A Shell Half-Full Kind of Experience

The Soulslike genre grows bigger and bigger as the years press forward. As the world waits for FromSoftware’s latest inclusions into its tailored genre with the PS5 remake of Demon’s Souls and the “please sir, may I have just a crumb of information” of 202X’s Elden Ring, indie developers have taken the reins to deliver a cup of that good stuff. Now Cold Symmetry has stepped forth with their cup full of the genre, looking to win over fans with the on-cue brutal difficulty and immersion that fans know and love with their title Mortal Shell.

Mortal Shell opens with the player in a fog-covered area, controlling the cold, naked vessel of a being desperate for the opportunity to ascend to higher lands. An old prisoner, near immortal, remains shackled in a broken tower, pleading for a warrior to traverse the lands of Fallgrim and beyond to retrieve the Scared Glands. These glands harness power to allow the prisoner to break free from his chains and help the warrior achieve Ascension. The glands lay hidden deep within Fallgrim’s outer ranges, and a slew of evil and death rests between you and an escape from this land.

But as a vessel, you are weak and frail. While Fallgrim is slathered with adversaries, you aren’t the first warrior to try and leave. Vessels can find the remains of these fallen warriors, and take over their shells, granting the vessels that embody them the power and strength the shells withhold. There are four different shells to acquire, which range from a powerful kingly knight with a deluge of health to take many hits, to fast acolytes that have an abundance of stamina to continually press offense and easily escape. These shells can be individually upgraded with Tar, Mortal Shell‘s “Souls”, that is consumed by the world’s inhabitants, and the glimpses of memories that can be torn from foes to recreate the forgotten past of each shell. When glimpses and tar are spent on upgrades for the shell, fragments of the shell’s history are doled out with spoken reminiscing of the warped past and how Fallgrim became what it is today. It’s a neat method of leaving crumbs of lore to upgraded shells, though if you are like me and stayed with one or two specific shells the first run, you will inadvertently miss out.

These shells have different weapons that are specified to their shell, but can be used with any. Straight swords, mace staffs infused with fire, hammer and chisel for fast continuous attacks, and massive two-handed swords imbued with a chilling ice. Each weapon is given a light and heavy attack, which can be combined together to string damaging maneuvers. While shells don’t carry shields as each weapon needs two hands to dish its damage, Mortal Shell provides a necessary parry and riposte system that can be defensively to sap health from enemies, or offensively to mark enemies to explode, unleashing a nasty AoE finisher to your riposte. Riposting requires resolve, which can be accumulated from consecutive attacks and dodges, and having resolve allows for extra powers for the shell and their weapon.

Weapons can be upgraded by finding certain items through the world, with upgrading being done at Fallgrim’s main hub, Fallgrim Tower, or at the beginning of each dungeon. Each weapon can have their damage increased by applying acid, and your parrying item, the Tarnished Seal, can also be improved. Finding a merchant in Fallgrim can grant you access to the wildly-out-of-place-but-fuck-it-it’s-awesome Ballistazooka. It does exactly what you think it does, and is a blast to use. (Fun note: I went through my first complete playthrough without finding the Ballistazooka, so I had plenty of bolts to mess with on the second run-through. It’s awesome.)

But as powerful as a shell’s offense can become, Mortal Shell‘s style of defense contains an interesting, game-altering inclusion. Instead of having a shield to block attacks, shell can block attacks through Hardening. Hardening blocks one attack, including un-parryable attacks, mitigating all damage, and allowing stamina return while hardened. Hardening cannot be parried or broken in any way. This mechanic could be called life-saving or game-breaking in the same breath. Enemies will stagger when they hit a hardened target, your attack animations will continue when hardened in mid-stride, and the cooldown is short enough to use it multiple times in fights, thus allowing some very slick combos to maximize damage without getting hit. But while games like Bloodborne seamlessly mesh dodging and parrying with a masterful polish, hardening feels like Mortal Shell‘s “get out of jail free” card, and can obliterate the difficulty in areas.

But that’s not to say Mortal Shell‘s combat is bad, because there’s pure enjoyment in how chunky the swordplay is. Once you get the hang of it Mortal Shell plays a decadent dance of knowing how many hits you can pull before either hardening, parrying, or dodging, while also relying on your knowledge of stamina usage. Locking on to an enemy makes your shell take smaller steps, tightening the camera in and focusing on the task at hand. The i-frames for dodging are short, the timing for parrying is tiny, but the moral payoff for a victory is immense. Every hit feels earned, for you and your enemy, and the drive to learn your opponent is prevalent as memorizing attack patterns are necessary to survive. If your health does hit zero your vessel is ejected from its shell, giving you one last chance to make it back before getting hit. If the vessel and shell are reunited a full health bar awaits, but one hit while shell-less or another ejection and it’s certain death.

