Mortal Shell is a new Souls-like game from developer Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack London that has caught many a Souls fan’s eye. It’s not often that you come across such an ambitious indie game made by such a small team, especially one that aims for the highs of From Software’s landmark title. Few developers have managed to come close to From’s intricacies. Before we go too deep into Mortal Shell, I need to throw out a little bit of a disclaimer. You will be hearing a lot of references to Dark Souls, From Software, and the term “Souls-like”, and for good reason.
As someone who has played the entirety of From’s modern catalogue, and many of their imitators it can be difficult to continually fill that genre. Even though there are a fair amount of games with unique takes on the style, few actually pull it off in a meaningful way. There are long lapses in time as well, between games trying to recreate a Souls-like experience. Last year, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was the release, this year, fans have Mortal Shell.
Mortal Shell has been one of the few titles that have stood out recently this year. Earlier this year, the beta was met with extraordinary levels of demand. The number of players wanting access exceeded expectations, and they were forced to turn it from a closed beta into an open beta. The overall impressions initially were great! Has that carried over to the full release though? Fortunately, I can safely say that any kind of Souls fan looking to scratch that itch, can find comfort in Mortal Shell.
A Foundling Awakes
When you first dive in, there is a certain aura that infects you. Something familiar, yet different. The tone of Mortal Shell settles heavily upon you right off the bat. Your character enters ruins filled with fog, and a floor made of shallow water. A dark and ominous feeling emanates from deeper within and draws you inward to your first encounter with the horrors that await you. This first mini-boss in the tutorial sets the tone and even though you are meant to lose, he can be beaten. This even unlocks an achievement/trophy! It can be quite a long and difficult fight though. Whatever the outcome, after an odd event, you are transported to a cave where the rest of your adventure awaits.
Your character is nothing but a husk of a being. Something called a “foundling”. You look human, but the way the bones are formed say otherwise. Your husk doesn’t have normal human bone structure. You almost look like you could be a character in an H.R. Geiger painting. The greatest aspect of these types of games, is the small amount of direct storytelling there is. Character interactions and lore make up a large bulk of what you will learn about the story and the world you are in.
To give a world a sense of intrigue that is constantly shrouded in mystery is a great way to keep players engaged. It’s also not easy to balance correctly, especially in the way that the Dark Souls games have done in their way of storytelling. Mortal Shell strikes true in replicating the exact sense of intrigue that partly makes up the big reason why Dark Souls is so popular.
There are just enough side characters to give you insight into what’s going on. With no actual direct narrative explanations, this is important to get right. There is one side character in particular that you will interact with the most, and one that I grew quite fond of, named Sester Genssea. She will be a sort of guide for your journey.
Her visual look, the way she talks about the lore and the world, and being somehow everywhere in Mortal Shell has made Sester Genessa a character of high intrigue. She takes the place of a bonfire like the one in Dark Souls. But there is no merriment to be had around here! No time to sit by a fire, no time for jolly co-operation. Sester Genessa is where you will spend your currency, dubbed “Tar”, on upgrades, skills, equipment, and passives. We will get to this in a short bit.
No Bonfire Of Merriment
It doesn’t take long to figure out exactly what you need to do in Mortal Shell. There are “Nectars” that you must go collect in order to leave this forsaken world. Each one resides in a challenging area with unique enemies to explore and conquer. I don’t want to talk too much about exactly what you need to do, since the mystery and sense of discovery is a large aspect of any Souls-like. Plus it is quite an enjoyable story too. What you will encounter, and the areas that you will explore, are all things to be appreciated. The amount of passion that has gone into creating Mortal Shell is plain as day.
One of the biggest adjustments that veteran players will deal with is the combat. Even though it feels very familiar to Souls veterans, there are some unique changes. There isn’t technically a block button, and you don’t have to worry about character armor and equipment. There are only four different types of melee weapons, with one ranged weapon and four different types of armor “Shells” to use. Surprisingly, this was absolutely sufficient! Each shell provides a different amount of stamina and health, while also having a unique set of skills and passives. For example, Tiel the Acolyte has a ton of stamina, but a small amount of health and Eredrim has a large amount of health but low stamina.
Another example of differences between Shells, is with Tiel the Acolyte, who is focused around poison and stamina with passives. Solomon the Scholar is focused on being balanced, with skills and passives focusing on something called, resolve which is a stat that builds up when attacking and allows you to use special abilities. Some of these abilities are crucial to your survivability, like the riposte. Using the parry mechanic with one bar of resolve will allow you to heal if you riposte fast enough.
