In the increasingly crowded Soulslike genre, Cold Symmetry’s Mortal Shell is like a cover band of a classic artist that finally branches off to make its own music. Songs here and there show a few key differences that differentiate it from its influences, and some of them are significant and successful enough to make it independently notable. But if you strip back its layers, almost every aspect of the album can be directly tied to the original band. Likewise, Mortal Shell is a cover band for the Souls series. Its formula is mostly unchanged, and its differences feel more like experimental additions rather than innovative evolutions. While it successfully navigates a lot of what the Souls series does so well and will be enjoyable for fans of the genre looking for another taste, it never quite reaches the heights of the games it so clearly mimics.
After a little help with the lingo, anyone familiar with the tenets of the Soulslike genre will quickly settle into Mortal Shell’s core gameplay. Its third-person action RPG combat is heavily sword-based and pits you against increasingly difficult enemies who seem to be waiting around just for you to show up, occasionally throwing in a major and much more difficult boss fight. Killing enemies grants you tar – the game’s equivalent of souls – and, upon death, you respawn at an occurrence of Sister Genessa, the equivalent of a bonfire, enemies respawn, and your tar stays where you last died until either you retrieve it or it is lost forever.
There’s a heavy reliance on learning enemy attack patterns, and progress most often occurs not in physical progression through environments, but in further understanding of enemies and increased ease with which you can defeat them. It’s always satisfying to catch something new that an enemy does that helps you slowly figure out how to beat them, especially after they’ve kicked your teeth in a bunch of times.
Mortal Shell’s first major twist on the genre comes just seconds in. You’re informed that you’re an immortal being who can take the eponymous shell of named fallen soldiers that you come across around the world, and, in doing so, take on their characteristics: health, stamina, weapons, and armor. This means that you have no power over upgrading your stats and are only able to run with what you’re given.
"At virtually any time in combat, you can use Mortal Shell’s biggest twist, its hardening system, to harden your shell to block against any incoming enemy attack."
Instead, your upgrades, which are only available after unlocking the shell’s name and history, are more skill-based and reward more intricate abilities like parrying. While I appreciated the streamlined approach, as every shell more or less accounts for a standard class from other games, it wasn’t long before I discovered a shell that I stuck with for the rest of the game. Aside from the somewhat contextual weapon upgrades with items I found throughout the world, the lack of character upgrades ultimately feels more restrictive than liberating.
At virtually any time in combat, you can use Mortal Shell’s biggest twist, its hardening system, to harden your shell to block against any incoming enemy attack. Unlike guarding or blocking, you don’t have to be outside of an attack animation or in a certain position to do this, including mid-swing. It allows you vastly more flexibility because it’s impenetrable for a single attack and can be used either as a get out of jail free or as part of a larger attack plan, and, by the end, I was using it as a significant portion of my entire strategy. It works as an interesting risk-reward system that allows you a safeguard if you’re in a sticky situation, but overreliance on it can get you killed quickly because it only guards against one hit, despite many enemies’ tendencies for multiple quick attacks.
This is easily the biggest and most successful differentiator for this game in its genre because it creates a lot of organic gameplay moments where you’re on your last bit of health but can squeeze out of a tight spot. I also loved how many ways there are to create combos. Almost every combination of light and heavy attacks, especially when hardening comes into the mix, has its own unique and fluid animation that I never got tired of watching, like when I would juggle my sword for a final heavy attack in a long combo. Adding in the ability to parry, which allows for a deadly counterattack when done correctly, broadens combat possibilities further. The new resolve system, a bar that builds as you quickly attack enemies but lessens the longer you wait, also rewards aggressive gameplay but increases your risk of making a costly mistake and adds yet another element to combat, making it altogether difficult to figure out at first but incredibly fun and rewarding to master.
"Mortal Shell takes a nod from Sekiro and implements a second chance system. Instead of dying, you’re flung out of your shell and, with enemies frozen, given a short chance to reclaim the shell to refill your health."
When you do finally lose all your health, which you inevitably will many times, you don’t immediately respawn. Instead, Mortal Shell takes a nod from Sekiro and implements a second chance system. Instead of dying, you’re flung out of your shell and, with enemies frozen, given a short chance to reclaim the shell to refill your health. When you die again, you respawn, though reclaiming your lost tar and previous shell gives you another health refill, making it possible to have two full health refills total. This is especially useful, and oftentimes necessary, in the hardest boss fights, whose arenas always carry your previous shell and whose attacks are highly damaging.
A final divergence from its predecessors comes in how items are used and explained. At first, you have no understanding of what an item does, and the more you use an item, the more effective it becomes. I liked this system because it rewards experimentation, but it falls into the same trap of allowing me to find one or two items I understood and forgetting the rest. Most notably, its health items are not given every time you die and instead are found around the world like everything else. This reinforces how much you have to think about using them because you won’t get them back, but, even at full familiarity, they were never useful enough compared to having three full bars of health, and I often forgot I had them.
While the twists make some notable changes to the formula, I could never shake the feeling that Mortal Shell was retreading old ground that the Souls series had already covered more effectively, and a lot of its shortcomings have to do with its length and structure. Its story, very reminiscent of Dark Souls in its dark tone and obscurity, sets you off to find three Sacred Glands and return them to a shackled prisoner. Each Gland comes at the end of a long, mostly linear sequence capped off with a boss, and you can take them in any order. The sequences are impressively diverse in their setpieces and often intricately laid out, coming with their own sets of intimidating, beautifully animated enemies and grand spectacle, especially with environmental changes that occur as you move further along.
"If I didn’t know any better, you could convince me that Mortal Shell is another, smaller entry into the Dark Souls series with minor tweaks to its established formula, for better or worse."
They’re great at evoking the dreary tone so synonymous with these games, but, unfortunately, they come off as incredibly imbalanced. Getting the first Gland took me nearly 10 hours, after which I had come back battered and bruised, anticipating higher difficulties as I progressed, but the second and third took no more than a couple hours each, and one of the bosses I beat on my first try without much luck. Such a jarring difficulty drop made me wonder if I had played the sequences in an unintended order, but it’s confusing to think there’s a best order to play without any clear direction as to which order that is.
Also disappointing is how infrequently bosses pop up. I’d argue that bosses are some of the most important and enjoyable aspects of the Souls series because of the raised stakes and tension of finally taking them down. The same is true here, but I fought a total of 6 or 7 in my entire 15-hour playthrough, only four of which I found particularly difficult. The ones I took the most time to beat were the highlights of the entire time I spent with the game because they truly tapped into why these types of boss fights are so great, but I couldn’t help but wonder why I spent so much more time fighting armies of grunts instead.
If I didn’t know any better, you could convince me that Mortal Shell is another, smaller entry into the Dark Souls series with minor tweaks to its established formula, for better or worse. It knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and it does a lot of the things it takes from the Souls series really well. That famous feeling of satisfaction is still there when you finally kill a boss or get past a hard section, and the changes to gameplay, especially its impressive hardening system, are mostly for the better. Its influences, though, are always in the forefront, making it difficult to look past its flaws.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.