Over the past few years there has been an explosion in souls-like games that have hit the market. These types of games successfully mix tough difficulty with exploration and action-RPG elements that fans can’t seem to get enough of. Developers Cold Symmetry have created their own indie souls-like title called Mortal Shell that advertises tough combat, a dark world to explore, bosses, and a pet-able cat. Does this new property deliver a fun, and enjoyable new souls-like experience? Check out our thoughts in the Mortal Shell review below.
What is Mortal Shell?
Mortal Shell is the first title out of the 2017 founded indie studio Cold Symmetry with publisher duties being handled by Playstack. In this punishing action-rpg players play as the Foundling, an empty vessel, who is capable of inhabiting the mortal shells of fallen warriors littered across a mysterious and deadly land. While exploring this deadly land players meet the mysterious “Old Prisoner” who is locked away in a tower. This prisoner tasks the Foundling with collecting three sacred glands located at the end of three distinct areas of the world.
*On PC Mortal Shell is a timed exclusive for the Epic Games Store. This exclusivity lasts until 2021, which will then see the game released on Steam.
A Competent But Underwhelming Souls-Like Experience
When you start Mortal Shell you are placed in an abyss area where you must complete the game’s tutorial. During this tutorial you are introduced to the Foundling who is the central protagonist of the game. As the Foundling it fairly easy to die as you have high stamina but low health.
Once you become acquainted with the grey-humanoid looking Foundling the tutorial teaches you about the combat system and how it differs from other souls-like titles. To start much of the combat pulls familiar systems from the genre. The standard heavy and light attacks make up the bulk of the offensive arsenal of the Foundling, with a kick being unlocked later in the game.
Alongside this collection of attacks you have defensive moves like the standard roll/dodge and the ability to harden. Hardening is Mortal Shell’s replacement for shields. Instead of wielding a shield to block damage the both the Foundling and its mortal shells can harden to lessen or negate damage when enemies attack.
The addition of hardening to the standard souls-like combat system causes there to be some interesting risk/reward calculations in how you engage in combat. As hardening has a cool down you need to pick when and where to trigger this defensive ability. While facing the game’s different enemies you will use hardening combined with the roll/dodge to mitigate damage and avoid getting killed.
There is also a parrying system to compliment your defenses that is unlocked near the beginning of the game. This system allows you to parry incoming attacks so you can counter them. Parrying is an essential part of the game and features an interesting upgrade path that unlocks better, more useful parrying abilities.
I found the combat in the game to be one of the better aspects of the game. Cold Symmetry does a good job of merging the system with old and new design decisions to make something that feels unique. It feels good to string together sequences of dodges with attacks and weapon abilities. As you become more competent using the different aspects of the system it shows and feels very rewarding to take down bosses faster and more efficiently as your combat skill improves.
Weapon Unlocks and Boss Repetition
After you learn about the game’s combat you will complete the tutorial by fighting a boss named Hadern. Hadern is an enemy you will face potentially four times in the game due to the design on how the weapons are unlocked. In each unique are you will encounter statues holding one of the game’s four weapons. These weapons are a mace, long sword, hammer and chisel, and greatsword. To unlock these weapons you need to complete a boss fight against Hadern who is wielding the weapon you will unlock.
I can say I’m not a huge fan of how weapons are unlocked. While I appreciate a change from the normal open a chest, farm an enemy for a drop, or defeat a boss mechanic we’ve become accustomed to in other games in the genre, having all four weapons be acquired by fighting the exact same enemy just felt uninteresting. It is especially uninteresting when this is the only way to get the weapons leaving you with no choice but to fight for them.
Further complicating weapons systems is that you may have noticed that there aren’t many weapons. This means you are extremely limited in how you want to approach combat in the game. For most of my play-throughs I stuck to the starting Hallowed Sword which you find in the tutorial area. None of the other weapons felt all that useful as most are slow to swing and have low damage.
Players that like ranged combat will find the game’s only ranged weapon, the Ballistazooka, to be completely useless and annoying to use. The weapon fires a single bolt while the player is stationary after which a 10 second loading sequence commences. The few times I used this weapon I couldn’t help but ask myself why the developers even bothered including it.
