Mortal Shell PC Review

If you want a fresh and unique Soulslike experience, then look no further than Mortal Shell.

By TKras98, Posted 21 Aug 2020

Mortal Shell is something unique. While I have played everything from Dark Souls to Bloodborne or The Surge, nothing has ever made me work harder for what I wanted. Every step was a fight for my very survival, right up until that final boss took their last breath. And then? I was hungry for more. This game takes all the tropes and ideas that come with the Soulslike experience you know and love, and it builds upon them in a variety of exciting ways. Unlike most games of this ilk, you don't unlock new sets of armor, but rather you uncover Shells. These long-dead remains of powerful warriors act as your armor, but they are so much more.

Mortal Shell: The Foundling is given the Hallowed Blade

Each Shell has its own unique backstory, can trigger its own unique dialogue, and most importantly, has its own set of stats and skills that will determine how you play the game. For my playthrough, I almost exclusively used Tiel, the Shell with the highest stamina. Tiel has a wide variety of special upgrades, many of which revolve around his high stamina and the poison status effect. I also invested the most into the Hallowed Sword, the first weapon you find in the game, and because of that I almost exclusively used it along with Tiel. The other weapons, the Hammer and Chisel, Martyr’s Blade, and Smouldering Mace are all great weapons, but by the time I unlocked them, I had already upgraded my Hallowed Sword to +3. This heavy investment made it harder to pick up the other weapons, but there was more to it.

The Hallowed Sword and the Hammer and Chisel are both fairly quick weapons, but the Martyr’s Blade and the Smouldering Mace are both slow two-handed weapons. Their slow attacks, alongside the inability to cancel  by rolling or dodging, made them feel inferior in a lot of ways. It certainly didn’t help that I had also invested heavily into the Hallowed Sword. The Hammer and Chisel, however, was not a bad weapon. It felt good to use with quick attacks that did not stop me from avoiding damage if I was careful, but compared to the damage I was dealing with the Hallowed Sword, it was not enough to reliably win most engagements.

Tiel, the Acolyte

The Hallowed Sword is your first weapon, and the most basic of them all. It is a normal sword, but like all of the weapons in Mortal Shell, can be upgraded to activate a unique ability. The sword’s unique ability is a large spike that shoots out of the bottom, dealing high damage to an enemy. Alternatively, the Hammer and Chisel’s ability  launches a wave of nails around you while The Martyr’s Blade and the Smouldering Macehave the ability to activate an elemental damage buff. The Martyr’s Blade can be imbued with ice energy for a limited time, while the Smouldering Mace can be ignited to burn enemies with fire energy.

These abilities are all activated through your third primary resource: Resolve. Unlike Health or Stamina, you start without any Resolve, and gain it either by using consumables or defeating enemies. Resolve is used for all of your higher power abilities including your weapons’ and the Empowered Riposte as a follow up to a successful parry. Managing Resolve is not particularly difficult but, since I played primarily as Tiel, I was stuck with only two Resolve bars. This meant that I had to use all of my Resolve to activate a weapon ability, and half for an Empowered Riposte. This was another reason I opted to use the Hallowed Sword over any of the other weapons: The weapon ability of the Hallowed Sword, paired with the maximum +5 buff, consistently dealt more damage for the price of my resolve.

Tiel, the Acolyte holding up the Tarnished Seal, the item used for Parrying

But, what’s the point? Why are we doing this? Well, much like its relatives, Mortal Shell doesn’t give you too much. The world you find yourself in is dark and mysterious, seemingly controlled by a powerful religious institution. However, you are something totally... different. Whatever you are, it is not human, it is not like anything you’ll find in Fallgrim. With your ability to inhabit the bodies of these select warriors, you are given a simple task. A strange man, a giant prisoner chained to the tower, wants you to bring him the Sacred Glands, three vessels for the True Nektar, an important material that can be used in a powerful rite. The idea of a giant fellow chained up in an old tower telling me to find sacred artifacts  immediately set off red flags, but I really had no other choice.

Outside of this direction, there is only so much more that the world offers you, often in cryptic or outright bizarre and impossible to decipher messages. You’re often left asking more questions than you have answered. At the end of my journey, I still found myself wondering a lot: Who is Sester Genessa? What is the Foundling? What is special about Harros, Tiel, Solomon, and Eredrim that allows you to inhabit their bodies? At the end of the day, these are not mysteries I have been able to completely solve, and I’m not sure if I ever will on my own.

Sester Genessa, prior to fighting Crucix, the Twiceborn

With the mission in hand, you as the Foundling in whatever shell it inhabits, wielding whatever weapons it desires, have to find the three Sacred Glands. It doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, that’s far from the case. Every encounter is a life or death scenario where one wrong step, one misclick, one button press too early or too late could be certain death. Just about everything you do in Mortal Shell requires stamina: light attacks, heavy attacks, sprinting, dodging, and rolling all use a fair bit of it. When you’re in the heat of battle, running out of stamina can mean certain death, but even then you have a counter: Harden. Using Harden, you freeze in whatever position you were in and remain still until you either release it or you are hit with an attack. You can’t just Harden as you please though, the ability has a cooldown.

