‘Mortal Shell’ Review (Xbox One) – A Unique and Lovingly Crafted Dark Action RPG

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

Mortal Shell is an often brilliant Souls-Like, created by the incredibly talented team at Cold Symmetry. While not as hard or deep as any of the games in the Souls series, Mortal Shell does manage to usher in a few new ideas while creating a fascinating, yet bleak world of its own.

You begin the game as The Foundling, a lost entity in search of a vessel. Throughout the campaign you will find and inhabit 4 deceased bodies, a.k.a. mortal shells, and use those to navigate the dangerous world of Fallgrim.

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

These bodies can be found scattered around Fallgrim, the central hub of Mortal Shell. With its winding paths and multiple tunnels, Fallgrim is – at first – rather daunting. I spent my first couple of hours confused as to which way to go and what to do next. It wasn’t until after I gathered my bearings, explored a bit, and understood the instinct system – which gives you quick visions of paths to take to unlock shells and weapons – that I began to get a grasp of what the game wanted me to do.

There are four shells: Harros, The Vassal, who serves as your starting shell and is all around a rather safe choice for players. He has average health, stamina, and resolve. Other shells you can inhabit include Solomon, The Scholar, who is essentially a better version of Harros with medium health and stamina, but a bit more agile and has a large amount of resolve; Eredrim, The Venerable, a huge and powerful shell with an absurd amount of health, but unfortunately marred by extremely low stamina and resolve; and finally Tiel, The Acolyte who has a small reserve of health but an incredibly high amount of stamina and a low amount of resolve.

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

Each shell features completely different play styles and allows for players of all types of find their perfect counterpart. While the shells can be upgraded a bit, their health/stamina/resolve rarely can be increased so players must learn the pros and cons of each shell to make use of their unique abilities.

While health and stamina are pretty self explanatory, I suppose I should take a moment to mention resolve. Resolve is built up as you attack enemies and can be used to unleash powerful special abilities for your weapons. These can turn the tide of a boss battle or help out when swarmed, which can and will happen often throughout your playthrough. While you do not necessarily have to use resolve, access to resolve abilities no doubt comes in handy and without them I’m not sure I could have beaten the final boss.

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

The most unique aspect of Mortal Shell is that it can be approached from essentially any angle. There is no pre-determined path that players must take and the game never pigeonholes you into any one shell or weapon. You are free to play the game however you choose. Want to make the game harder? Fight your way through as only The Foundling, never picking up any shell. Only care about the base weapon? Then don’t bother with any of the optional fights to unlock new weapons. Enter an area and don’t want to complete it first? Turn around and head into a new area instead.

Surrounding Fallgrim is three levels, or areas, each with their own unique theme. None of these levels are harder than the other, so players can tackle them in whichever order they see fit. At the start of each area is Sesster Genessa, who serves as your save point/upgrade hub. Near her is a work bench to improve your weapon and a book which you can read to summon a boss who holds one of the three unlockable weapons. These bosses put up quite a fight, but unlocking a new weapon is usually worth the trouble. Although, I’ll admit, I stuck with my starting weapon throughout my entire playthrough despite unlocking everything else.

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

There are four main weapons and one long distance weapon. You begin your journey with the Hallowed Blade, and later can unlock the Smoldering Mace, Martyr’s Blade, and the Hammer and Chisel. There is also a Ballistazooka, a bolt gun of sorts, which can be unlocked for a rather hefty fee from a merchant in Fallgrim. I unlocked this weapon so late in the game that I never really used it, although I can see how it’d come in handy to help pick off distance enemies in a few of the trickier zones.

For those familiar with the Souls series, Sesster Genessa is essentially your bonfire. She allows you to use Tar and Glimpses to upgrade your character and is where you’ll respawn if you are cut down enroute to the boss. Tar is dropped from every enemy you defeat and can be found in various loot throughout. Glimpses are found far less often, but are essentially glimpse into your character’s previous life. Enemies do sometimes drop them, but more likely you will find them in chests or from the tougher mini-bosses. Each skill you unlock grants you another tidbit about your character’s back story, providing a little lore while still keeping the mystery surrounding each character.

