Small-Scale Souls

HIGH The abstract stone level. Simply stunning.

LOW Being near death and failing to land a health-restoring parry.

WTF The underdeveloped concept and lack of amenities.

Ever since the blockbuster success of FromSoft’s Souls games, plenty of developers have been wanting a piece of their pie, but few have managed it. Most often, designers take the wrong lessons away from the work – they miss that the secret is not in following From’s footsteps so closely that the material is duplicated, but in taking the feelings and concepts generated by the work and then going in a new direction.

Mortal Shell is the debut from Cold Symmetry, a group of four industry vets starting out on their own. After completing the adventure I’d say that their work is only half-successful, but they’re clearly swinging for the fences.

Like most soulslikes, Mortal Shell offers third-person melee combat that employs a stamina bar to prevent spamming attacks or dodging. Also identical to others in the genre, it features a cryptic, impenetrable story heavy on text-based lore and mysterious characters. And of course, if a player dies they must run back to their corpse to claim the currency there, or else it’s lost forever. In many ways Shell is so similar to an actual Souls game that it could easily be mistaken for one. So where does Cold Symmetry deviate from the formula?

Let’s start with the premise – past the standard soulslike trappings, the player is an undead called the Foundling who’s so frail that any enemy can kill them in one hit. To survive, it must inhabit the dead bodies of fallen warriors it finds.

This is a fascinating concept in the context of an action game, and it was essentially all I knew about Mortal Shell for most of its pre-release period. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the biggest areas where Mortal Shell disappoints.

Rather than forcing the player to adopt new tactics by limiting them to certain bodies in different areas, or even designing scenarios where one body might be more advantageous than another, there are only four inhabitable corpses (total) and they function as builds – one is high HP/low stamina, one is high stamina/low HP, one is balanced, and the fourth… well, I honestly can’t recall what the last one does because not only are these options largely interchangeable, Cold Symmetry goes out of their way to discourage the player from experimenting with them.    

When the player is at Mortal Shell’s hub, they’re free to jump between any of the bodies they’ve found, along with any of the weapons offered – again, four. However, when away from the hub, players must use consumable items to change bodies or weapons. Knowing that a player has a limited number of times to swap equipment puts a huge damper on trying new things.

Another wet blanket on experimentation? Each of the bodies has its own skill tree, and none of the abilities carry over to the others. Earning enough resources to unlock skills (extra damage vs single opponents, no stamina depletion while running, etc.) takes a while, so there’s little incentive to switch to a body that’s got no perks. Of course, the player can grind out resources with a body they’ve upgraded and use those materials on one of the others, but by that point they’ve likely grown accustomed to the form they’ve been using and the only reason to change would be for the novelty of it, or for pure completionism.  

With these choices in place, the body-swapping ‘hook’ of Mortal Shell is nothing more than a standard character build/inventory system like any number of other games, but made prohibitively difficult to use thanks to draconian limitations.

There are other aspects of Mortal Shell that feel underdone at best, hostile towards players at worst. For example, Cold Symmetry has a serious aversion to save points – while the geography of each world is quite small, the slow pace of play means that it can take a fair amount of time for players to crawl their way forward. There were plenty of areas where a few more save points would have been welcome.

The starting hub area is a confusing mess. It’s a samey, green swamp where every part looks identical to the rest, and it’s tough to navigate. I had to consult friends and a YouTube video to locate new areas because I kept doubling back and missing new places to explore.

Other issues include a heavy reliance on group encounters with no way to kite enemies away from the crowd and no way for a player to handle large numbers until they’ve found special weapon upgrades. Also, it’s easy to miss the main hub (I did) and the item needed for the crucial parrying skill. Such a key thing should be given to the player right off the bat.  

Speaking of parrying, Mortal Shell only offers a small number of healing items, and none of them are very effective. Instead, the devs want players to use parrying to stun an enemy before draining life from them. It’s high risk/high reward which is fine in and of itself, but there are no options for players who struggle with the parry timing (me!) and there are no ways to mitigate it – no gear to increase the parry window, nor any way to reduce damage when a parry is missed and the Foundling eats a sword to the face. There is a distinct air of ‘git gud’ in this aspect of Mortal Shell and I didn’t care for it.  

So this is quite a laundry list of things that Mortal Shell doesn’t do well. Why did I bother to finish it, and ultimately, enjoy it? Mostly, it comes down to the parts that do pop.

While the parrying was problematic, the Foundling also has the ability to “harden”. While this is a great setup for a joke, it’s also a fantastic mechanic where the player can turn themselves to stone for a moment and tank through absolutely any incoming hit, small or large. It runs on a cooldown so it can’t be abused, but being able to shrug off one attack as part of a valid combat strategy feels different than standard blocking and also functions differently since it doesn’t use the stamina bar – it’s a power that exists outside of the normal souls repertoire, and it’s excellent.

Also appealing is that Mortal Shell focuses almost entirely on melee encounters with weapons that feel weighty and cumbersome, and animations that successfully communicate the inertia and heft that a real skirmish would have. Swinging a giant sword feels like it takes ages compared to other games, but it hits like a truck when the blade connects, and seeing a foe get blasted across a room by the kineticism of the blow communicates a quality that few action titles capture. Planning strikes requires extra thought, approaches must be deliberate, and mistakes are punished. But when the timing comes together and a sword hits exactly where and when it was meant to? It’s satisfyingly sublime.   

Also, while the swampy hub area was awful, Mortal Shell made up for it with other areas that look amazing. Of particular note was an area made out of massive cyclopean stones that begins in a wide-open space before transitioning into a chokingly narrow tower, and eventually into an abstract dreamscape suspended in the clouds. It was honestly breathtaking, and one of the best levels I’ve seen in any game this year.   

While there were many aspects of Mortal Shell that I didn’t care for, the bits that worked for me really worked. The final product is far from perfect and I’m not sure that I’d even recommend it to anyone except the hardest of soulslike hardcores, but beneath the underdeveloped ideas and questionable design choices is a pool of talent bound for bigger and better things — Cold Symmetry’s work shined brightest when it veered away from standard Souls, and I’m interested to see them take it further.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack. It is currently available on PS4XBO and PC.This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains BloodLanguageUse of Alcohol and Violence. Although it’s full of dark and sinister imagery, the actual violence isn’t terribly graphic as these things go, consisting of some occasional spurts of blood but no actual dismemberments or gore that I saw. Moonshine is a consumable item.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available for all dialogue. They cannot be resized or altered. There’s one boss in the game who can briefly turn invisible, during which directional audio cues are used to help detect where he is. Aside from that, noises emitted by enemies frequently alerted the player to nearby danger — these cues are matched by a flash on the player’s parry weapon, but it’s easy to miss. Although playable without sound, players with hearing difficulty will be at a clear disadvantage.

Remappable Controls: The controls cannot be remapped. The Y-axis can be inverted.

Brad Gallaway
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