Mortal Shell Review — Hard Times
Mortal Shell will certainly scratch your Soulslike itch, but it won't necessarily win points for originality in presentation.
There’s an ongoing joke within the Dark Souls community that FromSoftware is a bit too obsessed with putting swamp locations in all of their entries. No matter what Soulsborne-style game from the developer that you might be playing, there’s a good chance that you’ll have to slog through a bog at some point in time.
Mortal Shell is the latest Soulslike that has hit the market and it wants to be like Dark Souls so badly that it also falls into some of the latter’s same tropes. Not only does Mortal Shell feature largely the same structure and gameplay stylings from the heralded games that came before it, but it also just feels a bit too familiar, all the way down to the game’s central location being one big swamp. Despite wearing its inspirations on its sleeve more proudly than it likely should at times, Mortal Shell is still another solid Soulslike that brings some new ideas and mechanics to the subgenre’s table.
Mortal Shell places you in control of a pasty, white, faceless dude that is known as a Vessel. While this Vessel is weak on his own, he can inhabit the body of various Shells, which are characters that lived in this world before. Rather than building out a single character over the course of the game, Mortal Shell lets you control four different character types, each of which has its own playstyle. For instance, Harros, The Vassal is the game’s most balanced Shell and has equally proportioned stats in health and stamina. Conversely, Eredrim, The Venerable has much more health at his disposal, but runs dry on stamina quickly. The varying playstyles that each of the four Shells has on offer allows you to either switch up your playstyle whenever you like or commit to one that you may like the most.
RPG systems lie at the root of Mortal Shell, but they do differ quite a bit from other Soulslike games. Each Shell in the game has its own upgrade tree with a handful of different abilities that can be purchased with the game’s currencies. Some of these upgrades merely provide passive buffs to your characters, while others give you boosts to some of the active abilities in your repertoire.
The only downside of this whole upgrade system and the ability to swap between four different characters is that the game really seems to encourage you to only choose one Shell and play with it until the end of the game. In my own experience, I found that Tar and Glimpses, the two aforementioned currencies, are often harder to come by compared to some other Soulslikes. As such, if you pour too much of these items into one Shell only to then decide that you’d prefer to switch to another later on, it might take some serious grinding before you start upgrading that character’s abilities as well.
Combat in Mortal Shell is largely quite similar to what you may have played in Dark Souls — light and heavy attacks, dodge rolls, etc. — but there are some pretty big alterations as well. The key mechanic in Mortal Shell that sets it apart from others in the genre deals with the ability to harden your character. With the press of one button, you can enter this hardened state which will then make you impervious to all incoming damage and will reflect your opponent’s next attack. Hardening is vital in Mortal Shell and it’s essentially something that you have to get a good grasp on in order to advance in the game.
That being said, once you do learn the ins and outs of hardening, Mortal Shell is a bit more prone to “cheese” than other Soulslikes. Since you can essentially block all incoming damage while hardening (which comes off of a cooldown every five to seven seconds) you can really take your time with some of the game’s boss fights and just continue to use harden to reflect an attack before then dealing small bits of damage. It feels almost counter-intuitive to what Soulslikes typically ask of the player. Still, I overall thought the hardening mechanic was a novel one.
The other biggest addition in the realm of combat mechanics in Mortal Shell comes in the form of special abilities that each weapon can perform. Shells each have a resolve bar that you can build up by dealing out attacks on enemies. Once built up to a certain level, you can then unleash more powerful strikes that deal out larger portions of damage. Parrying is also available in Mortal Shell, with a well-timed reflection not only allowing you to viciously strike enemies in return, but it also heals a decent portion of your health. With healing items not giving you immediate health in Mortal Shell, it’s vital that you get these parrying mechanics down in order to stay alive.
If there is one aspect of Mortal Shell that I truly did not like, it came in the way of the game’s level design. Some of the locales in the game, especially that of the swampy marshes of Fallgrim, are way too confusing to traverse. The advent of tunnels that interconnect some of the areas in Fallgrim specifically made me feel even more lost throughout. Additional areas in the game, while quite pretty to look at sometimes, were often just as head-scratching to get about — here’s looking at you, Eternal Narthex. I’ve played quite a few Soulslikes in my day, so I’m pretty used to these vast, labyrinth-like areas. But more often than not, Mortal Shell made me feel more occasionally puzzled as to where the heck I was at in the world than others in the genre.
While the story isn’t front and center by any means in Mortal Shell, I also have to say that the game’s lore that was presented didn’t draw me in at all. Storytelling in Mortal Shell is the one area that feels most-similar to Dark Souls, as much of what is explained to you in the world is told through secondary means. I’ve admittedly never been very drawn in to the latter series either when it comes to story, but Mortal Shell felt like it was trying way too hard to dupe that franchise’s narrative delivery.
Mortal Shell definitely has some interesting ideas and considering how small the team is at Cold Symmetry, it’s actually quite impressive what the studio has been able to put together on its first outing. From a purely mechanical perspective, Mortal Shell will absolutely scratch any Soulslike itch that you might be having in 2020. Still, when the game is so unabashedly trying to draw comparisons to Dark Souls, it’s going to be quite a tall task to match up in all areas. Mortal Shell nicely sets the groundwork for a future installment from Cold Symmetry, but any potential sequels definitely need to do more in terms of presentation to set itself apart from the granddaddy of the subgenre.