Mortal Shell from PlayStack Limited and Cold Symmetry is an action RPG with a particular challenge and difficulty – if you know what I mean. Learn more in our Mortal Shell review!
Stop me if you’ve played this game before. You find yourself in a downtrodden world filled with nothing but despair and pain. You are nothing but a shell of your proper potential. Do you have what it takes to survive in this harsh, shattered world? Mortal Shell will slowly walk you through the controls, showing you what each thing does, while also going over the basics of combat. The game hints that there will be lots of combat, but not enough that it will be the only thing you will be doing. You then come up to what is best described as a “boss” battle, a chance for you to put together everything you have learned so far. Because you are still new to all of this, the boss destroys you without even breaking a sweat, but something tells you that you could have beaten that tutorial boss if only you had zigged instead of zagged that one time.
But wait! That was all part of the tutorial. After that, you can begin the game proper. You make your way into the world, and it is then that you realize that the Tutorial boss is par for the course and that all of the enemies and bosses you will meet in Mortal Shell is out to kill you… and they are very good at it! But with time, and a little bit more confidence – and maybe a bigger weapon and better armor, you can get the job done. You will come across a small sanctuary, where you will meet at least one NPC that isn’t hostile towards you.
If all of this is familiar to you, then you have likely played what is now referred to as a Souls-like game. Unlike other games in this new genre, Cold Symmetry’s Mortal Shell makes no attempt to hide its inspirations, and even the loading screen tips can easily be mistaken for something out of, say, Bloodborne. Quality British voicework would not feel out of place. It’s as if the developers at Cold Symmetry did their homework, learned every aspect of the genre, from the feel of the world to the gameplay elements, and, for the most part, they did an excellent job in putting into practice everything they’ve learned.
You play as an unknown entity who wakes up in a strange land. The first thing you will want to do is find your base. Just like any good base, you can take stock of your weapons, buy items, and buy upgrades to make things a bit easier. The first thing you’ll notice is that your health bar is near non-existent, but your stamina gauge is higher than you will be used to. Just like in any good Souls-like game, the stamina bar is used for combat, evasion, and for running away. You will want to run away, especially on your first playthrough of the game, because in this state, nearly everything can kill you in a single hit. Luckily, you soon discover your ability to possess dead warriors you find along the way.
These warriors can best be described as character classes that can be unlocked as you progress through the game. There are four in total, and each offers a fighting style that feels different enough from the others. For example, Tiel has greater stamina than the others and better dodging abilities, whereas Eredrim has a greater HP pool but lacks more stamina, which allows you to play as a tank o sorts. Regardless of which class you pick, you are able to upgrade the armor using Tar, which is the game’s currency. The upgrades don’t feel versatile to allow for tinkering with the different classes, seeming better suited for you to double down on your chosen class. For example, upgrades for Eredrim focus on you improving your HP pool and absorbing damage, whilst Tiel focuses on mitigating Stamina use. Whilst this does make sense, it sometimes feels as though the game is trying to force you to play in one particular style and not allow you to mix and match.
As well as allowing you to assume better stats, armor also has a second purpose. Upon dying, your avatar is ejected out of the armor you currently possess, leaving you in your original weakened state. If you are able to return back to your shell before you are hit again, you regain your full health. But if you lose all your health with one hit heavy hit, this time you die for real. It’s an interesting gameplay mechanic that creates many tense moments when you are being chased by a wealth of enemies with only a slither of HP left. Having said that, being ejected from your shell and re-entering does have its advantages, especially during boss fights, since recapturing your bloodstain from your previous death not only rewards you with your dropped Tar, it also refills your health, allowing you to switch to a different armor at important moments.
And there are quite a few boss fights to be had. Throughout the map, there are a few sub-bosses you will find scattered along the way. These fights are treated in the same way as boss fights but don’t really feel all that special, which is even more evident when you start to see the same enemy just repurposed for a different area. Another sub-boss type could be classed as a pseudo weapons trainer. Like the armors, there are a handful of weapons to use. Upon finding them, you have to defeat the tutorial boss for the right to use that particular weapon. These fights are not particularly taxing and end up feeling like an unnecessary stop-gap, especially how, after a few minutes of using the new weapon, you end up returning back to your favorites.