Not everything about the weapons system is bad. Each weapon has two unlockable weapon abilities that deal massive damage when players use them. These abilities are unlocked by finding specific upgrade items in the open-world which pushes you to explore every corner of the world to get these nice damage boosts. When you do finally get a weapon upgrade you can use the game’s workbenches to apply them to your weapon. Weapon abilities are not the only thing you can find as there is materials to improve weapon damage as well.
As I mentioned earlier there is some repetition of Hadern boss fights and it is unfortunately not the only example as another boss named the Grisha appears a total of four times as well with one appearance being the slightly altered Enslaved Grisha. While the other four of seven total bosses in the game are unique encounters, the inclusion of the same bosses so many times gave me a feeling of intentional padding.
Shells and Upgrades
Once you’ve exited the tutorial you will enter Fallgrim, the hub section of the game. Mortal Shell uses a hub and spoke layout that reminded me of the Dark Souls 2 kingdom of Drangleic. Like that game there is a central location full of NPCs in the Fallgrim area called Fallgrim Tower. Here you are be able to purchase items, upgrade your weapons, get direction on how to progress the story, and more. From this hub you are free to travel to three unique areas that terminate in dead-ends. As you explore the hub area you will come across mortal shells the Foundling can inhabit.
Each mortal shell you encounter is a unique character build with their own armor set, stamina, health, and Resolve levels. There are four shells in-game for players to find with each shell being designed around fitting a specific play-style. The four shells are essentially builds that are balanced, stamina focused, Resolve focused, and tank focused. Besides the unique health, stamina, and Resolve levels each shell has a collection of unique abilities players can unlock using the game’s currencies of Tar and Glimpses which you can find or earn by defeating enemies.
Since all you are doing with shells is unlocking their pre-made set abilities there is no customization or build crafting to be had here which may be a major turn-off for some players that like making their own builds. Once you unlock all of a shell’s abilities that shell is pretty much complete with their being no way of improving stats like health, stamina, or Resolve any further.
Not being able to level health, stamina, Resolve, or change armor really took a bit of adjusting for me as it is such a standard in these types of games. With that said I actually grew to like the shell system as it makes leveling very simple and streamlined. Most abilities are fairly impactful so unlocking them gives a noticeable boost in combat. You will also find maxed out shells to be rather powerful when you do final get them fully upgraded.
Besides being your conduit for leveling the mortal shells you acquire provide a second-life mechanic reminiscent of something like Sekiro. When the shell you are inhabiting takes enough damage the Foundling is knocked out of it, leaving a statue like husk you can scramble back to to re-inhabit. Like hardening, this mechanic offers an interesting new addition to combat that makes it slightly more forgiving when you can use it to your advantage. You can be killed while out of your shell rather easily so again there is nice risk/reward to this system.
The world of Mortal Shell is broken up into five general areas with the largest being the hub of Fallgrim and Fallgrim Outskirts. Attached to this hub there are three unique locations with different named sections inside them. To complete the story you will visit every area in the game. This occurs fairly naturally as the design pushes you towards each location by making the hub extremely interconnected.
Unfortunately the unique areas off the hub are more linear in design with most having a central path you simply need to follow to reach the end of it. At the end of these three unique areas you will always find a dead-end where the area boss is located. This design decision again plays into the repetitive feeling as you basically come to expect each and every unique location to be laid-out in the same fashion.
Given the hub and spoke design of the world you will spend a lot of your time backtracking to and from the different locations in the game. Be aware of this as the fast travel system is a bit hidden and doesn’t unlock until a certain criteria is met.
Layout aside the areas you do visit are varied and unique. There is a central theme to most of them with one being flames and another being ice, and so on. It is clear a lot of design work went into the making of these locations which I definitely appreciated though some do feel a bit derivative of things we’ve seen in other games.