Like I said before, every moment is a fight for your life. Every single enemy could easily defeat you if you aren’t careful, and once your health bar drops to 0, you get knocked out of your shell. In this state, you will die in a single hit, and there isn’t too much you can do about it. You can re-enter your shell once in this state, but if you get knocked out a second time, it’s over for you. With tankier Shells like Eredrim or Solomon, this is not as big of an issue, they can take a few hits before going down, but they have a major tradeoff: Bad stamina. Eredrim in particular can do, at best, a full three-hit combo and maybe roll before being completely drained, leaving you almost totally defenseless in the face of whatever horrors you’re up against.

Tiel, the Acolyte in Mortal Shell

Combos are the single most important combat aspect in Mortal Shell. Each hit in a combo will deal consecutively more damage, but every time you make the active choice to attack, the only way you have to protect yourself is Hardening. If you’ve already Hardened and you’re trying to get a combo of attacks in, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself getting beaten instead. The game encourages you to be careful, but it also encourages you to be aggressive. If you can manage to deal enough damage to someone before they attack, you can also stagger them, opening them up to additional damage or giving you enough breathing room to use a Weapon Ability. If you are able to pair aggressive combos with careful usage of Harden and expertly timed dodges and rolls, you’re well on your way to mastery.

For my playthrough, I started by following the path of the original beta demo, travelling into the catacombs to fight the Enslaved Grisha. Here, Tiel’s special abilities were absolutely vital. Most enemies in the catacombs have at least one poison attack, which normally would be a major detriment. With Tiel, however, I was able to unlock a few of his abilities to easily turn the tide of battle. The most valuable thing I ever unlocked was “Poison damage heals you for a portion of the damage it would deal.” This meant that, instead of hurting me, poison became a healing buff. Combined with the ability to create poison clouds with an Empowered Riposte and the Riposte’s healing ability, I was damn near unstoppable. Or, at least, I was, in theory.

In practice, I often struggled to get the exact timing down for parries, and relying on enemies using an attack that poisons you can have major downsides, especially if they never use it. Despite all that, I was able to push past the Enslaved Grisha into the icy realm beyond its prison, where I wound up fighting my first real boss: The First Martyr. The reason I say “my first real boss” is twofold. This Grisha, while sporting a health bar and a unique arena, was more of a miniboss. Earlier on in my journey, I fought against a different Grisha which was locked in a cave nearby the tower that holds all of the Shells and Weapons you find. Further than that, however, is the fact that the First Martyr; along with Crucix, the Twiceborn and Imrod, the Unrepentant, guard each of the three Sacred Glands.

Tiel, the Acolyte drinks a mysterious liquid to summon the First Martyr for battle.

After fighting my way through the icy wastes beyond the catacombs and defeating the First Martyr to collect the first of three Sacred Glands, something interesting happened. On my journey back through to return the Sacred Gland to the Chained Prisoner in the tower, the world was changed. Everything was covered in a thick fog, and the enemies I had found in the Catacombs were out in massive numbers. The enemies that I had been fighting before, that had continually respawned and refreshed with every death or every visit to Sester Genessa were laying dead in the ice and snow. I had done something horribly wrong.

It didn’t stop me, though. The Fog, as I would come to know it, always arrived with the extraction of a Sacred Gland. Every time, the world would shift and I had to fight new enemies in different locations, turning the areas that I had spent hard-earned time learning into totally new experiences. The replayability of this is then further improved by a new NPC who spawns in the Fallgrim Tower. They, for the price of a single Glimpse, will summon the Fog and all the horrors that come with it. If you summon the Fog this way, the only way to escape it is to pay another Glimpse. While in the Fog, you can access the special Frog statue chests throughout Fallgrim, but it was at the cost of more, tougher enemies that could quickly kill you scattered throughout Fallgrim.

Tiel, the Acolyte, holding a Sacred Gland

Overall, I enjoyed my experience, but there were a few things that bothered me, specifically a few rare bugs. They did not happen often, but when they did it usually completely derailed my experience unless I restarted my game or went to talk to Sester Genessa to reset the instance. The most prevalent of these was a Hardening bug. Sometimes, after being broken out of my Harden, the cooldown would never finish, and I would be completely unable to Harden until I died again. While sometimes this gave the game a bit of a new and exciting edge, the mechanic is so vital to the overall balance of the game that losing it, even temporarily like this, was ultimately detrimental.

And yet, despite everything, despite the unforgiving world, the harsh and brutal landscape, the occasional glitches, I could not put this game down. Every swing of my sword, every foe I put to death, it was all exhilarating. Every moment was a struggle between life and death, and that made coming out on top all the more satisfying. To think that something of this caliber, with this much refinement, came from just a core team of 15 people is incredible. I cannot fault them for the bugs, which were both rare and easily fixed, especially in the review copy. If you want a fresh and unique Soulslike experience, then look no further than Cold Symmetry’s Mortal Shell.

Tyler Krasnai
Editor, NoobFeed
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General Information

Mortal Shell

85/100

Platform(s): Xbox One, PS4, PC
Publisher(s): Playstack
Developer(s): Cold Symmetry
Genres: Action RPG
Themes: Fantasy
Release Date: 2020-08-18

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