|PLATFORMS||PC/Steam, Xbox One, Playstation 4 (Reviewed)|
|PLATFORMS||PC/Steam, Xbox One, Playstation 4 (Reviewed)|
Have you played a From Software-made Souls game before? If you have, then you know exactly how vague and light they are on most story content. Most of it is down to item descriptions giving insight into the overall world more than actual plot progression.
That’s what you’re in for with Mortal Shell. There’s very little full on direction given to the player. You’re given an ultimate goal – collect the Sacred Glands from the various temples around Fallgrim – and then sent on your merry way.
You can get little bits and pieces from Sester Genessa, who also acts as your level-up lady/vendor, but don’t expect any kind of cutscenes or proper lore dumps to be handed out to you. It won’t happen.
Now, while I don’t have a problem with this kind of storytelling – it’s what I like about the Souls/Bloodborne series – the FromSoft games do something else that helps the world feel more believable.
The NPCs that you meet along your journey help to flesh out what little bit of story the FromSoft games have. They tend to have their own little quests that you can work on while also offering various services to you. Be it training in a stat or acting as a vendor for spells/abilities.
That’s not really something Mortal Shell does. There are a handful of NPCs you can meet in the various areas of Fallgrim, but most don’t do anything for you outside of some flavor dialogue here and there. Maybe a small quest to bring them an item or 2.
Ultimately – the goal of collecting the glands is all you really get to drive you forward, as well as your own interest in finding out more about the world of Fallgrim.
The game looks good running on Unreal 4. I wish it ran at 60 across the board, but at least the framerate is fairly stable at 30. I never noticed it dip.
Now, while the game looks good, it does have some issues with character. Color palettes are very muted in most places – it’s not a vibrant world. It’s Bloodborne more than Dark Souls in that regard.
What this can sometimes lead to – since the most prominent color in the game seems to be black/deep gray – is your character kind of getting lost in the environments. All of the Shells, with the exception of the base Foundling, have armor that is some variation on black/deep gray and it makes them blend in a little too much for my tastes. I’d have liked to see at least some kind of a splash of color on the Shells, to set them apart a little more, visually.
I ended up sticking with Erédrim for most of my playthrough as I loved the gold trim on his obsidian armor (On top of other, more mechanical reasons).
Other than that, the game looks great – though I can see it being a problem for colorblind, or otherwise vision-impaired people in a lot of areas of the game. I’m not saying I want rainbows – but contrast is a good thing to have.
I did run into a few bugs/glitches here and there. Most were minor and didn’t really cause a problem – but some either halted progress, or almost halted progress. The worst of them was a moment where I got hit by an enemy and it sent me literally out of world. I fell through the stairs and landed beneath the level. If I were a smarter person, I probably could have found a way to skip most of the level at that point. Instead, I tried to fall off the plane to my death, but only ended up falling forever. I had to actually turn the game off and restart it. Thankfully, it never happened again.
The other bug I ran into was after defeating the boss Crucix, The Twiceborn. I don’t know if I killed him too hard or what, but he didn’t “die”. His health bar was empty, he wasn’t moving, but he never fell to the ground. It was weird. I almost thought the game had soft locked until I realized I needed to pick up the item he dropped to actually proceed. After that, things proceeded almost normally – but his health bar stayed on the screen.
This is where Mortal Shell works to set itself apart from the Soulslike norm.
It is 100% a Soulslike game – there is no denying it. However, it does things just differently enough to make it stand out in the sea of clones and wannabes.
First and foremost – the combat. While on the surface level it’s similar – using R1 and R2 to deal light and heavy attacks, rolling with Circle/B, parrying leading to a riposte, etc. – Mortal Shell is a much more deliberate game. Even light attacks are somewhat slow and require a little bit of forethought before dedicating yourself to them.
One of the biggest differences is the lack of any kind of shield. You will never, ever find one. In order to block – you have to rely on the game’s unique mechanic of Hardening, which essentially turns your character to stone and deflects/reduces the damage of incoming attacks.
You can’t harden forever, only for a short time, so you need to do it at the right time – otherwise you’re left relying on parrying or dodging/rolling until the meter refills.
Another big difference is in parrying itself. Unlike Souls/Bloodborne, where you can parry and riposte at pretty much any time – doing it in Mortal Shell requires resolve. Resolve is a meter that fills as you land successful attacks on enemies. If you stop attacking and a segment of the meter hasn’t filled completely, you’ll start to lose what you’ve built up. Each shell (and the Foundling) can hold a varying amount of Resolve – some more than others.
Once a segment of Resolve is filled, you can use it for various things – like certain items, weapon abilities and most importantly: Empowered Ripostes.
