Developer: Cold Symmetry | Publisher: Playstack| Release Date: August 18th 2020 | Genre: Action-RPG | Reviewed On PS4 Pro
The copy of Mortal Shell used for this review was provided by the publisher
Mortal Shell is another “Soulslike” game which is, in essence, an action RPG that mimics the mechanics and satanic difficultly of the Dark Souls franchise developed by FromSoftware. There are a lot of games in this “genre” many of which were developed by FromSoftware themselves. Each has something unique that separates them from their spiritual forefathers whether it be setting, region, time-period, or whatever. However, you would be forgiven in thinking that Mortal Shell was a main entry in the Dark Souls series just by looking at it. I took a pic of the game with my phone and sent it to a friend to show her I was reviewing it and she said “oh Dark Souls?” Aside from the look, the core combat also mirrors the Souls franchise. Does borrowing so much from an existing product make Mortal Shell a bad game? The short answer is no.
Mortal Shell starts in a way that any fan of FromSoftware will be familiar with. You awaken…not quite a skeleton, not fully human but sort of a jumbled mess of ass and ribs that can walk and swing a sword. You quickly learn the ability to harden your skin (such as it is) to block enemy attacks. This replaces the traditional handheld shield you would likely get in other games. You also have a dodge and roll mechanic to get you away from enemies quickly. After you are introduced to those handy abilities by a knight that is way out of your league, the knight attacks. This is meant to test your ability to use the techniques you have just learned but as you can imagine this is not a fight you are expected to win. After the battle, you are swallowed up by a big ass dead fish and the true game begins.
Once the game truly begins, we are introduced to what makes Mortal Shell unique. You, as an…undead McRib type creature, can posses bodies aka shells. Each shell has it’s own skills and you can experiment with each to find one that fits the way you play. Using items dropped from defeated enemies (tar and glimpses), you can further upgrade each shell granting you access to new abilities.
The game can be very tedious in the early areas as you kill enemies to gain enough tar and glimpses to level up your shell’s skills. Just like Dark Souls, each time you go to level up your character, all of the non-boss enemies respawn for you to lay waste to all over again. I spent a lot of time killing enemies and then running back to level up and I found myself screwed if I strayed too far before I was ready. This was enhanced by the fact that parry timing took me way too long to get the hang off resulting in a ton of pointless deaths. Fortunately, the rest of the combat is not as unforgiving as parrying. Combat is a mix of regular and heavy attacks to go along with the aforementioned dodges, blocking, and parrying. The game’s weapons also have special abilities that can be obtained by finding certain artifacts to upgrade each one. The enemy types are grotesque and varied and will force you to adopt new strategies as they come at you with a new set of attacks. After hours of grinding and learning your foes’ moves, you WILL start dying all over again when you reach a new area.
One other thing that Mortal Shell does differently than any other game I have played has to do with in-game items. When you find an item in the world for the first time, you will have no idea what it does. There will be a description but it will tell you to try the item to learn what it does. Right away I found a mushroom and ate it. Fortunately, the mystery effect was that it healed me for several seconds. I then found another mushroom that poisoned me. This added even more tension to the early moments of the game because I could never tell if a new item was beneficial or potentially fatal.
I have to say that I love the environments in Mortal Shell. They are all bleak and spooky but they have a decent amount of ground to cover and things to discover at nearly every turn. Running the game on my PS4 Pro was smooth overall. I don’t have the tech background of someone at Digital Foundry but everything ran fine for me throughout the whole experience.
Even though its story is purposefully vague and I died way more times than I will ever admit to you, Mortal Shell is a game I barely expected to like but I quickly started to love. It was a bit shorter than I expected as my first playthrough clocked in at just over 20 hours. I expect subsequent New Game + ( let’s go Ghost of Tsushima) runs will get shorter as I now know what to expect out of the combat. The game will draw tons of justified comparisons to Dark Souls but I believe that’s what the developers had in mind. It is a frustrating, difficult, beautiful piece of art that fans of the genre must try. My son says that I must hate myself for constantly playing games like this but I never shy away from a challenge and neither should you.