As a genre, soulslike is proving not only its popularity but its versatility. With games like The Surge 2 and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order adopting the challenging action-RPG approach (complete with interconnected level design), there’s clearly plenty of room to experiment with the style of game that the Souls series made famous.
Consequently, games like Mortal Shell are somewhat vexing. While this soulslike is competently constructed with interesting core mechanics and a fun combat system, the atmosphere, setting, and story elements feel extremely derivative of Dark Souls. So much so that people will likely struggle to put aside comparisons — ones that wouldn’t exactly favor Mortal Shell. This is a shame, because Mortal Shell is good game bordering on greatness. But its aesthetics and worldbuilding beg the question: does it truly carve out an identity of its own?
- What is Mortal Shell? It’s a hardcore action-RPG with interconnected level design and a central mechanic that allows you to inhabit the flesh of various fallen warriors, attaining their skills and gradually gaining glimpses of their memories. Endure trap-infested environs, defend yourself against merciless foes, and face off with powerful, sometimes monstrous bosses in your journey across a decaying world.
- Developer: Cold Symmetry
- Publisher: Playstack Ltd.
- Price: $29.99
- Release Date: August 18, 2020
- Reviewed On: PC
- Website: www.mortalshell.com
Dark, Depressing, Derivative
It’s worth it to get these comparisons to Dark Souls out of the way early, especially since that’s one of the first things the game provokes at first blush. In addition to the combat and level design structure, Mortal Shell’s world feels similarly afflicted to a place like Lordran (the setting of DS1), on the brink of total ruin and desolation. And while you’re not technically playing an undead yourself, your character reanimates and inhabits fallen corpses, making the difference feel mostly semantic, even if the narrative implications are quite different.
This gets at the heart of what’s so frustrating about the narrative and worldbuilding of Mortal Shell. There are some interesting story elements at play, particularly the titular Mortal Shells and the Glimpses into their memories you can acquire. As one NPC points out, these Glimpses can be consumed by anyone, an escape from their abysmal world, and thus can act both as a bargaining chip and a target for monstrous creatures addicted to them. Again, this is an interesting idea in a vacuum, but it’s hard to ignore the nagging familiarity of such an approach when compared to things like the hollows of Dark Souls. You can point out several diegetic differences between these aspects of each story world, but doing so can’t shake off the sense of déjà vu one feels when playing Mortal Shell.
But intriguing ideas and comparisons to other games aside — how does Mortal Shell hold up in terms of its narrative and aesthetics? The majority of the time, the execution of these elements is adequate, and occasionally there are sparks of brilliance that shine through. The narrative is often vague, and the early hours of the story feature many proper nouns thrown at the player without much context for their meaning. It makes it hard to be invested in the story when your character feels like an outsider without strong motivations, and the events of the world seem distant, basically amounting to trivia.
Then, however — and without spoiling too much — one interaction with a particular NPC can be so unexpected and charming that you want to see more of that version of Mortal Shell. You know, the one that has a more distinct, defined identity. Similarly, certain visuals spark the imagination wonderfully — namely, the image of countless silhouettes trapped in ice, drifting towards a hulking skeletal creature embedded in a sheer frozen cliff face, cradling a feminine figure and evoking a sinister picture of mystery and idolatry.
Get Into Your Shell
The gameplay side of things is where Mortal Shell finds its greatest success. At its core, gameplay revolves around discovering (and using) the Shells of fallen warriors scattered throughout the game world. Your initial Shell is a balanced all-rounder, but as you discover more, you’ll be able to experiment with different playstyles and weapon combinations.
One of the most interesting (and perhaps overpowered) Shells has an upgrade available, which allows him to stack damage buffs for each kill he racks up. Of course, it only stacks so long as you’re not separated. What’s separation? The first fatal blow dealt to a Shell knocks the player out of it, forcing them to reunite; the next fatal blow sends you back to the NPC Sester Genessa or a checkpoint. This also ties in with his backstory and its connection to the “Deathless Doctrine. The result is an exciting playstyle for a soulslike, encouraging survivability and preparedness rather than the trial-and-error that is such a staple of the genre.
Speaking of preparedness, the game’s item system has an interesting spin on the traditional soulslike inventory: Familiarity. The more you use an item, the more familiar with its effects you become, and its boons and drawbacks are supplemented and mitigated, respectively. Different items also have a cost in Resolve or Health — resources used for special weapon abilities and HP-restoring ripostes, among other things. These interact with each Shells’ emphasis on Health, Stamina, and Resolve, encouraging the player to tailor weapons and items to particular builds. And, to experiment with these builds and modify them without having to start a new game.
Meanwhile, the combat boasts a basic soulslike framework propped up by the Harden mechanic, one of your most reliable defensive moves, and one which forgoes the sword-and-board strategy popular within the genre. Instead, you can make your skin as hard as stone, even mid-swing, allowing for a defensive maneuver that doesn’t impede attacks and can be folded into their execution.
Once you’ve become familiar with an enemy or boss’s patterns and develop an effective sequence of Hardens, dodges, heavy and light attacks to counter them, combat takes on a rhythmic, deeply satisfying feel. Some of the most gratifying moments in Mortal Shell come from finding this rhythm and using it to pry apart the resistance of enemy mobs and monstrous bosses alike.
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Zoom Out: Verdict
Gameplay Structure and Progression - 9/10
Combat and Boss Fights - 9/10
Aesthetics and Atmosphere - 7/10
Narrative and Worldbuilding - 6/10
Mortal Shell is an interesting package. It features an impressive combat engine with great gameplay and progression, but it’s held back by a pervading sense of déjà vu in terms of the narrative, worldbuilding, and general atmosphere of the game. Ultimately, the choice to give this game an 8 — a mark of greatness in my book — had to be decided by what Mortal Shell really made me want to do. Jump back in once I finish this review, or play more Dark Souls? Sadly, it didn’t quite manage the former.
- Combat and Bosses
- Central Mechanics and Progression
- Some Standout Story Beats and Visuals
- Some Visual Awkwardness
- The Setting Feels Derivative
- Vague Storytelling and Worldbuilding