*Disclosure: This game was provided for free by Cold Symmetry for the purposes of review
As the resident Souls-Like nerd it fell to me to review Mortal Shell, developed by Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack. Mortal Shell is a dark fantasy game that sees you, known as Foundling, making your way through a spooky world filled with deadly monsters to search for a magical MacGuffin at the behest of a stoic cult lady in a mask and a character known as the prisoner who weirdly reminds me of the vultures in The Jungle Book movie.
Recently the term ‘Souls-Like’ has received some flack as a genre due to it’s kind of vague and nebulous concept. So let me preface this review with a few things I think are core to a Souls-Like. The first is a methodical combat system that rewards patience and a ‘waiting for the right moment’ mentality. An in-game currency/experience that is lost upon death that may be retrievable. Finally a varied set of weapons.
Now we could debate until the cows come home about if a Souls-Like needs a parry system or to be oppressively difficult but to me I feel the things I’ve listed are pretty core to the genre.
The first thing I feel needs mentioning about Mortal Shell is just how gorgeous it is for Cold Symmetry’s first title. The atmosphere is palpable and oozes from every detail the developers have put into this little title. The first area you’re going to be spending your time in is a swamp that is maddeningly realistic. The dense fog that fills the area and obscures your vision, the creaking trees that loom above you and the gentle croaking of frogs all creates this haunting feeling that you are trapped. It also manages to be incredibly hard to navigate but in a good way. It’s an area that’s very easy to get lost in and that adds to the helpless feeling you have throughout any good Souls-Like. You are but a tiny insect fighting against things much bigger than you and you’re trying to navigate their world, not yours.
Unfortunately, that’s kind of where my praise ends for this game. While I do not have anything particularly bad to say about the game I don’t have many fantastic positives either. Let’s start with the weapons. In the game, there’s a set of four weapons for you to use and each one has a different move-set. This move-set can also be combined with your character’s natural abilities in order to string combos together and just all-round smack your enemies about. However, the actual combo variety of each weapon is relatively small and also not that exciting. You’ve got your three-string light attack and your three string-heavy. Each weapon feels fairly similar to the other. Which would be forgivable if there weren’t so few, every time you get a new weapon should feel like a big deal, such as it did in Bloodborne, getting a new weapon in that game felt like learning to ride a bike all over again and could possibly completely change how you play the game. Sadly I didn’t get that feeling from Mortal Shell’s arsenal.
So leading on from the weapons to the actual feel of combat in Mortal Shell I’m once again a little disappointed. This issue, in my opinion, is not necessarily a problem if you haven’t played any other Souls-Like. Other Souls-Likes are usually described as ‘tough but fair’ in terms of their combat difficulty. Mortal Shell just felt oppressively unfair and like it just didn’t want you to progress. A lot of developers have made the mistake of thinking that all monsters hit for huge amounts of damage and are relentless in their pursuit of crippling your poor character. This really isn’t the case. Most monsters you’ll find in Dark Souls don’t actually hit for very much, what they do is punish your mistakes with either multiple attacks or resetting the pace of the fight in their favour. Mortal Shell has sadly made the same mistake Lords of the Fallen did which is if you screw up you might as well not bother because most of your health is missing now.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are very few ways to reliably heal in the game. You can pick up a few consumables here and there that will give you tiny amounts of health or you can use a special riposte that will essentially steal some health from your enemies but in terms of a reliable mid-combat heal, you are SOL, my friend. This problem neatly brings me to the parry system of the game. Parrying, for those that don’t know, is simply the process of blocking your enemies attack in a way that leaves their guard open for attack. It’s also quite difficult to learn but once you’ve mastered it feels like you’ve broken the game a little bit because any monster that can be parried suddenly starts spending most of their time with your sword somewhere in their abdomen.
The parry system in most Souls-Likes can be described simply as ‘hard but rewarding’ whereas in Mortal Shell I’d describe the parry system as ‘stupidly hard and not very rewarding.’ In most Souls-Likes when you parry you leave the enemy open for a riposte which tends to do quite a lot of damage and leave your enemy stunned. However, in Mortal Shell a single parry does absolutely nothing bar giving you a point of resolve. Resolve is a bar separate bar from your health and stamina that’s used for special abilities and ripostes. So in order to do that heavy damage riposte, I mentioned earlier you need to parry twice! The parry windows on attacks are also unreasonably finicky. Sometimes it’s just before you’re hit, other times it’s at the peak of the attack animation and sometimes it’s just at the will of Gabe Newell himself.
Let’s briefly touch on the ‘resolve’ system. As a concept resolve is perfectly fine. Dark Souls 3 has a similar system called FP which was also in FromSoftware’s earlier title Demon’s Souls. This is the bar you’d use for magic and weapon abilities. The main difference between FP and Resolve is FP was a bar you filled up with a refreshing consumable or something found in more abundance than the moonshine monsters occasionally drop in Mortal Shell. So you went into fights with near max FP and used it if you felt it necessary instead of MS’s approach of gaining it as you fight in tiny aggravating increments.
There are a few little niggling issues I have with the game like the pretty mediocre voice acting but that doesn’t really deserve its own paragraph so I’ve sneakily dropped it into the summary paragraph. However a lot of these issues are overshadowed by two things. The first is that this is Cold Symmetry’s first Souls-Like and my personal favourite Souls-Like was The Surge which was actually Deck13’s second attempt at one after Lords of the Fallen and the improvement between the two is staggering. And also the fact that the game is less than £30. So for the ten to fifteen hours you might get out of Mortal Shell you haven’t really lost much.
There is a lot of amazing groundwork done in Mortal Shell and as much as I wasn’t a huge fan of their first title I am positive that whatever comes next from Cold Symmetry will be an absolute banger. For £24.99 Mortal Shell is worth the buy simply for the novelty of seeing what a Dark Souls game would look like if it was made today. If you can get past a little bit of jank and frustration you’ll have a good time. Not a glowing recommendation but a recommendation none the less.