Developed by Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack, Mortal Shell is a Souls-like title that takes players on a short journey through an eerie, rotting world. With Dark Souls running through its veins, Mortal Shell knows exactly what it’s doing, but still manages to strike a new path with new mechanics. However, some design decisions and pacing make the experience one that only Soulsborne fans will enjoy, and even then, likely not enough to warrant a NG+ run.
The story presented in Mortal Shell is as mysterious as one might expect from this genre. After a brief tutorial, the player meets a prisoner shackled under the ruins of a tower, who asks that you retrieve some glands from a few temples, so it might heal itself.
Outside of the singular purpose of claiming glands, the story is dripped out by unlocking new skills, reading consumable items, speaking with a couple of NPCs and interacting with a few statues and tablets in the environment.
There’s really not much to be said about the main story. It felt like it was over just as it was ramping up. However, the background narrative and lore is there for those that wish to spend their time digging.
As for the entity players will control during their time with the game, it’s a sort of tabula rasa humanoid that is dubbed a Foundling. This character can slip into the “shells” of a few long-dead warriors, inhabiting their corpses and gaining their strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to the player to decide which shell suits their playstyle best and what weapon should be paired with it.
Stranger in a strange land
One of the most appealing aspects of a Souls-like game is exploring a strange, unfamiliar, and oppressively dangerous world. Mortal Shell immediately delivers. Everything from items and the shells you inhabit are foreign, and the world itself is creepy with its grim and brutal visuals.
Then there are the sounds of Mortal Shell. The weight of the world presses down with the atmosphere and the morose music, while the voice acting adds a layer of unrest to the experience. It’s deeply eerie and ethereal, with performances being reminiscent to those of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It’s unnerving, and visceral, and quite disturbing
The gameplay itself is also strange. There’s a slowness to it that demands to be learned. It feels slower than Dark Souls, and off the back of the likes of Sekiro, feels like wading through molasses. But this can, at times, work.
There are other little highlights that bring the experience to life. Unlocking new shells and weapons can be tough, especially knowing where to go. But by interacting with a weapon mount or an empty crypt, a murky vision will play, giving the player an indication of where to go next. Small directions like these would make other Souls-like titles more approachable to the casual player.
Gameplay in Mortal Shell aligns itself with the Souls-like genre. There are light and heavy attacks tied to two seperate buttons, sprint and dodge linked to a single button, and a button to handle your parry while another controls the Harden ability, one of the first key differences the game has to offer.
Harden does as it suggests: turns the character into a statue until hit, negating all damage. The ability can be initiated at any point during combat, including mid-attack, which has the unique effect of “pausing” your assault while the enemy’s sword bounces off your stony head, causing the ability to end and your pre-executed attack to land.
To balance out this power, Harden has a cooldown of a few seconds, preventing spamming during a fight. In saying this, it’s extremely easy to kite a boss for those few seconds until you can pull off another attack-Harden-dodge combo, which trivializes most fights.
Where Mortal Shell enters its own lane is with the shell mechanic. Instead of creating a build, the game offers four different shells. These fallen warriors, whose bodies must be found, boast different specs that match what players might expect from classic archetypes: the all-rounder with even stats, the quick rogue with high stamina and low health, a tank with reduced stamina, and a scholar.
When the shell’s health meter hits zero, the Foundling is knocked out of the shell. While nowhere near as powerful as the shell, the Foundling has a small chunk of health and a large pool of stamina. The challenge is to quickly reclaim the shell, before getting killed for good. Only one out-of-shell experience is available per rest, so as always, avoiding dying early on in order to save the astral projection for a boss fight is critical.
These shells also have a few passive abilities that can be unlocked by using the game’s currency, Tar and Glimpse. Tar is your soul and blood echo equivalent while Glimpse is somewhat like skill points.
The skills on offer lean into a shell’s archetype. The rogue can be upgraded to consume no stamina while sprinting and the all-rounder can improve the Harden ability.
One of the shells (the Scholar) also specializes in Mortal Shell’s other unique mechanic, Resolve. By attacking enemies, bars of Resolve are filled, which can then be consumed to perform a variety of actions. There’s a parry-riposte that heals you, a kick to put enemies off balance, and powerful weapon abilities.
The combat then becomes this push and pull of trying to defeat an enemy, manage stamina, while also building enough Resolve to perform the moves you want. Throw in the different shells, with their own unique stats, and you potentially have a recipe for success.
Shuffle off this mortal coil
The first few hours of Mortal Shell are an enjoyable balance of fighting and exploring. However, it becomes obvious that several of the systems at play in Mortal Shell don’t really gel.
One major problem, which has a trickle-on effect, is the lack of reusable healing items. Instead of having access to an Estus Flask or Gourd, players are limited to mushrooms and meat, both of which must be either farmed or purchased from a merchant.
