It’s confession time. I’ve never touched a Dark Souls game in my life. Why am I mentioning this game franchise at the start of a game review that isn’t in said franchise? Well, for those of you that have put yourselves through the Souls wringer before, Mortal Shell will feel like coming back to your very dark, disturbing, and dangerous home. But for me, it was an interesting glimpse into this world that only resulted in one rage slam of my controller… in the first hour at least.
The game starts you off with the obligatory tutorial level, walking you through all the controls you’ll need to attempt staying alive. It also does a great job of setting the tone of this game from the get-go. You’re an ethereal looking pallid humanoid with sinewy limbs and a smooth face, walking through a shallow layer of water amidst a building in ruins. A fine mist covers the area really adding to the nightmarish atmosphere of this opening level.
As you move through each section, you meet a different foe for you to practice a new move on. Once you’ve performed it correctly, the foe disappears, and its time to move on. The final fight is against some dude with a huge sword, and it seems you are not destined to win. When your health gets to a certain point, he also disappears, and you are swallowed by some kind of strange creature that appears from the water, ending the tutorial.
When you awake, you’re inside the body of the now long-dead creature and you must crawl your way out to freedom. As you emerge from the carcass, you come across the corpse of a Knight and find your first Shell to inhabit. A quick look at the menu shows us that there will be four different shells to inhabit in this game, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. The first, the Knight, is a sturdy all-round fighter which makes it perfect for your first few sessions. Next, you find a more wily fellow who is better at sneaking around and throwing out faster light melee attacks against your enemy. As you’re not able to simply switch between shells as you please, there is a large planning aspect to making sure you’re able to face your enemies in the right shell.
Now, the real fun can begin. And by fun, I mean its time to learn how to play the lute.
Now this isn’t exactly a requirement for the game, and I still don’t know if it will ever come in useful, but I’m nothing if not an opportunist so I wasn’t just going to let that lute lie there unplayed.
This does lead me into an interesting point about how items are used in Mortal Shell though. With a lot of the items you pick up, you don’t know what those items will do until you use them. You’ll also learn more about an item’s abilities the more familiar you are with it (ie, the more times you use it). I like that this adds even more mystery to the game as you have to just roll with it and decide when to try out whatever you find, hoping that you made the right choice.
The combat in this game is where the learning curve really kicks in. The first time I played this it took me an hour or so to reach the first goal area of the hidden statue. My second time around? 20 minutes. And for someone as terrible at gaming as I am, that just shows how many possibilities this game will provide, especially for those that are better-versed in this genre.
You have two basic attacks, a light melee, and a heavy melee. Pretty standard stuff. The more unique ability to Mortal Shell is their Harden ability. When activated, your shell freezes in place and attacks will bounce off you instead of dealing damage. Time this right and you can even send them reeling. Combine it with a melee attack and you can really do some damage.
Once you complete the first short section of the game, you’ll get access to a parry ability that allows you to turn an enemy’s attack back on itself. This makes a huge difference to combat and really makes it easier to just, not die all the time.
As with other, similar games, the enemies in Mortal Shell are powerful foes. Just a few hits from them and you’re toast. So learning how to best utilize your dodge, harden, and parry abilities are the key to surviving long enough to progress.
There is no long overture to this game offering backstory and exposition so you know where you stand. You’re simply thrown head-first into this strange and brutal landscape and left to fend for yourself. This means though, that you get to discover the lore and mysteries of this world for yourself. As you progress through, you will find stones bearing cryptic passages giving hints to this world, and characters you meet will help you fill in the blanks as well.
At this point, I haven’t delved too far into these story elements as getting to grips with not dying every few minutes has taken most of my energy so far. Although, this reflects more on my gaming ability rather than the game’s difficulty I’m sure.
The premise of the game is more than enough to get you invested in what this lore might be though. Who, or what, are we? How can we inhabit these “shells” and why would we? What is our goal here? I know I’ll be playing more over the coming weeks to find out. So they’ve done an excellent job of drawing you into this world.
For a team of 15, the folx at Cold Symmetry have produced a game that holds up, even by today’s insanely high standards. The graphics may not be the 4K ultra-slick kind of offerings we see in big-name AAA titles, but they still manage to capture the mood of each scene and don’t detract from the game at all. The gameplay is intuitive and easy to pick up, and the difficulty level seems just right to be that perfect blend of fun and frustrating. Sure, you may have a few rage-quits in your playthroughs, but that makes the pay off of succeeding even better when it finally happens.
It’s safe to say I’m a fan. And, after playing through this, I might even be tempted to dip my toe further into the genre and finally get hold of Bloodborne. A big thumbs up from me, and I look forward to dying plenty more times in the coming weeks.