Mortal Shell certainly took inspiration from Dark Souls or Demon Souls. There’s no denying that. This action role-playing game was developed by Cold Symmetry, a studio founded in 2017 by a team of AAA veterans. Delving further into their website, it appears that this is their first foray into game development as an independent studio. And with what I’ve experienced with Mortal Shell, consider me impressed thus far.
Mortal Shell starts rather abruptly and can be a bit jarring to those used to seeing a meandering cutscene detailing the nuances of the world around them. You wake up in what appears to be a skinless human body of sorts, known as a Foundling, with no physical features of note (like a Ken Doll…if you catch my drift). Immediately, questions arise as to where you are and the accompanying atmosphere fits the narrative of despair and the unknown. You quickly find that your nameless character is able to take possession of other deceased bodies, known as “Shells,” in order to gain different skills and abilities. It is here where the journey of discovery begins.
Mortal Shell’s world is a very bleak and gray, but fitting for the story. One could gather that to simply exist in the world of Fallgrim means a hard existence with very little pleasantries. In short, it’s dirty, but eye-catching. Where I feel it really shines graphically is the character models and their armor, but of equal note are dim torchlit hallways or the dark and reflective obsidian floors.
Controls & Elements
If you’ve played Dark Souls (or Demon Souls), you have an understanding of what the combat feels like. One can’t simply hack and slash their way through Mortal Shell due to limited stamina and health. In fact, the very first enemies you run into can easily wipe you out if you’re not careful. That means one has to carefully plan and become acquainted with their opponent’s attack patterns before engaging. In our protagonist’s combat kit, there’s a light and heavy attack, typical evasion and parry techniques, and even some special moves that do devastating damage to your opponent, provided you have enough resolve, which builds up over time as you strike and parry enemies.
The parry ability can only be used once you receive an item called the Tarnished Seal. As with most games, once you parry an enemy’s attack, they are left vulnerable for a devastating riposte or counterattack. If your player has enough resolve, they can also activate a Tarnished Seal ability, which grants them bonuses such as healing your character, slowing time, et cetera.
That’s all well and good, but what truly makes combat engaging is the ability to “harden” or turn into a rock during encounters. One can harden mid-attack, take a blow from their opponent, causing said opponent to stagger, and then unharden to let the attack follow through. Hardening adds a refreshing dynamic to each engagement, since it’s not predicated only on blocking and evading. You can essentially “chain” attacks together by knowing when to harden, which makes your shell much more dangerous to the evils of Mortal Shell.
As you progress through the world of Fallgrim, you’ll stumble across the bodies of fallen warriors. Each one of these warriors can be possessed by your nameless character, thereby inheriting their specific status bonuses to health, attack, stamina, and resolve. Each warrior has a specific expertise and you can specialize with one character and then unlock more of their abilities. Further, each shell has their own backstory that you unlock as you upgrade the character’s passives (shoutout to the gritty voice acting when unlocking each passive, btw). Very interesting idea and one that adds a bit more depth to the world. There’s also the added ability to swap Shells in combat, making for more diverse gameplay, although I didn’t find myself needing to do that. The only issue I really have is one of the characters, who shall remain nameless, seems to be completely overpowered by comparison. You don’t have to use them, of course, but it can make some battles much, much easier.
The weapons of Mortal Shell are intriguingly teased through visions in an effort to direct the player to their location. There’s only four weapons scattered throughout the game, but each one significantly alters your combat style, mainly due to weapon reach and the speed of your attacks. Your choices consist of a short sword, two-handed sword, a giant mace, or a hammer and chisel. Don’t get me wrong, the weapons do encapsulate badassery, but I would have loved to see more variety here.
There are weapon upgrades and abilities found throughout the game, but most players will probably find themselves gravitating towards one particular weapon because aforementioned upgrades are so limited. In fact, from what I’ve seen, only two of those four weapons can be fully upgraded in one playthrough, leaving two weapons heavily kneecapped by comparison. I personally find that disappointing, but it is simply a design choice. Regardless, just keep in mind that if you’re wanting a weapon with maximum attack, you can only choose two.
