Developed by Cold Symmetry, published by Playstack Ltd and once named “Dungeonhaven” in early development, we present: Mortal Shell. Being an ambitious indie take on the souls-like 3rd person RPG genre, this title aims to differentiate itself through unique mechanics and an attractive price-point. So, let’s review Mortal Shell and see what it gets right, and what it doesn’t.
How one derives fun from a product tends to be highly subjective. Therefore ALL forms of review are opinionated, and should be taken with a grain of salt (this included). So let’s review Mortal Shell through the lens of more objective metrics such as; graphical fidelity, characters/story, content/length, controls & gameplay, then finally, sound design & cinematics. This product was reviewed on a 1050Ti 4Gb, 8GB Ram, with an i5-7300HQ. For full transparency: this content was reviewed using a provided key.
Visually speaking Mortal Shell triumphantly hosts a variety of graphical, and stylistic options. A favorite of mine includes a frequently overlooked ‘indie mode’ which renders everything in a bit-style format. I genuinely appreciated this addition and wished more games included similar little titbits. A small note on this topic – a lot of the text does become unreadable. This can definitely be a problem for first-time playthroughs attempted in this mode.
Then, as per usual we have textures, shadows, and other standard options. These range from low, medium, and high to ultra. Motion Blur is an option (to be turned off), as is Film Grain (if you’re into that). Textures don’t always look the best close up, but all things considered the reflections and shading more than make up for this. For the most part Mortal Shell is a very pretty game (playing on high). Graphical stylings tend to make great use of reflective surfaces, as environments often glisten and gleam with light at the right angles. Models look sharp in 1080p, although there were occasional struggles to keep 60fps constant in locations visited later in the game such as the Eternal Narthex. While this never rendered the game unplayable, it may be demanding for players with older hardware. A non-issue for others to be sure. Moving on to load times – they’re incredible! Although it is installed on an SSD so that will positively affect read times. Regardless, they were impressive during testing.
There were a few occasional detection & pathing issues such as enemies standing on air near an edge/cliff, or running endlessly at two trees. These may not be game-breaking, but they’re not very immersive either making the A.I. easy to manipulate at times. Generally speaking, Mortal Shell is a grim visual treat with cataclysmic aesthetics, occasionally let down by some potential performance issues. In many aspects, Mortal Shell wears its aspirations on its sleeve in the form of item description load screens, narrative, setting and tonal intensity. Finally, I consider the clutching, grasping death animations of most enemies as prime highlight to the attention to detail paid to Mortal Shell. (visually speaking)
Characters & Story
You will play The Foundling, a nameless being that may reside in the ‘mortal shell’ (body) of fallen warriors. Or not, if you so choose. Each Shell The Foundling inhabits was once a life of its own, with its own experiences and tales. Subsequently, players will get to know each of these intimately through oral and written contextualization. In your quest of ascension, The Foundling will meet a small variety of characters including but not limited to Sester Genessa (Discount Fire Keeper), or the merchant Vlas. Although I found them strange, I enjoyed the characterization of these individuals. Sometimes I found the writing to be on the fine line between trying to sound too profound and coming off as straight-up goofy. But it rides that line just close enough to warrant a pass. Job well done.
I won’t mince words here. Being a souls-like, the plot is absolutely convoluted. Mortal Shell follows the same indirect form of storytelling as others in the genre, leaving plenty of mystery and layers for players to peel back.
Content & Length
Within Fallgrim players will find four melee weapons, and one for ranged purposes that utilizes a ‘large bolt’ ammunition. Without going into greater detail and possible spoiler territory, these include a broadsword, greatsword, large mace, and finally a hammer & chisel. Each weapon has its own move set, with distinctive abilities and upgrades. I considered playing new game plus solely to experience more time with the different weapons, as I mostly used the swords.
It should be noted, that if players are hoping for a 40+ hour romp in a massive open world – they will be disappointed. Mortal Shell’s adventure will take players (likely) 10-20 hours, depending on personal skill. Players who take to Mortal Shell and its mechanics will likely blow through it much, much quicker than those who struggle for every step and achievement. Thus is the tale of a souls-like. It took me approximately 18 hours to beat Mortal Shell, however, I’m the type of player to scrutinize every detail of a map for secrets, items & shortcuts.
