In this Mortal Shell Review we’ll be discussing the new Souls-Like Action-RPG developed by Cold Symmetry, and published by Playstack London. I’ve finished the game several times already, using all of the weapons and Shells the game has to offer. Read on to find out what we think about a game that has many Souls fans holding their breath, hoping for something to satisfy their Souls itch in the absence of Elden Ring and the recently announced Demon’s Souls Remake. Note there will be mild spoilers, as we showcase some of the locations of the game, but we’ll avoid story related aspects.
Mortal Shell Review: Fortes Fortuna Adiuvat
Developed by: Cold Symmetry
Published by: Playstack
Release date: August 18th
Platforms: PC via Epic(Reviewed)/PS4/Xbox One
Price: $23.22 USD (Epic Pre-Order)/$29.99
Story and Setting
The game is set in a fictional universe where you play as a “Foundling“; an otherworldly being that has the power to wear the remains of dead warriors like a suit or skin. These fallen are called “Shells“, and each of the four usable Shells features its own memories and powers that can be unlocked by interacting with the NPC Sester Genessa, who acts much like a “Fire Keeper” or the Maiden in Black.
As players explore the world of Mortal Shell, discover its secrets, and speak to the few remaining NPCs, they will piece together the puzzle of what has happened and uncover the reason for your quest. The story of the game is far from spelled out for you, and I think this is something that Souls fans have come to expect and anticipate with eagerness. If you finish the game and still aren’t sure just exactly what is going on then you’re not alone, and it will likely take the collaborative efforts of the community to sort it all out.
This will be enjoyable for many, and it is a plus aspect for me, however those looking for an easy-to-follow narrative will likely not be satisfied.
Gameplay & Design
Gameplay in Mortal Shell is very similar to other action-adventure RPGs, with players spending a considerable amount of time facing challenging foes and some more time procuring level-up resources and exploring the different areas.
The basic precepts of Mortal Shell are extremely similar to the Souls franchise, and those who are familiar with it will feel right at home fairly quickly. There are light attacks, heavy attacks, dodges, blocks, and parries, and the core combat is roughly the same. Players go about facing enemy after enemy using these tools, all while managing their Stamina and Resolve. Resolve acts as a pseudo mana gauge that players can spend to perform various weapon abilities. Nothing is really ground breaking here, though I did find the Hardening mechanic particularly fun.
Enemies respawn when you die or “rest” at Sester Genessa, and you will collect Tar, which is currency that operates much the way Souls do in the Souls games, and is dropped at your location upon death. Glimpses work somewhat similarly to Humanity, but can also be spent to unlock Abilities and Items, and are not lost upon dying. I get the feeling Cold Symmetry tried to keep the game as close to the Souls formula as possible to attract its fan base, which it has, and strayed from it just enough to put their own stamp on it. A calculated move to be sure, but one that I think they managed to pull off about as well as could be expected, given their limited manpower and budget.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Souls games and Mortal Shell, are the four Shells that players can swap between, each with their own story and skills. Instead of creating your Build via attribute points, players will instead select the Shell they wish to use, which comes with its own set of stats, and then they will unlock its abilities making it more powerful.
Players can change Shells at any time inside Fallgrim Keep (your sort of home base), but what’s really cool is that players can swap these on the fly as well via consumable items. And even cooler still, is the fact that when you die you leave a Shell behind and if you consume it then you will gain a full heal, and it will replace the Shell you are in with the Shell you were using when you died. This allows players some interesting strategies, especially considering there is an item in the game that lets you eject from your Shell intentionally. I’ll give you a second to ponder that…
The game only features 4 weapons to choose from, though each plays in its own unique way, and all are fun to use. This didn’t bother me much, since I generally stick to one weapon when playing any Souls game, but I found myself wishing there were at least a few more to mess around with. If Mortal Shell had 8 weapons or so I would have enjoyed the game a lot more, and it’s unfortunate they couldn’t quite pull this off. On the upside, if they do add new Weapons with a DLC, it will give players a reason to play the entire game again, much like Bloodborne’s The Old Hunters did.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about the combat is that it has room to grow. This aspect alone has such a high ceiling, one that Cold Symmetry didn’t even come close to reaching the top of, that if they were to make a Mortal Shell 2 I think they would absolutely smash it out of the park. Because they nailed the story, atmosphere and aesthetics of the game, we know they can repeat this again in a sequel.
This means that a lot of effort can be placed on the combat and customization without people wondering if they’ll get the other bits right, which unfortunately was arguably the biggest reason The Surge 2 was disappointing. While Deck 13 excels at the mechanics and world building of their games, they have lacked the right setting and immersion to blow fans away. But it’s nearly impossible to think that Mortal Shell 2 won’t be better, and it’s not because Mortal Shell is a bad game. It’s because they excel at the parts that make Souls games so great, and the other stuff (like combat) can be improved with a larger team and more budget.
