Review – Mortal Shell
Just last month we played a beta build of Cold Symmetry’s debut game and enjoyed it for what it was, but had a few concerns. In a move that both surprised and confused us Mortal Shell ended up getting a full release not long afterwards. My initial thought was that Mortal Shell’s release state was going to be a broken disaster, but I stand corrected and am already thrilled to see what Cold Symmetry does in the future.
Before continuing, I’d like to say that I was perhaps a bit unfair in my beta article. As a big Dark Souls fan, I find myself hoping that every Soulslike game would so surpass its predecessors that I would never play the old ones again. However, those expectations are often my own undoing. When I learned that the shell mechanic ultimately replaces armor loot and customization, I wanted more shells than what Cold Symmetry provided. I scoffed when I learned that there were only four weapons. I wanted to play explore a world that’s big and expansive like Yharnam or Lordran, but in the case of Mortal Shell, less is ultimately more.
Mortal Shell opens just as the beta did. You, a Foundling, awaken in a world of stone ruins, grey mist, and ankle deep water. With nowhere to go but forward, the game guides you through a brief tutorial section where you’re bestowed with the Hallowed Sword just before you face the recurring boss fight, Hadren. Upon beating him,
a giant crow swoops down and carries you to Lordran wormfish swims up from the shallows and swallows you whole. The next time our Foundling wakes up, it’s in the twisted forest world from our beta.
Fortunately the small area available during the beta is not where we begin, so we experience new parts of the world immediately. Unfortunately, this also meant that any semblance of confidence I had going into the game was immediately gone.
As a Foundling, players can inhabit the bodies or “shells” of certain dead characters. While in their bodies, you inherit their passive abilities including their stamina, health, and resolve bars. Consuming rare items called effigies will allow you to switch shells on the go, but otherwise you’ll have to return to a central hub to change between your discovered shells. When the Foundling’s health bar is reduced to zero, they are violently ejected from their shell and left vulnerable in their true state. Just one hit outside of a shell will kill the Foundling. However, if players move fast enough, they can jump back into their shell to return to the fight with a renewed health bar for one final attempt.
Hazy visions guide the player to the ruins of an old forest tower where Sister Genessa waits for you through a broken door. As you traverse through the world, these ruins will be a central hub that you return to over and over again. Sister Genessa acts as Mortal Shell‘s checkpoint system. Speaking to her will restore the Foundling’s health and give players the opportunity to spend tar (currency) and glimpse (experience) to learn more about the shell they inhabit and upgrade its abilities. In this particular location, Sister Genessa is surrounded by a ton of other great resources including a place to swap weapons and shells, a comically obese merchant, and a gigantic bird like creature bound in chains.
As is common and expected with Soulslike games, there’s little instruction or direction provided so it’s up to players to explore and uncover the world on their own. The only clue I had was that the locked up bird creature was requesting my aid in retrieving sacred glands so it could be free once more. With that little clue, off I went, cluelessly skipping through the murder forest.
The forest was filled with peasants setting up camp for the night until I came through happily swinging my broadsword around. To avoid taking a beating back, it was important to master the timing of the Harden technique. Harden is Mortal Shell‘s defensive ability in the absence of shields. Using Harden will temporarily freeze the player’s shell in place, encased in stone. The stone will shatter and release the player to resume whatever action was in process before freezing. Using this ability properly can do a few things.
A well-timed Harden can prevent the Foundling from taking a fatal blow, but as soon as the enemy’s attack makes contact with the hardened Foundling, the stone shatters and the Foundling is made vulnerable once again. In some instances, the shattering stone can stagger the attacking enemy giving players the perfect chance to counter-attack. Alternatively, players can use the Foundling’s ability to freeze in place mid-attack. Once Harden is broken, the attack animation concludes making contact with the surprised enemy. Harden gives Mortal Shell players interesting ways to control the timing and rhythm of combat that is crucial to survival.
The more attacks the Foundling lands, the higher the resolve bar climbs. As resolve segments are filled, the Foundling gains the ability to parry attacks by spending one segment of resolve, or using a weapon’s special ability by spending two segments. Through my playthrough I found that I rarely used resolve until the later stages where Sister Genessa’s appearances were spread over longer distances.
When players inevitably die, Mortal Shell follows a similar formula as other games of its genre. The Foundling will drop all acquired tar at the spot it died, and the Foundling will respawn at the last location players spoke to Sister Genessa. If players are able to make it back to the spot they died, they can recover their lost currency. But if they die again before retrieving their tar, it’s gone forever.
Unlike many of the other Soulslike games, Mortal Shell doesn’t give players a series of stats to dump experience points into, but instead each shell has its own skill tree. Passive abilities and buffs like poison or health restoration can be added to parry attacks, but otherwise players can’t simply farm experience to grow stronger than their enemies. Mortal Shell forces players to learn to excel with the tools they’re given or fail altogether.
