Comparison helps sell an idea; liken something unknown, to something known to improve understanding. Fallout? Skyrim with guns. Path of Exile? Diablo turned up to 11. A double-edged sword, it can help explain but can be reductive. “Soulslike” is one of those comparative terms. When you hear it, it conveys images in your mind, gives you an idea of what to expect. There’s a decision to be made though, do you lean into it, try to create a homage? Or do you carve your own path? Dancing between the two is a tightrope walk that can be incredibly hard to pull off and yet Mortal Shell does it with grace and poise, even if there are occasional wobbles along the way.
The moment you step foot in Fallgrim, there’s this sense of familiarity just interwoven with the unknown like returning to school after the summer holiday. Everything feels the same, but the classroom is different; new layout, new timetable, same friends. That feeling sat in the back of my head for the first few hours of gameplay as I explored this bleak, damp unwelcoming swamp, the moment I hit a different area; however that feeling was instantly washed away. It’s an impressive skill to be able to put a player at ease while they find their footing, and also make them feel on edge the whole time, Cold Symmetry lived up to their name. Creating a starting area that allows players to get comfortable and start branching out from there.
All sense of comfort flew out the window after stepping in the fifteenth bear trap. That familiar sense of frustration returned after walking into the SAME bear trap while in combat and getting cut down for the mistake. That’s the joy of Mortal Shell, this aspect of precision and awareness, that control in all forms is rewarded and the choice of how many elements you wish to control can increase that enjoyment. Mortal Shell doesn’t have a traditional level system; instead, it operates on a class style system, called Shells… Mortal Shells. Roll Credits. Each shell has a different setup of health, stamina and resolve as well as its own backstory. NPCs will react differently to you depending on which shell you’re wearing, and you can find out more story about the shell as you unlock traits, each coming with a small snippet of their own personal story. Traits can be purchased from Sester Genessa, who seconds as a bonfire in human form, and add an extra layer to how the shell handles. Each shell coming with its own unique set of traits. There are no branching paths with the traits, a simple process of determining in what order to unlock them is as deep as it goes.
There’s also a selection of weapons you’ll unlock and upgrade throughout the game, combined with the shells available these two aspects work together to create a core combat loop that can shift and transform with a single button press. Each shell and weapon can be quickly summoned with a respective item, allowing you to decide for each encounter how you want to proceed. Enemies too fast for your 2 handed sword? Swap to a faster dual wield weapon. Eredrim with his mighty health pool and small stamina bar can take a hit, but what if you need someone who has a bit more stamina to get those combos out? A quick summon of Tiel, and you’re chaining your way to victory.
That’s one of the great things about Mortal Shell, the options available to you, give you more control over each aspect, but only if you want to use it. They aren’t required for success, instead giving you the ability to tailor-make your experience in a way that is personal to your playstyle. If you want to play through the journey with a single shell and weapon, you can. There’s even a shrine to forsake all shells if you’re going to go the insane route and make combat things that little bit harder. If you find yourself getting in over your head, then don’t worry as standard dodge and parry mechanics you’d expect are here to help you defend yourself. Successful parries can even be combined with empowered ripostes to let you gain some much-needed health back. One of the critical combat mechanics though is Harden… And it’s incredible.
Harden can be classified as Mortal Shell’s “Oh NO!” button. If you get overzealous with a combo, or how many enemies you’re fighting, you can Harden, to block damage and slightly stagger the enemy hitting you, giving you that time to regroup. Harden comes with a cooldown, so it’s not an always available action, and it can also be used as an offensive option if so inclined. Attacking and then hardening will pause the attack, meaning once something hits you and breaks the harden, the attack animation will then continue. There is no greater feeling than performing a running heavy attack and hardening mid-jump, waiting for an enemy to break you and unleash the pain.
Combat is not without its issues though. As much as Cold Symmetry has created something enjoyable, frustration can rear its ugly head in places. When death can have such a significant impact on enjoyment, it can become an issue. It’s possible to find yourself on the receiving end of a heavy hit that sends you ragdolling across the environment and lodging you somewhere that you cannot get out of. Enemies can occasionally die and not understand that their time on this mortal plane is over. Instead becoming unkillable and still very much aggressive until the game despawns them, which thankfully is only a few seconds, but can feel like an eternity if you’re low on health and panicking.
Mortal Shell’s problems can be counted on a single hand. Outside of the combat glitches, you can encounter, one of which can hopefully be patched out, the only other glaring issue is pacing. Each temple you are tasked with exploring is a wonderful set-piece filled with its own unique enemies to face and environments to venture through. Still, the length of these can feel inconsistent, a delving curiosity into the unknown pulled short before fully able to submerge.
Mortal Shell is going to inevitably get called “Soulslike”. Compared, dissected and held up to the light to be inspected, and outside of a few cracks, it withstands that scrutiny. Mortal Shell succeeds at carving out its own piece of gloom and despair. Standing on its own without the comparisons, and giving players control over every aspect, to indulge themselves to the degree that they want with lore, shells, weapons, and more to pick and choose from. Whether you want to dive into the darkness and discover what lurks within or sit at a campfire and watch the world go by, an enjoyable experience awaits you.