Is a soul(slike) mortal?
Aiming for greatness is the first step on the path toward achieving it, and it is clear that the developers at Cold Symmetry have done just that. Aspiring to meet the genre-defining standards of FROM software’s Souls series is as lofty a goal as a small team could aim for, but also one fraught with potential to misstep or simply repeat what has already been done. I’m happy to say that Mortal Shell, while far from perfect, does rise to meet most of the expectation set by its overt Souls-like qualities, albeit on terms that may cause those truly attached to FROM’s particular flavour of gameplay balance to baulk a little.
I have no skin, and I must scratch
Starting the game as a pale, humanoid husk armed with a long sword, the Souls-like inspiration is clear from the outset. You’ve got a health and stamina bar, the ability to dodge roll and combine fast, weaker blows with slower, stronger attacks. Every aspect of the world seems obscured behind inexplicable decay and dialogue designed to tease with fantastical concepts. It is at once familiar and different, tempting those familiar with such tone to immediately beg questions of how this world came to be and what its particular rules and oddities are.
Once the initial impact sinks in, you’ll quickly face off against your first foe and a lesson in what makes Mortal Shell stand apart from its inspirations – hardening. At any time; be it mid-combo, falling from height or just standing around, you can press a button to harden your character’s skin and deflect a blow. Time slows for a moment when struck, allowing a swift counter or an evasive roll to escape the next attack aimed at ending your life. Your ability to harden is limited and must recharge, so there’s no standing still and sucking up endless blows, so timing its use during enemy attack sequences is vital. It might not seem like much, but with combat balanced around the mechanic, learning to harden at the right times will be the difference between success and failure.
Do you mind if I borrow this?
The other genuinely defining feature of Mortal Shell is the game’s namesake – the empty shells of fallen mortals. It’s not long after you begin the game that your first shell is found – a broken corpse resting on the ground. Through some esoteric magic, the pale husk you control will merge with the body and possess it, adjusting health and stamina bars and giving access to that shell’s particular quirks. The function of the shells in-game goes beyond modulating your stats and actually provides what is effectively an extra health bar and an extra life. Being fatally wounded won’t floor you the first time; instead, time freezes for a moment, and the impact knocks your pallid corpse inhibitor backwards out of the shell with a sliver of health remaining. You must then reclaim your shell while avoiding damage in order to return, fully restored and ready for round two. Fail again though, and it will be truly fatal.
There are a handful of shells to find, each with a leaning toward particular play styles, with one being a tank-like mountain of health with low stamina while another is a fragile but athletic reversal of stats. Using another Soulslike standard, currency acquired from defeated enemies is used to upgrade the shells, with the first unlock for each of them being their name and a small chunk of lore. It’s a kick to find another shell and test the differences between them, but their specific quirks and bonuses must be unlocked using the aforementioned currency, which limits the initial differences between them and invites a player to lean toward one shell from the outset, especially if the player has yet to happen upon the others. That said, lore and context are locked behind the upgrades, with each offering spoken dialogue from the body’s former inhabitant that will give a reason for completionists and those particularly drawn to the narrative mysteries to level each shell up.
Keep it clean
Combat is fast and fraught with danger, as there is no blocking mechanic and parrying becomes essential after it is unlocked. This might pose something of a barrier to entry for those, like me, who played the Souls games with a shield in hand and a staunch refusal to use anything but the heaviest, smashiest weapons to deal with most situations – Mortal Shell will expect you to learn to play with its far more limited weapon set and static character build at the game’s beginning.
Like the shells, there are a handful of weapons to acquire, but locating them isn’t easy from the outset and unlocking them requires you to defeat a continually returning foe who wields them against you. Where the Souls games give you choices on how you want to play from the outset with a variety of builds and easily acquired weapons with diverse move sets, Mortal Shell is, by comparison, a very specific and fixed, which can again invite a player to learn one weapon well, focus on levelling it at the expense of the others and never experiment as a result. The way Mortal Shell dishes out new weapons is not at all broken, but the execution is flawed for sure.
Have we seen this tree before?
Level design is again at once familiar and different enough to hook those longing for more adventures in dingy dungeons and dank depths, with the first area being a tangled forest full of narrow passages and camps full of grotesque, twisted men with a lust for your blood. It serves as a hub of sorts, connecting to the other major areas of the game and offering the first hints of your objective, given by a masked woman who speaks of the world unwinding and refers to you as a foundling, offering the chance to level your character as she does. Narrow passages lead to other major locations, including an obsidian citadel and while the aspiration to meet FROM’s standard is clear, there is a distinct muddiness and lack of focus to the locations, with some areas feeling excessively huge and devoid of interest beyond hordes of repeating enemies.
Speaking of enemies, their designs are distinct and approach to combat is often unrelenting, dishing out long combos and powerful blows intended to provoke you to harden. Hammer hauling, grim-faced judges, giant frogs and supine ladies dual-wielding knives are among the parade of horrors. Alas, what takes away from the enemies is the over-abundance of them in some areas. The aforementioned obsidian citadel is a prime example of a large location with only four or five enemy types liberally scattered throughout. At times there’s a clear intent to create set-piece fights; at others, it feels like someone pasted enemies into some spaces with the intent of creating time sinks. In the worst instances, fights take place on narrow, elevated platforms where your combo will likely lead to you falling, and a lack of blocking means archers will turn you into an unwilling pin cushion. There is fun to be had, but it comes between these occasional bouts of annoyance at unfair encounters.
When you stare into the abyss, it probably becomes a Soulslike
Punctuating all of this is a grim and oppressive ambience that suits the tone set by the visuals very well indeed. Musically, there’s a lovely little feature where enemies will play a lute in their camp, providing in-game music as opposed to a soundtrack. You yourself can even play the lute, with it being a useful tool for drawing the ire and attention of nearby enemies. Again though, and as is the way with almost every facet of Mortal Shell, a lack of AAA polish can at times be jarring, as levels and mixing for some enemy noises are off while some sound effect choices may lead to thoughts of other things, such as the raspy groan of one particular enemy type being just a little too reminiscent of an infamous raspy groan from The Grudge series of films.
For those who long for another Souls-like game, Mortal Shell will scratch an itch for sure. It has core gameplay and concepts that hearken to their inspiration and do well in living up to expectations on that basis. At a surprisingly low release price of £25, those tempted by the visuals and promise of an experience to fill the gap until FROM returns to take another swing at the genre they created would do well to give Mortal Shell their time and money.
[Reviewed on PC]