Review | Mortal Shell
Over 11 years since the release of Demon’s Souls (with a remake on the horizon), the Souls genre has exploded in popularity and influence. Initially drawing a niche audience, due to the genre’s extreme difficulty, even new IPs like Nioh sell extremely well. And games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice from the masters and creators themselves at FromSoftware have beaten out the competition for Game of the Year. Therefore, with such a competitive field and a sudden glut of these types of games, it’s hard for newcomers to stand out. However, that is exactly what developer Cold Symmetry has done with their debut title Mortal Shell.
Originally announced on April Fool’s Day 2020, it is certainly not a joke. The game immediately differentiated itself from the competition with its art style, gameplay mechanics, and combat during its unveiling. After gaining a strong following, a beta ran from July 3rd to July 10th, which saw player numbers much higher than the developers anticipated. The developers have carried that momentum through the entire process. Now, the game is launching on the Epic Games Store, PS4, and Xbox One.
The journey begins in a watery abyss shrouded in fog. Players take control of a hollow figure with no armor or weapons, while going through a brief tutorial of controls and combat. Once completed, the player finds their way to Fallgrim, the main hub area of the game. At the same time, players will be able to unlock their first “shell” of the game. These “shells” consist of fallen warriors that your character will be able to inhabit, learning their story and utilizing their abilities throughout the game.
All-in-all, the player can discover four different “shells”, each with their own attributes. First off is Harros, the Vassal. He is the first and easiest to discover and is also the most balanced. Going with the standard sword you have already obtained, this functions as a basic knight build. The following characters are scattered throughout the non-linear area, so there isn’t really an order in which you find them. The next one I discovered was Tiel, the Acolyte. Tiel essentially functions as a rogue class with extremely high stamina, but low health. Next was Solomon, the Scholar. Solomon is similar to Harros, but with higher resolve (which I’ll get to in a moment). Finally, we come to Eredrím, the Venerable. Eredrím has the highest health but the lowest stamina, equating to a tank class.
Weapons more or less follow the same formula, having to find them in various areas of Mortal Shell. Fortunately, the game helps you out by “sensing” where these vessels and weapons are. This equates to a short sequence that shows different landmarked areas of the game, finally leading to the desired result. In other words, it’s a visual breadcrumb trail.
The story is vague, the intentions of the NPC’s around you aren’t super clear, and you find yourself under attack by all the inhabitants of the area. Without spoiling too much, you are tasked with bringing three glands back to the chained and weakened Dark Father. You’ll obtain these glands by beating the bosses of three different areas within the game. Additional lore is provided by leveling your character up, item descriptions, and tablets that are scattered throughout the four main areas. Sound familiar? In this way, Mortal Shell is most similar to the Souls games.
However, combat is rather different. Rather than blocking with a shield, you utilize the harden mechanic. This momentarily turns your body to stone and primarily functions as a form of defense, but it can also be utilized within offensive strategies. Then there’s the resolve meter. This allows for special abilities such as parrying, ripostes, special moves, and even kicking. These are accompanied by standard health and endurance meters.
But leveling up is somewhat unique as well. While you gain tar by defeating enemies and from using certain items, you also earn glimpses. Glimpses are a separate form of experience that you’ll require to level up an individual character. Upon death, you lose your tar, but you keep your glimpses. When you have enough to level up, you don’t put points into vitality, endurance, strength, or things of that nature. Rather, you gain a new ability for the respective “shell” you are inhabiting at the time. These upgrades end up being more like buffs than your standard level up. In regards to weapons, you’ll upgrade them via an in-game workbench. Not costing tar or glimpses, they require an item to upgrade its abilities. Ultimately, this creates a slight diversion from the tried-and-true formula within the genre.
Is Mortal Shell worth your time and money though?
The game does the majority of the things it sets out to do right. The harden mechanic is a cool new feature, but parrying followed up by an empowered riposte is one of the most fun aspects of the game. Combine that with special moves such as furiously spinning in circles while spikes shoot out around you, and the combat really shines. The character and enemy designs are unique and flat out incredible, especially in the later sections of the game. And even though the game is fairly light on bosses (four main ones and a handful of minibosses), they are extremely well designed with unique movesets and abilities.
Separate from gameplay, there is something I have to call attention to. First, the team is incredibly small (a core team of 15 people) when comparing to those who have created similar games. And no one in the public knew about the game’s existence until the initial trailer from this year’s April Fool’s Day. Combine that with an ongoing pandemic that the world hasn’t experienced anything comparable to in over 100 years, the odds of releasing the game on time were stacked against them. Yet the game is releasing just four and a half months after its initial unveiling. Given the extreme unpredictability that goes along with game development, this is truly awe inspiring. And with the game launching at a $29.99 price point, it’s just a cherry on top.
Fallgrim (the opening area) is a little disorienting. Functioning like a darker, bigger, and swampier version of Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls, it’s easy to get lost and overrun by enemies. Maybe this is the developer’s intention, but the numerous minicamps, narrow alleys, and general samey look led to quite a bit of confusion and anger in the first couple hours of the game.
Probably something that will be a day one or a future patch, but the graphics can be choppy at times (at least they were on the PS4). The most notable example of this is during cutscenes where the character is absorbing a new “shell”. The edges of the character jaggedly cut in and out, resulting in a disjointed sequence. This might not be an issue for newcomers, but for veterans, this game is very short. Even with an early learning curve, some aimless wandering, and difficulty beating the first main boss I encountered, the game still took me less than 10 hours to beat. I was able to stretch it out by doing some additional exploration and trophy hunting, but only somewhat.
In conclusion, Cold Symmetry has achieved greatness with Mortal Shell. The game is by no means perfect and it is fairly brief. But for such a small team and a new IP, the result is impressive. This is strongly recommended for all fans of the Souls genre and it shows that innovation still exists within the cluttered space.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10