Review – Mortal Shell

I have a lot of questions about how Cold Symmetry was founded three years ago by a team of four and has already – during a world-wide pandemic – somehow cranked out Mortal Shell, one of my favourite games in the ever-growing ‘Soulslike’ genre.

At the game’s outset players are introduced to the Foundling, a pale nightmarish figure that reminds me of the Engineer from the movie ‘Prometheus’ but with even less of a tan if that’s possible. In the first dozen or so minutes players will get every scrap of the game’s ‘how this works’ handholding and then get dumped into a boss fight with only light and heavy attacks to carry the offensive workload, a dodge and dodge roll to handle the bulk of the defensive chores, and Harden – the ability to freeze in place and harden your skin to ward off a single blow, a key tool for when you’re facing imminent death.

By itself, the Harden ability would be enough for Cold Symmetry’s debut title to show they have some ideas of their own to inject into the genre but wait – there’s more! As you explore the world, you’ll encounter Shells – the fallen remains of four heroes that you can inhabit and animate, each possessing unique abilities to unlock.

Harros the Vassal is the first you’ll run into as part of the tutorial. This is the solidly ‘average’ shell, with good durability (health), stamina (used for attacking and dodging), and resolve (which powers your weapon abilities) – but not excelling in any area. A good starter Shell, Harros has abilities that center around the Harden ability to reduce or reset its cooldown, and to make it last longer.

Tiel the Acolyte sports low durability and resolve, but sky-high stamina makes this a great Shell for those who want to use hit and run tactics or just spam attacks like mad. Tiel also picks up some amazing abilities centered around poison, which helps offset the low health and resolve.

Solomon the Scholar has so-so stamina, but high durability and off-the-charts resolve help make up for that. Solomon’s abilities focus largely on refilling his already ridiculous resolve pool, making this Shell perfect for those who want to use weapon abilities over and over in a battle.

Eredrim the Venerable has maxed out durability thanks to a massive suit of armour but pays for that battleship-like defensive strength with low stamina and resolve. With abilities that center around doing increased damage to enemies, Eredrim can be a fearsome machine in combat but it’s not the easiest Shell to master.

Mortal Shell is a breath of fetid swamp air into the Soulslike genre, but that’s more of a positive than it sounds…

Roaming the world of Mortal Shell it’s easy to see how those four adventurers came to meet their fate, with a non-stop barrage of enemies waiting to ambush you from behind a tree or corner, or to materialize in front of you with little in the way of warning. Fortunately, after a bit of exploration you’ll learn how to parry attacks and, if you have a bar of resolve stored up, can then fire off a riposte that heals you while doing enough damage to kill most enemies. Between the parry/riposte and Harden mechanics, I found I didn’t miss having a block button at all. The parry system is on a tight timing window and several enemy attacks have odd windups that seem designed to draw out and waste an early parry, but when it works it’s incredibly satisfying.

Should all your defensive tricks fail you and your Shell’s health drop to zero for the first time, the Foundling is ejected in an explosion that momentarily Hardens enemies around you, freezing them solid. That provides just enough of a grace period for you to regain your feet, at which point it’s vital to quickly re-inhabit the abandoned Shell, as a single hit will kill the Foundling. Regain the Shell and you’ll have full health and stamina, but be more careful as being reduced to zero again means death.

Surviving in Fallgrim is a long way from thriving however, so you’ll need to gather Tar and Glimpses to unlock the abilities your Shell can bring to the battlefield. Both can be gathered from fallen enemies or from the environment, but the balance – at least in my experience – was a little out of whack at the start with not enough Glimpses dropping to allow me to spend my abundance of Tar. Gather up enough and seek out Sester Genessa, a mysterious figure who appears virtually everywhere you go and can grant you deeper access to your Shells.

Other vendors are willing to take your Tar in exchange for consumables, but it felt like I would be wasting a precious resource to use it that way. Enemy mobs will drop bits of rat and rotten food for you to eat to heal up and healing mushrooms spawn in the environment, making it hard to justify spending Tar outside of my Shell improvement plan.

What I Loved:

  • Great combat that kept expanding in strategy as I played
  • Stellar progression system
  • I felt wholeheartedly rooted in this creepy world, great atmosphere
  • Harden might be my new favourite skill
  • Wait, no – it’s the Parry/Riposte instakill and heal
  • Oh no, I know – it’s using the Lute to lure enemies away from their camp
  • Some great boss fights

What I Liked:

  • Some so-so boss fights, including that last one…
  • Good assortment of enemies, but could have had more variety
  • Every Shell has a unique set of abilities and suits a different playstyle
  • World layout was easy to pick up and navigate
  • Item ‘familiarity’ unlocks knowledge of items by using them
  • New Game + mode

What I Disliked:

  • Some cheap hits, like being attacked at the end of a cutscene
  • I’d kill for a ranged class
  • Some technical issues, but nothing major
  • Going to be super short if you’re super skilled (I’m not)

What I Hated:

  • Nothing

The Final Word:
An incredibly impressive first effort from Cold Symmetry and leaves me wondering what they’ll turn out next. One of my favourite games this year.

Mortal Shell is available now on PC (via the Epic Games Store), PS4, and Xbox One. Reviewed on Xbox One X using review code provided by the publisher.