Mortal Shell Review: Delightfully Dark and Difficult (PS4)

Cold Symmetry's Mortal Shell is a love letter to Dark Souls fans. This deep-action RPG sets you in a world with beasts and bosses to vanquish, along with a dark world to discover. Although exciting in its own ways--through difficult encounters and unique mechanics--it still has dislikable issues that don't hold the brightest candle to its inspirations.

Mortal Shell Review: Delightfully Dark and Difficult (PS4) Cover

Mortal Shell was a surprising adventure from start to finish. I can’t say with certainty whether or not fans of the Souls-like genre would like this game by developer Cold Symmetry. But from the perspective of someone who has only dabbled in a bit of Bloodborne before realizing I couldn’t defeat Father Gascoigne without crying myself to sleep at night, I think this game holds up quite well against its competitors.

Clearly, the developers who made this game are huge fans of the Dark Souls games, as the vibes from even someone who never played them are remnant from the characters, level design, and combat. The further I dive into the game, the more I realize how important every detail was to the creators of this fascinating world.

Even so, there are still unique and interesting mechanics that set Mortal Shell apart from its inspirations. Instead of constantly comparing it to what they aspired to be, I’ll be discussing what the title was still able to achieve on its own merit, despite its shortcomings.

Mortal Shell - Official Release Date Trailer

Mortal Shell is available for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and coming in 2021 to Steam.

Story – A Perplexing Mystery

What’s in the story is almost about what isn’t. The game begins and ends in subtle mysteries for the player to find for themselves, or theorize on their own. Voices unknown recite scriptures and quotes that puzzle me more and more each time I listen. Mortal Shell invites players to seek the story on their own, but doesn’t discourage anyone just playing to roll credits.

Get to know your shells more and more throughout the game.

Get to know your shells more and more throughout the game.

Some players may find this entertaining and inviting. I, however, couldn’t fully get into the lore of the world, even though Sester Genessa’s explanations were insightful. She is one of the main NPCs you can talk to, who’s always there to set your revive point or acquire some abilities. I especially got interested each time she’d flirt with us about missing some of what she calls “human pleasures”, cough cough.

Despite this slight setback, this leaves the player to let the story unfold in their minds. You’re a wandering soul who takes the shells of fallen warriors. You fight boss after boss as the world twists and changes around you constantly. One thing’s for sure, the unknown is scarier than the known.

Gameplay – Heavy Yet Rhythmic

Let’s be honest. Everyone who started their first Dark Souls or Bloodborne got frustrated out of their minds because they couldn’t get past the first boss if their life depended on it. I was exactly the same. The first camp I came across annihilated me twenty times over, destroying my confidence in the game’s systems. Even near the end of the game, I was disappointed in the lack of choice for difficulty settings.

But every time you die, you get right back up and learn what you did wrong. That’s the beauty of this unforgiving game, it wants you to fail so when you succeed, you feel even stronger than before. The further I’d get into the game, the easier it was for me to tackle new and more enemies. This still didn’t stop me from getting frustrated when enemies two times my size or in a large group would screw me over.

You have no idea how many times those things have tried to eat my face off.

You have no idea how many times those things have tried to eat my face off.

What I found the most interesting after hours of playtime was how rhythmic the combat felt. Once you get the hang of the mechanics—hardening instead of blocking, or using the talisman instead of parrying—you know what you’re getting into before each encounter. But the amount of combat options reaches its limit with the same few light and heavy attacks.

This doesn’t make it any less satisfying when you meet a group of enemies and decide how to face them. Lure some out, kill them swiftly, then find the big guys in the back and muster up enough resolve to parry. The more I played, the more I fell in love with the unique mechanics they designed.

Your warrior comes across many caskets like this.

Your warrior comes across many caskets like this.

That being said, there were some things I had taken issue with. First off, I seemed to never get my hands on enough healing items, and the timing for parrying was a little imbalanced. Even if you succeeded, the payoff was only a minuscule amount of health. The flipside to this is being able to upgrade your talisman and improve this, but it was still frustrating throughout the entire playthrough.

Another quite noticeable annoyance was the sometimes unresponsive dodge. It seemed to happen so often that I’m still not sure whether or not it’s just me not having enough stamina or pressing it right, or it’s some sort of glitch. Some of the movements you try to complete seem to have a bit of latency or don’t respond whatsoever, leaving me defenseless against my foes.

Graphics – Beauty In Darkness

Mortal Shell may not hold up to the AAA exclusives and titles we usually get, but it’s still a game that lures your eyes in its different environments. From ice caves, to swampy forests, and dark crypts, a lot of effort was put into every nook and cranny. Sadly though, it could still pass as a game created a few years back. At least my frame-rate levels almost never dipped.

The sculpture in the ice cave was mesmerizing.

The sculpture in the ice cave was mesmerizing.

The environments, though distinct, were best at getting you lost and confused. I’d have to check a walkthrough dozens of times to try and find where I was going. Its many winding mazes of paths could sometimes get frustrating when all you wanted to do was find your way back to your girlfriend-I mean, Sester Genessa.

Even so, once you get the hang of which routes you took, it wasn’t as difficult. The game even lets you look through “instincts”--enchanted runes or stones with future visions pointing you where to go. The best part about these instincts is that each major place you have to travel has a distinct landmark, such as a graveyard, or a burning effigy.

Sound – Mediocre Background Noise

There isn’t much to say about the sounds in Mortal Shell. You hear the frogs croaking, or an enemy dragging his ball and chain around. It’s the kind of auditory atmosphere you’d expect from a dark RPG. There’s a sinister creepiness through some of the sounds they use when you’re traversing through a dark cavern, but something felt missing.

Maybe it was a soundtrack. Maybe it was more sound effects. Whatever replaced it was a little forgettable. There’s nothing wrong with the ambiance of the environments, but nothing jumped out to me as memorable or fantastic. Usually, I lean on the background sounds and music to feel more immersed in the game, but nothing like that happened in Mortal Shell.

Dark Souls: Guitar Hero Edition.

Dark Souls: Guitar Hero Edition.

Although…there was one magical musical moment. I’d tackled my first camp, and looked around in their chest to find a lute. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I used it, until my dark warrior sat criss-cross-applesauce on the forest floor and jammed out on the instrument. I’m glad a game with so much doom and gloom can crack a joke or two.

Mortal Shell was reviewed on PS4 with a review key provided by Evolve PR.

Mortal Shell is a reimagining of what a Souls-like game can be. Although it's not a near-perfect game, it pushed the boundaries of what a smaller studio can do. Through all of its hiccups, this dark RPG brings unique mechanics and heavy combat to a different level, but leaves behind some important features that would've improved the experience altogether.
  • Interesting enemy encounters
  • Unique mechanics
  • Mysterious lore-driven world
  • Frustrating combat sequences
  • Lack of healing abilities
  • Technical hiccups
  • No choice of difficulty

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