In the past decade, souls-like games have exploded in popularity and turned what was once a niche into a thriving genre. Building on well-established design principles, Mortal Shell does a tremendous job of progressing the gameplay of the genre and delivers an experience that feels “next-gen.” Everything about Mortal Shell feels like a videogame of the future; the graphics are gorgeous, the animations fluid, and the audio is brilliantly nuanced. The game is a significant step forward in terms of overall presentation and polish. For the price of 29.99, I am completely floored at the amount of quality content and hours of entertaining gameplay that this title provides.
The core gameplay loop of Mortal Shell is similar to that of a souls-like. Players will move between areas slaying enemies until they find a boss and unlock more levels to explore. Where Mortal Shell begins to stand out is with how the game breaks the monotony of continuous combat. Certain areas require more than just defeating difficult enemies to traverse through. Puzzles involving vastly different mechanics like pressure plates and teleporters help keep the game refreshing and break up gameplay sections heavy with combat.
While travelling through the environment, players can find Shells that are empty suits of armor that change character stats and abilities. These Shells are a key feature to gameplay and the reason Mortal Shell is so unique. Think of Shells as a combination of a character class like Warrior or Rogue and a suit of armor. Mortal Shell uses these items to help players find different playstyles and break the monotony of combat. Through these Shells, players can level up and obtain new skills and upgrades. Different Shells will have varying amounts of health and stamina and unlock all kinds of powerful skills and playstyles.
A critical difference between Mortal Shell and its predecessors is the game’s addition of abilities. Each combat encounter is unique and interacts with the environment to make the game never feel repetitive or boring. Players can use the ability Harden to turn to stone, which prevents being knocked down or taking any damage. Harden works on a cooldown timer that can be shortened via upgrades. This ability is crucial to the highly detailed gameplay and non-repetitive combat loop of Mortal Shell. Players can Harden at any time, including mid-attack, jump, or dodge. This ability to prevent damage at any time combines with the game’s environment to make hundreds of ways to attack and battle with enemies.
Everything from combat to petting a cat is implemented perfectly. The game felt as if it had a massive studio behind it with an army of QA testers. I did not encounter a single bug or hiccup the entire time I played. Every object interacted with others flawlessly. Items like bear traps and even lutes had immense detail, such as different reactions to players brushing past or stepping on them. This level of polish and detail is present everywhere in Mortal Shell.
The game world is absolutely stunning. Detailed reflections combine with crystal clear textures to present a game that is visually impressive and could easily be called “next-gen.” Certain areas are foggy and confusing, while others uniform and easily navigatable. The dynamic environment creates a flow to exploration that feels incredibly rewarding. Multiple times it kept me playing until the wee hours of the morning. That being said, while the game was graphically gorgeous, there were a few areas where I found myself questioning the level design. Speaking generally to avoid spoilers-there is a point in the game when, after completing a somewhat lengthy and challenging puzzle, players find themselves needing to cross a series of narrow passages filled with enemies. This is standard video game practice in most cases, but where the issue lies is in the design of these enemies on the narrow passages. I counted at one point 26 of the exact same enemy in a row between checkpoints. Unlike all of the others in the game, these enemies felt very gimmicky and placed on the map without any real thought or reason. I can understand if the developers were trying to add a spike in difficulty or an area that players would talk about and dread going through. Still, it felt out of place with the rest of the game, and it was one rare moment I found myself not enjoying the game.
From the first boss encounter, it’s clear that Mortal Shell does things differently. Rather than forcing you to level up or “git gud” to defeat the first boss, the game instead rewards clever thinking. Once players enter the first boss arena, they immediately can see a chest of loot behind the enemy. Usually, players would have to kill the boss to get the loot, but not in Mortal Shell; instead, players could distract the monster and grab the loot chest before killing it. MILD SPOILER WARNING. I won’t tell you precisely what is in the chest, but it makes the first boss fight significantly more manageable. The trend of unexpected boss mechanics continues throughout the game. Several boss encounters share a similar design, but the variety in enemy design prevents any boss fights from feeling repetitive or copied.
