Mortal Shell first impressions

Mortal Shell is a Souls-like game where you take on the form of a white, frail being forced to inhabit the shells of fallen champions. The world is dark, moody and full of danger and interesting lore and it’ll send a shiver or two down your spine. In this action RPG, you’ll be collecting shells (or armour suits) as well as weapons and items and along the way, you’ll face off against some very scary looking enemies.

Much like other Souls-like games before it, Mortal Shell from Cold Symmetry is punishing, but ultimately satisfying when you come out of a battle. We start out in a dreamlike world learning the ropes in the tutorial area where we’re given a sword and learn a few moves like our light attack, heavy attack dodge and one of the unique selling points of the game – our harden mechanic. Instead of blocking in the game, we have the ability to harden, which then has a cool-down of a few seconds. When an enemy is approaching and they swing their sword at you, you can harden and the sword will bounce right off, leaving them prone for a counter-attack.

The game doesn’t hold your hand at all, and after the tutorial, you’re dropped into the world with only your sword and the ability to explore. The extent to which things aren’t explained to you could be perceived to be a little frustrating, to the point where even items you find dotted around the place aren’t explained to you either. Only by consuming items multiple times do you become familiar enough to understand their true nature and what they do.

It’s easy to get lost in the world of Mortal Shell. The first shell in the game can easily be missed if you go the wrong direction as there are no cues on the screen to let you know. I would take it slow and be methodical and explore every little nook and cranny of the game before you venture forward too much, as you never know what you’re going to miss. Talking of that first shell, when you start out and you reach a fork in the road, head left to pick up your first armour set. There are 4 shells in the game as far as I know (there may be some secret extra shells at the end I don’t yet know about). Our starter shell is a good all-round shell with basic stamina and resilience. It’ll allow you to take a few hits, which is going to happen often in the early portion of the game.

Upon starting the game you’ll crawl through a tiny space, almost being born into the dark world. Everything is out to get you and at first, even the smallest enemies are going to offer a challenge. However, after a few minutes, you’ll learn that each enemy has their own pattern and it’s a game of learning how enemies move and then biding your time before striking enemies down with your sword.

The forest in front of you is crawling with enemies, traps and poisonous frogs – so make sure you’re looking down when you’re walking about the place. There are shrines dotted around which you can look into and they’ll show you visions of the future, which often lead to clues as to where shells are located, or where bosses roam about the place.

In the first main area, you’ll find a house on a hill. After disposing of fewer weak enemies you can enter the broken-down old house to find a strange hooded character with a beak chained up. He’s asking you to go out into the world and collect some glands and bring them back to him to restore some long lost power. He’ll also give you a very useful parry ability, which is going to help you out in battle. When an enemy comes to strike you, by pressing the parry button at the precise time, you’ll stop them in their tracks and be able to counter with a powerful attack as well as regain some health.

Talking about health you have 3 bars in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. The bar in the middle is your health bar, the bar at the bottom is your stamina meter and the bar at the top is your resolve. Stamina will go up and down when you fight, so if you get too many attacks in you’re going to run out of stamina and be unable to strike. Health can be returned with a well-timed parry move and counter-attack, but keep an eye on the resolve bars are the top. You can replenish health through mushrooms and other consumables you find around the world.

Sister Genessa is a character you’re going to want to get to know. By talking to her you’ll be able to replenish health, buy new skills and upgrades as well as resetting all enemies in the game. There’s a couple of currencies in the game too namely Tar and Glimpses and slowly over multiple meetings you’ll be able to transform your shell into a fighting machine.

Battles in Mortal Shell feel very satisfying. There’s a weight to the weapons and attacks which you’ll feel. The way your character moves and strikes enemies feels good and when you lay to waste a bunch of enemies or a boss you’re definitely going to feel like you’ve been through a battle. Be careful though when you’re in battle as if you get hit too much, you’ll be smashed out of your Shell. You can hop back in there pretty quickly, but try and draw your enemies away from the static shell before attempting to do so. If you get hit again or killed, then you do have the opportunity to find your shell in the place where you died to get a nice health boost and you can pick up the items you lost when you died.

It’s not all plain sailing though. I find myself entering a new area with a mini-cut scene and the enemies are free to attack me, where the game then returns to the regular camera angle and I’m already at a disadvantage in battle because I’ve been hit by something in a cutscene. The variety in the battles too can get a little repetitive as I only have a sword, it would be nice to have a ranged attack to compliment my close-range weapon, but perhaps that will come later on.

The bigger enemies and boss battles are impressive and genuinely terrifying. Early on in the game, you’ll face off against a minotaur type creature which seems to be like a half bear, half-lion with two huge spikes for hands. The design of the world, it’s characters and bosses are beautiful and both disgusting at the same time. There’s blood, tissue, snarling teeth and the glint of bear traps on the ground, making you feel very unsettled as you turn every corner. Enemies move in very unnatural ways, almost zombie-like but these things are fast.

I’ve just found my second shell in the game and I’m looking forward to getting into more of the world. I’m still exploring Fallgrim, so there’s plenty more to see and discover and weapons and upgrades to find and master. I’m coming from a background where From Software games are missing from my video game history. They feel like a gaping hole, which I need to go back to and fill in as a priority. Mortal Shell is pretty punishing for those not used to the genre, but from a world-building and action RPG point of view, this is well crafted, challenging and ultimately very satisfying. I am looking forward to playing more soon.

Developer: Cold Symmetry
Publisher: Epic Games
Release date: 18th August 2020
Platforms: PC (via Epic Games Store)

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