The tight combat is complimentary to how the world of Fallgrim presents itself. The hub world is a tightly wound forested swamp coated in fog, with tunnels intertwining shortcuts and secret passages, it’s a bleak introduction to Mortal Shell, but it’s understood given that this world is not a happy place to be. Fallgrim hosts three dungeon-like areas, which really flex the muscles of visual treats. Each dungeon takes you to a completely different style of biome: ash-coated temples, dilapidated from time and exposing a festered outer world. Crypts coated in the poison and stench of the crumbled dead, giving way to the frozen mountain tundra that envelopes it. To the sprawling, almost heaven-like open areas of structured metal and rock, with floating spirals and massive archives towering above. If anyone ever gives Dark Souls III shit for it’s weird change of pace in aesthetics Mortal Shell will no doubt give it a run for its money. Mortal Shell is still an absolute treat to look at, and while the combat can feel claustrophobic many of the areas are awe-inspiring, albeit deceptive in their openness.

The hub world of Fallgrim is also well equipped for travel, as the flora and fauna can help with certain shortcomings. Mortal Shell imposes a familiarity bar with the items found, as good items become better with use and some harmful items can become useful. One picked mushroom causes poison damage when eaten, but with enough uses the player can familiarize themselves with the mushrooms’ effects and develop an immunity to the poison it usually inflicts. Need more tar and glimpses? Familiarize yourself and more will be rewarded. Not particularly handy with the simple lute? Give it a couple sit downs and learn your chords to further piss off the locals. It’s a beautiful tactic to encourage item use in a genre that suffers from hoarding, especially when such items are given a very vague description on pickup.

These items will come in use when you come in contact with Mortal Shell‘s bread and butter: the boss fights. While most enemies can be taken care of with a correctly timed harden or by taking 1 or 2 swings and rolling back until dead, the bosses are fantastically done, and some hold ranks as the most entertaining bosses in the genre. Bosses will keep pressure at a breaking point, leaving very few opportunities to heal, and will close the gap if distance is made. My favorite would absolutely have to be Tarsus, The First Martyr. I will not spoil the boss itself because it’s fucking amazing, but the style and substance of this boss is top-notch, and the aesthetic going in is the coolest thing I’ve seen in years. I mean, what do you think you’re going to fight when you see this?

But truth be told, Mortal Shell is not perfect. Actually pretty far from it. The beginning few hours can be a nightmare given the tutorial provides very little explanation or time to practice these brand new mechanics going into a brand new game. If you have trouble grasping the combat Mortal Shell will chew you up and spit you out, especially since there is no linearity upon which dungeon to choose first. It certainly gives off the vibe of playing Dark Souls 1 or Demon’s Souls for the first time, trying new things and slowly learning what does and doesn’t work for your wanted playstyle, but these aforementioned games did this a whole lot better.

New weapons are unlocked through facing a Shell at the beginning of each dungeon, but at first glance, you wouldn’t know until you happen to stumble upon the book next to the shell and be immediately sent to another area for a fight you probably weren’t ready for. If you lose, your tar is left in that area until you can defeat that boss and retrieve (for lack of a better term) your bloodstain, which is killer in the early hours. Granted I do enjoy the idea of earning your new weapons, but some clarity before going in would’ve been super helpful.

Mortal Shell also has a bad knack with visual and world bugs. I was smashed through the ground in a boss fight and was left to fall into oblivion, forcing a quit and restart of the fight. Several times I had the game hard-lock and freeze, resulting in a force quit of the entire program and restarting the game. In one particular area late in the game, I had a visual glitch that was disturbingly bright. Updating graphic drivers, verifying game files, and full restarts of my computer did not fix it, so those 30 minutes trying to fight enemies while getting flash-banged ad nauseam was tremendously off-putting. Mortal Shell can be difficult enough without this happening at a critical point in the game:

^ THE LIGHTS HURT, CLICK AT YOUR OWN RISK ^

Mortal Shell also runs a pretty short runtime at around 12-15 hours, with most of that being used to becoming acclimated with the game’s mechanics and re-rolling dungeons after a hard-lock. A smattering of dungeons and a decently sized hub world is not a lot to offer, even if the price purposely does not resemble AAA numbers. The replayability here is to push for New Game+, where enemies are harder and hardening is not as useful, making the game much more challenging. But with all the weapons and shells at your disposal, the second run through feels less like a gauntlet and more like the quintessential way to venture through Fallgrim.

At first glance I was split on my thoughts on Mortal Shell. It has the bugs you would expect from a smaller indie studio, and the story suffers from hiccups that the genre seems to enjoy crediting as being “creatively vague.” It portrays itself as a tightly wound dungeon crawler that focuses on its unnerving one-on-one combat, but the amount of information was too much at the start and not explained well at all throughout. But once I put my head firmly against the wall and found a combination of weapon and shell I enjoyed, what the game wanted just clicked for me and turned into a fulfilling test of patience and skill that had me kicking myself for thinking otherwise. Mortal Shell is absolutely worth the time, and can comfortably stand as one of the better Souls-like games in the genre.

Reviewed via Epic Games Store.