I’m not a very patient person, I find games which require fast reflexes and precise timing quite difficult – as I’ve mentioned in the past. However, I thought it was time to challenge myself and try out a game within a genre I usually avoid, Mortal Shell, the latest Souls-like brutal Action-RPG from Cold Symmetry on the PS4. Although I haven’t yet finished the game – which is rare for my reviews – I feel I’ve played enough to deliver my first impressions and verdict as someone who sucks at games like this!
Mortal Shell is out now on the PS4, Xbox One and PC via the Epic Games Store, it’s under exclusivity until 2021 (when it’ll be released on Steam). I decided to do my first ‘proper’ Twitch stream on this game on Monday evening, forcing myself to progress as far as I could whilst being watched and judged by random viewers. Within this stream, I was able to defeat my first boss and return to the starting point, past the Golems, in order to feed the quest-giver and gain a new skill – something I’m incredibly proud of!
So, let’s see what I thought of this game, an opinion which is coming from someone who usually actively avoids high-stress and unforgiving games like this…
The story within Mortal Shell is very sparse – or at least it was to me – having the lore and purpose told to you through etchings on the walls and short conversations with the quest-giver. It could be that I’ve not progressed far enough to fully understand the reasoning behind certain things, especially when we had a streaming embargo to not go past a certain point pre-launch, but this is what I ‘literally’ gathered from playing the game…
You awaken within this dark, horrific world as a Foundling, a skeleton-like loose-fleshed being which is about as rigid as a piece of cardboard – one hit and you’re dead, again. Thankfully, this form has a rather unique ability, you can revive fallen warriors and insert yourself within their body, taking full control of their abilities and combat styles. As such, you stumble upon your first ‘Shell’ shortly after being reborn, Harros, the Vassal. After taking over this once mighty knight, you find yourself within Fallgrim Tower, the central building within Fallgrim, a grim land full of fallen undead and horrific creatures.
It’s here that you meet The Old Prisoner, Vlas, and Sester Genessa. The Old Prisoner asks for your help in retrieving three glands from various locations surrounding the tower, glands which he’ll feed on to restore his health and offer an upgrade in return. It’s now up to you to decide what you wish to do next – all three locations can be taken on in any order or you can follow visions to find and unlock the other three Shells. There’s is no hand-holding, no directions outside of the visions, not much help from the other characters other than upgrading and buying wares, it’s your adventure which is waiting to be written…
Mortal Shell is basically Dark Souls in terms of the mechanics, there are a few differences but fans of the unforgiving series will feel right at home with this game. The combat is all about timing and planning your next move so that you can take advantage of any openings you spot within the enemies attack pattern. We also see the (un)welcomed return of things such as bonfires and losing your souls upon death and having to retrieve them (although they’re not bonfires and souls this time around). If you like torturing yourself with very, very hard gameplay via tight and responsive controls, then you’re going to love this game.
The combat, for me, felt very satisfying and accurate, even though I wasn’t very good at it. You can pull off light and heavy attacks, both of which uses up various amounts of stamina, as well as dodge or roll out of the way. As you upgrade your weapons via items you find in this unholy world, you’ll also gain special moves which are much more powerful and even the ability to parry your enemies – if you’re fast enough. Apparently you can perform a parry at any time by hitting the L1 trigger, knocking the enemy back when they try to attack you, but you can counter their attack with a special ‘Riposte’ if you have enough ‘Resolve’.
Aside from your health and stamina meters, you have something called ‘Resolve’ – a varying number of bars which is refilled by killing enemies. Each Shell has its own number of Resolve bars ranging from two to five. If you have at least one bar full, you can parry an enemy then quickly hit R1 to counter with a Riposte, a move which initially restores health but later can do other things such as placing a bomb on the creature it hits. Alternatively, if you’ve unlocked your weapons special move (L1 and R1 together), you can use two Resolve points to perform it. It’s a good idea but I found it takes far too long to fill these bars up.
