It seems the SoulsBorne genre is becoming quite stuffy nowadays, with each studio that clearly admires and respects the super popular innovative games that FromSoftware bear upon us releasing carbon copies of the mechanics that the Dark Souls series made famous. The market is getting full though. With the likes of Nioh, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and even the most recently reviewed Hellpoint, you can see how developers are trying like crazy to add and alter different features in their games to prevent them from becoming straight-up rip-offs. Cold Symmetry’s Mortal Shell is the most recent SoulsBorne release that travels along the same vein as the titles mentioned above. At its core, it is Dark Souls through-and-through; however, there are some slight differences that make it a little different, but it’s certainly one of the most Souls-like I’ve ever played out of other…err…Souls-likes.
In Mortal Shell, you awaken as an unnamed being in the grim and bleak land of Fallgrim. You’re soon gifted with a hefty Claymore before being unleashed upon the world. Well, not so much unleashed, more like the world is unleashed upon you. Mortal Shell is no joke. As with its clear-cut inspiration, Fallgrim and the areas that follow are unforgiving in every sense of the word. A single enemy can cut your journey short, multiple enemies can make your bum nip so hard you’ll be raised an inch above your seat. The enemies are nicely varied too. From poisonous frogs and lute-playing grunts to hulking hammer-wielding units, there are surprises around every corner that will question your sanity.
Fallgrim is a foreboding place, but it is not short of spectacle. The starting forestry oozes a creepy sense of the unknown, but you soon progress to otherworldly monolithic citadels and catacombs, with each new area bringing that same feeling of dread as you progress with utter caution. Mortal Shell ticks every box in the how-to-be-like-Dark-Souls manual when it comes to its environments, it’s easily the closest game ever to capture the atmosphere of its source material.
In your unnamed husk form, you’re no match for the nasties that wander Fallgrim; one or two hits will end you quickly. This is where Mortal Shell differs from Dark Souls. You soon come upon a doomed knight slouched where he was slain. Activating him allows you, as your husk form, to possess the knight’s slain body to use as your own, with the knight’s strength, durability and stamina coming with it. There are four Shells to find in the starting area, which is subtly explained to you through scripture you will read scattered around the forest, the first of which is Harros, a knight covered in plate mail who comes with fairly balanced stats and plain-Jane perks. Next is Solomon, The Scholar, who has low stamina in favour of higher durability, but he has the best Resolve, which is a resource that allows you to perform special attacks or parries; Tiel, The Acolyte has high stamina but the lowest health, and finally Eredim, The Venerable, the coolest looking Shell, has the lowest stamina but the highest health.
Not only does each Shell sport different stats, but they each have their own perk trees, which firstly need to be unlocked via Mortal Shell’s answer to bonfires: Sester Genessa, a friendly NPC who acts like a bonfire and Firekeeper all in one. She can unlock your Shells’ perks for you in exchange for Tar, a substance that is used as currency, and later in the game she can exchange Glimpses (another type of currency) to purchase items from her. Once you have unlocked your Shell’s identity, the perk tree opens, but each Shell’s identity must be unlocked to see their own unique perk tree. This encourages you to use and experiment with each of the four Shells and find which suits you and which is best to use in certain situations. The biggest challenge is that once you have chosen which Shell you want to use, you can only swap to another by using special in-game items, which aren’t very common, or activate them in their tombs located in Fallgrim Tower. My personal favourite of the Shells has to be Tiel. He may be the weakest of the four, but his stamina is impressive, allowing you to get in a fair amount of attacks before having to retreat to recover. Using the dodge button also sees him briefly disappear, which comes in very handy during the game’s many tough-as-nails battles. Tiel became more enjoyable to play as when I further unlocked his perk tree, which allowed me to sprint without using stamina and having the chance of enemy attacks decreasing my stamina instead of health. The other Shells have different abilities to unlock, but I won’t spoil the surprise.
Another unique function in the game is the ability to harden. Instead of blocking, your Shell can harden to absorb any single enemy attack; this may sound feeble considering how punishing the game is, but performing this skill can interrupt enemy combos, allowing you to get in some vital blows of your own. You can harden at any time, even while performing attacks, which increases the combat possibilities even further. The catch is that once you use harden, it needs to be cooled down in order for you to use it again, and it can only absorb a single attack from a single enemy.
Now, it’s not all good in Mortal Shell, I do have some complaints. Although the entire experience is one of the most Dark Souls-like games I have ever played so far, I do feel that some of the enemy placements and numbers are pretty cheap. I feel that the developers may have been over-excited when they chose where to place enemies and how many of them. Dark Souls felt tough but fair when it came to facing enemies and how many of them you fought at one time, but Mortal Shell can feel claustrophobic as it is too easy to become overwhelmed due to enemies being placed too close together. A perfect example of the placement issue is when I needed to ascend a thin pathway that spiraled upwards; the pathway was barely big enough for me to go up, and to my dismay, I found an enemy placed dead centre forcing me to engage without falling off. Now, I know hardcore Souls players will no doubt love the challenge, but I often found myself running away from groups of enemies as there were too many for me to face in a single area, meaning trying to manage them as I used to in FromSoftware’s masterpiece, I found more enemies joining the fight as I backed too close to them.
Mortal Shell is the closest Dark Souls experience you will find so far. It captures the atmosphere beautifully and provides a similar brutal challenge with a few unique differences to make it stand out. It’s a love letter to the franchise that all Dark Souls fans should play.
Developer: Cold Symmetry
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 18th August 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Mortal Shell was provided by the publisher.