- Release Date (NA): August 18, 2020
- Publisher: Playstack
- Developer: Cold Symmetry
- Genres: Soulslike
- Also For: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Oh boy, another Soulsborne clone!
Ever since From Software released Demon’s Souls way back in 2009, we’ve seen plenty of gamers and journalists alike use the phrase “Souls-like” (even if, in most cases, it’s not remotely the correct term). From games like Dragon’s Dogma or Code Vein to games like Blasphemous or Salt and Sanctuary, it seems everyone wants to get a piece of the pie that the Soulsborne franchise popularized...and Mortal Shell is no different. Mortal Shell is about as close to a Dark Souls clone as you can get: you’ve got your brutal action combat, your extra vague story that’s told via item descriptions and NPCs, and lots of interesting, varied places to explore. Sounds great! But most Souls-like games tend to fail in one of these aspects or another, and unfortunately Mortal Shell doesn’t break this tradition.
Mortal Shell starts out in a dream-like tutorial area, which slowly introduces you to the gameplay mechanics, and perhaps the most important thing about any Souls-like game: its combat. Mortal Shell follows most of the usual format, you have your light attack and your heavy attack, you have your usual dodge, you have your stamina bar, you have your “souls currency” AKA Tar, which can be spent at “Sester’s” who act as Bonfires, and you can parry enemy attacks to do massive damage! But one of the more unique aspects is the block mechanic: instead of blocking with a shield like a normal person, your entire body hardens into stone, which will stop damage from most attacks and will cause most enemies to stagger if they hit you. You can harden yourself at any point (with a cooldown in-between, so you can’t abuse it), including during attack animations which can result in some pretty fun combos and feints during combat. You’ll also discover Resolve as you play, which sort of acts as your “action” points for parrying and weapon abilities. After this tutorial area (which ends with you getting eaten by a big fish for some reason?), you’re tossed into the world, where you’ll discover the second titular mechanic unique to Mortal Shell: The Shells. Instead of creating a character yourself and choosing a class or a build to suit your play style, you start off as a weird kind of skeleton thing, with only a little bit of health (which isn’t particularly useful, since everything will one-shot you). Instead, you inhabit the deceased corpses of warriors from the past, the first being Harros the Vassal, a knight shell that has very balanced stats. You’ll find another three shells as you explore the world, a Scholar with a focus on Resolve, a Paladin shell with lots of health but little stamina, and a Rogue shell with lots of stamina but little health. Swapping between Shells can be done via two main ways, either through items you can loot and pick up as you play, or by heading to the main “Firelink Shrine” like area, where all your Shells and the four main weapons you find are stored in one place. Overall, combat feels pretty ok, if a bit slow at times, and the four shells you can choose between provide a fairly balanced lineup that should accommodate most play styles, which is all quite nice.
What isn’t nice, however, is the lack of healing items in game, and to be honest just items in general. There are no health potions or refillable Estus Flasks for you to fall back on when you’re low on health, with healing instead being from food you loot from enemies/pick up off spawn points, or buy from merchants. The most common thing you’ll find are red mushrooms called Weltcaps, which have dedicated spawn points in nearly every single level, or Roasted rats on a stick, both of which will only heal you for about 30-45 health (while your health bar can range anywhere from ~60-250, depending on your shell) and will only heal you over time and not all at once. You can heal yourself in other ways, most notably with an ability you can use after parrying, but this can be very dangerous if you’re very low on health and you miss the relatively small parry chance that most attacks you’ll face will have. Items in general are also done in a rather unique way. Instead of instantly knowing what items have what effects, you have “Item Familiarity”, which means you have no idea what any of the items do until you actually use them. A good example of this mechanic is the lute that you pick up basically in the beginning, which acts as a kind of tutorial. When you first use the lute, you play like you have no idea what you're doing and it sounds awful. But the more you play, the better you get, and it's much the same with items. In the beginning of the game, I thought this was a neat feature! No longer will you pick up some random item off the ground and just know that “Hey yeah, this makes me slightly faster somehow, great!”. It provided a nice air of mystery and gave you a sense that the player character isn’t from this world or has no knowledge of anything really, and the more you used an item the better its effects! Neat!...but then you play a bit more, and you start to realize that this mechanic is just downright annoying more than anything else. For one, you’ll never know if the new item you picked up will be useful in combat, or harm you in some way. Perhaps the most annoying thing in this case is the “Return to Sester” item you might pick up...which is just a mask of some sort. Nothing about the mask screams “oh yeah, this returns you to the Bonfire Sester!”, the item description isn’t available, so you just have to use it...and lose all the progress you made in a dungeon! Yay! It would be much better if the devs simply added an “identify” mechanic of some kind, whether through an item you can buy or through an NPC, so at least you don’t wind up killing yourself or teleporting back home when you’re in the middle of exploration.
Fallgrim, the world that you get to explore in Mortal Shell, also has its issues. The biggest problem I have is mainly with the initial area of the game, but later areas unfortunately have the same flaw: They look WAY too similar and at times are extremely difficult to navigate in. The first area you explore is just referred to as Fallgram/Fallgrim Outskirts, and it’s a relatively sprawling forest filled with lots of trees and foliage, with lots of branching paths and hallways that meet or separate or go to new places which is totally fine! What’s not fine, though, is that it all looks the goddamn same. Keeping track of which path you’ve gone down and which you haven’t and where this path goes and where that path ends, all without any kind of map whatsoever, makes this game so fucking difficult to navigate that I found the early game extremely irritating to play. To make matters worse, the kinds of enemies that are in this initial area will swap, depending on whether you recently finished a dungeon or not...for some reason? So you can't even rely on the "oh hey I remember this encounter, I should go that way" kind of thing to guide you. Equally irritating is the utter vagueness of the story and the complete lack of direction you’re given to do...anything. After you find the “Firelink Shrine” type area in the beginning, you’re given the task of finding three Glands to give to a huge soldier guy trapped in chains who will provide you with “True Nektar” I guess? Why do you want True Nektar? No idea. Why are you a weird skeleton kind of guy who can inhabit certain dead bodies? No idea. Why do enemies change after you finish a dungeon? No idea. Like Soulsborne games, most of the lore and story are told through item descriptions, talking to NPCs, and from unlocking abilities for each of your shells. Unlike Dark Souls, however, even these descriptions are extremely vague and don’t really tell you much of anything. After I was told to collect those Glands, I was never given any direction as to where any of those things would be. There’s no sign that says “hey go that way to find X dungeon”, there are no NPCs that give you vague “They say Y area to the east has super special gland things” hints or anything of the sort. You’re simply given your task and are left to figure it out all by yourself, and there are no signs whatsoever that you’re going the right or the wrong way. At least in Dark Souls 1 you might get thrashed by the army of skeletons if you tried to go to the Catacombs, or get your ass handed to you by the ghosts you seemingly can’t touch in the New Londo Ruins. Honestly, just a simple map would have solved this problem outright, but as it is you're stuck finding your own way.
- Decent combat, for a Soulsborne clone.
- Fun boss fights, if a tad easy.
- Impossible to easily navigate.
- Item Familiarity, neat in theory but awful in practice.
- Story is way too vague.