An aspect I thoroughly enjoyed was the overall map design, littered with intertwining paths and set between three dungeons/temples & Fallgrim that had me reminiscent of old Zelda titles if only a little. Some areas and content feels notably inspired by OG Dark Souls, such is the case with a ‘base’ location similar to that of the Firelink Shrine. Players may explore central Fallgrim and the local area, including three separate large sub-areas. I know that may not sound like much, but the weaving pathways and crawl-holes stretched my mental mapping to its capacity at times.
Mortal Shell does not contain a multiplayer element. This is a single-player experience. Regardless, this doesn’t detract from the depth of gameplay and content that is presented here. Speaking of that gameplay; Initially, Mortal Shell does a decent job easing players into the madness with a rather effective tutorial. After those first lessons, however, explanations seem (at times) inadequate. Specifically in regards to Resolve and its use early game. It’s not a big deal for some players as they can’t use it until later anyway. Nevertheless, the curiosity of its use might be compulsively distracting for others. On the topic of distractions, the best one yet would have to be the cute little cat of Vlas’ that players can wholesomely pet. At the time of writing, players had pet the cat over 150,000 times.
Controls & Gameplay
In regards to controls: while Mortal Shell can be played with mouse and keyboard, I found using a controller highly advantageous in comparison. Being able to spread button usage across both hands instead of primarily relying on players’ left to dodge, harden, move, and lock-on is much easier. That being said, controls may be remapped however players see fit – I just prefer controllers for souls-like titles. Not only that, but Mortal Shell’s camera feels straight-up weird using a mouse – constantly handling with a delayed shifting motion. Or maybe I just handle like a drunken fool, regardless. Upon closer review, Mortal Shell contains something that I wish every modern title on PC would include: options between PlayStation or Xbox controller button displays. This is fantastic, thank you Cold Symmetry.
For those potentially unfamiliar, a souls-like is a combat-oriented 3rd person RPG usually characterized by brutal difficulty. Mortal Shell certainly fits the description, while asserting its own spin on the genre. Players will explore an unknown land, find items, equipment & other consumables, all while fighting enemies, bosses, and uncovering a dark truth.
Let’s Get Into It
Upon entering the game initially, first-time setup options such as language, brightness, and a variety of game settings are set. Some of these other settings include health indicators, damage numbers, lock on target auto-shifts, etc. Shortly after this, players go through the tutorial introducing the game’s new unconventional block mechanic: Hardening. I found it to be an interesting addition to the souls-like formula as it allows players to block any hit (staggering the enemy) by turning to stone (we call it insta-Havel, just add cheese), this ability is on a cooldown after use. This gives Mortal Shell a sense of identity and allows it to personalize its gameplay from competitors. Learning to time and utilize the Harden ability in conjunction with parries and dodges is essential for surviving Mortal Shell. Especially when uninterrupted Harden begins recovering stamina, its use becomes crucial and an absolute life-saver.
Therein-lies a tiny problem I found with Mortal Shell: due to the steep difficulty curve, reliance on the defensive nature of Harden is absolutely necessary. I all too often felt forced to abuse Harden’s stagger for a free hit, attacking with just enough stamina left to back out safely, and wait out cooldowns. This lack of combat diversity often funneled me into strategies involving relentless patience, as opposed to applied aggression. Some players may enjoy how Mortal Shell tailors their gameplay experience, much like DOOM Eternal – while others may miss the build and gameplay diversity other genre titles offer.
All things considered combat can be described as weighty, with each strike feeling heavy and devastating. Corresponding damages can sometimes feel weak, but that’s beside the point. Weapons and movement animations are both smooth and polished, but it may take some time for genre players adjust to which animations are locked, and which aren’t. This can mean the difference between a life and death dodge, for example – you cannot feign attack, and then dodge. However you can feign attack and proceed to harden, thus changing fight dynamics in the genre. We’ll talk more about that in just a moment. A small detail that can be leveraged in the players’ advantage is how enemies will cower occasionally after witnessing an ally die. These opportunities can either give player a moment of reprieve, or aggressive to capitalize on.