These items can’t just be picked up whenever you please. The locations where they spawn are on a timer and purchasing them from a merchant requires Tar – which you need to use to unlock your abilities.
The effect of having no reusable healing items also affects exploration. If the player can’t reliably access healing items without farming then avoiding damage is the next best strategy. What this often means is running past enemies to try to unlock a shortcut.
A later area in the game really highlighted this point. The area itself was stupendously large and packed with enemies. While at first you might decide to fight some, it quickly becomes obvious that you do not have the necessary health items to fight them all. There are shortcuts to unlock, but the only feasible way to reach them without burning through resources is to simply run.
Even the level design of the main area is found wanting. There are very few landmarks, with every direction looking exactly the same. It makes it nigh impossible to work out which fallen tree is which, and whether the canyon you’re running through is the right one. All routes are also over-populated with similar enemies, leaving no clear indication of which place to traverse first, an important signpost in Souls-like titles.
While running past everything is viable in other Souls-like games, you don’t want it to be the best strategy for a first-attempt at a game.
Unfortunately, while Mortal Shell’s combat is meaty and rewarding and at times a challenge, it can tend to feel as if there is little control over the growth of a character. Each of the shells are locked into their stats, meaning the knight isn’t getting any more stamina and the rogue will be getting no more health.
What’s more, and perhaps it is just my personal playstyle, almost all of the shells felt underpowered when compared to the knight. Despite having limited stamina, the knight has an ability that lets it deal more damage with each kill. At one point, with 130 stacks, I was cleaving through enemies with ease and beat a main boss without breaking a sweat. It felt like playing another shell was simply hobbling myself for no reason.
Outside of game mechanics, there were other aggravations to be found in Mortal Shell. Parts of the environment offer crawl spaces to move between areas. When using these, the game plays a little cutscene animation that removes control from the player. During this animation, the player is still very much vulnerable to enemy attacks.
Then there’s the all-important lock-on, which is oddly low, forcing the camera to sit higher, titling down. It makes it difficult to see the whole enemy, as well as anything in the periphery.
Following that is the familiarity mechanic. This is rather unique, whereby you won’t know what an item does until you use it. Use it enough and you’ll increase its effectiveness. While this is great at first, and interesting in the early-game, by the time you’re rounding on the late-game, the on-screen text stays visible for far too long, obscuring a big chunk of your vision. It makes seeing what’s going on in the tight corridors or open boss fights a problem, especially if you’re popping more than one item.
Unfortunately, though the Resolve mechanic is unique, Mortal Shell seems to tie too many features directly to the stat. Parry-heals, weapon abilities, and kicks all require, at minimum, one bar with some requiring two. Though they do offer a spectacle, it often doesn’t feel worth the effort of trying to activate these when a missed parry window leaves you needing to use a healing item.
Another problem, tied directly to the combat itself, is the speed. Mortal Shell is brutally slow, specifically the player animations, but this is often at odds with the speed of the enemies. Furthermore, movement and attacks aren’t queued in a similar fashion to other Souls-like titles, nor can they be cancelled early. This leaves parts of the combat feeling clunky, as inputs are finished in full before another is initiated.
Age of Dark
Mortal Shell is a valiant attempt at the Souls-like genre. Its dark and brooding aesthetic are unnerving, while the unique mechanics, like the shells and Resolve, offer fresh takes on the tried-and-true combat. These slight changes from the formula create a challenging experience that will have those intimately familiar with the Souls-like genre relearning the basics. Unfortunately, while Mortal Shell has a heart of gold, there are mechanics and core decisions that prevent it from being a truly great entry into these hallowed halls.
This review is based on a PC download code provided by the publisher. Mortal Shell will be available on Microsoft Windows via the Epic Games Store, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on August 18, 2020.
- Alluring world to explore
- Meaty combat with unique abilities
- Shell system allows for easier build access
- Music and voice acting is excellent
- No reusable healing items
- Not many boss fights
- Harden ability somewhat trivializes fights
- Level design is either lacking or too convoluted
- Can be attacked mid-cutscene
- Combat can feel clunky thanks to input buffering
Sam Chandler posted a new article, Mortal Shell review: No heir to the flesh
Unless you're a hardcore Soulsborne fan looking for a short term fix, I couldn't say I would really recommend it. I have a lot of greivences with it that make me not want to play through it again. The team have shown their prowess at making a Souls-like experience, hopefully their next title tightens things up a bit more.
I feel like it's a lot harder to do a proper From-style action-RPG than most people realize. You can't just make it "really hard" and then give it a certain aesthetic. There is so much to the design that is hidden beneath the surface layer stuff.
Just hearing that you can't cancel attacks and moves was a huge turn-off to me.