HIGH Nailing the timing needed to consistently counter enemies.
LOW Having to use an item once before knowing what it does.
WTF An area that almost looks like something out of Control.
Death is an important part of life, as fiction has echoed for roughly as long as fiction has existed. That’s probably why no one who pursues immortality is ever better off for it, as the process always seems to involve stripping oneself of their humanity in some grotesque manner.
The protagonist of Mortal Shell can’t be permanently killed no matter how many times he falls in combat, but this “gift” has mutated him into a frail husk. He accomplishes what he sets out to do by inhabiting the bodies, or “shells,” of various fallen warriors. As we unlock their skills, we also unlock their memories and learn about their missions in life while the protagonist is ultimately the character that we know the least about.
Dark Souls wove respawning into its lore – our many returns from the grave were canonical as a result of the undead curse. Mortal Shell takes it a step further and examines why such an existence is a curse. The game doesn’t have much in the way of a linear plot, but its priorities lie in theming and tone, and that’s the first of many qualities that make Mortal Shell an exemplar of its subgenre.
Mortal Shell appears to be the first effort from developer Cold Symmetry, and while I don’t know where these people came from, they house an immense amount of talent. Mortal Shell isn’t a massive production, but it looks relatively on par with the average triple-A title, and barring a bug or two, it’s impressively polished and behaves reliably — qualities that are crucial for a game as difficult as this. More importantly, the team is obviously well-studied in From Software’s work, having recaptured both the mechanics and tone of the Souls series. Few teams manage to nail even one of those aspects, let alone both.
Players can expect the usual brand of third-person stamina-based melee combat found in the soulslike genre, which feels simultaneously heavy and responsive. In place of a shield, players can turn to stone, or “harden” and block damage from all sides for a few seconds at a time, after which there’s a cooldown.
Besides hardening, the bulk of the player’s defense comes from parrying attacks. Anyone who didn’t gel with Sekiro because it was so counter-centric likely won’t get along with Mortal Shell, but those who put in the effort needed to learn the correct timing will find themselves able to produce reliable results again and again. The twist to this system is that beyond defending, successful parries also restore a portion of the player’s health.
Mortal Shell doesn’t have an Estus healing flask equivalent, and expendable healing items are both uncommon and fairly ineffectual, which means that countering is actually the primary method of self-aid. So, a mechanic that was little more than a party trick in the early Souls titles not only proves crucial for staying alive here, but actively rewards those who master it.
Unlike many games of this ilk, Mortal Shell is light on RPG elements. While each of the four shells available have unique skill trees that sometimes offer permanent stat boosts, they’re all predetermined builds. Eredrím is always going to be the tank, Tiel is always going to be the most agile, Solomon will always have more energy for weapon skills, and the starting shell is the most balanced of the lot.
There are no prerequisites to equipping any of the four weapons – two swords, a mace and a hammer – which can lead to interesting combinations. It would stand to reason that the sturdiest character goes best with the slowest weapon, but that’s not necessarily the case. The shell with the most health also has the least stamina, so I found that he paired well with the quick weapon, since it wouldn’t tire him out as quickly.
Souls games are notoriously cryptic in the way they communicate plot details, and it’s inspired plenty of jokes about items coming with Post-It notes attached. Mortal Shell has an interesting solution, which is that memories in this universe are something of a currency, passed around so rapidly that some people have trouble recalling which are their own.
While we’re initially told virtually nothing about where we are or what we’re supposed to be doing, each time we unlock one of the shells’ skills, it’s accompanied by a paragraph of narration recounting that person’s life experiences. As we build them into stronger vessels, we gain a more complete picture of who they were as individuals, and our understanding of the world broadens.
Granted, Cold Symmetry’s insistence on players figuring everything out for themselves isn’t always cute. Forcing us to actually use an expendable item before we know what it does was a bad idea since it means we’ll frequently either waste something vital to discover its effects or be left sitting on a stockpile of potential game-changers because we’re too hesitant to throw them away. For much of the campaign I thought I had to haul myself back to the game’s hub to switch out my shell until I eventually realized that the effigies I’d been picking up would save me the trouble.
On the other hand, the eventual upside is that Mortal Shell offers the same sense of discovery that makes a first Dark Souls playthrough so magical. It’s a challenging game that feels overwhelming in its opening hours when we’re still trying to understand how everything works.
Hell, even countering – an integral part of Mortal Shell – can only be performed after we’ve obtained a specific item from a specific character, and although he’s found in a relatively prominent location, it’s perfectly possible to storm ahead without talking to him first. Cold Symmetry allows players to do that because anyone who tries to rush through something like Mortal Shell without taking their time and getting the lay of the land probably doesn’t belong here, but its systems do make sense, and this team is trusting players to follow the breadcrumbs.
As a diehard Dark Souls fan I’ve played nearly every soulslike, and none have done it as well as Mortal Shell. Not only has Cold Symmetry nailed the fundamentals, but they’ve added their own spin to the formula without being coy about their influences. Mortal Shell is the only copycat that can stand toe-to-toe with FromSoft’s own work, and although it’s considerably shorter than their offerings, it’s no less beautiful, haunting and rewarding.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack. It is currently available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 14 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 Blood, Language, Use 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. 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 me to nearby danger. Although playable without sound, players will be at a disadvantage.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls. The Y-axis can be inverted.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.