In 2009, with the release of Demon’s Souls literally no one would have known From Software’s challenging, opaque action RPG would usher in a popular sub-genre but 11 years later, “Soulslike” is exactly that. Yearly we’ve seen games release that borrow heavily from the Souls formula to varying degrees of success. It’s a pleasure to say that Cold Symmetry’s Mortal Shell is one of the successes. Read on for our Mortal Shell review.
I Wish I Could Tell You
In all honesty, I’m still not entirely sure what Mortal Shell is really about, as I expect most won’t until the fanbase dives into the lore of the world. You start the game as a white, mouthless humanoid that can possess “Shells” — the dead bodies of four warriors who died in this world. Your journey begins in the woodland area of Fallgrim where you will eventually discover Fallgrim tower where inside is the “Sester” Genessa (think Firekeeper in Dark Souls, Doll in Bloodborne) and the Old Prisoner who is a massive creature chained up in the tower. Here is where you get your goal for the remainder of the game, which is to return with “glands” from Sanctums to give to the Old Prisoner. This requires traversing the dangerous landscape to find and enter these Sanctums, confront and kill the boss and return with the gland.
There are things I could spoil but won’t, and there are things I couldn’t spoil even if I wanted to because it was very much a blind playthrough not knowing what to expect, and not knowing how everything falls together, even with the copious amounts of lore I found. It’s clear that Cold Symmetry really enjoys this aspect of From’s games and brought that DNA along for Mortal Shell. This is a game that will reward the fans of lore in these games for a while.
As someone who is usually way more into gameplay than lore, Mortal Shell delivers in so many aspects on this front. First of all, the hardened mechanic is not only ingenious, but also the thing that saved my life many times. Pressing a button while give you a rock like shell for a small amount of time that is basically a shield that protects you from attacks and most enemies that hit you while in this state will stagger a bit leaving themselves open to your attacks. While it’s on a small cool down timer between uses, it was still extremely vital to keeping me alive throughout the game.
Another aspect that is fresh for this type of game is the Shell mechanic. There are four shells in total, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The starting shell, Harros, is the most balanced with a decent health bar, stamina and resolve. Resolve is used for special weapon attacks and parrying. You need resolve to do either action and it needs to be built back up by successfully attacking enemies. Then there is Solomon, who has slightly less stamina, a bit more health and the most resolve. Thiel (my favorite) has a massive stamina bar but also the least amount of health and resolve, and finally there is Eredim who has a long health bar but very little stamina and medium resolve. Health, stamina, and resolve cannot be leveled up so the shells serve a purpose as to what kind of playstyle you have. What you can do is acquire skills specific to each shell that play to their strengths, such as Thiel has a skill where sprinting doesn’t use stamina and Solomon has a skill that turns hits while hardened into resolve.
To level up you need Tar (think Souls or Bloodechoes) and “Glimpses.” Glimpses can be earned as a random drop from enemies, by consuming items that give Glimpses and by defeating bosses. Once your health is depleted you’re knocked out of your shell and are left with very little health but you have an opportunity to get back into your shell (which refills your health) and fight on. If you die outside of your shell or get knocked out of it a second time, that’s game over and you’ll have to restart at the last checkpoint (either at a Sester) or the entrance to the respective area. And you guessed it, you have to get back to where you died to recover your shell and your Tar.
Combat is the third area where Mortal Shell shines and that’s due to the four melee weapons you find in the game. There is the starting weapon, the Hallowed Sword is the most balanced with its swipe light attacks and thrust heavy attacks. It doesn’t consume too much stamina either. The Hammer and Chisel was my go to because while they don’t do a ton of damage per hit, they use very little stamina so you can wail away on enemies getting a lot of hits in before you either have to dodge or harden between attacks. Then there are two heavy weapons, the Smoldering Mace and the Martyr’s Sword. Both have slower animations, consume more stamina but do a ton of damage. You can use any weapon with any shell provided you have the weapon. Acquiring the weapon requires defeating Harden (the tutorial boss) as he uses the respective weapon. Once in your possession you will either need to return to Fallgrim tower to switch them out or find a specific unlimited use item tied to each respective weapon to switch. This is also how you change shells, for the most part.
So while the shells, weapons and combat are all great highlights of Mortal Shell, it’s the decisions such as having to find specific items to switch weapons and shells (it’s a limited use Effigy to switch shells) and similar item related issues that bring the overall experience down a little. First of all, you need to acquire every skill for a shell before you can access an item to fast travel. Fast travel will take you back to any awoken Sesters in each area (sanctums have three in each). The issue with this is, once you’ve leveled up a shell it’s going to require some level of grinding to earn enough tar and glimpses to unlock everything for each shell. In my playthrough I personally had little incentive to use any other shell because I was almost done with the game at that point. I supposed this would incentivize more playthroughs in NG+ and beyond but I don’t think grinding or going through the game again should be required to have to see unlock everything.
Through the Pacing
The biggest “complaint” I can level at the game is: having to use items once before knowing what it does. This might have seemed like a good idea in a meta sense (taking the mystery of the Souls games to another level), however in practice it doesn’t feel like the best idea. You will find a lot of items are limited and can’t be purchased either at all or until you’ve fully “leveled up” one shell. This meant I was left with items I had never used because I just couldn’t be bothered wasting them. Additionally, you have to use each item 10 times (in most cases) in order to max out the familiarity but that doesn’t really change much about what the item does.
Healing items is another area where Mortal Shell falls short. There are essentially two healing items in the game, Whitecap Mushrooms and roasted rats. Whitecaps are found in the world and can be picked to add them to your inventory. However, they are on a pretty substantial cooldown timer so farming these items can take an exorbitant amount of time. Roasted Rats are found as drops and a merchant at Fallgrim tower sells them for 100 tar each. They heal more and slightly faster, but consume resolve. Thankfully they can still be used when your resolve is depleted but I found myself ignoring the Whitecaps due to the timer at the sake of resolve.
Another aspect people associate with From’s Souls games is the level design. The interconnectedness of Dark Souls and Bloodborne is largely absent in Mortal Shell. Here it feels more in line with Dark Souls 2 where Majula served as the hub world and each area spokes off from the “center.” Fallgrim is the starting section and each Sanctum is reachable from there by going off in separate directions. Once in the Sanctums they are linear areas with a clear path forward and no shortcuts. I won’t say this is a negative however, this is just an area I do wish more Soulslikes would take inspiration from Dark Souls and hopefully Cold Symmetry can build on in the future.
I will say Mortal Shell is surprisingly polished. The game looks great. The environments, limited as they are, are varied and distinct. The animations are all fantastic as is the sound design. Just an all around great presentation. I should note that it’s not very long. It took me about 20 hours to complete my first playthrough. For game made by a small team, it exceeds its indie creation.
Mortal Shell brings a lot of new ideas to the Souls formula and while it doesn’t quite succeed in all of them, the things it does are more than enough to give a promising start to what I hope becomes a franchise.
- Shell mechanic works really well to cater to a variety of playstyles
- It looks incredible for an indie game
- The weapons are fun to use
- Familiarity mechanic is neat on paper but not so much in the game
- A lot of grinding required to see everything
- Healing system needs work
If you liked our review please let us know in the comments, and if you plan on buying Mortal Shell, be sure to visit back tomorrow as we will have a number of guides on our official Mortal Shell guide page.
Mortal Shell review code provided by the publisher. Played on PS4. You can read SP1st and MP1st’s review and scoring policy right here.