If you’re going to emulate the best, you’d better get two things right: Innovate and elevate from your source material, lest you come off as a contrived imitation. Mortal Shell succeeds in both departments. Sticking so closely to the Souls series that at first glance you’d be forgiven if you thought it was an outright copy, right down to the item descriptions on the loading screen. Though with reverence for the genre and astute attention to what matters most, Mortal Shell retains most fan-favorite core mechanics, while streamlining and completely transforming others.
This is the first game released by developer Cold Symmetry and was made by a core team of only 15 people! That’s truly an astonishing feat, and one that blew my mind through the entirety of the game. Combat is appropriately weighty and visuals are gorgeous and moody. Frame rate and technical issues are almost none existent, which is an achievement even most larger studios can’t seem to get right these days. The size and scope of Mortal Shell is smaller than a typical Souls game, however. I completed my first playthrough in about 17 hours, but if you want more, New Game Plus is available. Everything here measures up in terms of quality, just don’t expect a 50-hour excursion.
In true Souls fashion, the story of Mortal Shell is dark and cryptic, with most of its narrative being driven by NPC’s, ambiguous lore stones or scrawling’s on a wall, and character progression that delivers stirring voiced-tales to accompany newly acquired abilities. Essentially though, you awaken in a pool of water as just a husk of a being. You’ll acquire an unknown “Shell” to inhabit and make your way to the hub world area, Fallgrim. Here you’ll meet the Dark Father, a giant bird encased in metal and locked in a tower, who tasks you with bringing back three glands to free him.
Also in this hub area is your local merchant Vlas. And his cat. Which you can pet…And there’s a trophy for. This large, heavy-set, open-robed, gnarly looking fellow will sell you miscellaneous items needed on your outings. Here in Fallgrim is also the first time you’ll meet Sester Genessa who acts as your checkpoint, or bonfire, if you will, and experience dump for character progression. Just speaking to her will trigger a checkpoint save, but enemies are not respawned unless you enter into the upgrade menu. You’ll encounter her throughout the game, and it’s important to know you can still use her as a checkpoint for progress, without actually respawning anyone.
By now everyone knows the usual tropes included in a Souls-like game. Experience is dropped upon death and permanently lost if not retrieved before succumbing to defeat again. It should be difficult. You should die a lot. Paths should be branching and secrets abounding. You should feel righteous indignation when dying in boss fights. These are some of the usual suspects found in the Souls genre and Mortal Shell has them all, and does them just as well. Where the formula gets shaken up is in the leveling system. Somewhat.
Rather than pumping all your experience into stats one by one, Mortal Shell instead opts to give the player “Shells” to inhabit. These shells effectively work like character builds. ‘Harros, The Vassal’ for example, is your well-rounded Knight class, affording decent health and stamina alike. ‘Tiel, The Acolyte’ is more akin to a Thief or Rogue build, with high stamina, but low health. ‘Eredim, The Venerable’ conversely, has a massive health bar while touting the smallest stamina bar of all the shells.
These shells allow for less time agonizing in the stats menu, and more time exploring the world and making progress. While I myself am usually a min/max stat whore, I not only didn’t miss the mechanic, but appreciated the character build direction. With four shells each uniquely tailored to a specific playstyle, it’s not only easy to progress a favorite build, but the freedom to mix it up is always there, as you can swap between shells at any time! With an effigy of course.
One of the new mechanics that differs from traditional Souls games is the ability to “Harden” your shell, allowing you to absorb a blow and take no damage. This ability is on a short cool down timer and basically replaces the need for a shield. In addition to that, after suffering a fatal blow, instead of dying you are knocked from your shell and have a brief window to reclaim it. Doing so will refill your health to full and act as a second chance. Die again and you’re dead for good, leaving your shell behind and your experience with it.
Combat feels just like you’d expect it to. Perfectly weighted and precise. R1/R2 is your light and heavy attack. Dodging is performed with circle, and when pressed again, will execute a roll. L1 is your parry and holding L2 will harden your shell. Studying your opponents moves and attack-sets is still very much the order of the day, and learning to time your strikes and combo-ing light/heavy attacks will serve you well. Items are familiarly cycled with the left and right D-pad and pressing up will use the chosen item. You won’t be able to rely on Estus Flasks though, as healing in Mortal Shell is done by way of parries and items. Namely, Weltcaps (healing mushrooms) found through the environment that repopulate on five-minute cool down timers. Other healing items like Boiled Rat, are dropped by enemies or can be purchased from Vlas the merchant.