In regards to the items you can pick up, Mortal Shell deals with these in an interesting way. Every item has an unknown use when you first find it, and you’ll only learn what it does by actually using it. For example, one mushroom heals you, the other poisons you, but you don’t know which until you give it a nibble. The more times you use an item (up to ten times), the more you find out. I particularly loved the lute, for some reason. It literally has no purpose other than sitting down and playing a tune, hoping an enemy doesn’t come up behind you and bite your head off! I found great joy in killing my foes then playing this as I sat on their rotting corpse.
There is one mechanic which is a little forgiving in Mortal Shell. When you lose all your health for the first time, you’ll get thrust out of your Shell as the weak Foundling. If you can get back into your Shell before the enemy kills you (or the Shell left over from your last death) then you get all your health back and one more bash at it. Get knocked out again and you’re dead – unless you’ve used an item that allows you to recover once more!
One of the key gameplay mechanics is the ‘Harden on request’ feature, allowing you to turn into stone and protect yourself from all harm. This ability saved my life countless times – once I started to use it properly. At any point, you can pull the L2 trigger and your Shell will instantly become a statue, absorbing the impact of the next hit which lands upon your body. This then causes the attacker to slightly stumble as you become animated again and counter their stupidity with a few slices, just before you promptly roll backwards to avoid their retaliation! You can even get hard mid-flight or attack, freezing as you swing your sword or are airborne so that once the enemy hits you, you’ll unfreeze and counter them by following through with your pre-planned attack.
This God-like ability comes with a catch though, you can’t repeatedly use it over and over again, you have to allow it to cool-down before you utilise its life-saving powers once more – although the cool-down is only about five seconds. You can further enhance this ‘solid’ mechanic by eating certain consumables which you find lying around on the dank and dirty floor, such as allowing you to restore health the next time the enemy hits you whilst within this petrified state. On top of the brutal and fast reflexed combat, there’s an element of strategy and item management involved as well.
For me, the combat was very satisfying (when I kicked their ass) yet also very frustrating and slow. Now, as I said at the beginning, fans of the Souls-like mechanics within games will love this as it pretty much ticks the box for everything it needs to have in order to be a non-FromSoftware FromSoftware torture simulation game, but it’s not my cup of tea. Once you’ve got the hang of the timings and become one with your ability to parry and get hard on-demand, the game becomes a lot more ‘fun’ and combat feels more natural. However, I found myself running past most of the bigger enemies as I had no chance of even scratching them before dying!
Other Souls-like features
As aforementioned above, bonfires and ‘souls’ are replaced with alternative items which work almost the same way here. Remember Sester Genessa, the mysterious woman (?) who you awaken within Fallgrim Tower, well she is Mortal Shell‘s bonfire. Whenever you become one with the Earth as the evil creatures spank you out of your Shell and then issue the final blow, you’ll get revived at the last embodiment of Sester which you spoke to. Just as usual in games like this one, she is spread out far and wide, often sending you quite far back once you perish. You can also talk to her to fully restore your health but in doing so, every single enemy respawns (another fun feature of Souls-like games).
She isn’t only a pretty ‘face’ though, you can also spend your Tar (Souls) and Glimpses to unlock new passive abilities for each shell. What I liked about these was that you’re not just unlocking abilities, you’re actually unlocking memories and thoughts from the Shell you’re inhabiting, learning more about the body you currently posses – including their name. Tar is quite common, acquiring it as you slay enemies, but Glimpses are rarer and come from killing the bosses and/or consuming certain items.
You can also upgrade your weapon by using items you find within the world back at the tower. There is no levelling up or stat increases within Mortal Shell, so making your weapon stronger or unlocking abilities which makes you go hard for longer are essential if you wish to remain alive for longer than five minutes at a time. Once you’ve reached a certain point, and have unlocked the other Shells, you can even swap between them whilst out in the field, allowing you to strategically swap them around based on the types of enemies you’re about to approach.
