Mortal Shell has been somewhat unfairly tethered to its spiritual inspirations. “Somewhat” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here given how freely the game lifts from its inspirations but it’s a shackle around the game as much as it is anything else.
It is unabashedly a game that only exists because of From Software’s efforts but in chasing that coveted crown, developer Cold Symmetry has discovered something largely unique and deserving of its own considerations.
Mortal Shell is a hyper focused attempt at capturing the specific magic of its contempories and despite the occasional stumble in polish, it manages to find its own place in the genre.
Mortal Shell Review
You play as a true nobody, devoid of customisable characteristics, class or even basic human features. This Foundling is a white Raith, cast out from an ethereal in-between place composed of black oceans and the uncaring eyes of the things that exist in it. Upon entering the physical world, or a close enough replica of it, you’ll be prompted to seek out the bodies of four fallen warriors. These “shells” serve as your class of choice, ranging from well-rounded to specialising in speed, defence and so on.
These husks are strewn around the oppressive forest of Fallgrim, a dense and uncompromising landscape that houses ancient temples and a host of otherworldly beings. Most of them wish you harm, of course, but others exist to coax you through the moist purgatory you find yourself trapped in. Your handler is the enigmatic Sester Genessa, one of the few remaining devouts of a long lost religion whose purpose now seems to be the ferrying of souls through this damned forest she calls home. It is all so earnestly dark fantasy, liberally lifting from decades of the genre and pasting it all together with a killer sense of style.
Mortal Shell does have a relatively interesting tale to spin but unravelling it might require a couple of YouTube videos and a Wiki. Buried in item descriptions and cryptic dialogue is an occasional poignant reflection on the legacy of sin, resentful religious factions and even a curiously tawdry love story. While it may be needlessly coy with details, Mortal Shell deploys a fantastic cast of characters to keep things fresh. Each shell you inhabit is a unique lad with his own story to tell and Genessa is consistently engrossing, even veering into unsettling at times. Fallgrim is home to more than a few surprising and intriguing faces and finding them is a joy I wouldn’t dare spoil here.
While your motivations for scouring the land of Fallgrim are as murky as the mud which lines its snaking paths, the core combat loop is precise and addictive. Beyond the standard move set (light and heavy attacks, dodge etc) Mortal Shell separates itself from the pack with its hardening mechanic, an elegant solution to the shield and a powerful offensive strategy in its own right. Hardening covers your shell in an impenetrable stone skin, repelling any enemy attack and knocking the offending foe into a stagger in the process. It has a short cooldown, adding another layer to the stamina and health management you’re already juggling, and fundamentally changes the way combat flows for the better.
Flow being the operative word there though. Mortal Shell’s learning curve is steep, even for veterans of the genre. Finding your flow state with the game’s hyper deliberate combat loop takes time but any fundamental shift to genre expectations was always going to demand as much for admission. Still, your time is rewarded with a combat system that, once mastered, is generally quite accessible and deeply satisfying. Hardening within single-digit frames of getting hit is exhilarating and provides an undeniably visceral thrill when an enemy’s attack reverberates back through them.
Hardening also serves as an unintentionally baked in difficulty mitigator as the mechanic can be “cheesed” from time to time. This is unequivocally a good thing if you ask me (gatekeeping is bad, kids) but it is also one of the few times Mortal Shell‘s relatively green nature is exposed. It’s a far cry from unbalanced and overreliance on hardening to avoid damage is a choice the player actively has to make, but the cooldown isn’t enough of a deterrent to stop its cheesier impulses.
Hardening is complimented by a focused upgrade path for each shell. Like most things in Mortal Shell, the scope of these trees is reigned in compared to its contemporaries but in doing so it’s able to deftly weave in narrative beats with mechanical progress. Each new skill unlocked includes a small piece of narration from the shell as they remember more of their past lives. In turn, you’ll also gain a boost to your cooldowns, overall sturdiness and specialised abilities.
Mortal Shell‘s handful of classes and weapons can be combined in any way you see fit too. Each shell has it’s own pool of specific upgrade currency which means rarely are you punished for sunk costs into a character class you end up not wanting to use. It’s one of the many ways Mortal Shell is lenient with the player. The game requires you to become familiar with an item before you can properly feel its effects (a small healing shroom will heal incrementally more health the more you use it and so on). In turn, though, most items replenish themselves across the overworld and superior versions can be purchased from a vendor for relatively cheap.
There are several other smaller innovations and mechanics littered throughout the game that round out the bigger changes nicely. After defeating a temple you’ll need to run through a gauntlet of overpowered beasts as a dark fog descends on the land. Assuming you survive you’ll get the chance to invoke this fog and go on a “hunt” for upgrade matteraisl and the like at your whim. There is also a slightly unwieldly but fantastically detailed photo mode as of October 2020 and some skin options for your shell to boot.
Structurally speaking, Mortal Shell flows like a Legend of Zelda adventure more than anything else, sending you out to a handful of dungeons to gather literal sacred items. The corners of Fallgrim are infected with gnarled, dreamlike temples that house your expected assortment of puzzles, bosses and new weapons. These places are loosely themed around either elemental magic or, my personal favourite, heavy metal grunge meets obsidian architecture. Technically speaking they can also be done in any order but there is an obvious sliding scale of difficulty to them.
Obtaining the various weapons in the game requires you to defeat a recurring boss in the underworld who wields the said weapon. These fights are the easiest of the assorted bosses you’ll face but never failed to get me hype for the next weapon, seeing a decently beefy AI swing it in your face will do that. Similarly, puzzles won’t push you to your limits but are a fun diversion from combat nonetheless. This doesn’t make trolling through the dungeons any less intriguing though as the environmental artistry on display here is top-notch with each location feeling appropriately dilapidated and haunted by the past.
Unsurprisingly, you’ll inevitably end up in front of the boss of each dungeon, an eclectic collection of challenging warriors and disgruntled beasts. These fights sit comfortably between challenging and intuitive, and with one or two exceptions, are never as frustrating as your opening hours learning the combat system. They’re also just plain badass to look at. Mortal Shell‘s overall art direction is incredibly strong but some of these bosses venture into the fantastically absurd, recalling the likes of Mad Max of all things.
Of all the things for Mortal Shell to nail in its quest to emulate and innovate, the overall vibe is secondary only to core combat. The game does carve out its own aesthetic and tone through dense environments, striking art choices and solid sound design. It’s undeniably dark fantasy but jacked up to eleven with flashes of 80s glam rock and Eastern mythology. All of these elements are blended with confidence and rounded out beautifully by Atrium Carceri’s grimdark soundtrack.
Mortal Shell moves beyond simple emulation and carves its own spot into a firmly established subgenre of gaming. Its earnest adoration of its contemporaries certainly colours much of its reputation but Cold Symettry’s work deserves to be recognised in its own right thanks to mechanical innovations and a unique pastiche aesthetic. It is tightly crafted and harnesses a smaller scope to deliver a focused, mostly well-balanced journey into the dark unknown.
Mortal Shell‘s origins may be steeped in an echo but the final product has more than enough soul.
Mortal Shell was reviewed on the Playstation 4 using a digital copy provided by the publisher.