In order to do an Empowered Riposte, you first need to parry with the Tarnished Seal (L1/LB) at the proper time, then attack (R1/RB) while the lock-on reticule is glowing red. This will allow you to perform a damaging counterattack that can have various forms. The default is a counter that heals you for a small amount of your total health. This is the riposte I pretty much exclusively used for all of my playthrough. The others that you get can stop time for a short or attach an explosive larva to the enemy that deals heavy AOE damage to every other enemy near them.
They’re all useful in their own ways. You can also improve the Seal to grant quicker resolve gain and how much an Empowered Riposte can heal you.
One of my favorite things in the game, though – is the way defeating a main boss and collecting a Sacred Gland is its own “thing”. In most games, including the FromSoft Soulsborne games, defeating a boss simply resulted in you getting a soul and maybe an item. Sometimes you had to activate a thing to open a new area. However, outside of specific moments/triggers, the world didn’t really change. In Mortal Shell, collecting a gland has a massive effect on the world. Everything goes dark, fog rolls in and enemies change. Even if you killed everything, once you get that gland new enemies will spring up in the level that you have to deal with. These enemies are a good bit tougher.
This doesn’t just apply to the area where you get the gland – it effects the entire world of Fallgrim. Even going back to the hub tower has new enemies, and that fog sticks around as long as you have the gland. Once you return the gland, though, things go back to normal – but you can now talk to a new NPC: Thestus. He’ll bring back the fog for you to play in when you want – which can be good if you need Tar or Glimpses.
Maybe the biggest wrinkle Mortal Shell has to make it feel unique, is its reliance on only a small number of dedicated weapons. There are only 4, total, in the entire game – each with their own abilities and movesets. This means you should probably try to focus on one or two weapons instead of playing the field. You aren’t going to be grinding for 20 different giant hammers, or even upgrade materials. Even weapon has specific upgrade materials that will unlock different abilities for that weapon – but they all share the same strengthening upgrades (The ones that actually increase the weapon’s strength/damage – taking it from +0 to +WhateverTheMaxIs), which are rare so spreading upgrades around is going to be doing you a disservice.
I mainly focused on the Hammer and Chisel when I got it (By the way – because the game only has 4 weapons, they are a little bit of an ordeal to get. You need to face off against Hadern (The tutorial boss) each time you find a new weapon in order to unlock it for use. Once you beat him, you can then use that weapon anytime you want. You can also swap weapons at anytime simply by using that weapon’s item.)
The biggest thing that sets Mortal Shell apart is that you don’t play just one character. You aren’t building a specific archetype that can only use specific weapons.
You play as the Foundling – a being that is capable of possessing the “shells” of long dead warriors – of which there are 4, each filling a certain role, such as being an attacker, or one built around defense. However, unlike other RPGs, these roles are more in their abilities and skills than actual stat points (Though they do have varying stats – some have more resolve, some have bigger health pools or bigger stamina pools.)
Ultimately – it’s your choice which shell you want to focus on. They’re all viable for different playstyles. I liked Erédrim for his massive health pool and having a more classic roll as opposed to a more Tomb Raider-esque dodge-then-roll. I also enjoyed his skill tree more.
Harros is the first shell you come across in the game and as such, is the all-rounder. The other 3 shells can be obtained at anytime around Fallgrim – you just have to locate them.
Tiel is the light shell – the most equivalent to a Thief or Rogue. Extremely low health, and resolve, but tons of stamina and a lot of abilities that deal in poisoning the enemy as well as an ability that allows him to lose stamina in place of health sometimes.
Solomon is a tank-y shell, with a very high health pool, and the highest resolve reserves, but low stamina. His abilities mostly focus on gaining and keeping resolve to use for Ripostes and weapon abilities.
Erédrim is also more of a tank, however he’s more about staying on the offensive and keeping the enemy on the backfoot. Stand and fight while tanking damage. He can also gain a buff that increases his damage output with every enemy you kill that only gets lost when you get seperated from him. Play well and watch your damage output skyrocket.
Now, what makes the shell mechanic interesting – is that you can swap between them at anytime. You aren’t locked down to playing only Harros or Erédrim or any other shell. Don’t like Harros’ abilities? His stats? Try out someone else. Movesets are weapon based, not character – so you won’t need to relearn anything other than how that shell’s specific abilities benefit you.
For example, after defeating the Grisha early on and getting the Mechanical Spike to unlock the weapon ability – every character can use that weapon ability as long as they have the Resolve to do so.
I honestly love that way more than the traditional “Build yourself up to use a specific weapon and alienate yourself from using anything else” method a lot of other games use (The Surge was probably the worst about this. As much as I loved that game – I hated that trying a new weapon type required so much grinding just to get it up to par with what you might have been using for a while. And in the FromSoft games, it requires going and completely rebuilding your character – which is just annoying.)