Mortal Shell is full of unique creatures for you to slay and return to hell. Each area you venture into has its own set of beautiful baddies, each with its own combat style and weapons. The initial area you start off in has rather low-levelled foes, other than a boss which is right at the start and guarding your first weapon upgrade (I ran right past him and stole it!), yet it still has its fair share of pain in the arse enemies. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, they also take many more hits and dodging if you wish to slaughter them without sacrificing your health!
The bosses are really cool, and by that I mean absolute bastards to defeat. I’ve only personally seen one (and the one guarding the weapon part), but taking it out was very satisfying and made me feel great about myself – even if it’s not that big of a deal to fans of the genre. The one I faced looked a bit like Ganon (Zelda), in all his piggy glory, charging at me and throwing dead bodies which he had set on fire! However, I let down my guard a few times as he rose from the dead after I reduced his health to zero, requiring me to kill him twice in a row (for some reason).
That fight was stressful and raised my anxiety, but after about six attempts I managed to finally take him out – it was the highlight of my stream!
Scattered throughout the world are statues which hold one of the four weapons. Upon reading the book next to them, you’ll be taken back to the tutorial area where you’ll face off against Hadern who is wielding the weapon you’ve just seen next to the book. If you kill this boss, which is pretty hard tbh, then you unlock that particular weapon for all your Shells to use going forward. The only time you don’t ‘have’ to kill him is when you receive the first sword off him at the very beginning, although doing so will net you a trophy.
My excitement and joy at actually killing a major boss within Mortal Shell were short-lived as once I left the chamber, I was greeted with an unusual atmosphere. The Dementors from Harry Potter had appeared, flying around and literally appearing right in front of my eyes, and the enemies were mostly vacant. Sure, the big fat blobs that sit in a barrel of fire were still there, throwing things at me as I ran past them, but the smaller enemies no longer populated Fallgrim.
Instead, I was jumped on and subsequently had my face nibbled by what can only be described as Golem from Lord of the Rings. Mortal Shell calls them Ghouls but to me, they’re Golem-like creatures. These little bastards fall from the sky, run up behind you, gnaw at your face, and all-around annoyed the hell out of me. It seems that once you grab a gland for the prisoner, a great mist falls on the land – just like in the Stephen King book, The Mist. This made my trip back to the starting point super stressful and I almost gave up.
Small hint – I’ve just found out that when the mist is active, all the locked chest you will have seen scattered around the land are now unlocked and ready for you to loot!
I have no idea what this mist actually is or why it appears (although you can ‘pay’ to enable and disable it with a new NPC after you get your first gland), but I imagine it’ll all become clear once you get further into the game – as I said, I’ve only done the one boss so far.
The various locations within Mortal Shell are very dark, grim, colourless, and medieval-looking – just like the Souls games. The murky green trees and grass of this retched land branches out into various other locations which are where you’ll find the glands which you’ve been asked to find, each one slightly altering the visuals and textures used in order to appear different and diverse. The boss I took out was located within the Sanctum of Flame, a hidden chamber filled with fire and stone – it looked great but I had no time for sightseeing whilst being chased by hungry demons.
In terms of the level design, I don’t really have any complaints – there wasn’t any platforming or narrow ledges, it’s a bunch of semi-open locations which you’re free to explore as you try to make it to the next Sester without dying. I did find some of the travelling a bit annoying though, such as going through tunnels. There’s one near the beginning which you literally see enemies spawn right in front of you as you enter it (you can’t go back once you get in). So, as soon as you get out of the tunnel, they jump on you and take off a bunch of your health whilst the game is playing the ‘get out of the hole’ cutscene where you have no control – which is very cheap!
Although the game itself isn’t that big in size, based on the number of areas and supposed completion time of 12 hours (much longer for me!), I thought the enemy and location variety was really good and made the game feel much more exciting as you never knew what was around the corner (it was usually death, my death).
