Platform: Playstation 4
Available on: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows.
Genre: Action - RPG.
Developer: Cold Symmetry.
Released: August 18th 2020.
A few weeks ago I published an article on why I was excited for the upcoming release of Mortal Shell on our site. At the time I said I was looking forward to what appeared to be a very Dark Souls-esc experience but one that was paired back in size. Mainly due to having a small development team. It looked to have a mysterious dark fantasy atmosphere that has become a trademark of the souls-like genre. While I was excited for its obvious Dark Souls comparisons I was also excited for what Mortal Shell was trying to make itself stand out from the crowd. The big one being that it was taking a more class based approach rather using stats to build your own unique character.
Today I am here to tell you that despite the odd bad animation, sometimes but not often poor enemy A.I. and hefty load times Mortal Shell has delivered on everything I was excited for. Its class based approach to combat is refreshing. Its non linear progression encouraged lots of exploration and its obtuse storytelling and lore had me constantly asking myself questions about what was happening in this world. So far it has ticked all the souls-like boxes but not in a way that is a box checking exercise, in a way that makes itself rise above all the other souls' clones to have its voice in a crowded marketplace.
Let's get this out of the way early. Much like a teenage girl would have posters of her favorite boy band plastered all over the walls, it's clear that developer Cold Symmetry takes the same approach. Not with boys bands however, but with the Dark Souls franchise. The heavy influence is very clear to see throughout Mortal Shell and nowhere more than in its world building. I don’t consider this influence a bad thing, as the devs have managed to take parts from Dark Souls that are proven to work in this kind of genre and unlike other games have given it enough care as to not have it feel like another gimmick of the souls-like.
In Mortal shell you wake up in a world you know nothing about, grab a weapon and make your way through an onslaught of things that want to kill for reasons you are unclear of. You are left to wonder with little direction, trying to figure out the safest path through the murder fest. After a short time exploring you will be greeted by a hub area, a safe space where you can take a breather before venturing back into the world. Like many souls games this hub area is where you will do the most of your upgrading and shopping for items. It even comes complete with NPC’s packed full of cryptic and creepy dialogue. This hub world allows you to head off in any direction to explore Mortal Shell’s 3 dungeons. All of which seemed balanced enough that you can complete in any order although I found one to be a little trickier than the others.
Each dungeon is unique in its design and enemy types and as you would expect is a maze of shortcuts and doors that only open from one side. They each presented a different type of challenge from dealing with large groups of enemies to fighting on precariously narrow walkways with death inducing drops. The part of Mortal Shell’s world I enjoyed the most was the freedom. The fact that I never felt like I was being punished for going the wrong way. I could deal with every challenge the game presented me no matter the order. This is a delicate balance that Cold Symmetry has nailed.
Solid as a rock.
Game play and combat are exactly as would expect from a souls-like. You use a variety of weapons to kill enemies with all your swings powered by a stamina bar. You can dodge and roll again at the cost of stamina and you can parry incoming attacks. The core combat is usually similar in all souls-likes. So, let's talk about what Mortal Shell does differently. They have introduced a number of mechanics that put a fresh spin on the formula. The first being one called harden. In Mortal Shell there are no shields, instead to block attacks you turn your whole body to stone. A couple of things make this unique, it's on a cool down meaning you can't just spam and block every attack and it can be used anytime even mid attack. This allows for some interesting approaches to combat allowing you to delay attacks or absorb damage and bounce back with a devastating blow.
The next interesting mechanic is the parry itself. The parry in Mortal Shell is one of the main sources of healing. Parrying an enemy allows for an empowered riposte that deals huge damage and gives you health. It is an interesting risk reward system that keeps you on your toes because if mistimed it can mean your death. Later in the game this mechanic can upgrade to have different effects like setting the enemy on fire. If like me you suck at parrying and are worried about healing. There are healing items that can be found in the world which are on a re-spawn timer allowing you to revisit areas and top them up. However they don’t provide as much health as the empowered riposte.
Speaking of items, souls-like games are known for having somewhat cryptic item descriptions. Well Mortal Shell takes this one step further and doesn't have any. When you first find an item you must use it to find out the item description. It’s an interesting addition to an already obtuse gameplay element. The more you use the items the more you discover about them often upgrading its effects. One example is a mushroom that when consumed poisons you causing health damage but persevere and use the item enough times eventually it will make you immune to poison for a limited time. One drawback to this system is when I only discovered one of an item I was almost afraid to use in case I discovered it was really powerful and then it was wasted finding out its use.
A classy affair.
As mentioned earlier Mortal Shell’s biggest departure from the souls-like genre is its class based gameplay. It's such a unique spin that I wanted to give its own section in this review. Rather than using various stats to make a unique character build Mortal Shell presents you with four classes called shells. The bodies of dead warriors which you can inhabit to make use of their different play styles. Side note each of these shells have to be found throughout the world you don’t just choose at the start. Once found you can switch between them in the hub area anytime. The four shells each present a different play style but ones that are not unfamiliar to souls players. You have the well rounded one with decent health and stamina. The tank has a huge health pool and small amount of stamina. The glass cannon with a huge stamina pool and low health. Finally, the fourth is similar to the first in terms of health and stamina but focuses on using resolve, a mechanic that allows the use of special abilities.
Each shell comes with its own upgrade tree which once I had settled on a shell I had upgraded by about half way through the game. The different trees add unique upgrades to the shells while staying away from the numbers and stats we have come to know on the souls genre. This means that whatever shell you choose to main their health and stamina stay relatively unchanged for the entire game as well as their damage output. Instead gaining things like the power to harden longer or gain extra resolve on defeating an enemy. I found the shells different enough that I wanted to experiment with all of them just to try different approaches to combat.
While on the subject of combat Mortal Shell only features four weapons in the game. Each of these can be found in one of the dungeons along with some unique weapon upgrades. The weapons all feel different enough to warrant using them in different scenarios for example crowd control or slow powerful attacks. No one weapon is meant for use with one shell adding to the experimentation. Although some work better with certain shells than others.
Hungry for more.
Mortal Shell will likely take you around 10 to 15 hours to complete the first time around. Which is decent considering the low price tag of €30. It has many areas to explore and upgrades to find that will keep you playing even after you finish the main campaign. There is also a new game plus for those you want to up the challenge and really put the shells to the test. With Cold Symmetry being such a small team they delivered a game with big ambitions and for the most part succeeded. The long load times can be a bit of a pain in a game where you will probably die a lot but it's a small price for what is an excellent and compact souls-experience.
I hope that Mortal Shell is successful enough to allow the team to expand and come back with an even bigger sequel. They have my attention and have made sure that if they release anymore Mortal Shell games I will be there day one.
Play this game if…
You like Dark atmospheric worlds.
You like A unique take on souls-like combat.
You enjoy methodically working through a game world.
You enjoy Dark Souls.
You like turning into concrete.
All images taken from the Mortal Shell press kit here
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