Meet Dark Souls Lite?
Mortal Shell is an action role-playing game that was recently released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. Anyone familiar with the “action role-playing” genre will straight away be aware that it is a sub-genre born from a particular franchise made famous by From Software, Dark Souls, or Souls-Like as the genre has become known. Famous for its challenging yet rewarding game play style we have seen many studios try their hand at the formula with varying results but in my opinion, none have ever done such a good job as to almost be a clone yet carry its own weight up until now.
Now just to make things clear, I have a love-hate relationship with the formula, back in 2010 when I was still working for GameStation (may she rest in peace) an obscure game called Demon’s Souls came out with little press or fanfare, the game promised a deep RPG experience with punishing difficulty all wrapped in a dark fantasy setting, well, I didn’t have to think twice about giving that a try! What followed was a series of inventive swear words mixed with facial expressions that can only be described as not knowing if I was going to fart or sneeze as I tackled dungeons riddled with savage enemies, devious traps and badass bosses that engulfed the screen, most of whom could smite me down with one blow. The stress was real as was the price of buying new PS3 controllers but by golly was it a rewarding experience when I conquered a new area and defeated a boss after several attempts at a long-winded brouhaha! Obviously, with such a precise genre there are going to be some comparisons to the core Souls series but I will do my best to ensure these are only for ease of understanding for new and seasoned players alike as well as explaining how Mortal Shell has many elements that make it uniquely different.
Mortal Shell takes place in a dark decaying world.
A place where power metal bands film most of their music videos and if you search you will soon find a few friends to help you in your journey. Instead of the typical create a character set up you begin as a wraith-like entity known as The Foundling. After a brief tutorial, you are set loose in Fallgrim Forest which will act as the main exploration area and something of a HUB for the core game-play and what a HUB indeed. The forest reeks of dark brooding vibes with intricate art design that makes everything seem nightmarishly dangerous yet somehow hauntingly beautiful. Exploring this labyrinth of a forest will be the bread and butter of the experience but don’t let your guard down, the forest is full of dangerous foes from your basic and heavy-based enemies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses to learn and exploit but don’t be fooled, even the most scrawny of enemies can pack a punch and take you down if you let your guard down.
Every so often you will turn a corner and encounter some big hairy bastard with fake nails so big they’d make even the most experienced Claire’s Accessories worker jealous! and you will suddenly be in for a more intense fight that will likely see you dying several times before conquering your foe. But these regular defeats are both ass clenchingly annoying and addictively satisfying. Taking the time to learn each enemies attack pattern and knowing when to go in for a few hits and when to perform a succession of roly polys to avoid grim death will be the order of the day and make each attempt a learning experience until you taste victory.
General combat consists of light and heavy attacks with a small selection of combos.
Actions such as sprinting, rolling and swinging your weapons will all drain stamina so balancing your offence with your defensive strategy will become second nature for anyone who wants to experience more than the opening tutorial. Knowing when to land some hits but leaving just enough stamina to make a tactical retreat if things go pear-shaped is key for you to complete your quest. As with every Souls-Like, if you die, you lose all the experience you have earnt but after respawning, you have the opportunity to reclaim your body if you can fight your way back to where you died and recover it thus gaining your lost experience, but if you die before recovering it, you lose it for good adding an addictive risk and reward element to the general progression.
As mentioned, you begin life as The Foundling, pretty much an albino fleshling that has no strength or abilities whatsoever, so how then are you suppose to brave this world of beasts and monsters? By possessing the bodies of fallen warriors, or as the game likes to call them, Shells. There are four Shells to find and each one has its own specific stat levels to suit a range of players. Where traditional RPGs will let you micromanage stats to build your own custom character, Mortal Shell ops to make things a lot simpler by associating its three core attributes of Health, Stamina and Resolve (an attribute that builds up over time allowing you to pull off more powerful moves) to specific shells.
The first shell you find will be a general all-rounder, with balanced health, stamina and resolve levels, but by exploring and locating the other three, you will have a choice for a more beefy tank class with a huge HP bar but lacking in stamina and resolve, handy for newcomers who need a bit more forgiveness in combat while learning the ropes, a rogue class with a high stamina bar for those who favour a lot of dodging and quick attacks (the Bloodborne fan in me gravitated to this glass instantly) and the fourth, you guessed it, favours resolve as a core attribute.
