Another week, another Souls-like game… am I right? It’s clear from simply looking at Mortal Shell that it was inspired by FromSoftware’s critically-acclaimed series, though I don’t think that the experienced team at Cold Symmetry have tried to hide that fact too much either. However, whilst some games in the genre feel like cheap imitators that don’t do much to differentiate themselves from the norm, Mortal Shell actually introduces some fresh ideas to help it stand out from the pack. Sure, it’ll still feel familiar to anyone who has experience with the genre, but it’s also memorable for its own neat reasons too.
Mortal Shell wears its inspirations like a big badge of honour, with its similarities to the Dark Souls series clear from the get-go. Slow and methodical combat where one wrong move can see you instantly killed? Check. A dark and dreary world full of grim (and often beautiful) sights? Check. A vague narrative where you’re never fully sure what exactly is going on? Double-check. It certainly doesn’t steer too far off the beaten track as far as the Souls-like genre is concerned, with the main aspects of gameplay sure to feel familiar to anyone who has played any release in FromSoftware’s popular series.
Of course, that isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, with the intricate combat and scary world coming together to make for a wholly enjoyable gameplay experience. Mortal Shell may not necessarily be a wholly original concept, but it doesn’t feel like a crappy knock-off either.
It actually deserves some credit for implementing its own ideas into the mix that add a unique flair to the main gameplay setup. For one, you have the ability to harden with a quick button press, which will momentarily nullify enemy attacks that are sent your way. It’s your main form of defence in Mortal Shell outside of dodging your way out of attacks, but it needs to recharge in between uses so you can’t spam it freely. It can be the difference between life and death in combat and adds a strategic twist to protecting yourself, whether that’s when an enemy is about to swing a killing blow upon you or when you’re in the middle of stringing together a combo of your own.
Then there’s the fact that you don’t necessarily play as just *one* character in Mortal Shell. I’m sure players might be a little underwhelmed when they realise there’s no character creator in the game and they instead find themselves in the role of an alien-like husk, but you actually have the ability to swap between different Shells in the game. These Shells consist of warriors that have met their demise, with the player taking control of their body in order to utilise their different abilities and strengths. Neat, right?
Each Shell’s abilities can be improved upon and new ones unlocked, so if a Shell caters to your playstyle it’s easy to invest yourself into it – you’ll use the same weapons between Shells too, so it’s not as if your preference there will affect your Shell choice. You are able to switch between them freely though, so you may find that some Shells are better suited for specific areas or combat encounters. It’s a clever idea that actually felt pretty refreshing, with the flexibility offered by each Shell ensuring that there’s room for experimentation by the player all the way through the roughly thirteen-hour campaign.
Combat in Mortal Shell manages to feel satisfying throughout, albeit a little bit familiar. Each of your actions are tied to your stamina so there’s a big focus on managing that in-between attacks and dodges, whilst you’ll also have to pick your moments to strike and try to parry enemy attacks to open them up for a free-hit. The odds are certainly stacked against you though and you can expect to encounter large groups of enemies that can quickly overwhelm you if you don’t isolate them, whilst grotesquely intimidating boss encounters offer a stern test that’ll push your skills to their limit.
It is worth noting that the aforementioned hardening ability and the different Shells on offer tie into combat nicely and give Mortal Shell its own distinct feel. One Shell has high stamina for example, so if you’re in an area that requires a lot of quick attacks and dodging it can be perfect. On the other hand, another Shell has high HP which is ideal when you know you’re facing off against a hard-hitter that’s going to wipe out your health bar quickly. This is where experimenting with the Shells to see what works best is most effective in Mortal Shell, even if it is only for just one battle.
Much like any other Souls-like, Mortal Shell is a very challenging game. Battles can be really tough and it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of enemies you face off against – sometimes unfairly so when they manage to surround you and make it difficult to avoid their attacks. There aren’t a lot of healing items to utilise either, with the player able to eat to increase their health or counter-attack enemies with a well-timed parry and riposte for a boost. I certainly missed having an estus flask of sorts that I could recharge at checkpoints, especially during those moments where I found myself running out of food items quite fast… it certainly wasn’t a system that I was a fan of.
At least it offers a second chance of sorts if you die. Rather than having a grim ‘You Died’ message pop up when your health is wiped out, you instead take on the form of your husk again and are given the chance to try and get back to your Shell. If you do so without taking damage, you’ll get another crack with full health. It’s a one-time deal so you can’t keep doing it over and over again, but it can balance the odds in your favour during some of the trickier showdowns with enemies.
It’s worth noting that I did come across a few glitches when playing the game, most notably in the environment where I found myself stuck a handful of times. Whilst these issues can be ironed out in future patches, it was annoying to have to re-load because I couldn’t move anymore – especially when I was mid-way through exploring one of the game’s larger locales. In fairness, there aren’t big glitches in Mortal Shell and I didn’t come across anything game-breaking, but the issues could still be frustrating when they occurred.
Despite this, it’s hard to complain about Mortal Shell too much, especially since it’s a lot of fun to play. Sure, it isn’t always a wholly original package overall, but it’s solid in design and introduces enough of its own ideas to feel like more than just a copycat. It all manages to look impressive too… you know… in that grim and forlorn kind of way. It’s certainly oozing with atmosphere, whether that’s when trawling through one of its claustrophobic corridors or gazing across the spectacular sights of one of its more open locales. It’s good stuff and fans of the Souls-like genre are sure to enjoy the adventure that it offers.
Mortal Shell isn’t shy in showing off its Souls-like inspirations, but it offers enough fresh ideas of its own to stand out as an entertainingly brutal adventure. Swapping Shells remained neat throughout and added an extra element of strategy to different encounters, whilst the intricate combat mechanics and mesmerising world will keep you engaged all the way through to the game’s conclusion.
Sure, it could be frustrating in places thanks to the occasional glitch or overwhelming group of enemies, but there weren’t any stand out issues that make Mortal Shell difficult to recommend. It’s definitely one of the better Souls-likes out there and fans of the genre will have a good time trudging through its desolate world.
Developer: Cold Symmetry
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC