The Bottom Line
- Developer: Cold Symmetry
- Publisher: PlayStack
- Release Date: August 18, 2020
- Platform: PC (Epic Games Store, Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
- Genre: Action RPG, Souls-like
- MSRP: $29.99
What it is - Mortal Shell is an indie Souls-like with innovative new features, a grim fantasy style, and some rough edges.
What it isn't - It's not a AAA experience, and isn't meant for everyday gamers. It's a hard-as-nails action RPG that will punish you for your mistakes, but also opens up lots of endgame combat craziness and massively expands if you master gameplay.
Mortal Shell is an interesting indie that tries to put its own spin on the Dark Souls action RPG, and for its credit, Cold Symmetry pulls it off. Well...Sort of.
It's similar enough to attract Soulsborne aficionados, but it's not accessible for everyday or casual gamers. With punishing gameplay, a trial-and-error focus that has you dying just to see how to progress, and a grindy system of upgrades and collectibles, the game is clearly meant to appeal to Souls enthusiasts. And it does a good job in this regard. Mortal Shell is basically a Dark Souls lite, a homage that's dripping with its own dark style and iterative/innovative mechanics.
Mortal Shell also goes down its own unique path. The big thing that sets it apart from Dark Souls is the harden feature, which basically turns you to stone. It's extremely versatile, and I absolutely love this mechanic. You get one free invulnerable block every so often, and different skills can regen the cooldown faster.
Cold Symmetry also baked in an interesting--but grindy--hallmark straight out of Morrowind.
Anything you find in the game has to be consumed first before you know what it does. Some things, like Tarspores, will poison you at the beginning until you eat enough of them to gain immunity and unlock the full effect. In Morrowind, you had to do the same thing and eat ingredients to build your familiarity with them. This is a double-edged sword that can be both enamoring, but also punishing and annoying.
Overall, Mortal Shell is a glimpse at a Dark Souls game from another parallel dimension, one that sees a group of ardent and dedicated devs putting together pieces of their favorite games to make something that both pays respects but stands on its own two feet.
It's a competent game, but that doesn't mean everyone who plays it will be competent.
You could be a cursed soul like me.
Combat: I'd Sell my Soul to Parry Well
Mortal Shell is one of the hardest games I've ever had to review. It's actually one of the hardest games I've played. This review took a lot longer than I would have liked for one simple reason: I'm not very good at parrying.
I just can't get the hang of parrying in this game: I've tried and tried, but it doesn't really click. The real problem with parrying, at least for me, is the timing. You're supposed to parry when an enemy is about to swing versus when an enemy's weapon is about to hit you.
It's very jarring and awkward. It was so difficult for me to get the hang of this that Mortal Shell's early game was a wholly unenjoyable experience for me, a very tough grind and a slog to get through.
Mortal Shell is kind of an unrefined Soulsborne. It reminds me of The Surge's rough edges. The game has its own identity and a very interesting, hallowed type of lore, but ultimately the game feels a bit off.
I'm not really a stranger to Soulslike games. I've played NiOh, who's combat was fluid, challenging, and technical, as well as Dark Souls 3, which was clunky but also oddly graceful, and Bloodborne, which was somewhere in the middle with its slick action.
But Mortal Shell...it's extremely challenging for me. I got turned around a lot in the maze-like forest labyrinth of Fallgrim, I died many, many times to the Grisha first boss, and I basically meandered around and spent most of my time collecting weltcaps, the respawning mushrooms that heal you.
It's through sheer stubborn persistence I was able to make progress in the game. The beginning was truly a test of will, patience, and frustration. Finally, though, I got the hang of combat and moved on to different areas and unlocked new weapons and new shells. Then, and only then, did the game start to actually get fun.
The main draw to Mortal Shell is how you can switch shells and change up your stats. You're not locked into a particular class, and while you can progress and unlock new abilities for each shell, you're free to swap them out. You're basically a kind of haunted soul that wears armor as flesh, and each suit of armor has different stats and skill trees.
Here's a list:
- Harros the Vassal -Starter shell, mid-grade HP, stamina and resolve.
- Tiel the Acolyte - Fast, awesome stamina, bad HP, terrible resolve.
- Solomon the Scholar - Good HP, bad stamina, great resolve.
- Eredrim the Venerable - Best HP, terrible stamina, bad resolve.
There are three main stats: HP (aka durability), stamina (fatigue), and resolve. Stamina is used for running, attacking, and dodging, just like Dark Souls. Resolve is new, and it's used for counter attacks. Certain combat skills (which are acquired by spending Tar and Glimpses, a kind of currency you get from beating bosses and exploring the maps) need resolve in order to use. One of the most useful abilities is the Empowered Riposte, which not only parries an enemy's attack, but delivers a counterblow that refills some of your HP. It's very much like Bloodborne.
On paper, all of the potential is there for you to never die. It just depends on how good you are. And I'm really not all that good at combat.
The game only really opens up and starts getting fun when you unlock other shells. Harros, the starting shell, is a more balanced class but ultimately isn't that great for beginners.
The great part about Mortal Shell is some unique design decisions.
