Mortal Shell Review – Get Hard
Developed by Cold Symmetry
Published by Playstack
Available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One
Whenever a new landmark title shakes the very foundation of gaming like a mighty Elephant God wading through a city of non-believers, a wave of false prophets and lesser deities will attempt to stake their claim within its mighty wake. It’s a smart move, as this earth is simply littered with cash dollars that hungry supplicants are willing to give in tribute to whatever cult promises them shiny new content. Developers dream is that their game will be one of the rare few that become the new dominant force in the kingdom. Fortnite took the crown from PUGB, which in turn had taken it from DayZ. Hell, even if the game doesn’t take the coveted top spot, there’s still plenty of money to be made from the millions of fans looking to try something new. However, most of these games will simply be lost in the swarm, their only lasting legacy to populate click-bait “listacles.” While many have tried, none have yet taken the Soulslike crown from From Software. Is Mortal Shell here to dethrone a God, or is it simply future #7 on the list of, “Dark Souls Clones You Never Knew Existed”?
It’s the latter. Mortal Shell is nowhere near attacking, let alone dethroning God. But not for a lack of trying. To their credit, Cold Symmetry did try out some new things. There are plenty of bits and pieces of Mortal Shell that are genuinely brilliant. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Cold Symmetry had neither the experience nor resources to properly execute their own ideas.
As is mandated by Soulslike law, Mortal Shell puts you in the shoes of an unknown blank slate protagonist as he ventures forth into a mysterious hostile world with only the vaguest of objectives. One area where Mortal Shell definitely dominates the source material is in the blankness of this blank slate. Not only is your protagonist nameless, but skill-less and technically body-less. Rather than leveling up and equipping ever stronger armor/silly hats, the empty vessel instead inhabits the bodies of the dead. These titular shells serve as your armor, class, and skill tree all rolled into one.
The only unique trick the empty shell itself possesses is the ability to get hard. At any time you can press the harden button to cover your body with stone and deflect the next enemy blow. This is easily the best part of the game and most innovative change to the Soulslike formula. Hardening isn’t limited to a simple defensive tactic, as you can harden mid swing to keep your combo going. Managing the flow of combat and deflecting attacks at the perfect time with your harden is truly exhilarating. There’s really nothing that matches the feeling of landing the perfect series of strikes to open your opponent’s guard, harden to deflect the counter attack, and then lay on the last few swings to stagger into another combo. This is the kind of shit that makes the ARPG so satisfying for millions of fans across the world.
Unfortunately, every other aspect of the game ranges from simply disappointing to downright infuriating. The game’s core great ideas are woefully underdeveloped. When I heard of the body swapping, my mind envisioned a Kirby’s Dreamland style Soulslike adventure. Instead, there are only 4 bodies in the game to inhabit. While I can understand needing to limit the number of shells, four is woefully insufficient to make the mechanic meaningful. The shells each have their own set strengths and weaknesses, and each has their own skill tree to unlock. But the variety between the shells isn’t sufficient to justify swapping them out. If you like playing fast characters, go with the fast shell. If you like heavy characters, go with the heavy shell. If you like spamming abilities, go with the ability spam shell. If you like vanilla pudding, go with the starter shell. The game never forces you to switch through any kind of puzzle or combat challenge, and there are no unique abilities that would ever make running back all the way to the base to swap worthwhile.
There’s even less variety in Mortal Shell‘s paltry arsenal. There are only four weapons in the game. Theres a sword, greatsword, mace, and hammer/chisel combo weapon. The two swords and hammer all function like various different weights of a typical “heavy” Soulslike weapon. The hammer and chisel is the only fast attack weapon in the game. While the starting sword serves as the middle-ground weapon, the long windups and meaty heavy attacks would firmly put it into the heavy weapon category of any other ARPG. To make matters worse, the greatsword and mace have functionally identical special attacks. One covers the weapon in ice, the other with fire. It’s the least exciting way to give a weapon some flair.
The sole exception comes in the form of Mortal Shell‘s sole ranged weapon: the Ballistazooka. This might be the single greatest weapon in gaming history. Rather than go for the typical assortment of practically useless ranged weapons endemic to other Soulslikes, the lone ranged weapon in Mortal Shell is a portable ballista. The hefty contraption takes a few seconds to take off your back to aim, and about three times that to reload. Upon connecting with most enemies, it will instantly transform them into a balls-tighteningly satisfying red mist. Limited ammo and the aforementioned ridiculous reload times make the weapon somewhat balanced, but who the fuck cares. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It takes a shit load of experience to buy it, but is well worth it for the simple pleasure of turning bad guys into meaty chunks.