This is your only consistent form of healing in Mortal Shell, so get used to it. There are items you can use to heal, but the healing riposte from a parry counterattack is the most efficient way. For those familiar with Bloodborne, it’s just like the combat healing system without the time limit. This is a different, yet welcome change from the typical healing flask. You are forced to calculate your combat to make it as viable on the go as possible.
The defensive harden mechanic allows you to turn your whole body to stone, and when combined with parry healing, you have something pretty special. Since you can’t actually block with a shield, hardening becomes your defensive action and can even be triggered mid-swing making it very useful. Being able to incorporate it into your attack rotation during fights really allows you to stay engaged longer than you thought possible. Oh, there’s also one more thing that’s important to note. Being able to get knocked out of your shell.
In another unique addition, players have a “one last chance” moment! And trust me, you are going to need a lot of those moments. If your health bar reaches zero on your first try, you get knocked out of your shell and have a small amount of time to run back and reclaim it. Reclaiming your shell brings back full health, but at a cost: this can only happen once per run. If you actually die, you have a trudge back to find your petrified corpse.
Since your character is nothing but a husk and takes over corpses to use as its will, being knocked out of your shell just makes lore sense in addition to being a novel way to give players a second shot. All these unique combat mechanics in Mortal Shell truly make it a stand out experience. It is a combination of change and familiarity that new players and Souls veterans alike will enjoy.
Every single usable item in Mortal Shell has a familiarity level. When you first obtain an item, you do not know what it does or how it works. You actually have to use it to find out what it does, with a max familiarity level sometimes bringing extra benefits. A good example of this is the Smalspore mushroom. Use it the first time, it poisons you. Max out the familiarity with the item, and you become immune to poison instead.
This is a very intriguing way to have some fun with item discoverability. One that I wish more developers would implement into their games. These kinds of gameplay risks in Mortal Shell really help it stand apart from many other Souls imitators. Combine these unique aspects with a familiar groundwork of combat and boss fights, Dark Souls fans are going to want more.
The environments are enjoyable and fitting even though some are not exactly unique. You could literally have ripped these out from another land in the Dark Souls games. There has yet to be a game that isn’t created by From Software that has been able to achieve this, until now. To achieve creating a game that is so alike to Dark Souls, without the title actually being Dark Souls. The environment has always been a key factor in being able to tell a story without words. Decrepit ruins, a fog-filled bog forest, and ice dungeons make up just some of the areas you will experience. All of them have this sense of awe, mystery, and danger.
These environments are done so well, that Mortal Shell could be taken as if it was a part of a larger “Dark Souls multiverse”. Though unfortunately, there are not as many secret areas to go explore. It’s fairly straight forward for how the game areas are connected. You have a central hub area that branches out for you to go explore. I hoped for more small side areas that would lead to some cool items, but that isn’t the case here. Another unfortunate aspect is that the larger environmental objects tended to have very low-resolution textures. Understandably this is to help with the performance on consoles, but it still adds a level of unsightliness that needs to be ironed out.
Overall, Mortal Shell is not a title to be missed. If you are not a Dark Souls fan but still interested, just know this is probably the easiest entry into these types of games. It is not a long title, coming in at around 15-20 hours of playtime for one game completion. If you really enjoy it, you can continue on afterward with NG+ thankfully! You can carry on progressing with your Shells and upgrading your weapons, and go relive treacherous moments all over again. Mortal Shell is a rare title that we don’t often see. The passion of a small indie team creating something that so heavily fits into a Souls universe is something special.
The gameplay is perfect, providing just enough variety in combat. Using “Shells” as a sort of character class is a brilliantly different and refreshing take. I found myself exploring every corner, and wanting to know more about the world that is in Mortal Shell. This is also a game where very, very few issues were encountered. Some A.I. responds slowly, but outside of that, it was a smooth experience. No major frame drops or stutters, though it unfortunately only runs at 30fps on console.
The story is dark, unsettling, and intriguing. An almost perfect slice of a story of some other strange land in a Dark Souls multiverse. The enemies are absolutely befitting of the game. Providing a good enough challenge to anyone that faces them, with boss fights to match. Mortal Shell is out on August 18th, launching on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Epic Games Store, and then Steam in 2021. This game was reviewed on an Xbox One X with a copy provided by the developer Cold Symmetry.