It’s impossible to talk about Mortal Shell without comparing it to the seminal Dark Souls. Everything about this new indie title from indie developer Cold Symmetry, from the combat and storytelling to the level design and music, is heavily influenced by FromSoftware’s classic action RPG. In fact, you could easily mistake a screenshot of Mortal Shell for a new Dark Souls game. But while the resemblance is strong, Mortal Shell adds enough twists to FromSoftware’s formula to craft its own identity as a worthy entry in the burgeoning genre.
As in Dark Souls, Mortal Shell’s story is cryptically told through item descriptions and vague comments from NPCs. At the start of the game, you wake up in a pool of water as the Foundling, a gray husk that looks a lot like the creatures in Tool’s classic “Schism” music video. After learning the basics of combat, you’ll come across your first of four “shells,” Harros the Vassal, a fairly typical, balanced warrior type. These shells, which can be switched on the fly, are key to combat, as each one provides different bonuses in speed, damage, and stamina, so using the right shell can be the difference between slaying your enemies and suffering a gruesome death.
That might sound more confining than Dark Souls near-endless customization, but each shell also has its own set of upgrades, and plenty of new weapons litter Mortal Shell’s dark fantasy landscape. And all of those weapons have upgrades of their own, almost always guarded by powerful enemies.
The shell system also allows for a couple of neat additions to the typical Souls formula. Mortal Shell has no traditional block button. Instead, you rely on parrying attacks and holding down the left trigger button, which causes the Foundling to “harden,” making him impervious to attacks for a few seconds and causing an enemy who hits you to stagger. While staggering an enemy opens them up to a few extra hits, the harden ability doesn’t make the game a cakewalk. It needs a few seconds to recharge after use, and if you’re not careful, you can be knocked out of your current shell.
It’s game over if the Foundling gets hit while out of his shell, but your health is fully restored if you can avoid enemy attacks and return to it. Lose all your health after that, and it’s back to the nearest checkpoint. Then begins the usual process of retracing your steps to the spot where you died to collect your lost “tar,” the game’s upgrade currency that works similar to souls.
Release Date: August 8, 2020
Platforms: PC (reviewed), XBO, PS4
Developer: Cold Symmetry
Genre: Action RPG
Mortal Shell’s biggest achievement is nailing the feel of Dark Souls’ combat. While timing and strategy are necessary for success, the combat never feels cheap. If you die, it’s on you. You’ll learn from it, and (hopefully) come back stronger and better prepared the next time around.
The game also mixes things up with its familiarity system. Basically, you won’t know what a consumable item does when you first pick it up but using it a certain number of times will unlock new abilities. For example, a new mushroom might poison you the first few times you use it, but after that, you’ll gain familiarity and it will begin to grant poison resistance. It’s just another one of those neat little touches that helps Mortal Shell stand apart in the genre.
Mortal Shell‘s presentation is also stellar. The sound design is outstanding. Enemies growl and lumber around in the distance, creating the perfect, slightly unnerving atmosphere for the game’s dark fantasy environments. And the NPC voice acting is also top notch.
In terms of the visuals, the game is at least on par with Dark Souls III, and I didn’t run into any performance issues playing on my gaming laptop. A few design flaws are slight disappointments though. While Mortal Shell’s levels are enjoyable to traverse, they don’t display the genius interconnectedness of the original Dark Souls or Bloodborne.
Similarly, while the enemies are fun to fight, many of the enemy designs seem pretty heavily inspired by Clive Barker’s tortured monster philosophy. I love Hellraiser as much as any other horror fan, but these designs feel a bit tired at this point. A little more originality would have been nice.
And in what is likely to be the biggest disappointment for many Souls fans, Mortal Shell has no multiplayer features to speak of, which is a serious omission if the game was looking to capture a true Dark Souls feel. Maybe some kind of multiplayer component will be added in an update post-launch?
Mortal Shell may not quite surpass the lofty standards of the Dark Souls franchise, but it comes closer than any Souls clone that has come before it. With its challenging combat, intriguing world, and unique additions to the genre, this is a can’t miss game for anyone looking for their next Souls fix.