Arguably the biggest impact the Soulsborne titles have had is developers approaching their game a different way. Instead of sticking to hack and slash experiences or just giving weapons a realistic feel, there has been a desire to actively push measured gameplay. It isn’t enough to have power or certain weapons, you need to improve and adapt to a wide variety of situations or you’ll fail. Naturally, there needs to be balanced to make this work. It isn’t enough to ask the world of players, the trick is to make it somewhat easy, provided you approach it the right way or learn from your mistakes. When Mortal Shell was announced, it looked to be an interesting take on the genre, ideally offering more than Hellpoint or The Surge. Having conquered the various challenges, did it live up to expectations, or is it dead on arrival? Here’s our Mortal Shell Review.
Taking a page from the games that inspired Mortal Shell, there is a lot of tidbits that explain the world around you. There really isn’t a linear path, just a series of ominous clues and hints that touch on why you need glands, the past of the shells you now control, and why things turn out the way they did. Those heavily invested can find additional clues and if you pay attention to the details there is something of an intended progression, one that better explains everything that occurs, but it also isn’t really important. Ultimately it all builds to fighting a bunch of powerful enemies that need to die so you can complete your task, one that hinges on your skill.
It goes without saying Mortal Shell was heavily inspired by things like Dark Souls, yet, surprisingly enough, I would argue Cold Symmetry doesn’t quite understand what made those games so popular. As explained, cryptic clues and vague details are a staple of those stories, something it does well enough, it’s just how all the core mechanics and details come together to create a disjointed and honestly weird experience.
With no level system, very little in terms of stats, four weapons, four shells, and two versions of basically a one-hit mode, players are given few options. Everything included falls in a very specific spot, one that pushes predetermined play styles or distinct advantages. For example, every shell has three distinct stats durability (life), stamina, and resolve (kind of a resource used to perform special attacks). So, a lot of it comes down to whether you want a larger margin of error for damage or dodging. In both cases, the number is high and it can become non-existent with minimal knowledge of the world.
Another staple of these games, one that is missing in Mortal Shell, is a hard cap on resources. Initially, you’re presented with a small handful of items that do indeterminant things and need to utilize said resources to overcome the difficulty. Aside from not revealing what items do before use, this is a perfectly fine way to balance the experience. However, the main base has a vender named Vlas, who is more than happy to sell you an unlimited number of roasted rats for tar, a resource obtained from killing enemies. On my initial run, I was going for the trophy associated with spending money in his shop and had well over 100 rats going into the final boss fight. To be perfectly honest, the fight was slow enough and the hits were light enough I could’ve legitimately blindly attacked the boss and killed it before running out of healing items. Even if things get sticky, there is an uncommon item called Etherial Diapason that basically gives you another life, provided you live long enough to reach your body. With like four of those, the one you start with, 100+ healing items, and more, it’s hard to believe this is a game built on punishing players. Similar problems come from how the currency and progression are presented.
Every enemy you defeat gives you a resource called tar. It’s what is used to buy the aforementioned rats from Vlas, along with upgrades to your shell. Upgrades require another, the far less commonly dropped item referred to as a glimpse. Often times I would have excess tar and not enough glimpses to afford an upgrade. In my tests, dying dropped tar but not glimpses, so it doesn’t matter if I had 10,000 tar, enough to buy most of the relatively pointless abilities because the biggest limiter will always glimpse. And, even if you lost either, there were consumables that granted both glimpses and tar, making the loss relatively pointless, assuming you don’t want to see how many rats you can buy before you hit a design limit, one that I can confirm at least exceeds 100.
Another way Mortal Shell falls behind is really an internal logic in regard to difficulty. This is best seen with the obsidian dark form and the one-hit mode that follows. When enabled players lose all their health and gain an absurd amount of stamina. To put it into perspective, I can dodge roll 40 times sequentially before running out of stamina and regain it all in a matter of seconds. Due to generous invincibility frames, something I will get to in a moment is enough to honestly transverse insane distances ignoring any and all the difficulty. The amount of error given is getting about 80 percent of the way to the first dungeon and staying alive for maybe two seconds is enough to make it the rest of the way. And, with no shortcuts, I had enough stamina to get from the first dungeon checkpoint to the second doing nothing besides dodge rolling, with it being possible to get to the boss doing nothing besides dodge rolling if you can avoid damage long enough to activate a door.
All of this stuff is forgivable if the bosses offer the challenge players want, yet, they really are unimpressive next to normal foes. With four main bosses and a couple named enemies that you can call bosses if you’re being generous, they simply don’t offer the level of challenge you’d expect from a game like Mortal Shell. No boss took me more than two attempts to defeat and most of them are painfully simple. In fact, I never once changed my tactic, simply due to how simplistic both the game design and bosses are, coupled with the massive margin of error.
Most fights lack difficulty, simply due to how powerful your tool kit actually is. One mechanic I haven’t touched on but is a cornerstone of being successful at combat is hardening. Essentially, there is a skill that lets you take a hit without taking damage, with a decent cooldown. You’re told early on to pair it with attacks, often leading to you doing damage instead of taking it. Due to the way everything is positioned, it creates a rather basic combo loop.
In the vast majority of situations, you can set up an attack, wait for the boss to attack, harden, get hit for no damage, and then dodge roll away. In almost every case, the invincibility frames will save you no matter how poor your timing is. I’ve extensively tested this and found I can get extremely aggressive with any boss and almost always make it out alive as long as I stuck to this pattern. Vastly different than Hellpoint, where I certain encounters forced me to change weapons and armor or The Surge creating bosses that will punish you if you don’t understand their tactics.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Mortal Shell isn’t the illogical approach to difficulty, but the lack of secrets. Everything is presented in such an upfront way, it’s hard to see the reason to chase after small things that offer little to no difference or worry about how you unlock this or see that. Especially when many of the secrets I did uncover were fewer secrets and more I happened to have the right items and now I can do this instead of that.
Mortal Shell Review – Verdict
While I wouldn’t call Mortal Shell a bad game, it doesn’t know what it wants to be and that makes it worse. It’s to the point where I could legitimate see this being developed as an action RPG set in a fantasy world that needed a hook, so a bunch of punishing mechanics were just thrown in haphazardly. Let’s have you drop tar on death but also make it a useless resource or create an extremely difficult mode that can largely be negated by abusing dodge roll. I mean, it’s so bad I quite possibly overcame literally every encounter by using the hallowed sword (initial weapon) and used either a running heavy attack or a normal heavy attack, harden, dodge roll back, wait for resources to replenish and repeat. It’s simply not going to appeal to those looking for a challenge, nor is it going to appeal to anyone who doesn’t care for the tedious elements of this genre. It’s just a shallow experience with some neat gimmicks tossed in a small world. If that is enough you might enjoy it but otherwise, it’s hard to recommend.
[Editor’s Note: Mortal Shell was reviewed on PS4 platform. The game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]