Back in 2009 Demon’s Soul, a PlayStation 3 exclusive, made its way into the hands of players around the world. The game was punishingly difficult, and was revered for its no handholding, brutally steep learning curve. A game that harkened back to the days of old, when video games were more about a player spending hour upon hour of mastering its nuances then relying on a never-ending supply of save games.
This game, and the even more popular successor Dark Souls, gave way to its own genre defining style, the “souls-like” game. Since those genre defining years, several companies have tried to take inspiration from the originals and craft them into their own unique experiences. Whether that be futuristic takes such as Surge 2, or sticking to a familiar fantasy setting, with mixed results. Enter the latest in this genre, a game developed by the fine folks at Cold Symetry, released on Windows, Xbox and PlayStation.
Mortal Shell is a “souls-like” action role playing game, where you are a creature whose unique ability is to inhabit the bodies of fallen warriors scattered across the realm of Fallgrim. Much like its inspiration, Fallgrim is a land that is bleak and unforgiving. Whether you are traipsing across murky swamps, filled with bear tramps and poisonous frogs, snowy fields or fiery plains, there are always an unending supply of enemies that you must contend with. Each “shell” you inhabit offers up a distinct playstyle and upgrade tree that should appeal to every unique player.
The first shell you inhabit, is what I refer to as the Jack-of-All trades shell, Harros. Harros is a traditional knight like character that has a balance of health, stamina, and resolve (the statistic that allows you to use your special upgrades applied to your weapon of choice). As you progress through the story, you will come across three other shells for you to inhabit, that you can switch between as you wish. This allows you to vary your play style between Eredrim, a tank-architype with lots of health but low stamina, Tiel, the acolyte with less health but is more agile and able to dodge and roll out of the way, or Solomon, who has the most resolve. Each character upgrade requires Tar (the gold of Fallgrim) and Glimpses. These are acquired by defeating enemies, and through gathering various plants throughout your journey.
In addition to the four shells, there are also four upgradable weapons that can be found along your journey. You begin with the Hollow Sword but will come across others to aid you on your quest. There is the Hammer and Chisel, a dual wield, fast attack, but lower damage weapon. The Martyr’s Blade, a heavy two-handed sword that does massive damage but is slow to attack. Lastly, The Smoldering Mace. All of these can be upgrades with special attacks that are initiated by your characters resolve, that can do an incredible amount of damage when initiated.
Combat occurs by locking onto your opponent and then utilizing fast and heavy attacks to defeat them. Experimenting with executing fast and heavy in specific sequences will result in numerous combos that do additional damage and stagger your foes. Mortal Shells unique blocking ability is what the game refers to as Hardening. Hardening, does exactly as the name suggests, turning yourself into stone and blocking most incoming attacks. It can be initiated at practically any time, even during the middle of your attack, allowing you to brush off an incoming attack and finish up with an epic strike. Learning the best time and place to use your hardening skill, is the key to overcoming your most difficult opponents, and ultimately slaying them in the process. There is also a parry aspect, which you obtain at the beginning of your quest, that allows you to parry incoming blows, and respond with devastating effect. Be aware that not all attacks can be parried, and your Tarnished Seal Emblem (which enables your skill) will glow red to warn you of this.
During combat, if your health reaches zero, you will be pushed out of your shell (which reminded me of playing a mech game where your mech is destroyed and you are automatically ejected). You are given the chance to climb back into your shell, but if you are hit while outside of your shell you will almost always die quickly. If your health reaches zero again, you die and you return back to Sester Genessa, a shadowy figure who acts like a bonfire from the souls’ games. As with the games before it, dying forces you to drop your tar and re-spawns all enemies that you have killed previously. Returning to your body allows you to retrieve your tar and restores all your health.
One of the more interesting aspects of the game is in the use of items you discover during your adventure. Most items effects will be unknown until you use the item, which forces you to experiment with everything you find. As you use the item more frequently you become more familiar with the item, and as that familiarity grows, the effects grow as well. Some will damage you in the beginning, only to benefit you as you grow more familiar with them, others you will utilize at the wrong time, and not benefit from the effect, but you will still learn from the experience. In this way Mortal Shell rewards you for experimentation, and forces those who like to hoard their findings for “when the right time arrives to use it” to utilize it and learn from it.
Much like the Souls-like games that inspired it, Mortal Shell could almost be mistaken for one of the games it garnered inspiration from. The setting, the characters, even the fonts used, could easily have been taken directly from a Dark Souls game. You’d be forgiven if someone came up to you and asked you which of the Dark Souls games you are playing. That’s not to say that Mortal Shell doesn’t distinguish itself in other ways, but on the surface, it would be easy to mistake it for another clone. The sound design, the graphic design, is all very well done, so at least the inspiration is put to good use in Mortal Shell
While Mortal Shell generally plays fast and well, there are a couple of instances where death seemed to come due to little I had control over. There are various cut scenes where you are crawling through tunnels, and you come out on the other side. Occasionally your character will be attacked immediately follow the cut scene, which gives you little time to react. There are ways to time your crawl, as to not emerge immediately into a group of baddies, but nothing frustrated me more, when I came across these areas. The difficulty and learning curve are about as difficult as one would expect from such a game.
If you are a fan of Dark Souls or Souls-like games, there is a lot to like in Mortal Shell. Most of the gameplay and style will feel immediately familiar, and there is just enough uniqueness in the game to satisfy veterans of the soul’s type games. If you have been put off by the difficulty of souls-like games in the past, Mortal Shell doesn’t differ enough from the formula to likely change your mind. While it’s not as long as the games that inspire it, it’s hard to beat the price ($29.99 on the Epic Store), and it’s refreshing enough to act as a place holder until the Demon’s Soul remake becomes available
What I liked: Beautiful Scenery, Hardening Skill can save you when you screw up
What I liked less: No real direction on where to start
4 out of 5 stars