But where the game feels a bit of a let down is during the boss fights. The designs are interesting enough, and the same goes for their attack patterns, but the fights themselves feel a little bit off. In other games of the genre, a boss fight is usually accompanied by a music score fit for said purpose. It usually acts as a juxtaposition to the eerie silence you had up until that point, letting you know that this indeed is something serious, but in Mortal Shell, the atmosphere is normally limited to a darkened arena and not much else.
Combat itself is pretty satisfying. Attacks feel weighty, and movement feels as though it is on the right side of clucky, especially when in heavy armor. When you find yourself circling an enemy trying to find an opening for the right attack, everything clicks and feels just right. The combat in this game is definitely attack-focused. If you consistently connect your attacks against enemies, you gain Resolve. Once you gain enough Resolve, it can allow for some additional attack options. For example, after gaining the right armor upgrade, you are able to use a kick action, which leaves an enemy open for even more attacks. Obtain more Resolve, and you gain the ability to unleash a devastating special attack.
It should be noted that your main form of defenses comes from your ability to parry. It is clear this is what the game wants you to do more than anything else because this is where the main rewards are in combat. Pressing the L1 button at the right time will leave the offending enemy stunned and open to a devastating counterattack that also heals a portion of your HP, and, if down properly, can leave the mechanic open to abuse. This is why it’s a little disappointing that other styles are not given the same joy. When not parrying, you can also use Harden by pressing the L2 button at the right time, and your armor gains a shell that can make an enemy stagger, leaving them open for a counterattack… when it works. The game is sometimes prone to glitches where the Harden gameplay mechanic seemingly has no effect, thereby negating its usefulness.
This only promotes the idea that the Parry system is where the most attention went to, and the one the developers want you to use above all else. A thought or two should have been spared for people like me who do not enjoy the Parry and the Harden style of defending and just prefer a well-executed dodge. This may sound counter-intuitive, but, in my opinion, it is the best way to enjoy the combat, especially against some of the bosses and the trickier enemies you face along the way.
Veterans of this genre will find this game a lot easier and smaller than its contemporaries, but that isn’t to say there isn’t a good chunk of game in here for you to enjoy. As mentioned already, the amount of effort put into creating the atmosphere and the labyrinthian world itself is admirable, and the same can definitely be said about the combat. What the game does lack, however, is overall polish.
Played on a standard PlayStation 4, the visuals are strong in their own right, but the excessive use of motion blur is far from ideal. You are given the option to switch it off, but all it does is leave you open to hideous instances of screen tearing and graphical stuttering. Quite a few times, enemies will load right in front of you, springing an attack you were not prepared for. On the other hand, some enemies will sometimes stand by and watch you with no desire to react even when you do everything possible to aggravate them… and all they do is walk blindly into a bear trap that is placed casually on the floor.
Problems are not just limited to enemy AI. The maps are well designed, but they are filled with way too many tight corridors, and this completely messes up the camera, which ends up with you trapped in the scenery, especially if you are surrounded by multiple enemies. In one instance, I was trapped by enemies so hard I ended up clipping out of the map and was trapped in the architecture. This would have completely ruined my save, but luckily I had an item that allowed me to teleport back to home base. This is not the only time where a bad design choice almost resulted in the game becoming unplayable. In one particular dungeon leading to a boss fight, there is a point of no return that is not marked in any way, shape, or form, and, as is, it is entirely possible for you to find your way to it without interacting with anything else. If you go there without the right items, weapons, armor, or upgrades, you can end up stuck down there until you win the fight or restart the game from the beginning.
Having said that, there are a lot of good design decisions made in the game. A particular favorite of mine is the item system. Upon your first playthrough, almost every item you encounter will be an unknown entity, and the only way to learn their effects is to use them. Regular usage with certain items creates familiarity, and eventually, you can gain a true understanding of the item allowing you access to additional bonuses when you use specific items. This system is great since using items has the added effect of being a double-edged sword because you are never quite sure what an item will do. In summary, the game is great fun for those looking for a gentler introduction to the genre, and for the slightly lowered launch price, this is genuinely a fun addition to the Souls-like genre, and anyone who is a fan of this genre should definitely jump on this one.
This Mortal Shell review is based on a PlayStation 4 copy provided by PlayStack Limited.