available after you beat, but just like other Soulslike games, you’re left with doing the same thing over and over. With no online mode, co-op or PVP, the game may not have much longevity. Yet, despite that, here I am, eager for another reason to dive back into the game and hoping that Cold Symmetry has plans for the Mortal Shell franchise in the future.
Review Disclosure Statement: A review copy of Mortal Shell was provided to us by PlayStack for review purposes. For more information on how we review video games and other media/technology, please review our Review Guideline/Scoring Policy for more info.
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It’s still hard to believe that Mortal Shell is Cold Symmetry’s first game, as this game rivals many AAA games. Everything in the game screams quality, from the gameplay to the art and sound direction. As a long time fan of Soulslike games, Mortal Shell has shot to the top of my favorite game lists and I can’t wait to see what the devs do next. If you enjoy these sorts of games like I do, I recommend giving Mortal Shell a try.