‘Mortal Shell’ review: a compact action RPG that’s often overly familiar

A handful of clever ideas aren’t enough for this dark adventure to forge a memorable identity

By now it’s become a lazy cliché to compare an RPG game to Dark Souls. But sometimes there’s no way around it. Mortal Shell is like Dark Souls. Just as the game’s skinless grey protagonist melds with the bodies of deceased warriors, its core is encased in the trappings of FromSoftware’s classic.

Mortal Shell does have some original ideas beneath this outer carapace. Yet, it never quite shakes its air of predictability. From the design of its opening menus and loading screens, developer Cold Symmetry seems intent on flagging its source of inspiration. The foreboding fantasy world in ruins is instantly unremarkable, alongside the its respawning enemies and loot retrieval mechanics that are as well-worn as the telltale red and green strips on the HUD.

Mortal Shell review
Mortal Shell. Credit: Cold Symmetry

At least in the early stages, the sense of familiarity is welcome. Dark Souls’ notoriously standoffish approach to new players just wasn’t quite opaque enough for Mortal Shell, it seems. A strangely silent opening offers no indication as to who you are, what you want or where to get it. Items won’t tell you what they do until you use them, and every hint is gummed up with lore-bound vocabulary that initially renders them near useless.

It doesn’t help that the first area you’re dumped in is a navigational nightmare. This swampy forest coloured in muddy greens is a mush of cloned paths, tunnels and enemy campsites, with few landmarks that are visible from a distance. And while the first main objective shouldn’t take too long to find, it’s unclear whether you should further explore the surroundings or look for a way out.

Mortal Shell review
Mortal Shell. Credit: Cold Symmetry

Wandering aimlessly, I recalled the first time I arrived in Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine, similarly clueless. There, every route was noticeably different, and quickly revealed the nature of its challenge. Here, I randomly took a long path that eventually led to a new area, only to feel underpowered and make the arduous trek back. Openness and mystery are fine, but it shouldn’t take so long to realise you’re going somewhere you don’t yet want to be.

This lack of transparency feels doubly gratuitous given that, once you get your bearings, Mortal Shell is actually very straightforward. Beneath the veneer of fathomless obscurity is a quest to gather three ‘glands’ (yes, glands) and deliver them to an ancient imprisoned creature in the hub. Each path out of the forest leads to a grand linear dungeon, and ultimately to one of these sacred objects.

It’s a compact adventure that comes with a refreshing sense of focus. Your journeys out of the forest and back again are singular and meaningful. Without fast travel for much of the game, it encourages you to maximise each trip, dutifully searching for secrets and items. RPG elements are elegantly streamlined too, cutting back on endless stats and collectibles. There are four ‘shells’ (characters) you can inhabit and four weapons, with different combinations suited to different play styles. Settle on your favourites and ply them with upgrade materials accordingly.

The three big peripheral areas are also a welcome change from the forest – easier to mind-map and distinctive in their layouts. Square corridors and chambers in one contrast against an open sprawl or a spiralling descent in the next. As in any good Dark Souls location, branching paths converge, short cuts are sprung that loop back to a safe haven, and hidden trails reveal the choicest treasure.

Mortal Shell review
Mortal Shell. Credit: Cold Symmetry

All the while, of course, you’re fighting a steady stream of gruesome creatures, and it’s here that Mortal Shell’s real spark of inspiration resides. Alongside the usual suite of attacks, combos and parries is your ability to ‘harden’ like a statue. Hold the left trigger and you solidify in your tracks until you release the button or an enemy attack bounces off you. At first this may seem like a mere shield replacement, but it’s far more versatile, and energises an otherwise slow, methodical battle rhythm.

Because your character continues from exactly where it left off before freezing, you can use this ability to correct mistimed swings, or tee up counterattacks before your opponent even strikes. You might aggressively start a combo as an enemy prepares to attack, harden to repel, then land the finishing blow.

Or you might jump attack into the middle of a group, targeting one while knowing you can deflect an assault from behind at any moment. Carefully managed, it’s an exhilaratingly powerful tool that enables you to go toe-to-toe against the fiercest adversaries.

Mortal Shell review
Mortal Shell. Credit: Cold Symmetry

Even when it clicks, however, there’s still a roughness about Mortal Shell. Enemy behaviour is inconsistent, as they struggle to navigate scenery and don’t always react to blows in a predictable manner. The healing system is also unbalanced: by default you have no healing items and only a few are dotted around the environments.

Instead, you get a health boost for a successful parry and riposte, and you effectively get two lives on each restart – a deathblow knocks your naked form from your human shell, with a chance to retrieve it and refill your energy – but neither feature works as a reliably manageable resource.

These systems are extra gruelling in the uneven design of the game’s largest area. It begins with a dull trudge across huge empty plains of tar blocks, then winds into a complex network of walkways and teleporters, all of which seem to go on forever. This epic trek is punctuated only by countless battles against the same five or six enemy types, and even with shortcuts unlocked, death can see you retracing a lot of steps.

I actually ended up running through some sections to escape the monotony. It’s not that Mortal Shell is more difficult than similar games, but its limited, repetitive nature can make it feel like hard work. Perhaps most tellingly, on finishing the game I had no real interest in going through any of it again.

Mortal Shell review
Mortal Shell. Credit: Cold Symmetry

It should be reminded that Mortal Shell was made on a modest budget, and has a modest price tag to match. For a small team, it’s an impressive achievement and it would be unfair to expect the detail and polish of Dark Souls itself. But the game invites that unflattering comparison by aping its older cousin so closely.

Because much of this has been done so well before, the lapses are more glaring. It should also be remembered that Dark Souls had the impact it did partly because it bucked the trends of its time. In that sense, despite a few fresh ingredients, Mortal Shell isn’t like Dark Souls.

‘Mortal Shell’ is out now for PC (exclusively on the Epic Games Store), Xbox One and PS4.

Our Verdict

Once Mortal Shell gets into its stride, its dynamic combat and unfussy upgrade systems start to shine. But lack of variety and reluctance to depart from the Dark Souls formula ensure that it never truly inspires.

Pros

  • Hardening brings a new dimension to combat
  • Neat compact structure with no padding

Cons

  • Confusing opening area
  • Combat and enemy design becomes repetitive
  • Too much déjà vu
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