Items are a bit more mysterious due to their naming conventions, but you learn over time due to what Mortal Shell calls familiarity. As you use an item over and over again, your character becomes more familiar with it and thereby gains new bonuses or attributes from using said item. Nice touch and keeps you using items instead of simply hording them for a rainy day.
Leveling Up Your Shells
Leveling up in Mortal Shell is a bit obtuse. There really isn’t a traditional level associated with your characters or Shells. Instead, it is based on passives or abilities that can be unlocked for specific Shells by spending Tar and Glimpses, which is effectively Mortal Shell’s in-game currency. The one glaring issue I have is that while Tar is shared between all Shells, Glimpses are not. What this means is you’ll have to farm with a specific Shell in order to go further down their desired upgrade path. You’ll find that Glimpses are much more rare and take time to accumulate, which isn’t exactly great for the pacing of the game. If you’re looking to upgrade a bit quicker due to lack of time, I highly suggest searching around on the internet for viable Glimpse farming locations…
I suppose I like to take more ownership of my character’s stats while playing an RPG, so while the leveling system works fine, I wouldn’t have minded being able to upgrade specific stats like strength, dexterity, et cetera. Again, simply a design choice, so your mileage may vary here.
I won’t lie to you; Mortal Shell can be brutal at times. The initial drop into the game is alluring as you explore and see visions of things yet to come. However, if you get stuck or lost in an area with a similar background, it can take a lot of time to figure out what you need to do next. Obviously, the hardcore will want to figure it out all themselves, but I would highly recommend using the occasional map online (there’s no in-game map) to keep the flow of the game going. I’ll fully concede that the previous statement may just be related to how I view my own time gaming, though. The game isn’t gigantic, but it can certainly be convoluted at times if you have no sense of the world map.
Case in point, I unknowingly went first to what could be deemed as the last area in terms of difficulty, made it all the way to the boss, and was effectively stuck due to not being able to upgrade my Shell any further from a lack of Glimpses. The battle itself just required too much perfection. Now, that would be fine and reasonable as there were other avenues to explore, but the issue is that Mortal Shell’s fast travel is unlocked through what I can only call a completely baffling game design choice. I won’t spoil it, but you can look it up, if need be. I’d wager won’t figure it out either.
I’m of two thoughts on this: On the one hand, the game is mysterious and begins to reveal more of itself as you put time in or choose to read online, which leads to people in the know having more affection for the game. On the other, I do think Mortal Shell can be a bit too cumbersome for those who wish to explore the game themselves with no help of the internet. However, I will fully admit, after utilizing online resources to better understand some of the game’s mechanics a bit better, I do find myself being drawn to the absurdity and intrigue of it all.
Regardless, point was I had to hoof it by foot all the way back to the beginning of the game to reassess, which is frustrating. I really feel like not implementing fast travel from the beginning of the game or making it more accessible is a big misstep here.
Back to the map, though. Once you do realize how the world map is laid out and you rule out some exploration, you realize that the game is actually much shorter due to how the areas are separated. Each main area has a boss or miniboss that you must defeat to obtain an item that you take back to the central hub. Rinse and repeat. That’s either good or bad, depending on how long you want your action RPG to be, but realizing that actually increased my enjoyment of what Cold Symmetry was trying to do here.
New Game Plus
There is a new game plus mode after beating the main game. Story progression resets, but you do carry over Shell progress, weapon abilities, weapon upgrades, abilities, and items. There is also the added bonus of being able to upgrade your weapons further, which as mentioned above, was kneecapped through that first playthrough.
Mortal Shell and its mysteries are an enjoyable ride. I still think going online to find a bit of extra information is helpful when it comes to the pacing, but that depends on how far down the rabbit hole you are willing to go when it comes to the time-consuming process of exploring. Again, making fast travel so inaccessible on your first playthrough is a missed opportunity. Regardless, Mortal Shell is a worthy title in the 2020’s gaming catalogue and sticks out as one of the surprise hits of the year. Looking forward to what Cold Symmetry puts out next.