Unforgiving enemies? Check. Menacing and difficult boss battles? Yes. Resources that you farm and lose if you die twice? Definitely. An assortment of armor and weapons to use? Yup. A dark fantasy in a dangerous setting? You got it.
The list goes on but in summary, Mortal Shell ticks the essential boxes in a Souls game checklist. But who would have thought a few tweaks to the formula along with a few fresh mechanics can result in a pretty new experience? We surely didn’t and that’s why we were pleasantly surprised at how this Souls-like inspired title isn’t your typical clone.
The arrows turn, the swords repel
In Mortal Shell, you are a Foundling – a walking faceless body mass that can run, dodge, and use a weapon. Foundling, meet your Husk Shell, one of the many you will encounter throughout the game. Pretty weird premise, but it is something that revolves around the central mechanic of the game, which we will get to later.
It won’t take you too long to see the similarities that Mortal Shell has with its Souls-like counterparts. The world you’re thrust into is as dark and dreary as they come. All kinds of monstrosities roam the land, and there’s almost no safe place. One thing the game does well is to portray this with conviction. The visuals are detailed and while there are a few places with questionable low quality textures that stick out like a sore thumb, overall the visual aspect of it is definitely something you would consider as a current generation title.
The different NPCs you also meet have their distinct look and personalities, all of which are well voiced, each telling you their stories and their roles in the world they inhabit with you. Some will offer assistance be it as save points, progression, or to sell you items. There are even mundane things like being able to pet a cat (Yes, there’s a cat). And these are still just the NPCs, because it’s the skins you’ll be wearing that put the Shell in Mortal Shell.
May nothing pierce this Mortal Shell
As mentioned, there will be different bodies, or Shells, that you can find in the game and once you do, the Foundling can step into their shoes… literally. You don’t just take the armor and clothing of these corpses you find, you become them. There are no parameters to level up here in Mortal Shell because each of the Shells you find in the game already encompasses a particular build.
These shells cover typical class archetypes – Harros the Vassal is your standard balanced Shell with equal HP and Stamina while Solomon the Scholar has a bigger Resolve meter, Mortal Shell’s equivalent to mana and used for Parrying and Riposte abilities. You also have Tiel the Acolyte who prioritizes speed and Eredrim the Venerable, the classic tank shell.
The Shell system is a really interesting take on the Souls genre where the resources you farm (in this case, ‘Tar’ and ‘Glimpses’) won’t go into levelling up parameters like Agility or HP but instead will be needed to unlock each Shell’s unique abilities, along with being the currency for buying items. It’s a new addition that works well and feels well thought of, and not just slapped on just for the sake of.
Since these Shells are classes on their own, each has a unique design that is really aesthetically pleasing and succeeds in distinguishing each Shell from the other. Eredrim, for example, really gives off the feeling of being a royal tank with the decorative armor he wears. On the other hand, Tiel sports that swift and dodgy assassin vibe with his Skull face and light clothing.
Even more interesting is that each Shell has a story behind it. These were once living people after all, and wearing a particular Shell when talking to certain NPCs may trigger unique dialogues. Not to mention unlocking individual Shell abilities will trigger a quote by that particular Shell, giving you some idea of the kind person they were before their demise.
You won’t know until you try
A unique feature that Mortal Shell employs is what’s called the Familiarity mechanic. As you pick up items scattered throughout the world for the first time, you are not told what effects they hold. In order to find out, you’ll have to use them, just like any other random item you find.
Items have a Familiarity meter and each usage raises this. The more times you use an item, the more information given, eventually revealing fully what the item does and increasing its potency. It definitely gives off a sense of mystery and thrill, having to discover what’s the use of the item you picked up, and it encourages using every item to see what they do.
One very fun item in Mortal Shell are lutes. Yes, the musical instruments. Souls games generally have very haunting music, very fitting for their settings. Mortal Shell isn’t any different. Actually, there wasn’t a lot of music as far as the setting goes, just the haunting sounds of beasts and spirits roaming the land.
What broke the mold however, are the lutes. With maximum Familiarity, certain Lutes can be used on the field but what makes them fun are the catchy tunes the Foundling can play on them. You definitely start sounding badly on low Familiarity but use them continuously and you will hear the music get better and the lute music get more polished. And they’re catchy to boot!
In a dark, depressing setting, it was just relaxing to have the Foundling just sit down and jam on his lute. Toss a coin to your… Shell?
The finest cutlery
There’s definitely a Shell that will cater to different play styles and of course, along with a body to inhibit, you’ll need weapons, although Mortal Shell has a pretty average selection of it. While not the most extensive array of tools, less weapons to choose from means more time to get acquainted with each one.
The usual culprits are present – a 2 handed sword, a mace, a heavy sword…. but Mortal Shell gives a fresh take on some weapon types as well, like the hammer and chisel along with the Ballistazooka.
The Ballistazooka is a crossbow/rocket launcher hybrid that’s as awesome as its name. It fires a finite number of bolts and deals a lot of damage from afar. Best part about it is that it can be used regardless of what Shell you’re wearing. The reloading animation is especially fun to watch.