Slide for Regular and ‘Retro’ Mode.
I was playing Mortal Shell on the PS4 Pro and I didn’t suffer any slowdown or framerate issues, which is great in a game like this. I didn’t feel any frame pacing issues either, which usually haunt the FromSoftware titles. I don’t know what the resolution or frame rate is, but it felt like 30fps with motion blur (which you can toggle) and probably 1440-1620p due to the cleanness of the lines. However, even though the pixel count may be decent (it looks great on my 4K TV), there are a number of blurry and low-quality textures used in various places.
As a whole the game looks good, but when I was playing it the other day I noticed a lot of ‘flat’ textures, no reflections in puddles, low-quality ambient occlusion, and some walls were muddy and not nice to stare at (although I don’t know why you’re staring at them!). Today, Mortal Shell got an update on PSN which states they’ve bumped up a few settings and have been refining the visuals – this is the third update since I got the game, each one slightly improving the visuals. So, I imagine they’ll continue to tweak things and push the system as much as they can without affecting the performance.
Now, you can’t pause the game (as the game still plays whilst ‘paused’) and there’s no photo mode, but you can ‘mess’ with the visuals. The developer has added an ‘Indie mode’ to the game which basically applies a pixelated filter over the top of the visuals, making it look like an old-school game – or that’s the impression they were going for. It’s a nice touch (as you can see in our slider above), but I don’t recommend playing the whole game like this as it makes things much harder to see and the HUD/on-screen text also gets pixelated, making it really hard to read. If they updated it so text remains clear, then it’ll be a fun option to use.
On a side note, the game has an option for HDR which you can’t turn on or off, it’s set based on what your console is set to. I had it on at first then disabled when I was streaming and I didn’t actually notice any difference – so I’m not sure if it’s fully utilising the range of HDR or not.
Fans of Souls-like games will love the challenge and unforgiving gameplay within Mortal Shell – those with little patience should maybe give it a miss! For quite a small-scaled game, there’s a lot of variety within the enemy types and locations you have to venture through, making each Gland quest even more exciting. Pick your Shell, your weapon, your accessories, and your skills, what happens next is all up to you as the game has no direction and no strict order of completion, you’re free to do whatever you want – some will find this enjoyable whereas others may get confused and overwhelmed. So far, this is 2020’s best Souls-like game, one which people who love the genre must buy.
Despite not personally enjoying these games due to how stressed out and frustrated they make me, streaming the game on Monday was lots of fun. Yeah, I died a lot and I swore a lot more than I usually do when playing games, but the satisfaction I got for finally taking out one of the main bosses then making it back through the pack of Golems was incredible.
If you’re more into buying physical games, Mortal Shell is getting a physical release on October 2nd 2020. There will be a PS4, Xbox One and PC release (although the PC one is an Epic Games Store code – no disc). This edition will retail at $29.99 / €34.99 / £29.99 and contains the game, a poster and a soft-back artbook. The digital edition is currently £5 cheaper, so it’s up to you whether you want to wait for the physical edition and get the extra goodies, or pick it up now.
Also, if you want to watch my four-hour stream of the first area and taking out the Ganon-like boss, then you can check it out here:
- - For a small game, there's a lot of diverse enemies
- - The bosses are well-designed and horrific-looking
- - Multiple Shells and weapons means you can adjust your playstyle to suit you
- - Although stressful and frustrating, the satisfaction you get taking down a boss is substantial
- - Fairly cheap price for a game which'll last many hours if you're as bad at it as me
- - The game is hard (not a negative), so those who don't like games such as Sekiro, Dark Souls or Bloodborne won't find this enjoyable
- - Very little direction and guidance (again, you may not find this a negative)
- - Some of the textures and visuals aren't that pretty but the team is constantly updating the game
- - I personally didn't like the mechanics of the Resolve meter