2009 was a revolutionary year in the world of video games, as critically acclaimed Demon Souls, developed by now legendary studio FromSoftware launched. Demon Souls was the first of the souls-like games, which apart from the Dark Souls Trilogy and Bloodborne, spawned a number of games with similar mechanics. Mortal Shell, a very ambitious project from London-based studio Cold Symmetry, which only features 15 employees, is the latest in this list.
Mortal Shell is incredibly reminiscing of the souls games, from trailer to gameplay, but it seems to have very different ideas in terms of lore. You begin as an unknown entity, wandering about in the initial level, with prompts indicating the basic commands. After this short tutorial level, which ends on a boss fight you can even lose, you are transported to the beginning of your adventure, in what looks to be a kind of swamp-like environment. Soon enough you will also inhabit what seems to be the remnants of a soldier. This provides you with your first shell, one of the core mechanics of what makes Mortal Shell so brilliant and so unique.
These shells work similarly to entering a robot in a first-person shooter for example; you gain all the properties of that body, and once the shell is defeated you regain control of your own body. In Mortal Shell, the body you are inhabiting is not destroyed once your HP runs out, but it expels you, returning you to the initial creature you spawned as, and also with very little life left. Luckily you can repossess the shell again, but another death will result in game over. It is a fairly straight-forward process once you get to grips with the game, unlike the way it sounds in text. Regaining control of the shell will refill your HP as well, almost as if you never actually died at all.
The world-building in Cold Symmetry‘s game is nothing short of spectacular, although incredibly simplistic. Mortal Shell definitely likes its dark colours, and proof of this is the dark green of the swamp followed by the heavy black of the temple that follows. This temple is clad in black and gold, with verticality playing a part too. The menacing surroundings as well as the enemies out to get you give the game a feeling of dread that will haunt you as you go on your journeys. Apart from this, the game will literally give you no hints whatsoever in terms of progress, and you have to figure out your bearings and your objectives alone. Inscriptions on walls and other surfaces will shave small pieces of lore, although their contents are incredibly hard to make sense on their own. It really is intended as a collective experience, one where ultimately one hopes to make as much sense as possible at the end of the journey.
The gameplay side of Mortal Shell is fairly basic, with a very neat twist. You have your HP gauge and your stamina gauge, and both of these vary from shell to shell. Apart from movement and camera, the basic commands are R1 for light attacks and R2 for a heavy attack. Combinations of light and heavy attacks can be experimented to find your most lethal and comfortable sequence for you, so there is a lot of freedom when combat is involved. X is the default “action” button, while O is dodge. L1 button is for parry, which is learnt fairly early throughout the game. The L2 button is the Harden mechanic, one of the things which I adore most about this game. As the name implies, Harden turns you into a statue of stone, capable of resisting the strongest of attacks. However, Harden will only endure one strike and will revert you back to normal. Its cooldown is fairly short so it is one of the key components in defeating enemies, especially ones which have a massive health pool. When opponents strike you in your hardened state, they will be staggered, which will leave them open to attack. Be wary though as this state lasts only a couple of seconds, and then they are back on the offensive. Stamina will still regenerate when hardened, meaning you can go all out in a flurry of attacks and when stamina runs out, you harden until your stamina is replenished and barrel roll out of danger. One must also note that harden is not only a defensive weapon but also a means of attack. Hardening just after attacking is a smart way to counterattack your enemies, as their strike will be nullified by the hardened state, and after the harden dissolves you will then unleash the attack, almost as if you queued the attack right after the block.
Another extremely interesting feature to Mortal Shell is how it deals with items. In the game, you will find a lot of items which can be picked up. The first time you pick up an item, you will not know what it does, and the only way to learn is by using it, even the game will tell you so. Upon using an item, the item’s description will change, reflecting the effectiveness of such an item. Although this may result in some adverse results, I really like the concept of experimenting with items. For starters, it is very realistic that you are not knowledgeable about the items you are picking up, so it only makes sense that you have to actually consume the item in order to learn its characteristics. Furthermore, each item has a Familiarity meter, which fills out gradually as you use the items. Not all the items’ familiarity gauge will fill out the same, but when this meter is full, it will unlock a new feature of the item. For example one of the items found in the swamp, in the beginning, will have an extremely adverse effect on you, but upon maximising familiarity you will discover a very useful tool which will no doubt aid in your travels.
Another aspect of items is that some of these, like the health-restoring Weltcap mushroom, will respawn some time after being picked up. This is an interesting mechanic which will undoubtedly come in extremely handy for preparing to face a number of enemies. I myself have wasted hours over several lives waiting for the Weltcap mushrooms to grow so that I have a small pool of health potions readily available. These mushrooms take 5 minutes to grow one unit, so it is quite an ordeal to sit around and hoard; I generally wait for a couple to spawn and then be on my way. One can also sit around and navigate the menus and organize items until these mushrooms grow, as time will still go by when in pause menus.
The game also gives the player a little chuckle here and there; for example, you can find a lute, generally dropped by enemies, and get around to play it. The melodies are surprisingly catchy, and you will find yourself waiting to find a nice, safe area where to sit down and play your new favourite musical instrument. You will also find enemies who play the lute, giving their positions away in the process.
While many games have tried to imitate FromSoftware’s games, Mortal Shell looks to have found a formula so similar yet so different, it might be the best Souls-like game of recent years. It definitely is my favourite, as it fuses a blend of solid groundwork in terms of gameplay with new mechanics like Harden to create a whole so amazing it may even outdo its inspiration. For a studio so small, it is an unbelievably big accomplishment. The game is currently available to purchase digitally on Steam (through here), PSN or Xbox Store. It will also have a physical release on October 2nd although no outlet is currently accepting preorders.
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