The harden mode, which essentially turns you to stone and gives you one free block for any attack in the game, is extremely innovative. You can do some really creative and awesome strategies with harden, and the combat can be surprisingly advanced. For example, you can harden mid-swing, so when it wears off, you dish out an attack to enemies.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Skilled players can do some amazing combos, and Mortal Shell really affords you the opportunity to pull off some crazy plays.
In my experience, though, this kind of game requires a certain type of knack. It's almost like a fighting game--some players are better than others. I feel that way about Mortal Shell, as if being good is a kind of innate skill that outweighs brute persistence and grinding.
Mortal Shell just has a really bad pacing problem that will push new players away. It's not a game for curious folk, but more-so seasoned Souls players who want something new. By no means is it the hardest game ever--I've seen people breeze past it--but for me, it's definitely among the most challenging because I'm absolutely terrible at parrying.
Things changed once I got Eredrim, the shell with the most health. Suddenly I wasn't getting annihilated so fast and could actually take a bunch of hits before I died. My efforts at throwing corpses at my enemies weren't entirely in vain after all. With Eredrim's huge HP pool, I could get through bosses, unlock some new weapons, and grind Tar and Glimpses for upgrades. This is a pretty big part of the game, so get used to killing enemies, collecting weltcaps, and going back to the sester to respawn enemies anew.
Rinse and repeat.
World and Lore: Macabre Medieval Dark Fantasy
What drew me to Mortal Shell in the first place was the dark and mysterious lore.
The game has a kind of otherworldly feel to it, a consecrated and sacred feel. It's bizarre, grim, and full of a kind of macabre fantasy that belongs in a Del Toro movie. It's kind of like a twisted religious tale of brutality, redemption, and spirituality. Its visuals are alluring and transport you to another universe, one that's every bit as weird, striking, and mysterious as Dark Souls.
Each shell has a compelling backstory, full of discussions about oblivion, horrifying monsters, and unholy gods who have left the astral plane altogether. Harros, the proud vassal, for example, was charged with killing a false god and was eventually killed by priests. The lore entries are fascinating, and I highly recommend reading them.
The environments are so vivid, so peculiarly attractive that I'm reminded of a Wayne Barlow painting.
It's not quite hellish, but there's a distinct sinister undercurrent to the universe, a kind of mystical fog and shadow that enshrouds all things. The cracked vestibules, the thick slabs of concrete with their columnal pillars, the broken churches and the radiant, gleaming onyx of the obsidian fortress, and the frozen, glassy iceworld all come together to make something special.
The in-game areas not only stimulate your eyes, but your mind, and create a sense of awe and splendor that's hard to find in games today. In this way, Mortal Shell has perfectly captured the mystique of Dark Souls while expanding its own unique and creative lore.
There's tremendous environmental storytelling that has significant meaning if you unlock, search, and explore for lore inscriptions. The experience takes on a whole new deeper, almost sacred meaning when you completely immerse yourself in its shadowy beauty.
The world is filled to the brim with its own darkly enchanting lore, and generally feels like a place of the fallen, a kind of underworld landscape littered with cursed souls. Strange idols are strewn about, hallowed fanes glow with malicious intent, and eldritch inscriptions enrich the world with their chilling lines:
The hungriest of the unborn burns with desire.
He hangs seething as those below bow low in supplication.
He demands sacrifice, but his hunger, it ne'er ends.
Kneel before the Immaculate.
Place your palm upon the Deathless Doctrine.
Surrender your pride, your vanity-or as you call it, your will.
This is the first sin.
Allow her eternal wisdom, untouched and unspoiled, guide you.
Your spirit will not falter, if it is hers to command.
With each sacrament, we deepen our doubts.
Refuse the comfort of conviction, brethers.
Close your eyes to the seduction of reason.
There is no comprehending our inscrutable gods.
We barely know ourselves.
Tell me, what fool would believe he could comprehend the Revered?
Wrap-Up and Score: Ghost in the Shell
Mortal Shell is a decent game and a good Souls-like game. It's got some rough edges and some clunky combat mechanics, but those things can be quelled with practice, skill, and unlocking new shells, abilities, and weapons. I absolutely hated the game at first and found it to be extremely punishing, but eventually, it won me over.
It's not a perfect game by any means, but it's something that'll scratch that familiar itch. The world itself was enough reason for me to keep playing, even if I did get slaughtered innumerable times by Grisha and Imrod.
Is it worth $30? It depends on whether or not you're a Souls fan. If you are, try it out. If you're not, play something else. This game is an exercise in masochism for those who aren't well-versed in the sacrificial arts that FromSoftware teaches, and you'd be better off spending your money elsewhere.
+ Awesome bizarre visuals
+ Deep and unsettling dark fantasy lore
+ Harden mechanic is a game-changer
+ Different classes can be switched in-game depending on play style
+ Weapons are all unique
- Enemy variety
- Parry mechanic is very awkward
- Clunky combat
- Collecting healing items can be a time-consuming chore
Visuals and Graphics
Value for Money
The Bottom Line
Mortal Shell is a worthy successor to the Souls-like genre, but is hampered by clunky controls and pacing issues.
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