I’ve always preferred skill trees over micro managing stat numbers. Give me perks and abilities to improve and add to my character’s repetoire over bigger numbers any day. Let stat boosts come from improving the weapon/armor.
Limiting things to only 4 weapons also means you can work to make those movesets really unique instead of having 20 different weapons all in the same class having 90% the same moves with the exception of “this one has a thrust instead of a slash, thus making it better”.
You can even choose to forego using a shell at all – even go as far as locking yourself out of the ability to use them entirely if you choose. However, I don’t recommend doing that for your first playthrough. The Foundling dies in 1 hit, regardless of what that hit is. When you’re familiar with the game, though – it can make a good challenge mode, because it actually feels fair. The Foundling has tons of stamina and attacking/sprinting/dodging uses very little of it. You can do a full combo with pretty much any weapon and only use 5% of your total stamina with him.
Now, when all is said and done, this is still a Soulslike – and because of that, it does manage to fall into some of the same gameplay trappings that other Soulslikes do. Namely unfair enemy placement at times, and sometimes bland level design.
With regard to enemies – usually they aren’t too bad. They can be dealt with fairly simply and it’s not much of a problem. But there are a few times where enemies were placed in a location that just felt mean. Right in the middle of a precariously narrow path, or dead center on a narrow staircase leading up to a new level. Places where it would be silly to try and fight them, but you also don’t have much room to get around them.
The level design on the other hand isn’t bad, it just lacks something the FromSoft games tend to have. A sense of direction or progression. Many areas within the various zones can feel very similar, and this can lead to a bit of confusion for the player. They also don’t feel like they were designed with many shortcuts in mind. There are some, but nowhere near as much as something like Bloodborne or even Dark Souls 1, where you could cut zones in half while having only 1 bonfire/lamp (Which is what Sester Genessa acts as). Most shortcuts (At least those I found) don’t really lead back to the sester directly – just somewhere near her. Still, it’s better than nothing at all.
It also helps that the levels themselves aren’t exactly massive.
As far as actually upgrading your characters, though – this is similar to pretty much every other Soulslike out there. Defeat enemies to get Tar and Glimpses (Which are experience as well as currency) – you’ll need both to gain upgrades and buy items from the shops in game. Where this acts differently is in Glimpses. Tar is “lost” upon death, but can be regained by finding your corpse again. Just like Souls. Glimpses, however, remain with the shell no matter what happens. Even if you die and then die again before you can reclaim your corpse, your shell will still have its Glimpses.
The difference is that you aren’t increasing stats. Instead, each Shell has a set of abilities specific to them. None of them are shared, so you’ll need to earn Tar & Glimpses for each shell. If you focus on one, you’ll likely max it out by the end of the game. I like this approach more – as I mentioned, I prefer to gain new abilities/perks as opposed to just pumping up numbers.
This is one of those games that never really “ends”. Once you’ve beaten the final boss, you simply loop back around into New Game Plus and start over with tougher enemies and higher weapon upgrade limits. I’m on NG+2 right now with a +15 Hammer and Chisel (Once you max out a Shell, tar and Glimpses become useless for pretty much anything other than buying items so you can use your glimpses to buy a few upgrade items from Sester Genessa).
The limit is how many times you feel like going through the game – or when you feel the game has gotten too difficult.
Other than that, there isn’t a lot to actually do – no covenants that you need to join and build up. No multiplayer (Which I really love, honestly – no random people invading your game and ruining your fun by holding you up and purposefully stopping your progress.)
There are trophies/achievements, and while most of them are pretty straightforward – some will require feats that a lot of players probably won’t want to do – like completing the entire game without ever bonding with a shell. Essentially – play the entire game as the Foundling and the Foundling only. It’s not impossible, you can run past pretty much all enemies and just rush through the main bosses, but it’s not an easy task. At all.
If the Foundling could take slightly more damage – 2 or 3 hits instead of just 1 – I could see myself actually doing it. As it stands though, this is probably one platinum that won’t be going in my cabinet anytime soon.
If it weren’t for the Souls series, Mortal Shell likely wouldn’t exist, let’s be honest. That said, rather than just do the exact same thing as the FromSoft titles, the team at Cold Symmetry decided to try their best and do something unique. It does a great job at cementing its place as a game to fill the empty void that Dark Souls has left behind as of late.
It’s a really well done game, made all the more impressive by how it manages to stand apart from the sea of other games like it. Especially when considering that not only is Cold Symmetry a very small team – this was their first big game like this. The team itself is made of people who’ve been in the AAA space, but this was their first game as part of this new developer together.
Kudos to you folks.
And really – at only $30, I can’t reasonably say you should pass up on the game. It’s definitely worth the money.