Alex Birlo on September 3, 2020
Mortal Shell is an action RPG developed by a talented indie studio that is named – Cold Symmetry.
The game was announced back in April 2020 and released on August 18th.
It took me exactly eleven hours of clean playtime form beginning to end with around two to three hours, give or take, on sidetracking and exploration.
At its core the story is quite a simple one and does not take any awards home for innovations or cinematography.
You are playing the role of an immortal ghost, a white faceless creature that knows not of its purpose or origin.
You have the ability to inhabit these “Mortal Shells” which are the remains of long dead heroes.
Each of these shells once were people with hopes, goals and roles to play in this damned dark world. And this is represented in the leveling system of the game which we will talk about when we come to gameplay.
Following in the best traditions of this genre, there are little obscure bits of lore sprinkled across the game’s world and included in the descriptions of items.
Though these you can learn a little bit more about the past of the world. They explore themes like sin, faith, fanaticism and what pushes people towards these things.
Though I found them much less exciting and deep than for example in Bloodborne.
The entire story passes as you look for the “Sacred Glands” and return them to an enigmatic prisoner locked in your main hub area. And that is basically it.
Excluding the little hidden lore bits there is not much more to the story.
One thing that will be appreciated by everyone is the stellar voice acting. The game has a small cast of memorable characters that are as unique as they are wonderfully weird.
Where Dark Souls revolves around souls, both in story and gameplay, and Bloodborne around the theme of blood, Mortal Shell went with an interesting thing they call “Glimpses” of memories.
Glimpses are what the inhabitants of this dark world hunger for, soothing their own miserable existence by consuming glimpses of someone else’s memories.
There also is the Tar, which is more like the main currency of the world and is presented as divine and rare “Nectar of Truth” that grants power and clarity.
The world nailed the same feeling of throwing this surreal imagery at the players as “From Software” games did.
The world is also broken into several areas, that are all connected to the main and biggest one.
Each area is a different environment, with totally unique enemy types, and exploring the lore and mentality of the different factions in the game’s world.
Though in terms of biome variety I would not say it is too drastic. There are maybe two areas that may really stun the players in terms of visuals, after hours of exploring identical swamp areas broken up with castle ruins.
Inhabiting shells is a great and very interesting way to represent the process of swapping armor.
There are four shells in total, and since each of these shells was once a hero they all have their stories that are told in a clever way through the shell upgrade system.
You use Tar and Glimpses to first unlock the name of the hero and then you can begin spending them on improvements.
Each shell has three active abilities which are identical for all, and seven unique passives that increase combat effectiveness.
There are four shells and four unique weapons that all create very distinct play styles.
In comparison to the abundance of weapon and loot in other souls-like games, this is a welcome change of gears since it makes each shell and each weapon with their upgrades feel that much more deliberate and meaningful.
The game’s signature mechanic that we have all seen in the trailers is “Hardening”.
Your character has a meter next to the HP bar that when full lets you turn into stone, allowing you to block a single attack of any kind regardless of its damage.
It is a very useful ability and will become the best tool in your arsenal as this game lacks a regular block of any kind. There are no shields and no ways to use your weapons to simply block attacks.
Though there is a parry option, it is slightly unreliable until you master it well enough.
You have a magic seal that accumulates charges of Resolve as you deal damage, in order to parry you have to stretch out this seal in front of you at the right moment.
Another key mechanic of the game is the “Second Chance”. It essentially works like the one in Sekiro but with its own twist.
When your shell loses all its HP your ghost is thrown out of it. You can still fight but you have none of your shell’s benefits and only one hit worth of health. But you have a chance to reach your shell and re-enter it to regain full health and a second chance at fighting your opponent.
More on the topic of combat, everyone has to be prepared for the fact that in this game everything is drastically slower than even in Dark Souls and this might not be to everyone’s liking.
Most of the difficulty for me personally came from the movement system. The characters always felt clumsy and leaden and this is perhaps the first thing you will notice when fighting against the first propped enemy.
But when you get used to the rhythm it becomes manageable, though extremely unlike any other games in the genre.
Because of the extremely slow movement, the game feels unfair at first and many people, even those who love the souls genre, may just drop this game.
I say – stick with it, and give it fair good try.
Here I speak as a fan of the genre, with hundreds of hours in many of these games.
Why do we love games like this? The modern industry of video games has what I call “the superhero syndrome”, when everything you play has to place you or allow you to reach a position of extreme strength living out an epic fantasy.
And that is not bad! Most of the games I play, I play on normal difficulty and exactly for that fantasy. But I also love to binge souls-like games because sometimes you just what that slower and more deliberate gameplay where every single encounter matters.
Here though, in this game, you might feel odd at times but it is still very much about the “git gud” aspect more than anything.
As similar as Mortal Shell is to Dark Souls, it does bring so much of its own identity to the table that it really took me quite some time to understand and get the hang of all that new features.
And sometimes I even forgot I was playing an indie game! The quality and effort is at a such high standard that it reaches very close to all the high budget triple-A games. This is a beginning of a great future for a great studio!
This game has its own distinct identity. And as From Software are moving towards their new ambitious open world game, I am glad that this talented indie developer will hopefully fill the gap and will continue making the old favorite, more linear souls type games with this IP.