A Love Letter
Every once in a while, a game or franchise comes along that so flawlessly executes its concept that the formula it lays out becomes a sort of genre unto itself. In recent years, one of these titles is the incredible Dark Souls series. It’s very difficult to talk about Mortal Shell without mentioning this, because at its base, Mortal Shell is a love letter to Dark Souls. However, after playing, it soon becomes apparent that Mortal Shell is very much its own thing, and it would be completely unfair to brandish it as yet another “Soulslike”.
Developed by Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack, Mortal Shell strips back the formula of the Dark Souls series to its coldest and most unforgiving elements. Punishing, pure and polished, the title knows what it wants to be and what it doesn’t and as a player, you get to experience a unique and clever approach to the Action RPG genre.
The plot of Mortal Shell is bare and mysterious. You awaken as a wrinkly corpse with the ability to inhabit certain bodies, called “shells”, in a dying land known as Fallgrim. You don’t know why you’re here or what’s going on. In the opening moments of the game, you’re lead to a tower where you find a giant prisoner who sets you off on a quest to locate the “sacred glands”, from which the prisoner can extract the “true nektar” and revive his ailing body. There are three glands, scattered across Fallgrim in temples, protected by savage and hostile enemies.
You piece together other bits of lore from reading statues that are dotted around, leveling up and listening to dialogue from the game’s scarce NPC’s, of which there are really only two that are privy to events taking place. You don’t need to know much else than that, and if the story was more detailed, it might actually end up harming the atmosphere of the game. Waking up in a land with no explanation, being able to reanimate shells with no knowledge of how and embarking on a quest to help someone whose motives are unclear makes your journey through Fallgrim that pinch more intimidating.
Nothing in Mortal Shell is just handed to the player – every success has to be earned and the narrative is no exception.
The mechanics of Mortal Shell are simple and I cannot praise Cold Symmetry enough for getting the simple things absolutely spot on. You have a strong attack, light attack, dodge, and “harden” – this is Mortal Shell’s answer to blocking, whereby holding down the left trigger turns your body to stone, blocking the next incoming attack. Combining attacks, dodging, and hardening in the right way is critical for success in this game, and learning the “right way” takes time. The item description for the simple lute, (which you can actually sit and play) reads “practice makes perfect” and this is definitely applicable to the game as a whole. I struggled for a good while until a moment came some hours in where things just clicked. However, finding the right shell to match my playstyle helped massively also.
You see, Mortal Shell doesn’t have any stats to level up, and combat doesn’t earn you EXP to allocate to stats. There are four different shells in the game. One is balanced, one is focused on executing special attacks, one is tanky and the other is quick and can utilize poison. To match the four different shells, there are four (technically five, if you include the ranged side weapon) weapons. Finding the right combination of shell and weapon will have you experiencing that synergy that eventually came along with me. My playstyle in these types of games is being a tank, that can soak damage but deal out high amounts of damage in response. So it made sense that I went with Eredrim as my shell, as he has the highest amount of health, albeit next to nothing for stamina. Stamina is consumed by attacking, dodging, and sprinting. You can also fill up your “resolve” by attacking. Gain enough resolve and you can unleash a devastating special attack, provided you have the weapon upgrade. However, if you parry an enemy attack you can execute an “empowered riposte”, dealing massive damage and recovering some of your own health.
You wander through Fallgrim, searching for the sacred glands and you come to temples in which these glands are guarded by bosses. As with the shells and weapons, there are four main bosses in the game, although there are a few sub-boss type encounters. Of particular note for me was Tarsus, the First Martyr an icy encounter in which the boss skates around, dodging your attacks and spinning at you with his sword. The battle almost felt like a dance to me in the way it was paced, especially in the second phase, where Tarsus will skate around every one of your attacks until you find the right opening.
Overall, the gameplay in Mortal Shell is solid. The developers get the simple things right and their understanding of the Action RPG formula shines through. At no point could it ever be claimed that Cold Symmetry is attempting to capitalize on a popular genre – they genuinely love their game and this is more than apparent in the way Mortal Shell is crafted.
There’s a ton of good to be said for Mortal Shell. Fallgrim is well designed, replete with atmosphere and unexpected twists and turns. The game is well-paced and enemy design is decent, with a good spread of enemies to test your wits against.
As a game world, Fallgrim is comparatively small, but in no way linear. It’s more like a loop, with paths and forks in the road that lead you to unfamiliar territory. Lined with camps of enemies that love to stay packed together, exploring Fallgrim is daunting to say the least. The temples themselves are aesthetically very nice. There’s the icy Enshrined Sanctum, the towering obsidian synod of Eternal Narthex, and the fiery Monument of Ash, again there’s plenty of variety here.
The game’s bosses, whilst few, are well designed, balanced, and challenging. They also look brilliant, ranging from epic knights to Lovecraftian horrors. What’s more, the way you progress your shell, unlocking new abilities in a wheel, and learning more about the shell you’re inhabiting as you do, is a nice touch. Basically, you get an origin story for your shell the more you invest in it and these revelations are perfectly in keeping with the game’s motif of having to earn anything and everything.
This leads me to my next point – the game’s challenge is also its charm. Everything feels really well balanced and if you’re not fairing too well against an enemy, you’re likely approaching the battle wrong as a player. You need to improvise, adapt, and overcome and this takes practice. This may not be everyone’s bag, but I’m the kind of player that likes to “git gud” when I enjoy a game. In some cases, the combat never gels with me and I never attain decent levels of “gudness”, instead scraping my way through to the end. However, with Mortal Shell, this was not the case. Eventually, the combat felt right and I didn’t feel intimidated any more but rather reveled in the next challenge.
Whilst it’s true that I really enjoyed my time with Mortal Shell, there are things about the game which frustrated me. The first and most apparent is the dodging. It’s a bit clunky and unresponsive at times, which almost always results in a premature death. Whether this was done on purpose to rewire player’s Souls brain, or whether it’s just an aspect of the combat that wasn’t particularly polished, dodging is inconsistent in Mortal Shell and something just feels a touch off about it.
Another thing about Mortal Shell which may discourage some players is the length of the game. I spent about 30 hours finishing the game, and that’s only because I practiced so much to get competent at it. Fallgrim is a small world and the temples take around an hour to knock out. Being also that there aren’t any builds as such, merely shells with preset stats, and taking into account that there are only four weapons, there isn’t a great deal of replayability with Mortal Shell. Once you’ve matched your playstyle with a shell and weapon, you’ve basically found your way to play the game.
Oh, and would it kill the devs to include a refillable healing item with a set number of uses? Having to scour the land to locate a tawdry amount of mushrooms that heal you a pinch over time severely limits the survivability you have when you’re exploring.
On the whole, Mortal Shell is an amazing game. True, it’s not without its issues, but the things it gets right, Mortal Shell gets right in abundance and I want to close by stating that this title stands out, on its own, as a quality title in a deluge mediocrity. Definitely recommended!
MORTAL SHELL IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Playstack for a PC review code for this title.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.