When you do manage to beat an area boss and get your first Gland you will unlock the game’s Fog mechanic. This mechanic causes a Fog to descend on the world causing new enemies to spawn and certain things to become accessible. While I like the Fog mechanic in theory the execution leaves a lot to be desired. In Fallgrim and the Fallgrim Outskirts there is basically only one type of enemy that spawns in while the Fog is active. These enemies are highly aggressive and capable of jumping from off screen onto your character which locks them in an animation. When you want to explore or need to traverse the Fog back to Fallgrim tower constantly getting jumped becomes annoying.
Lore and Familiarity
While you are out in the world you will find items and and statues that give you more information on the world. This lore delivery is actually handled in an interesting way. There is a familiarity mechanic that increases each time you use an item. As you become more familiar with an item you learn more about it. At max item familiarity you will unlock hidden bonuses that item will grant when used. You also unlock more lore entries for that item. One example of this system is a mushroom that gives only minor healing to you when first used but increases healing when used at max familiarity.
I found the familiarity mechanic to be an absolutely brilliant idea that I would love to see used more often in other games. This mechanic really plays into the idea of being in a foreign world not knowing anything. You will pick up items and have no idea what they do until you use them. This made me want to pick up everything I found to learn more about it. This mechanic also extends to shells as you will need to discover who the shell is and what their back story. Hats off to Cold Symmetry on this design decision.
Alongside the numerous items you can find, inscriptions to read, and etchings to uncover you will get story-line from the different NPCs in the game. If found most of the NPCs to be fairly flat and boring. While I appreciate the dialogue is voice acted there appears to be very little meaningful dialogue for each character. Add on to this the fact there are almost no side quests in the game and you have a very underwhelming NPC system.
Before wrapping up there is one final section I want to touch on briefly and that is the game’s difficulty. Mortal Shell bills itself as being a difficult experience that tests your sanity and resilience. This statement for the most part is correct but not in a good way. Difficulty in games can be hard to balance successfully and Mortal Shell fails to make the game feel fair much of the time. Instead of creating thoughtful enemy layouts almost every area in the game is filled with multiple enemies including enemies often hidden from your line of sight. At times it gets so bad it feels like enemies are only placed in ways so the developers can get cheap, easy kills out of players instead of crafting fair and challenging combat sequences.
Further exacerbating the difficulty problem is the aggro range and aggression of enemies. At times it feels as though enemies are in perma-aggro mode at even the slightest movement by you. This is especially noticeable in the open world where enemies can gank you from seemingly every direction should you accidentally trigger their aggression. If you pull a number of enemies at once you have little ways of managing crowds besides hoping to get away.
Given the difficulty you will more than likely run by most of the enemies you encounter as they just aren’t worth the effort you will have to expend to fight them each time you have to run it back. This is sad as the game’s combat really shines when in rare one on one situations. This is especially true during boss fights when it is simply just you and one enemy to fight, not just a gang of adds.
Before wrapping things up I like to rundown any of the miscellaneous things I feel should be highlighted, but not in their own sections. These miscellaneous thoughts can be found in the bulleted list below:
- QA: The review copy I received contained a number of spelling errors and Unidentified Object text in the game. I also got stuck in a few areas where I opened the chests from the wrong sides. These errors seemed have been missed in QA.
- Music: There isn’t any really besides in-game lute playing.
- Secrets: Less than I hoped for, but still a few worth looking for.
- Pet-able Cat: Yes.
- New Game+: Not much is different in New Game+. There is slightly higher difficulty and refreshed materials so you can level up your shells and weapons.
- QOL: There are a quality of life updates with the most annoying being not able to use multiples of an item stack at once. This means you need to manually pop glimpse stacks or tar stacks for individually.
- Graphics: Looks good but struggles in certain areas of the game.
I’ve been excited for Mortal Shell since I saw the announcement trailer, but now that I’ve played it I can say that my hype was slightly misplaced. While there are a number of positives in the game like the combat system, shells and the familiarity system, the overall experience I found to be pretty substandard. While playing it feels at times like the game is undergoing an identity crisis of wanting to be Dark Souls while being its own thing at the same time. This approach causes it to shoehorn in a number of souls systems without fully implementing them in meaningful ways. It’s clear to me there is passion here from the developers but it just doesn’t come together in the final product. If you are looking for a new souls-like experience there is something here to at least look at, but don’t expect to be blown away.