Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition Review

Matt Lorrigan

Mortal Shell is a game that isn’t shy about its Dark Souls inspirations. Stamina-based combat, a parry-and-riposte system, a gloomy medieval fantasy world - it offers all the staples you’d expect, and it executes them surprisingly well, along with offering a few of its own unique ideas. Following a short, linear tutorial, you’re thrown into a boss fight that new players will be nowhere near equipped to beat (sound familiar?). Playing as a creature known as The Foundling - a mouthless humanoid figure of ash-white tendons and muscle - you crawl out of the milky fog of purgatory and emerge blinking into the dense, gloomy forest of Fallgrim.

It’s here that you’ll find the first of the game’s titular “Shells”; Harros the Vassal, a deceased warrior that the Foundling can possess and puppeteer like a heavily-armoured marionette. You’ll find four Shells across the course of the game, and each shell offers a different spread across the game’s three major stats - Health, Stamina and Resolve - essentially turning classes into collectibles.


Using tar (Mortal Shell’s equivalent of souls) characters can be upgraded with new abilities, both passive and active, but those three major stats can’t be increased at all. So if you decide you’d rather be bulkier and absorb more hits, or if you’re always running out of stamina, you’ll have to venture forth to find the right Shell for your playstyle. It’s a unique way of tackling classes, with each found like a new weapon in the game world, but in practice in doesn’t work quite the way it should do - having spent a lot of my resources upgrading Harros with new perks and abilities, jumping into a new non-upgraded Shell felt like taking a step back, and I never felt inclined to mix it up despite the varying stat bonuses.

A location called Fallgrim Tower serves as your Firelink Shrine-like hub area, with friendly NPCs to chat and trade with and a bench to upgrade your weapons, and it offers a nice respite from the doom and gloom beyond its stone walls. It's here you’ll find ghostly visions of the remaining weapons and Shells out in the world – touching these apparitions will give you a short glimpse of the path you need to take to find them, giving you only a few landmarks along the way, and tasks you with finding your way there. Without a clear end goal and no defined starting path, you’re left to your own devices, and for the first couple of hours, this can prove frustrating.

In fact, the game thrives on the player's ignorance in the opening hours, and this is compounded by one major gameplay mechanic that is as interesting as it is maddening. Any time you find a new item in the game, you’ll have absolutely no idea what it does. In order to find out its properties and effects, you’ll have to use it at least once. This can lead to you consuming poisonous mushrooms that quickly drain your health, or using a powerful and useful item when you’re not in a combat situation. Because of this, the early hours of Mortal Shell can be punishing, but persevere and you’ll be rewarded with a rich Souls-like that gives as much back as you put in, its world slowly opening up more of its secrets as you discover new areas and learn the intricacies of combat.

Enemies hit hard in Mortal Shell, and it’s all too easy to bite off more than you can chew by taking on too many opponents at once. The combat is classic Souls fare, with a light and heavy attack that can be combined together to form some rudimentary combos. Your stamina bar is key, as essential for dodging as it is for attacking. Mortal Shell does bring its own wrinkles to the party, though - shields are replaced with a “hardening” system that sees your character develop a stony carapace capable of taking almost any hit without damage. It works as a fantastic get-out-of-jail-free card, but it comes with a cooldown, meaning it can’t be easily spammed. You have the ability to harden during any animation, including attacks, and this proves invaluable, allowing you to launch slow but strong attacks, hardening midway through to absorb an enemy blow before landing your own powerful hit. 

A more risky defensive option is available in the form of a parry, which requires precision timing but opens the enemy to a riposte (if you have enough resolve built up) which will heal the player while dealing damage to your foe. This can be the difference between life and death in some of the more tricky moments, with healing items at a premium. Mortal Shell does away with the tradition of a standard healing item that refills on death, instead asking players to harvest healing mushrooms dotted around the world, or to raid MOB camps for roasted rats. If you suddenly find yourself midway through a boss fight and out of mushrooms, that parry and healing riposte combo can prove essential to keeping you alive, and nailing it feels fantastic. With only four weapons available, the developer has been able to fine tune each one to make them feel unique and powerful, making it easy to find the combat style for you


Speaking of boss fights, they often prove the highlight of the game. Limited in number, each proves a unique challenge – one might force you to perfect your parrying, while another will require you to make the most of the hardening ability. The design of each boss is wonderfully unsettling, and the attention to detail in their animation is brilliant. In fact, enemy animations across the board are excellent in Mortal Shell, which proves vital to the gameplay – you’ll watch closely as foes shift their weight and adjust their grip on their weapon in lovely detail before launching attacks, and it makes it easy to learn their tells as they telegraph their swings. 

The game’s visuals are great across the board, too, and while fidelity isn’t its strongest aspect, the visual design and art style is consistently fantastic. This is backed up by some fab audio, as you hear an enemy breathing heavily around the corner or the cracking of trees and wood in the forest. There isn’t an awful lot of voice acting in the game, but where there is, it’s surprisingly good. Despite being made by a small team and clocking in at a download of about 4GB, Mortal Shell feels like a quality product with a much higher budget, even with the occasional glitch or two across the game’s 15-hour runtime.

By the time you reach the game’s conclusion, that overwhelming open world from the opening hours feels much smaller, the enemies you struggled with before are easily brushed aside, and you’ll be gleefully jumping into New Game+. Your progress is as much about your knowledge of the game as it is the upgrades to your abilities and weapons – the more you discover and experiment in Mortal Shell, the easier it becomes, until you find yourself sprinting through an area in minutes that had previously taken you hours. In this way, it takes some of the best lessons from Dark Souls, and streamlines it into a smaller but slightly more accessible experience. For a debut title, it’s fair to say that Cold Symmetry has created something special with Mortal Shell, even if it can often show a little too much reverence to FromSoftware’s greatest work.

Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition

Mortal Shell pays homage to FromSoftware's greats, offering its own unique gameplay wrinkles and an excellent combat system. With only three major dungeons and four weapons, this is a streamlined experience, and if you can push past the slightly frustrating opening hours then you'll find a wonderfully rewarding Souls-like that will keep you coming back for more.

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80%
Audio
90%

Best listened to with headphones, Mortal Shell offers excellent voice acting and fantastic sound effects on everything from weapons to enemies.

Visuals
85%

A stunning and cohesive art design makes Mortal Shell a feast for the eyes, and enemy animations are great when telegraphing attacks, feeding nicely into the combat.

Playability
85%

It might take a little bit of time to get to grips with, but Mortal Shell's combat is nearly as satisfying as the game that inspired it. The unique hardening system and satisfying parry, combined with meaty weapon strikes and complex dungeons, mean Mortal Shell plays wonderfully.

Delivery
75%

Mortal Shell has fewerboss fights and unique locations than many games of the genre, instead bringing a more streamlined offering. The shell class system doesn't work quite a well as it should, and we ran into a couple of bugs along the way, but otherwise this feels like a premium, high-quality product. New Game+ offers longevity beyond the first playthrough.

Achievements
70%

This is a nice list to make your way through, although there are one or two punishing achievements that will take a lot of skill and patience to get, and will almost certainly require multiple playthroughs.

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