After spending numerous hours with the beta and now having finally completed my first playthrough of Mortal Shell, lets just get this right out of the way. Developer Cold Symmetry’s Mortal Shell is a love letter to the Demon/Dark Souls series. From the dark and gruesome world to its brutal combat, it looks and feels just like a From Software game. While it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a carbon copy, it brings some new things to the “Souls” genre. The way gameplay and your character progression works is very unique and unlike anything we’ve seen before. Gone are the days where you pick a certain type of character with base stats and with each new level you earn, dump those new stat points into vitality or dexterity to create a class tailor made to suit your play style. Mortal Shell instead has you inhabit the bodies (or shells as they like to call them) of certain deceased characters, and who you choose to inhabit at any given time is the play style you’re stuck with (until you decide to take over someone else’s body). It’s a welcome breath of fresh air for these types of games, and each shell has a back story and history for you to discover as you play. What makes the journey worthwhile in the end though is being able to pet a merchants cute cat. No Souls game ever let you pet a cat.
Shame on you From Software.
At the start of Mortal Shell, our character awakens from a pool of water, unarmed and looking a little naked. We’re just this grey-skinned husk of a person with no discerning facial or body features. In order for us to be prepared for the perils ahead, we’re put through a series of training exercises that teach us the basics of combat. There are no shields here to hide behind. Instead, there’s a feature called Harden, which causes your character to turn into stone for a short period of time. If you time it right when an enemy attacks, it will knock them off balance, allowing you a chance to get in a few extra hits. Hardening has a certain amount of uses before it has to cooldown, so it isn’t something you can spam. This makes the combat feel much more akin to Bloodborne, where using dodge is key to survival. There are light and heavy attacks, powerful special attacks for each weapon type, and a parry system that allows you to get a portion of your health back if you pull it off correctly.
After completing the training area, the first shell you take over is a knight named Harros who wears a suit of armor and can take some damage, but unfortunately has limited stamina for movement. Not too long after cutting my way through hordes of enemies in the starting swamp area, I came across a tunnel in the marsh that led me to another shell named Tiel, who has maxed out stamina but wears light cloth armor which makes you more susceptible to damage. Each shell (there are four that are playable) you inhabit can be leveled up with Tar (souls/experience) and Glimpses (ability unlocks) that you earn through defeating enemies. Spending Tar and Glimpses on a character will unlock abilities and also give you a bit of background story on that character. I liked taking on these different personas and being able to switch my play style on the fly was a nice departure from being stuck with one character archetype. If I’m being honest though, I did end up just using Tiel most of the time, but it was nice to have options!
If you’ve played a Souls game, you’ll adapt fairly quickly here to the combat. Attacks have some pretty great animations if you pull off combos. Two light attacks followed up by a heavy attack will have you swing your sword twice before grabbing the tip of the blade to swing the hilt of your sword at your enemy. The weapon I used the most was the Hallowed Sword (two-handed) but I think for my second playthrough I’m going to use the Hammer & Chisel (dual-wield). I had already upgraded the damage on the sword to max, so that one was my go to. It hits slow, but using Tiel as my shell, I was still able to do plenty of dodging in-between sword swings before needing to stop to regain stamina. Tiel has an upgrade that allows you to sprint without losing stamina, so you can essentially run circles around enemies with no consequences. It all feels great and once all the elements clicked, I was diving around my enemies, hardening to block incoming attacks, and performing slashes and parries with my sword like a champ in no time. The two other weapons available are another two-handed sword and a two-handed mace, but I didn’t feel the need to use them. With subsequent playthroughs I’ll feel comfortable enough to branch out and try new things, but I just stuck with what worked.
Enemy types are varied, ranging from creepy bandits to shuffling humanoids with spikes coming out of their body. Their attacks can be predetermined and easily dodged if you pay attention to their animations. The spiked creeps will pull the spikes from their body and throw them at you from long range. After you chip their health down enough, they will pull their head off and throw it at you, and if it hits you, it will burst into a green puff of smoke and cause poison damage. If one of these beasts does manage to drain all your health, you’re literally knocked out of the shell you were in (and you’re that grey-skinned husk) and you can get back into it as long as you don’t die on your way back to reclaim it. Getting back inside your shell gives you full health and a second chance at life. If you die again though, it’s back to the beginning of the area for you.
Each area you’ll explore looks great and has plenty of detail. The swamps are full of frogs hopping around, adding a nice touch and bringing the world to life. You’ll explore snow covered crypts and make a stand in a heavenly arena filled with gold adorned floors. There are two vendors you’ll come across. A merchant that sells healing supplies and has that cute cat I mentioned earlier (that you can pet!) and Sester Genessa, an ominous woman that will heal you and upgrade your abilities. She acts like a bonfire from the Souls games because if you do heal at her, all the enemies will respawn in that area. Item usage isn’t as normal as you’d expect. They don’t show you what the items do until you’ve used them. You’re in the dark when you pick up anything new, so sometimes you’ll just have to keep using an item to figure out what it does. You’ll gain ‘familiarity’ with each item, like the lute, which sounds better the more you play it and antagonizes enemies to the point where they will go into a rage and attack you. This means that you’ll suck at first, but you get better at it the more you play it. This also carries over to healing items. The mushrooms you find can heal you over time. When you’ve become more familiar with them they heal you over time faster.
If you want to overcome everything, you’re going to have to spend at least a couple of hours at the start of the game to power yourself up. Once I was able to get through the first main areas after plenty of exploring and killing, I came across the first big bad. The boss battles are hit or miss but this guy was one of the memorable ones. This fight is against a creature called the Enslaved Grisha. It’s an intimidating first boss, donning a giant cage type mask that covers its head, two giant weapons and a powerful smash that can cause icicles to fall from the cavern ceiling down on top of you. This guy seemed impossible, but after upgrading my sword to +2 and gaining some new abilities to withstand his attacks (and doing a lot of rolling around) I was finally able to down him. I felt that sweet satisfaction I love getting from these types of games. Subsequent boss fights range in difficulty, but the final boss makes the journey worth it. I can’t say anything since I’m tied to embargo spoilers, but it’s one of the coolest final boss designs I’ve seen in a game.
Despite the fact that it shares plenty of similarities to Souls games that came before, Mortal Shell changes up the mix with different character classes that can be changed at any time, refreshing improvements to combat, and interesting items to use that give it a feel all its own. The graphics and textures look fantastic, and the world is shrouded in mystery. Mortal Shell took me around ten hours to complete my first time, but with New Game + to keep me occupied, I’ll be ascending in this desecrated world over and over again. – NVJ
Mortal Shell is available digitally on August 18th, 2020 for PS4, Xbox One & PC (Epic Games Store)
A Mortal Shell physical release will be available on October 2nd, 2020 for PS4, Xbox One & PC
PC review code provided by Evolve PR