Mortal Shell is a single-player action RPG made by new developers Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack. In their own words, it will “test your sanity and resilience in a shattered world”. Combat is strategic, deliberate, and unforgiving”. Mortal Shell is another game in the long line of “souls-like” games. The difference between this and previous games who try to deliver on the formula is, Mortal Shell IS a “souls-like” game, just smaller. There are enough nuances and unique features to separate it from its demonic brethren. It’s like Dark Souls has a little brother, a brutal little brother, and his name is Mortal Shell.
Set in the world of Fallgrim, it is already apparent how different it is to other games who take on the Souls doctrine. Where others chose to have their games in very different settings, Mortal Shell could easily be within the same universe. To start with, you play as a weak nameless, faceless foundling whose reason for existence is as yet unknown. The overall objective does seem quite vague throughout the game, except for some conversations you have with a prisoner in the tower asking you to retrieve sacred glands. Throughout the world of Fallgrim you will find all kinds of unsavoury characters that just don’t want you around.
Talking poisonous toads to lute playing emancipated bums, it’s apparent that no one likes you as they are hellbent on reducing your life span to zero. There are also four Shells for you to locate which can be inhabited. These are the armour suits, left behind by previous owners who have unfortunately succumbed to death. Each of these shells their own set of abilities which at a later stage can be, which can be changed on the fly. To unlock the potential of these shells, you have to learn more about their previous inhabitants, starting with their name. Each shell caters to different play styles or classes and you will gain extra stamina or health for each one you inhabit. As you go around slaughtering the occupiers of Fallgrim you will gain Tar or Glimpses. These are a kind of currency to upgrade your current shell. Go and visit Sister Genessa ad you can spend your Tar to gain the necessary upgrades.
It is worth noting that checkpoints are few and far between, so visit Sister Genessa often. She is the equivalent to a bonfire in that respect. Did I mention that you will die, a lot? Well, you will, and you lose all your Tar and Glimpses when you do. My favourite thing about Mortal Shell and what sets it apart from others is the ability to harden yourself. Harden is essentially a block ability where you turn to stone, that will on occasion stagger your foe. This will prove invaluable as you learn enemy attack patterns. Although there is an air of unpredictability with enemy attacks, you will quickly learn to keep your distance, dodge their attack, get a couple of hits in, harden (or parry if the enemy is small), dodge and roll away. And repeat the process.
So what these Shells allow the player is a second bite of the apple. When all your health is depleted, and your weak physical form is knocked out of the shell and you have only a small window of opportunity to retrieve it. But only if you can get back in time and aren’t hacked to bits in the process that is. If you return to the same area where you died, you will notice your previous self, cast in stone. That is yet another bite of the apple you can use to further stay your battle.
The world of Fallgrim is diverse, oppressive, grim yet beautifully macabre. There are sparkling ice caverns and filthy swamps, and you will see it all. Mortal Shell is a game that encourages exploration and you will get lost. In general, the game looks as dark and as downtrodden as you would expect. My hat goes off to the team of only 15 people who developed this game and made it as pretty as what it is. It combines allure with appearance and atmosphere and looks like an AAA game (see what I did there? AAA? Three words beginning with A? Oh never mind).
One thing I couldn’t quite fathom was the addition of a retro graphical mode. Why anyone would want to play this with pixelated graphics is beyond me, but it is there. I did encounter the odd graphical injury as enemies would be seemingly standing partially on an invisible platform, but this was nothing game-breaking.
The audio tonality of Mortal Shell completely mirrors that of its graphical counterpart. There is no heroic music when wandering forest, here is no fanfare when you fell a foe. There is an eerie quietness about it all broken up by the gratifying sounds of crunching the bones of the enemies that literally stand in your way. It makes you feel lonely, lost and exuberant with despair as you wander dispiritedly around.
This is very skill dependent and is derivative of how familiar you are with these types of games. I mentioned that this is sort of a little brother of Dark Souls. Well, a skilled player could spend between 12-15 hours to finish the game. If your a player like me, then you are looking at 20 or more hours. There is also the New Game+ where enemies deal more damage, but the rewards are 50% greater should you fell one. Other changes include that all items and chests respawn, weapons can be upgraded even further and Sister Genessa will now sell Quencing Acid to upgrade your weapons.
This is a very well crafted love letter to Dark Souls. There is a lot of enjoyment to be had here by season players of similar games. Its smaller size and easier combat makes for a really good entry-level game for new players who are just looking for a bit of punishment. What this team of only 15 people achieved on their very first game is nothing short of astounding. It is a gorgeously dark world that takes a familiar combat system and adds to it to make the game stand up on its own two feet. Some fights can feel like a bit of a slog forcing you to air on the side of caution when you face them. Enemy placement can sometimes feel a little cheap where damage taken is unavoidable. For example, when I was crawling out of a hole, I could see an enemy waiting for me but I could not turn back. So by the I had emerged and got onto my feet, id already taken a few blows and was at half health. These instances are few and far between though. It is good value for money, and well worth “shelling” out for.
I award Mortal Shell the Thumb Culture Gold Award
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.