Just getting this out of the way: Mortal Shell does not contain a standard souls-like healing system – nor does it needs to. Cold Symmetry carves its own path in Mortal Shell giving players’ only form of healing in single-use consumable foods. Nevertheless, in the face of death, it is not the end for The Foundling. upon reaching 0 HP, players are knocked out of their shell and have a chance to reclaim their bodies at full health. Beware though, as a single hit will kill The Foundling and drop all your currency dubbed ‘Tar’. Once acquiring the Tarnished Seal, players unlock the essential ability to parry. If they have the Resolve to spend, they can heal their shell a portion. This creates a risk/reward dynamic; rewarding aggression with resolve, and patience/timing with health & opportunity. Alternatively, failure or bad timing is punished devastatingly. You may find yourself in a bad situation like stun-locked, or straight-up dead. In all honesty, I’m not a fan of the parry timings as they sometimes feel inconsistent. Stealth is not an option, with backstabs not possible and no crouch. This means every fight is a straight engagement; hit first and hit hard friends.
On the other hand, there are no “white walls” like many other souls-likes that lock players into arenas with bosses. This gives players the freedom to disengage fights they can’t win, with the exception of one particularly. After dropping into the Enslaved Grisha’s ice arena, players must defeat the boss and clear that areas objective before returning to Fallgrim. This can be potentially disastrous for unprepared players and should absolutely be fixed in my opinion. Fast travel is also available – but not until you unlock every ability on a Shell.
Getting back to consumables; Mortal Shell takes an interesting direction with its items. Oftentimes, the use, origins, or details of an item is unknown to players until they use said item and build familiarity. Unlocking full familiarity with an item can grant access to additional benefits, I found this to be a fresh and welcome spin on both exposition and practical gameplay mechanics.
Additionally, I was admittedly a bit baffled by statistic scaling in this game – because there is none. Not numerically anyways, as damage increase comes in the form of weapon upgrades. Because players have little control over their maximum possible damage output, this puts a heavy dependence on either skill & talent or abuse of game mechanisms. What I mean by this is that Mortal Shell doesn’t have levels in the traditional sense. Each Shell has it’s own set of unique abilities and modifiers available for unlock by spending ‘Tar’ and ‘Glimpses’ to reveal its memories. This both expands player abilities and furthers character lore & world-building. Both Tar & Glimpses can be earned from defeated foe, or found in consumable item form and qill be essential to your character progression. For players who enjoy a dose of personalization or ‘creating’ a character/build you won’t, unfortunately, find much of that here.
Sound Design & Cinematics
Few and far between are the cinematics of Mortal Shell. Although, however, scarce as they may be: they are worth the wait. While they may not be jaw-dropping Avengers scale masterpieces, the contained cinematics are engaging and exceptionally rendered.
Within Mortal Shell voices of accompaniment are minute, though impactful when present. As The Foundling is voiceless, we only hear dialogue through characters we meet like Sester Genessa and the memories of each shell. These segments were often captivating, excellently voicing the four shells players will acquaint themselves with. Accompany this with an ambient soundtrack that doesn’t overwhelm players, while providing consistent and eerie undertones, and you have a recipe for some effective sound design. What Mortal Shell highlights well is the use of silence, and subtly to break it. Be it a croaking frog, a shreddy guitar riff, or the abrupt slash of blades – it’s all quite rigid, well recorded, and edited.
I especially enjoyed the large-hammered foe, who’s deafening clangs echo with each step, and drag of weighty armament resounds against metal. Bloody menacing. I found this range of audio rather soothing compared to the heavy melodic tones of a game like Dark Souls, with Mortal Shell presenting a more homely feel. Additionally, it lets you sit down and play a lute, putting those peasants to shame with your Bon Jovi chord skills. A cute detail, indeed. Overall I found the guitar usage and effect on the game’s tone quite intriguing and entertaining.
I feel I have to ask, were the prolonged death moans supposed to be comically drawn out? At first, it’s not that funny but after repeatedly slashing through hordes of enemies who die in ridiculously long-winded gasps, it starts being chuckle-worthy.
At times, this game felt to me like a paradox – agonizing as it was fun. Some bosses felt cheap, but I could often chalk it up to a mistake I had made. At the end of the day, Mortal Shell gave me that gratification souls-like players strive for & crave. Regardless of its flaws (as it’s not a perfect game), Mortal Shell is definitely worth your time, especially at its AA price point. 8.0/10 Mortal Shell was released on August 18th, 2020 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Epic Games Store (PC exclusively). Well worth the price of entry, would recommend.
What did you think of Mortal Shell? Let us know in the comments. If you enjoyed this content, why not check out our Children of Morta PC Review?
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An Exceptional Example of Indie Possibility
- Score - 8/108/10
+ Looks Great
+ Smooth & Satisfying Gameplay
– Somewhat Restrictive Build Diversity/Gameplay