Mortal Shell has been on my radar ever since it was first revealed. From the onset, I should confess I am by no means a Souls or Souls-Like expert but Mortal Shell immediately caught my eye. Not only was it the impressive graphics, nightmarish atmosphere, or the monstrous enemy design, but the discovery that Mortal Shell is made by a studio – Cold Symmetry – comprised of 15 people.
In this review, I will be reviewing Mortal Shell on its own merits but one simply must applaud what a studio of that size has achieved. Whilst Mortal Shell will be reviewed on its own merits, one cannot ignore the elephant in the room. Dark Souls’ infamy has seen it spawn a sub-genre of ‘Souls-like’ games and this is where Mortal Shell fits in. It’s a Souls-like Action-RPG but as you’ll find out, it really does stand on its own two feet.
Immediately, one of the most intriguing concepts of Mortal Shell is in that you start off as an empty vessel. Throughout the shattered and twisted world, you can find the lost remains of defeated warriors – Mortal Shell’s – which allow you to occupy their bodies.
Shells have different stats and styles so you can pick one that compliments your play-style. If you like to have a lot of health, you can play in a Shell with that, at the cost of stamina and speed. Conversely, you can play in a Shell with a lot of stamina and speed as the cost of health; it’s all up to you and your individual play-style.
Interestingly, there’s a lot of lore behind the Shells. You need Tar (the game’s currency) to reveal that Shell’s name. Once you’ve done this, you can upgrade their skill tree that also allows you to learn more about the Shell you inhabit.
Mortal Shell’s also can also prevent you from dying. The first time you die, you get knocked out of the shell you occupy. As the empty vessel, you are able to get back into the Shell thus restoring your health. However, getting hit even once before you can make it back to your shell and it’s all the way back to the checkpoint for you. Oh, and those checkpoints are only at the beginning and end of an area.
Mortal Shell also stands out in another unique way thanks to the ‘Harden’ mechanic. There’s no block button in Mortal Shell. Instead, the player can press L2 to ‘Harden’ turning their Shell to stone and thus absorbing the next hit. However, this mechanic has a fairly lengthy cool down (at least it feels like that in combat) so as to not make it overpowered.
Combat on the whole feels weighty and impactful. You feel every weapon swing and the force behind it. There’s the standard light and heavy attacks as well as a dodge roll. Building up momentum in combat rewards you with Resolve which allows you to perform a well-timed parry or special weapon skills for more devastating attacks.
Naturally, getting hit will be unavoidable. Dying will be unavoidable. There are healing items in the game, such as mushrooms, but there’s a rather…interesting system with items in Mortal Shell. You won’t know what an item does until you use it. You can, and I did, consume an item that resulted in me dying. This is a system I am very mixed on.
On the one hand, it’s certainly a unique system that feels realistic and adds another layer of challenge. On the other hand, it does feel very infuriating when you use an item hoping it will give you a boost just for that item to drain your health bar. But, after a few hours, you become familiar with the items and the more you use an item and become familiar with it, the more potent said item will become.
Atmospherically, Mortal Shell creates haunting environments with a familiar Gothic aesthetic. The world feels very much alive compared to, say, the Dark Souls games. Enemies sit around camp fires waiting for their rat to cook. In the first area of the game, there are streams running through a very green environment with a lot of foliage.
Graphically, Mortal Shell is mightily impressive for such a small development team. Visuals look crisp and clean on the PlayStation 4 and the effects all look great too. Again, it’s very impressive from a team so small and definitely worthy of praise.
But, bear traps lay in your path, poisonous frogs jump out from the streams, danger lurks around every corner. The next area, in a crypt, creates a sense of claustrophobia; a stark contrast to the previous, open area. Across ice, marshlands, crypts, and more, Mortal Shell lets you take a non-linear path to explore along your way.
Boss battles are a highlight of Souls and souls-like games since these terrifying foes will often prove to be both awesome and rage-inducing. I don’t want to spoil too much here but Mortal Shell features a nightmarish range of bosses and mini-bosses that may just have you breaking a controller…or two.
Overall, whilst Mortal Shell might fit into the sub-genre of Souls-like games, it does more than enough to step out from the shadow of Dark Souls. It’s as difficult as one would expect and in fact, in full disclosure, I’m yet to beat the game. I’ve died, a lot. Also, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring different areas and taking different paths. Mortal Shell has left me fuming at times but the game’s impressive visuals, combat, and atmosphere will keep pulling me back for quite some time yet.