Upgrading each weapon was a pretty straightforward affair as It was really fun experimenting with each type since it was just a small number of weapons to choose from. I appreciate the design decision to keep things simple but focused, which works well with the overall meta of the game.
Metapod, use Harden!
Harden is another mechanic unique to Mortal Shell, one that adds an extra layer of strategy during fights. Think Metapod from Pokemon and you’ll get an idea of what Harden is all about.
The Foundling has the ability turn to make itself hard as stone, able to withstand one attack before the effect wears off. There is a cooldown time so it can’t be used continuously, and in between managing your Harden charges and your resolve for parries, the combat in Mortal Shell takes on a more cerebral form over the usual “roll your way to victory” technique prevalent in other similar games.
Harden is pretty much a Parry move on its own as some enemy attacks will bounce off your hardened skin, leaving them open to a counterattack. It can also be a last minute lifesaver should you fail to land an attack. The versatility of Harden makes it a valuable tool in fights as long as you know when to use it, working around its cooldown duration.
Nothing like an out of body experience
Staying true to its Souls-like roots, Mortal Shell is one tough cookie. From bandits, to spirits, to armored warriors, to lunatics that can throw their heads at you, there’s a variety out there with different attack styles and patterns to familiarize yourself with. Surprisingly, for its difficulty, Mortal Shell is actually quite forgiving because of very helpful mechanics that can ease your suffering during playthrough.
With the Shell system, getting beaten won’t mean an instant restart as you will actually be ejected from your worn Shell first and you will be given one chance to return to it with fully restored Health, similar to Sekiro. Mortal Shell is a game where you can actually say enemies hit so hard that they send you flying out of your body.
In addition to that, should you return to your Shell and die a second time, not only is your previous Shell still there in the last position you left it in, but it also serves as an extra life because touching it will also fully restore your Health.
This doesn’t make the game completely easy but these are very helpful mechanics to have in a Souls game. They also make sense narratively, considering the Foundling’s nature as a body-possessing entity.
A Few Bumps Along The Way
For all the praise we’ve been giving, Mortal Shell definitely has its share of issues. While it introduced a lot of mechanics that made life easier, there were also some features that caught us by surprise. For one thing, changing equipment like weapons and Shells require using an item. Not to mention Fast Traveling in between areas requires you to fully upgrade one Shell before purchasing an item that lets you fast travel. This means there’s no bonfires or lanterns to light up, that would normally give you teleport points for easy travel.
Load times were also pretty lengthy, either when restarting from a defeat or moving to a different area. Compared to other Souls games, it was just longer than usual, and really breaks the momentum of the game.
Also present are a number of glitches in the game, ranging from getting stuck in a certain area that you had to get killed on purpose to restart to enemies just standing in place even if you were standing in front of them. These weren’t enough to ruin the game though and can probably be fixed by a small update in the future.
As with any 3rd person action RPGs, the camera can also be your worst enemy. Camera angles can get finicky especially in narrow corridors, which resulted in quite a number of deaths that we didn’t bother to count because we couldn’t properly tune in on the action.
And then there’s the enemy AI. While they can be generally relentless, it’s really hard to ignore that the AI can be a bit dumb sometimes. They can walk into their own traps, and will sometimes attack in place when you’re in their line of sight, even if you’re not within reach.
You may also be surprised to know that for a Souls game, this isn’t a lengthy epic. On average, and this includes restarts and taking your time grinding for Tar and Glimpses, it may take around 12 hours to finish. On a regular playthrough, you can expect it to float somewhere around 8-10 hours.
If anything, the size of the world is not that vast but is still big enough to explore. In fact, you may not even find the need to use fast travel, highlighting the lack of the feature which we mentioned earlier. Although short, there is replay value in upgrading weapons and Shells you didn’t get to use, which provides enough variety to merit another run.
Contrary to game length, Mortal Shell didn’t feel short at all as exploring the vast locales brought us to pretty varied settings like dark forests and icy caverns. It felt… sufficient, like we didn’t feel the need to visit more. One thing that could be improved though is the level design, as there was a noticeable lack of optional areas for possible side quests. There are a few sprinkled here and there, but not quite enough.
What we liked:
- Solid combat
- Unique new mechanics like Shells and Harden
- Stylish Shell designs
- The lute!
What we didn’t like:
- Long load times
- Occasionally dumb enemy AI
- Needing items to change equipment
- Bad camera angles
Mortal Shell is a straightforward dark fantasy that’s fun to play because of the unique mechanics like the Shell system. It may have its flaws and though requiring items to change equipment isn’t something we’re fond of, it still doesn’t deter from having a good time.
The story itself is something of an enigma. You’re never clearly told what’s going on and it will be up to you to piece together the narrative based on everything you encounter in Mortal Shell. Even after we finished the game, the plot was still hard to figure out, but at least the combat is fun and engaging.
We really have to give kudos to Cold Symmetry for their unique take on the Souls genre. And with the scope of the game, its $29.99 price tag (about PHP1,500) is perfect for a decently sized dark fantasy Souls game. All this for less than 10 GB of space on your hard drive. Mortal Shell is definitely a Shell with a soul in it and worth checking out, especially if Souls games are your thing.
Mortal Shell was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro via a code provided by the Publishers.