This Soulslike Is No Empty Husk
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And if that’s the case, Cold Symmetry’s Mortal Shell is no mere love letter to developer From Software’s Dark Souls series; it’s a heartfelt sonnet shouted from the mountaintop, complete with ticker tape and a choreographed dance number. From the moment you take your first steps into the game’s ruined world, it’s clear you’re experiencing a genuine labor of love crafted by Souls series superfans.
In recent years, games like The Surge and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have attempted to shake up the Soulslike genre with their exotic locales and themes. But Mortal Shell is having none of that. Instead, it wears its inspiration proudly on its chainmail sleeve, following Dark Souls‘ dark fantasy formula to the letter with its haunting medieval setting, horrifying monsters, and spirit-crushing gameplay.
Though that’s not to say it’s a mere Dark Souls clone. While Mortal Shell makes no effort to disguise its inspiration, it succeeds in adding a few exciting new twists to keep things interesting.
“A Man Is No More But A Sleeve”
In Mortal Shell, you control a creepy, featureless entity known as “The Foundling.” In your natural state, you’re quite weak, and a single blow from an enemy is enough to strike you down. However, what The Foundling lacks in resilience, it makes up for by being able to climb into the shells of fallen warriors to claim their flesh and powers as its own.
There are four shells in total to discover, each with base stats suited for different playstyles. As you slaughter the ghouls and fanatics that call the swamps and fortresses of Fallgrim home, they’ll drop tar and glimpses which you can use to unlock new, shell-specific abilities.
I found this mechanic to be one of Mortal Shell‘s most compelling features. Effectively having four characters to choose from, I found myself frequent switching between shells to adapt to whatever the game threw at me. If I found myself needing a sturdier shell to absorb more damage or one built around special abilities and counterattacking, all I needed to do was make a quick trip to the crypt to shed my skin, and I was back in business.
Just like its dark fantasy aesthetics, Mortal Shell‘s combat closely mirrors that of the Souls series. Tapping the right bumper unleashes a light attack, while the right trigger performs a slower, heavy strike. Additionally, you can execute dodge rolls and quicksteps to evade enemy attacks or parry them and follow up with a riposte, which, if performed successfully, rewards you with some extra health.
Again, if you’ve played a Souls game before, this will all be second nature to you, but there is one mechanic that makes Mortal Shell‘s combat feel unique. The Foundling can temporarily harden his skin like a stone to absorb an enemy attack. This ability can be performed at basically any time, even while dodge rolling or mid-strike. And once an enemy attack connects with your character in a hardened state, it will momentarily stun them, giving you the chance to make a quick retreat or score a few extra hits. Occasionally you’ll even encounter enemies who possess the ability to harden. Dueling against these formidable foes makes for some of the most memorable moments of Mortal Shell‘s campaign.
Admittedly, this may sound like a little thing. But in practice, hardening adds a satisfying layer of depth to the game’s duels. Not only can this ability save you from certain death, but you can use it offensively, too. I often found myself baiting enemies into striking me when hardened to throw them off their balance before impaling them with the giant spike concealed in the pommel of my sword. The way hardening allows you to mix up your offensive and defensive strategies on the fly is easily one of my favorite aspects of Mortal Shell‘s gameplay.
Hell in The Shell
When not battling crazed cultists or supernatural horrors, you’re going to spend a lot of time exploring the land. While not quite as massive as Dark Souls‘ fictional kingdom of Lordran, the cursed realm of Fallgrim is an interconnected world littered with hidden treasures to uncover and sprawling temples to conquer.
Developer Cold Symmetry did a great job of crafting Mortal Shell‘s eerie world. From murky swamps to frozen caverns and palaces carved from glossy obsidian, the areas you’ll traverse feature plenty of visual variety that helps them stand out from each other. As you explore each area in Mortal Shell, you’ll encounter Fallgrim’s strange denizens who guide you with cryptic messages and peddle wares and key items to help you on your journey.
And speaking of items, the game has a unique way of handling them compared to other Soulslikes. When you first collect an item in Mortal Shell, you won’t have any information whatsoever on what it does. However, as you use items, you slowly gain familiarity with them and learn their effects and maxing out your familiarity can make them even more potent.
Of course, this adds a bit of risk versus reward to the proceedings as you experiment with the consumables you gather as you won’t know if the item you’re chowing down on is a healing item or horrible poison until you’ve taken at least a taste of it. The familiarity system isn’t just restricted to Fallgrim’s flora and fauna. With enough practice, I was able to hone my latent musical talents to become a respectable lutist. Coachella, here I come!
In (Not So) Mortal Danger
Being a Soulslike, it should come as no surprise to learn Mortal Shell packs a considerable challenge. However, it’s a bit more forgiving than many of its contemporaries. In addition to the hardening mechanic that lets enemies’ most devastating attacks whiff through you, the game’s dodge roll feature is very forgiving and leaves you mostly invulnerable.
And when death does come (and believe me, it will), you’re given a chance to redeem yourself. After an enemy lands a killing blow, you’ll be knocked out of your shell to play as The Foundling. From here, you can either continue the fight as your wiry, featureless self or attempt to hop back into your shell for one last attempt before being sent to the game over screen. Given that you essentially have two lives to tackle even the game’s biggest baddies, Mortal Shell feels infinitely more approachable than many of the games that inspired it.
Developer Cold Symmetry has done an excellent job of crafting a worthy homage to the Dark Souls series while adding just enough new ideas to make it feel fresh. Considering a team of only 15 people developed the game, that’s quite the accomplishment. The shell system is a streamlined way of adding plenty of playstyles without forcing you to dump hundreds of points into dozens of stats. And the hardening system is a unique and exciting mechanic that provides plenty of offensive and defensive possibilities. If you have a Dark Souls-shaped hole in your heart, I promise Mortal Shell will climb inside and fill that void quite nicely.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One; Publisher: Playstack; Developer: Cold Symmetry; Players: 1; Released: August 18, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.