Review: Mortal Shell (Steam)
By: Stephen Machuga
Fifteen people. The PR person told me that fifteen people of developer Cold Symmetry with a team of freelancers and outsourcing agencies put together Mortal Shell. If that’s to be believed, these folks did an outstanding job of creating a solid Dark Souls clone that fans should pick up.
So, what is Mortal Shell about? Well, in typical Dark Souls fashion…I’m not exactly sure. It would appear that the world you inhabit is a forsaken Hellscape filled with brigands and beasts put there just to murder you. You play as a nameless, genderless human-esque creature called a Foundling, which looks like it was a rejected frame idea from the game Warframe. However, Mortal Shell is about this Foundling finding dead warriors on the battlefield and wearing their corpses as a kind of, you guessed it, mortal shell. It appears that everyone in the world bows to a trio of false gods known as The Revered, who have gathered all-powerful god items known as Sacred Glands. For whatever reason, the goal of Mortal Shell is to slay these demigods, retrieve their Glands, and return them to your base so that you may “ascend”, which likely just means leave this hell hole behind.
I’m missing a boatload of information because as in typical Dark Souls fashion, items and loading screens are where a lot of your in-game lore hides. There are also random inscriptions and writings around the world, but everything is so cryptic and confusing, none of it made any sense without any kind of context to one another. Mortal Shell does have a fairly robust lore mechanic where every item in the game has a familiarity meter. Every time you use an item, you become more accustomed to it and learn more about it. For instance, a poisonous mushroom called a Tarshroom is fairly lethal your first few times eating one. However, after you eat a dozen or so of them, you become immune to the poison and the mushrooms become a great antivenom healing item.
While it’s easy to just say this is another Dark Souls clone (which it most certainly is), the team at Cold Symmetry has gone out of their way to switch things up just enough with some clever mechanics instead of just copying everything from their predecessor. For instance, while there are “bonfires” in this game in the form of statues of a friendly entity that heal you and reset your progress through an area, there is no “estus flask” healing potions equivalents to refill. You simply have a stock of items in your inventory that you have to use. And of course, slaying enemies gets you currency to power your shell up in the form of “tar”, but instead of a single currency, you also on occasion get another drop called a “glimpse”, which are fragmented memories of other living creatures. You don’t select a character type like a wizard or archer, your Foundling inhabits one of four different “shells” of fallen warriors, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Another of the major differences of this game and other major Dark Souls clones is the “hardening” mechanic, which really stands Mortal Shell apart from other games in this genre. Instead of a standard “sword-and-board” shield on your off arm, your Foundling has the ability to turn himself to stone. While Mortal Shell does have a fairly extensive and blessedly large-windowed parry mechanic, you can turn to stone at any time, and it comes back on a quick 8-10 second timer. You are 100% invulnerable to damage during this time, and you can use it at any time, even in the middle of other animations. The number of times in the game where I was in the middle of an attack, saw something that was going to hit me, I was able to harden and save my bacon was countless. Not only can you stay in hardened mode for an extremely long amount of time or until you’re hit, but you can also get your stamina back while hardened. So many times, I’d run in, dump my stamina bar with a flurry of attacks, see the enemy wind up, hit hardened mode, then wait for the baddie to stagger off me by bouncing off my hardened body, and then repeat opening up on him with my sword. Extremely rewarding feeling and a very clever way to drop the usual shield block.
The harden mechanic does highlight one of the issues of Mortal Shell: I hope you like melee weapons because that is primarily what you’re going to be playing through the game with. There are four main weapons in the game: a two-handed sword and giant club which are large and slow, one medium two-hander sword, and one dual wield hammer and stake which is fairly fast and poisons on hit. All are melee. No spells and only one ranged option, but it is fairly unreliable as far as a ranged weapon goes.
And let’s talk about this ranged weapon here: the Ballistazooka. It is a shoulder-fired wooden stake launcher that hits like a truck. However, this goofy ranged weapon, and its lovingly-crafted reloading animation is a perfect example of the level of detail that the developers brought to Mortal Shell. They could have had a crossbow or basic “magic missile” that you’d have in most Dark Souls clones, but they decided to go with this instead.
Another interesting game mechanic that really gets the player away from the need of continuously drinking potions or worrying about the lack of an estus flask equivalent is your “Last Chance”. Upon taking lethal damage, your Foundling is forced out of the warrior’s shell you are inhabiting, the equivalent of a snail coming out of its shell. Your Foundling has an absurd about of stamina for dodging, running, and rolling, but it’s a one-hit kill. If you’re able to reach your corpse and re-inhabit it, you instantly get all your life back and are back in the fight. However, enemies seem to be aware of you in your extremely weakened state and are ready for you to try and quickly grab your body. While it is easy to kite them away from your corpse and then run back over for the safe respawn, the number of times I thought, “Well, I’ll just jump back in…” and then immediately get murdered was too numerous to count.
Mortal Shell’s maps are gigantic, and yet each of the four major biomes feels different from one another as to not be palette swaps of one another. As per most Dark Souls style games, you start to learn the maps in your head, as there are no in-game maps or minimaps to go off of. Mortal Shell, however, is definitely a lot more user-friendly than a lot of other clones out there. At your home base, a decrepit bell tower, there are a series of four sarcophagi marking each of the game’s four “shells” and four weapon racks that, if inspected, show you a glimpse of where they can be found. They act as great starting points to let you know “hey, you haven’t been over here yet” without holding your hand too much, but it is just enough of a hint to guide the game forward when you’re feeling stuck and not sure where to go.
Overall, Mortal Shell was a blast and didn’t overstay its welcome. According to the in-game clock, Mortal Shell took 14 hours to complete my first playthrough, which opens up the New Game Plus option. There is also a head-scratching altar in the main area that allows you the opportunity to forgo the ability to use your warrior shells and simply play as the Foundling…which sounds like a nightmare. I’m guessing you get a little more health and a little more survivability, but…there is definitely the option for replayability.
Amazing job by the Cold Symmetry team, look forward to seeing what they do next!