The one exception to this are the weapons. Key items scattered across the world can be used at a forge to improve the weapon’s special or base attack damage. While the items are not easy to find, they are worth seeking out as they have the greatest impact on a character’s strength. I fell in love with the hammer and chisel weapon as it’s by far the fastest weapon in the game and let me get a few additional hits before defending. After using a few Quenching Acids on the hammer and chisel to increase their damage, I never used anything else. They used less stamina to attack, did more damage than my other weapons, and moved much faster. No matter which shell I was using, those misappropriated tools were leveled so high that I casually powered through most of the game.
To my surprise, Eredrim, The Venerable was my favorite shell. His high health came at the cost of a small stamina bar, but combined with the hammer and chisel’s low stamina cost, I was able to take all the damage I wanted while dishing it out faster than my enemies could. Then add in Eredrim’s Accretion of Resolve ability, which increases his base damage with each enemy killed, and I was unstoppable. I powered through two of three main regions of the game without getting killed within just four hours, including multiple boss fights.
The other shells, whose names I’ll keep secret so I don’t tell you everything, separately specialize in stamina, Harden, and resolve, giving players plenty of ways to lean into features of Mortal Shell that speak to their personal playstyle the most.
But this is where the negative aspects of Mortal Shell begin. With only four shells to choose from, I expected that there would be more visual differentiation. Three of the four shells look as if they used the same character model and simply changed the accent pieces on the shells armor. Most of the playable characters look all too similar. With so few character options, I would have expected significantly more variation to make them standout from one another more.
Similarly, there’s not a ton of enemy variation either. Throughout the game, bosses excluded, there are about twelve different enemies scattered across Mortal Shell‘s four regions. I expected to see roughly five or six unique enemies per region with some spillover across the different areas. On the positive side, the enemy character models are far more varied than that of the playable characters.
After maxing out Eredrim and my stone mason’s weapons, I found Mortal Shell to be fairly easy in comparison to its inspirations, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Soulslike games are notorious for being too challenging and inaccessible, but Mortal Shell takes the best parts of the genre and add its own creative ideas to stand apart from the rest. Mortal Shell‘s lower MSRP, slightly lowered difficulty, and overall game length make it a great gateway drug to the savage world of Soulslike games.
While I found combat to be easier in Mortal Shell than its peers, it’s not without its own challenges. The hardest part of the game for me was navigating the twisted environments. Without many large landmarks to identify or open wide open areas to scout the environment, Mortal Shell can be a claustrophobic maze. I was most vulnerable when I had lost my way and even the familiar paths caught me off guard.
To be clear, this is an intentional part of the level design. Seeking the birdlike creature’s sacred glands means traversing through each of the game’s regions, which are all connected to the misty forest in clever and discreet ways. Players will really need to lean into the thoroughly exploring if they are to locate the game’s few weapon and shell options. Harder still is navigating the world while carrying one of the sacred glands back to the main hub, but I’ll save that surprise for players to find on their own.
With one exception, I found the boss fights to be fairly straight forward and easy to beat once I understood their attack patterns. But the final boss fight was significantly more difficult than the rest of the game. Its moveset was faster and more erratic than the previous ones and it was the first to use the environment against the Foundling, forcing me to learn new tactics when I was the most confident.
Visually, Mortal Shell is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the textures are fantastic, while others are less so in a way that appears that they simply got less attention from the developers. In one of the earliest moments of the game, before finding the first shell, the Foundling is crawling through a hole into the main overworld, and I noticed that during the animation, some the textures below its shoulder were transparent. Some of the lore descriptions and menu items were misspelled and after using items, their description boxes stayed onscreen for too long, often blocking too much of the display. All of these are small details that can be distracting, but also just as easily fixed in a future patch.
I wish that, at the time of writing this review, I had a deeper understanding of the lore, but for the sake of writing this piece in a timely manner, I had to skip out on my normal Soulslike lore journey. I finished Mortal Shell in eighteen hours, which was more time than I had expected to sink into a $29.99 game. For any fans of the Soulslike genre looking for a new addition to their collection, Mortal Shell is worth the time. While there is room for Cold Symmetry to expand upon their ideas here and make improvements, they have absolutely proved their value as creative minds and talented developers. I am thrilled to return to the world of Mortal Shell for a lore playthrough, and can’t wait to see Cold Symmetry’s future projects.
Inconsistent visuals can be a distraction and the playable character models have minimal variation between them. Otherwise, Cold Symmetry has proven themselves a worthy contender.
Players are greeted by the warmth of a familiar combat system with some new and creative flair tossed in. Earning new shells and weapons is exciting and rewarding.
Audio variation is lacking a bit with repetitious death sounds throughout the game. But the sad whale noises of larger enemies dying is worth the giggle.
There’s a lot of fun and challenge to be had. The process of mastering the Harden system and going from Fumbling Foundling to a badass is a worthwhile journey.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Mortal Shell is available on August 18th, on PC as an Epic Store exclusive, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.
Reviewed on Playstation 4.
A copy of Mortal Shell was provided by the publisher.