Exploration & Level Design
The best part of the gameplay is the exploration elements, and delving for secrets in a cryptic world that reminds me a bit of Alice in Wonderland gone horribly wrong. There are so many things to find and discover that it’s easy to get lost and just enjoy the varied environments, and forget about the combat completely. And it would be easy to forget about the combat too, if you didn’t have to constantly fight your way through hordes of enemies at every turn, because there is nothing really memorable about it.
The game world is phenomenally designed, and will have players drawing comparisons to Dark Souls instantly (after the brief tutorial area). Some areas indulge you with so many ways to go and things to do it’s incredibly overwhelming at the beginning, at least until you find your feet. The various locations of the game all have their own look, feel and style, and I was frankly blown away at the sheer size of it all from a Studio that is but a fraction of From Software; especially after a Beta that had me wondering if Mortal Shell would be far smaller than anticipated.
The design choices deliver an atmosphere and immersion that is simply the best I’ve seen for a game modeled in the same vein as Dark Souls, and even rivals the legendary franchise in this regard, only on a smaller scale. Mortal Shell looks stunning in Unreal Engine 4, and I’m not sure you could ask for much more here, even from much larger studios. This is hands down the best aspect of Mortal Shell, and it’s the one that most Souls-Like games get wrong. Time will tell if spending so much time on this facet of the game will pay off for Cold Symmetry, especially when combat is functional but not mind blowing. My guess is that it will…
Audio and Visual
Taking a look at the audio of Mortal Shell first, the music and voice acting are overall pretty solid. I really enjoyed the music in some places, and hardly noticed it in others, but never once did it feel out of place. The voice acting is on point, and adds to the general mysteriousness of the game, and I don’t think players will have complaints here. I do wish there were more NPCs in the game, but that doesn’t take away from the audio that is there.
When it comes to the sound effects, however, I often got confused as sounds would be coming from below or above me but they sounded as if they were right next to me. Generally speaking they were not bad, but they were also not great, and I found myself wishing they had been better.
On the visual front Mortal Shell looks fantastic, and in my opinion, looks graphically better than Dark Souls 3 in a couple places, mostly due to the Unreal Engine 4. I was able to stay over 60 FPS most of the time on the highest graphics settings with a 2080 ti, but there were some drops here and there. The game is a beast and I do worry that some machines will have a hard time running it smoothly, and I can’t imagine how current gen consoles would be able to handle it without a serious downgrade in quality. If you do get the game, I highly recommend getting it on PC for this reason, though I have not played on console myself.
Pricepoint and Replayability
Mortal Shell is priced at 30 USD, which is a fair asking price vs the typical 60 USD mark for similar games. My first playthrough took about 18 hours, and could have taken more if I’d stopped to discover every secret in the game, which is excellent. The production value of the game, however, is not even close to AAA, and I don’t think anyone would honestly expect that to be the case when Mortal Shell was developed by only a handful of people. This means that the cost should naturally be lower than a typical title, and it is.
The replayability of Mortal Shell comes from NG+ and beyond, allowing the player to play again and again with increased difficulty, trying out new weapons and Shells. And while I expect some people will take advantage of this, I think the majority of people will find Mortal Shell to be a one and done, or maybe a two and done game. The variance between Shells is not so much that it’s a completely different experience, and there just isn’t much in the way of weapon variety. This really hurts the replayability, and since there is no multiplayer whatsoever, it doesn’t get marks for having that either. Your second playthrough should take you roughly half the time of your first, which should give you somewhere around 25 hours of gameplay for the average player.
A dedicated lore-seeker and those wanting to indulge in the look and feel of the game will find further enjoyment, as they can spend considerable time searching for the multitude of secrets and lore tidbits hidden about the maps. This is not something I can quantify, however, but if you know you love exploration you should take note that this will be an option.
Mortal Shell (originally called Dungeon Haven) has been on our radar for some time. Back when we first learned of the game, I was not generally impressed with what I saw, and didn’t give the game much of a chance. However, the game has come a very long way since then, and it has created quite an excitement in the Souls community.
With From Software’s public announcement of the end of the “Dark Souls” franchise, and the shocking lack of Elden Ring news, I think many Souls fans feel as though this game is a godsend. Some will complain that it is too similar to Souls of course, but I think there is a fan base that is absolutely rabid for this type of game, and luckily for them Mortal Shell delivers enough to satisfy.
I’m very pleased to say that Mortal Shell was every bit what I anticipated; and any real complaints I have about the game are made modest by the sheer fact that someone out there has finally done it! Another company not named From Software has managed to take the formula and make a game (in 3D) that Souls fans will embrace wholeheartedly. Mortal Shell is not perfect, it is not better than Dark Souls, but at the very least it is a proof of concept that Cold Symmetry can make a game for Souls fans that they might enjoy almost as much as Souls; and that alone is a tremendous statement!
My single biggest complaint about Mortal Shell is that I just wanted more. I wanted more Weapons, more Shells, more Bosses, more NPCs and just more world to explore and get lost in. However, we are talking about a game that costs 30 dollars USD, so I think you can expect that. But the best thing about this complaint, is that all of these things are possible, because Cold Symmetry isn’t going anywhere, and they listen to their fan base.