This anemic design with rare flashes of brilliance extends to the rest of Mortal Shell‘s world. The game starts you out in a swamp reminiscent of Dark Souls 3‘s cemetery of ash. Once you get to the Firelink Shr… I mean, main hub, an imprisoned bird monster gives you the task of hunting down three different MacGuffins. These are each at the end of three different dungeons, guarded by one boss each. The dungeons are all at various corners of the swamp, roughly six enemy camps away in any direction. Each dungeon takes 1-3 hours to complete depending on your skill level. This is the entire game. I’m serious. All of Mortal Shell takes place in an area smaller than the New Londo Ruins. What’s more, there’s barely anything to explore. There are very few hidden secrets and no puzzles. Every zone boils down to just a series of encounters in long hallways. There’s hardly any verticality to the map. The flash of brilliance to counterbalance the short levels is a shadow realm you enter whenever you get one of the game’s MacGuffins. The journey out of the dungeon presents a new mix of enemies and encounters. It’s not strictly more difficult, just different. Still, there’s no reward for actually clearing out any of these new enemies. You quickly learn to just sprint past them and back to home base.
If the environments weren’t enough to bore you, the lack of enemies certainly will. By the most generous of accounting, there are 21 different foes in Mortal Shell. Many of these are just slight variations of others. It’s more like 16. Each enemy has two, maybe three attacks. Memorizing attack patterns is trivial. This is nowhere near enough enemies to keep things fresh. For comparison, Bloodborne has 11 enemies in just the first zone.
The scope issue of Mortal Shell is clearly a function of time and budget. The few well designed areas (the ice cave in particular) shows that Cold Symmetry knows how to create interesting levels. Similarly, enemies like the large swamp bandit prove they can design decent enemies. The bosses are also all exciting, if not a bit weak. If given 300 million more dollars and 3 more years, I’m sure they could have created something far more worthy of the core concept. This all falls into the umbrella criticism of being disappointing. I can forgive disappointing. What I cannot forgive are the game’s handful of mind shatteringly terrible design decisions.
I haven’t really talked about the combat yet aside from the hardening. That’s because it’s pretty unremarkable. A lot of people are complaining that it’s too clunky, but to me it felt fine. Not great, just fine. What is not fine is the parry. This might be the worst parry in gaming history. The window to parry an attack is maybe 1/4 of a second long. I’d say closer to 1/8. I spent hours trying to perfect it, and by the end I could only pull it off with 30% certainty. Now I’ll admit that I’m not the best at timing these kinds of things, but I’ve managed to master it in other ARPGs with twice to three times that success rate. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t your main source of healing. Rather than a set regenerating healing item, Mortal Shell opts to have you heal through the parry. It’s cool idea to tie healing to combat. Bloodborne did a similar thing with their rally system. However, tying the healing exclusively to the parry means that your ability to heal is only as good as the parry mechanic. And as I stated, the parry is dogshit. So you end up going through most of the game barely ever healing aside from these little collectible mushrooms that heal about 1/4 your health bar over 30 seconds.
Never healing sounds like any sane and rational gamer’s worst nightmare. This blow is softened somewhat by Mortal Shell‘s.. idk what clever thing to call it. It’s basically the same system as Sekiro. Taking lethal damage knocks you out of your shell and into your lanky spirit form. Any damage in this form kills you. If you can pop back into your shell, you get your full lifebar back. If you die again, it’s back to the checkpoint. This extra chance doesn’t regenerate unless you have a specific skill. This skill is present for each shell, but must be bought independantly for each shell. I cannot fathom why they would do this. Locking away an ability that makes the game baseline playable is a dick move. Locking it away four times is absurd. There is no good reason why unlocking the skill once doesn’t unlock it for every character. It just further deinsentivises you from trying out different shells, which I will remind you is Mortal Shell‘s main selling point.
Mortal Shell is a collection of genuinely brilliant ideas that (save for getting hard) all fail to land. It’s clear from the jaw dropping visuals that Cold Symmetry are a talented group. And with only a $30 price tag, it’s reasonable to expect a less robust experience. I genuinely like seeing a small studio trying to tackle such a leviathan of a genre. But there’s just too much wrong with Mortal Shell to recommend it. It’s a fun little game if you’re a huge fan of Soulslikes and want to try out something a little experimental. Anyone else will find the game either too short or not polished enough.