Boss fights are challenging but do not feel insurmountable; the first few may take tons of tries, but as the game goes on, players learn to use the Shells and abilities. Defeating later bosses feels rewarding and reassures players that they have been progressing and getting better at the game. END MILD SPOILERS. The careful balancing of boss fights drives players to keep trying without being overly frustrating, and that can lead to plenty of “Just one more try!”
My Favourite Things
The reason I was so impressed with Mortal Shell was not the fluid gameplay or next-gen quality graphics, but how the game was different from its peers. The most significant difference from other souls-like games is character progression. Instead of levelling up base stats like “HP” or “strength,” each different Shell has its own unique lore-based upgrades that do so much more than increase damage or base hit points. My favorite example of this unique progression system was the Shell Solomon, the Scholar. An unsatisfiable hunger for knowledge drove Solomon to his demise. This same desire for learning is evident in his skill tree. Rather than gain increasing damage or offensive abilities, Solomon levelled up and gained buffs from speaking with NPCs or reading pieces of lore. The more I levelled up his odd skills, the more I learned about Solomon, and that made me feel connected to the game in a way that I didn’t think possible. The addition of Solomon and the differences between Shells was executed flawlessly. Even after this review, I will be playing Mortal Shell to fully upgrade and learn everything I can about each Shell.
Another mechanic made possible by the use of Shells is what I have referred to in the past as “Sonic’s Rings.” In Mortal Shell, when players get hit for their last point of health instead of dying immediately, they are thrust out of their Shell and must scramble to reclaim it along with their lost HP, much like Sonic and his gold rings. Also, like Sonic without his rings, players without a Shell are only one more blow away from game over. The addition of this last chance style mechanic further expands players’ options in combat and adds tension to every encounter. Players can fight aggressively, knowing they still have that last stand, or conversely be cautious knowing they need to make it back to their Shell or risk losing valuable experience points. Often I would let my Shell sit in the corner and only reclaim it when I knew I needed the health back, using it almost like a bonus healing item. As the title suggests, Shells are a massive part of the game, and the mechanics created by them are a significant reason as to why Mortal Shell is so much fun to play.
As soon as I launched the game, I was impressed with its graphics. The game’s dynamic menu was full of life and motion. Whenever I would make it to a new area or progress further in the story, the menu would change to reflect my progress. It was a small addition, but it helped make me feel connected to the game and its story. The player model and the different Shells available not only looked polished and finely detailed but were also animated flawlessly. Often in games, I’ll see a cape clip through a weapon or a dodge awkwardly force the player against a rock or through an object that should stop them-not in Mortal Shell. Each animation was designed with collisions in mind, and it showed. I often found myself saying out loud, “This is what next-gen games will look like!” or “I feel like I’m playing PS5!” To put it plainly, the game is gorgeous.
While not the most impressive feature, the game audio does an outstanding job of utilizing silence. Swells in volume elevate boss fights. Chilling silence fills damp halls. Every sound adds to the environment and helps to further immerse players in the game. The audio, like many aspects of this game, is nuanced yet flawless in execution.
Mortal Shell Review
- GAMEPLAY - 100%100%
- LEVEL DESIGN - 93%93%
- GRAPHICS - 100%100%
- AUDIO - 95%95%
From the outside, Mortal Shell may look like another souls-like, but the game is so much more. The passionate and small team of developers at Cold Symmetry is comprised of veterans of the industry, and it shows. Mortal Shell pushes all video games forward with the way it handles player progression and sets a new standard for the level of polish present in modern games. Every moment in the game from playing the lute to crawling through swamps feels intuitive and works together to build a world that players will get lost in. Mortal Shell is a magnificent change of pace from most games and is a prime example of how prioritizing quality over quantity can produce a masterpiece.