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

Like Souls before it, if you die you will lose your collected Tar and Glimpse and must make it back to your shell before dying again or risk losing everything you’ve gathered. Unlike Souls, you have essentially two chances before having to restart an area. When you lose all your health you are knocked out of your shell and reduced to only The Foundling again. The Foundling can only take one hit before dying, but you have a chance to reclaim your shell. If you successfully reclaim your shell without being hit, then you get another full health bar. If you lose your health again though, then you must restart the area.

This is a unique system and adds a bit of levity, especially to the boss fights. Knowing that you have two chances to survive takes a bit of the pressure off, although in no means makes the game any easier. Bosses are tough and have two health bars as well, so the odds are never stacked in your favor.

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

Fights are fairly slow and methodical, as you are constantly rushed by multiple enemies. I enjoy a challenge, but I do feel that many fights are rather cheap – with archers having perfect aim from incredibly long distances and enemies constantly lying in hiding to ambush you. There were countless times I was attacked by multiple enemies I could not even see and quickly got staggered and had to just endure  a beating from all sides. While this is not so bad in later stages of the game, early on it makes exploring Fallgrim incredibly daunting.

Essential to fighting is learning how to use your Harden ability. Harden allows your character to turn into stone and withstand one hit without damage. You can harden at any moment – mid swing, while rolling, etc – and use the knockback from the enemy hitting your hardened body to get in a few quick swings. While incredibly useful, this ability is almost relied on too much as many fights become a routine of running jump attack, landing a few swings, harden to stagger the enemy, let out a few more swings to finish him off and then repeat. It’s a cool concept, but by the end I had hoped for more of a standard block which could withstand multiple attacks – especially when I was surrounded.

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

Aside from hardening, you must also learn to master how to parry and riposte. This is your main source of health regeneration, as weltcaps and roasted squirrel – the two main consumables to restore health – are few and far between and restore very little health. Weltcaps can be found scattered throughout and regenerate every five minutes or so but only restore 35 hit points of health. Roasted Squirrel can be found occasionally or purchased using tar. I found myself constantly frustrated with lack of health and having to wait for weltcaps to regenerate. I never quite mastered the parry and riposte, so I could not take advantage of that health system often and normally ended up losing health attempting it rather than gaining any.

Of course, that was my fault. I should have taken more time to master the system but I have never played the Souls games that way and had a hard time bringing myself to use this technique here as well.

Mortal Shell features a unique familiarity system for all items. The more you use an item, the more detailed information you learn about it and the more useful the item becomes. Weltcaps restore less health and more slowly at first, while tarspoors poison you are first but eventually grant poison resistance. It is an interesting system that I’d love to see implemented more often in games. There’s quite a thrill stumbling upon a new item and using it to find out what it does, it’s not something I remember occurring in any other recent games.

Photo Credit: Cold Symmetry / Playstack

If you decide you do not like your current shell or weapon, you can switch them out at any time at the central Fallgrim hub or using effigy’s and items found throughout. The items allowing you to switch between weapons are unlimited, but switching between characters when not at the hub does require effigies which can be purchased or found.

I greatly enjoyed my time with Mortal Shell, although it is unfortunately rather short at around 15 hours. I think there are some great ideas at play and I hope that the game will be expanded with DLC or eventually a sequel where the talented crew at Cold Symmetry and Playstack can expand upon their unique ideas and world to create a true masterpiece. As it is though, Mortal Shell is an enjoyable romp through a Dark Souls inspired world full of creepy enemies, foreboding locations, and lore. At only $30, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy on Xbox One, PS4, or PC today digitally. For those who prefer physical copies, there will be a physical release in October.

Special thanks to Cold Symmetry and Playstack for providing Fandomize with a review copy!