Mortal Shell

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: PlayStack
Developer: Cold Symmetry
Release Date: March 4, 2021

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PS5 Review - 'Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition'

by Andreas Salmen on Aug. 30, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition is a ruthless and deep action-RPG that tests your sanity and resilience in a shattered world.

Buy Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition

From Software has had a tremendous impact on the video game industry, especially in the indie scene. Many games freely use the concepts and mechanics from Demon's Souls, with varying success. Mortal Shell is another indie game that, at first glance, could easily be dismissed as a clone. Even my girlfriend, who doesn't have much insight into gaming, saw me playing Mortal Shell and asked if I was playing Dark Souls again.

However, Mortal Shell is a lot more than a simple clone. Many who enjoyed Dark Souls will have a tough time with Mortal Shell because it plays and feels different. With the release of the new consoles, Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition provides a chance to jump in for those who had missed it previously or who want a graphics update from the previous-gen version. We reviewed Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition on the PS5 and were quite blown away — mostly because every enemy regularly sent us flying through the air like a ragdoll.

Mortal Shell seems to invite the Souls game comparisons with its gloomy color palette, slow and methodical combat, confusing maze-like world, and cryptic item descriptions. On the other hand, the trimming of RPG mechanics, short runtime, and gameplay novelties twist the game into a direction that is unmistakably its own.

We start the game as a creature referred to as "foundling," which isn't fit for battle. A single hit means instant demise, but it can harden its skin to repel incoming damage for a short time. Fret not, since our pale protagonist can inhabit "shells," or fallen human warriors. There are four shells in the game, each with different stats that determine your health, resolve and stamina. You get the first pretty quickly, but you'll have to search out the rest before you can use them. There is a story, and if you're familiar with Dark Souls, you'll have an idea of the lengths you'll have to go to uncover the lore. Like other Soulslike titles, the journey is fun and engaging enough to make the story irrelevant if you want it to be.

The structure of the game is slightly confusing. The adventure starts in the hub world, Fallgrim, which is an overgrown forest that's intersected by swamps and enemy campfires. What initially looks like a labyrinth with a myriad of similar-looking paths slowly becomes a familiar quantity if you take your time to explore. If you learn your way around the environment and enemies and figure out the path ahead, you'll make good progress and locate a path forward to find new shells and new weapons (which also come in fours).

In the first three hours of the game, we had thoroughly explored Fallgrim and found our base in an old, looming tower. That's where we met Sister Genessa, who we see throughout the adventure to upgrade abilities and shop for special items. Genessa also serves as checkpoints, or Mortal Shell's version of a bonfire. We also meet a mysterious prisoner, tall as the tower and imprisoned within, who asks us to retrieve three sacred glands so he can extract their nectar and free us — and himself — from this realm. So we venture out in search of these glands so that we can depart from this grim world.

A lot of what's in Mortal Shell won't be new if you've played Dark Souls before. However, if you come in with a Dark Souls mindset, Mortal Shell will be frustrating. For all of its similarities, the differences make Mortal Shell an interesting game to experience. Most of the differences are in the combat mechanics. There are no shields to hide behind, but you have other ways to defend yourself. The harden mechanic enables you to momentarily become stone and absorb attack damage to remain unharmed, but it's only available every few seconds.

The harden mechanic is a small change on paper, but it changes the combat dynamics in several neat ways. When jumping into battles, we can slice away until an incoming attack, harden, continue our combo, and leap away for the second attack, having incurred a bit of damage. We can charge up a heavy attack and harden mid-swing, so the enemy might run into our attack and we can hit them hard as soon as their attack bounces off our shell. It encourages more offensive and aggressive combat behavior, but there is a learning curve. It took me the first few hours to learn how to use the mechanic most effectively.

Mortal Shell also has a parry mechanic. Early on, we'll find a tarnished seal that flashes red if incoming attacks are unblockable, and it can also be used to block regular attacks, leaving the enemy open to a follow-up attack or an empowered riposte, which costs resolve. Players earn resolve during combat by dealing and blocking damage, so parries are a high risk-reward mechanic. On the one hand, finding the right parrying window can be difficult since your parry has a wind-up animation. If you pull them off, an empowered riposte is almost always worth it. It inflicts major damage and heals a good chunk of your health. There were a few fights where a last-minute parry saved my skin (or shell) from certain demise. Mortal Shell also borrows a few ideas from the likes of Sekiro, so death is not the end. If your shell runs out of life, you'll be ejected from it, but you'll have the opportunity to continue playing and getting back into your shell without being hit, which grants you a full health bar to continue. By default, you can only do this once, but later in the game, some items and abilities may grant additional retries.

