Daring to take my first steps in Mortal Shell, I couldn’t help but feel slightly intimidated. There’s a deep sense of familiarity within the game, calling back to beloved FromSoftware games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne. However, there are distinctive twists in this dark and foreboding game.
Developer Cold Symmetry is a smaller team, but despite their size, they show a clear understanding of what a Soulsborne game needs to be. Mortal Shell knows exactly what it is and doesn’t relent on its mission to replicate the popular games in the genre – though it’s what it does differently that makes it stand out as a unique experience.
With an intrinsically gothic and macabre setting to explore, Mortal Shell nails the aesthetic of what you’d come to expect. Gameplay is efficient in offering players a real challenge when going toe to toe with enemies and engaging bosses in satisfying battles. The story is purposefully vague, encouraging players to dive deep into the lore. But while being rooted within the Soulsborne genre, Mortal Shell excels in differentiating itself.
Just a mere husk
Mortal Shell opens up with you in the shoes of a ghostly white, faceless husk known as the “Foundling”. You emerge and find yourself in a foggy area, to beging the game’s tutorial. It is here that you are given an explanation of one of the game’s most important mechanics, the ‘hardening’ tool. Working on cooldown, you can turn your body to stone and bear the brunt of an enemy attack. While other games encourage you to block with a shield to lessen the damage or, better yet, roll away, hardening adds a whole new dimension to the game.
It’s not long until you find yourself against the game’s tutorial boss where, if you’re like me, you’ll quickly succumb to its attacks. Setting the stage for the game’s many oddities, a giant fish comes to swallow you whole and transports you to Mortal Shell’s overworld. There’s very little context given to you from the get-go. To really understand the circumstances and what’s at stake, you must seek out the many ancillary pieces of lore around the world and speak to the NPCs you come across.
Your core objective is given to you by an ominous figure known as the Dark Father. Trapped within this nightmarish world, the Dark Father encourages you to venture to the farthest reaches of the world in hope of freedom upon completing his request. Along the way, you’ll find many unique enemies and confront a number of powerful bosses.
Stepping into a dark and ominous land
The game features dynamically different environments, each packed to the brim with their own gallery of enemies. Many are in the minion category, a hit or two away from death. Others are lumbering brutes, with the swings that will take you off your feet.
The designs of the game’s bosses stole the show for me. Cold Symmetry’s art department have gone above and beyond in creating memorable bosses for the game. Having invested a lot of time in the genre, I prepared for the inevitable loop of dying over and over again, slowly climbing to success on a mountain of my own corpses.
While the offerings of enemies will likely keep you engaged, the world they inhabit is slightly underwhelming. There’s no clear direction in where you are supposed to go. Any time I found a temple or boss it was purely by accident. For the most part, I wandered down the game’s many paths, killing enemies until I found a new save point.
The frustrating design choices made to the world were only heightened by the task of retreading your steps each time you complete a temple. Once obtaining an objective, you must run back the same way you came and deliver it to the Dark Father at the central hub.
Slow and steady
Mortal Shell has all the trappings of a great Soulsborne game. Learning the enemy attack patterns and finding the windows of opportunity to attack is half the battle. Managing your stamina bar between dodging, light attacks and heavy attacks plays a huge part in the gameplay loop.
Mortal Shell has a parry mechanic similar to the one in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, albeit with a slower animation Executing a perfect parry meshes with another mechanic, Resolve. Factoring in the hardening technique, Mortal Shell’s combat has a lot of additional texture to it that doesn’t quite break the mold of your standard Soulsborne game, but it does expand it.
Combat is much slower than you’d expect. I often found myself methodically dancing between offensive and defensive plays. While I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it as cheesing, I did find it surprisingly easy to defeat most enemies by doing a leap attack before quickly hardening and avoiding damage. Rinsing and repeating this strategy made very few enemies a true challenge. That said, this strategy only took me so far when I was surrounded by flanking enemies. While some sections of the game proved to be easier, there’s still a real challenge at the heart of Mortal Shell.
Through shell and high water
As you start out, your character is weak. Exposed muscle and tendons make up the body of the Foundling as if it was ripped from an H.R. Geiger painting. The Foundling is able to locate and embody a Shell. Each Shell represents the dead body and remaining armor of warriors from the land. Shells are very unique, as they not only act as “classes” for the player but also provide a line of health. Upon losing your health, you are knocked out of your Shell and are given the chance to re-possess the Shell, reclaiming a full bar of health. Though, if you are knocked out a second time, it’s game over and you are transported to the last checkpoint.
By possessing these Shells, you inherit the stats of said warrior. Available throughout the game are four Shells with unique stats. For the vast majority of my playthrough, I walked in the Shell of Eredrim, the Venerable, who can be considered the game’s tank. It’s up to the player to discover which Shells speak to them the most.
To find each Shell and additional weapons to use, you can interact with the crypt in the central hub. Vague visions will play out giving clues to where the Shells and new weapons can be found. This adds a real air of mystery to the game, and discovering each location is satisfying.
A little glimpse into a dark world
As you explore, you’ll recover Tar, Mortal Shell’s answer to souls and blood echoes. Tar is one of the currencies you will farm throughout the game in order to upgrade and expand each Shell’s abilities. None of the abilities you gain will necessarily make you more powerful, but they do buff a fair number of specialties each Shell possesses. As upgrades are separate for each Shell, I would recommend you decide early on which Shell you want to focus on.
Mortal Shell has opted out of providing players reusable healing items. Rather than having a comparative Estus Flask or Gourde, replenishing health can only be done by finding food. For example, Mushrooms can be farmed, although this is a grueling task given that they spawn on a timer. Meat can be purchased from the merchant, but the Tar required is often better saved for upgrades.
Having finite healing items provides another layer of challenge to the player. However, I struggle to see how the gameplay would have been changed by giving players reusable healing items.
Mortal Shell stands victorious in its attempt to capture the essence of a Soulsborne title. Its unique gameplay iterates on the standard accompaniments you’d expect, while providing something new to chew on. The story and world of Mortal Shell are unsettling and dark There are ample amounts of lore to invest in for those who wish to follow the bread crumb trails. Though, if you wish to only take what unfolds at surface level, you can still interpret a large part of the story on your own.
Although the finite healing items slightly complicated things, Mortal Shell does air on the easier side. When compared to other mainstays in the genre, mastering the combat is a satisfying endeavor nonetheless. The Shell mechanic is a brilliant take on created classes, with a slew of upgrades to invest in. Mortal Shell’s hardening mechanic adds the right amount of balance to the challenging combat.
Whether you’re a Soulsborne veteran or someone who is looking to dip their toes into the genre, Mortal Shell should not be missed. The game does not require a huge time investment, as my personal playthrough lasted roughly 15-20 hours. However, New Game+ options are available, adding replay value.
Mortal Shell will be available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on Aug. 18.
An Xbox One code of Mortal Shell was provided for review purposes.