As you chain attacks and kill enemies, you start to buildup Resolve, a resource needed to execute powerful attacks or gain health from a successful parry. The parry timing window took me quite a while to get used to, but that made it feel like a more exciting mechanic. Instead of a sure thing, it’s a bit of a gamble, and I found it ratcheted up the tension when deciding to attempt it or not.
The resolve meter fills in segments and once a section is full, it’ll remain until you use it. If you don’t completely fill a bar however, it does fade fairly quickly, and it seems Cold Symmetry wanted it to act as an incentive to quicken the pace for players. Now, there are shells that are more attuned to gaining and using resolve, so if that’s a utility you prefer, you can choose a shell to match.
I will say that bosses weren’t as over-the-top as in most Souls games. Neither in spectacle nor difficulty. I’m sure this will fly in the face of many devote Souls fans, who revel in the punishing boss fights, but for me, the boss battles were always the grueling part to “get through” in the Souls series. Most of the enjoyment I garner from a Souls-like game, is in the exploration and discovery, combined with the steady progress and character evolution.
In Mortal Shell, bosses were still difficult, interesting and creative though. I really loved ‘Crucix, The Twiceborn’ boss fight. He’s a large red, spear-wielding Spartan looking warrior, with a half-grown twin protruding from his chest. Attacking with his long reaching spear, then rolling far away only to guard with his shield, while the chest-growth-twin shoots blowgun darts at you! There are a few other interesting mechanics involved in this boss battle, but I won’t spoil them for you here.
In another departure from classic Souls, you won’t be collecting mass amounts of armor and weapons. In fact, armor and weight aren’t factors at all in Mortal Shell. This is most likely due to the shells being crafted toward specific builds and the fact that the game world is a little smaller overall, so there’s less room/time to acquire a plethora of gear. There are a few different weapons however, which are gained by first finding these book-alters that trigger a one-on-one fight with your opponent who’s wielding the new weapon. Defeat him and the weapon is yours. While it may be disappointing to some to find less weapons, Cold Symmetry does an excellent job offering the main staples people are looking for, both removing inventory clutter and distilling the experience, while still providing options.
So what do you do with all that experience (Tar, as it’s called in this game) you acquire while cutting down your enemies, careful step, by careful step? In conjunction with Glimpses, another form of currency, it goes to gaining new abilities and attributes that further develop your shell. I spent the better part of the game using ‘Harros, The Vassal’ as my main shell. His abilities centered around being able to Harden more often and gain glimpses more readily. So as I was getting my bearings with the game I was able to play more defensively and farm plenty of glimpses to upgrade with.
After mastering Harros’ shell, I moved on to ‘Eredim, The Venerable,’ the one with high health and low stamina. One of his best abilities allows him to gain execution stacks upon killing an enemy. Each stack increases the base damage of his attacks, so with a good run, you could be considerably stronger when facing a boss. Couple that with another of his sweet upgrades, Accretion of Inheritance, which makes him deal extra damage to enemies who are alone, and the boss battle I used him in made the fight a breeze. Mind you, I had raised my stack count to over 150 by that point. I was curious to see how high I could get the stack to go, but then lost it all when I was racing back through an empty level and accidentally fell off an unseen ledge, plummeting to my death…my stack count went along with it.
Mortal Shell (PS4)
Mortal Shell may not be as difficult or as long as similar games in the genre, but the level of polish and balance is impressive. Cold Symmetry retains the best elements of the genre: weighty combat, tension, exploration, progression, and succeeds in refining a deep and beloved genre in ways that feel rewarding, familiar, and new, all at the same time. At just $30 this is an incredible game that scratches that specific itch, and is an easy recommendation for any Souls fan out there.
Shells offer tailored character builds
Combat feels weighty and right
True Souls-like experience
Boss fights not as challenging
Over too soon
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