Mortal Shell can be overwhelming with its combat mechanics and confusing hub world that takes some time to navigate, but it eventually clicks. An ideal first approach is to explore every nook and cranny, collect all swords and shells (always located in the direction of one of the three glands that we need to collect), and go after the sacred glands. Exploration counts for the environment and items, since items are entirely unknown at the beginning. The more we use an item, the more we learn about its function. The simplest example is Tarspore mushrooms, which are poisonous when first consumed but grant a poison resistance when eaten repeatedly. Don't make the same mistake that I did and test different items in dangerous situations because you may accidentally end up changing shells in mid-battle.

Each gland is located in a separate dungeon with a different theme, different enemies, and a unique boss fight. The three shrines can be completed in any order, and they aren't usually very long — if you survive them. With the exception of the shrine that goes on for a while and is best tackled last, I enjoyed my time exploring and beating the shrines to retrieve the glands. Each has a different theme, like ice, fire, or a brass-like temple aesthetic. Enemy variety isn't very fleshed out, but since dungeons are usually short, it isn't usually a huge concern or detriment.

Mortal Shell is less of an RPG than many other Soulslikes, but it still has mechanics to improve upon the playable character. Weapons can be upgraded at workbenches, adding special abilities (two per weapon) and damage improvements for the tarnished seal and equipped blade. These upgrades are not reliant on currency but on items in the game world, further emphasizing the importance of exploration. Your shell can be upgraded with one of two currencies: tar and glimpses. Tar is earned for enemy kills and lost upon death. Glimpses are earned through some enemies or items, so they're much rarer, but they're tied to your shell and not lost upon death. If you plan on switching shells, be mindful of which shell you're collecting glimpses with.

Mortal Shell doesn't have the depth of a full leveling system, but the range of shells, weapons, and upgrades provides a few solid ways to play. Shells range from balanced to favoring either health, resolve or stamina. You can play as a mighty damage-absorbing tank or a nimble but weak hunter. Weapons are predominantly heavy two-handers, but they handle well. The starting weapon is a claymore sword, which is followed by an even larger sword infused with ice powers, a heavy molten mace with fire abilities, and one of the quicker and lower-damage weapons, hammer and chisel.

If you find the right upgrade gear and invest in both your shell and weapon, you'll experience a tipping point where the combat and gear fall into place, and suddenly, what seemed so overwhelming and oppressive becomes a cakewalk. As much as I struggled through my first hours, once the first main boss succumbed to my blade, things got quite easy. Bosses were defeated in the first few tries, and until the final boss, nothing could stop me.

The experience may vary depending on the chosen shell. We went with Solomon, a shell with high resolve that enabled us to constantly use upgraded special weapon abilities to inflict high damage to bosses, but that also creates a few pacing issues — especially in the incredibly long shrine that has a dearth of unique enemies. At that point, the level felt like more of a nuisance than a challenge. The game trades difficulty for annoyance in many places during this dungeon, and the experience is not better for it, so the experience can sometimes feel a bit unbalanced. If that is bothersome, you can adjust the difficulty level to make the game harder. If you plan on getting the platinum trophies, you're required to finish the game at least once without using any shell. I'm not willing to put myself through that, but hats off to anyone who does.

I had heard of Mortal Shells, but the Enhanced Edition was my first hands-on experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite some of its pacing and learning curve issues, there were several enjoyable and memorable moments during my first playthrough. Boss encounters were fun, if not overly elaborate, and overcoming the first difficulty spike was pure joy. The game doesn't overstay its welcome with a short and sweet campaign that can last between 7-12 hours, and there is a New Game+ mode.

The Enhanced Edition also looks great on the PS5. The 4K resolution and solid 60fps elevate the experience notably from previous-gen consoles, and it also adds some other benefits, such as haptic feedback. Although it's inconsistently applied, the feedback adds a tangible feeling to some parts of the world. Walking over a lute (which you should learn to play in-game) provides accurate feedback about where you hit it. Adaptive triggers are also used in a muted manner. Since the left trigger is for the harden ability, it vibrates if you press it too soon to signify that harden is still recharging. The right trigger for heavy attacks completely stiffens if you run out of stamina, preventing further heavy attacks. It's a smart implementation that enhances the gameplay, but it's not used in a gimmicky way.

Overall, Mortal Shell: Enhanced Edition succeeds on several levels. It's an excellent update to a surprise indie hit that is still mighty enjoyable for anyone interested in the Soulslike genre. While difficulty and pacing get in the way, Mortal Shell is a short, sweet, and most importantly, challenging game to tide you over to the next main Souls offering.

Score: 8.0/10

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