Each shell can also be upgraded in a mechanic that is best described as unlocking memories, you can unlock these by acquiring Glimpses on your travels, the first step is to unlock the name of the shell which will show you the upgrades you can seek to apply. These are very specific to each shell and will help you tailor your experience, for example, I opted to play as the Rogue Shell, “Tiel, The Acolyte” who had upgrades such as a twenty per cent chance that a hit would take a chunk of my stamina instead of HP. Other shells had abilities that could unbalance foes with a kick or to resist being knocked down etc.
This is my shell.
To go with these four shells is four weapons to locate, upon finding them you must be victorious in a combat challenge to earn the weapon making things a bit more interesting than just finding the tallywhacker or smiting just conveniently laying on a table somewhere ready for some plucky adventurer to come along and add it to their collection. The thing I enjoyed about these fights was I got to see the weapon in action, learning the attacks and how effective they were against me gave me a good idea of tactics to use if I decided to equip the weapon once I had earned it. You will also be able to upgrade each weapon but chances are you will want to decide which shell and weapon combo works for your particular play style and just stick with that build, at least for your first run through.
The genre is known for its punishing combat.
Mortal Shell is no exception, even to go as far as to say the first hour or so will have you feeling like this is pretty much a direct Dark Souls clone but persevere and you will find there is much more to enjoy, I wouldn’t go as far as to say the game gets easier but there are several abilities that when used correctly can make the experience a bit more forgiving. The first comes in the form of your shell, it has the ability to harden and absorb the full impact of a hit, most useful for if you misjudge an enemies attack pattern and have no stamina to evade, you can harden and take the hit. It can also be used offensively if you are charging up a heavy attack and an enemy leaps towards you, just harden, take the blow and the attack will unleash once you come out of the hardened state. Harden only lasts a couple of seconds but will vary between shells, it also has a short cooldown so cannot be spammed, but add’s a welcomed tactical element to combat.
If you do lose all your health you will be knocked out of your shell, now as The Foundling you are extremely vulnerable as in so much as a tap on the cheek or even a spicy fart will finish you off, but if you can get back to your shell you can recover full health and stay in the fight. This only has one use per run though so don’t get reckless. Health items are scarce, in fact, the core way or regaining health in Mortal Sell is not by drinking potions but by mastering the parry system, if you manage to parry an attack perfectly you will put the enemy into a stunned state which will allow you to drain a large chunk of health causing heavy damage to your enemy and replenishing yourself in the process. The parry window is very short and timing is crucial to success, think of it as a cross between the Visceral Attack and Regen system in Bloodborne. One other tip I might offer players, especially newcomers or those struggling with bosses. If you get killed and are returning to regain your previous body, bear in mind that by reclaiming you also gain full health, this can be handy during particularly tough encounters, reenter the arena, start your fight and if you take a pasting, grab your conveniently located body and get a nice replen of health to keep you in the fight. All these elements are a welcomed change of pace and can be used to the players content, though my ability to parry was abysmal my choice of using Tiel allowed me a much more dynamic combat style to make up for my lack of ability to press a button at the right time.
Aside from the moody forest, there are three core dungeons to locate, within each dungeon a more sinister challenge awaits with sub and main bosses to conquer, only by doing this will you be able to complete your quest. I really enjoyed the range of bosses on offer, though granted I wasn’t saying that at the time when they were handing me my ass several times in a row but the tough by fair design made facing each one rewarding experience. Having to spend less time tarting around with stats and character builds also meant Mortal Shell had a bit more straight to business vibe than others in the genre and once I settled on my shell and weapon I was as happy as could be for the most part. Fallgrim Forest was fun to explore, with various secret areas and crawl spaces to shuffle through in the search for upgrade materials and shortcuts while having plenty of enemies to keep me warm on my way to each of the core dungeons, all the ingredients are present for a great Souls-Like experience and as someone who loved Demon’s Souls, hated Dark Soul’s but loved Bloodborne and have dabbled in various others in the genre from The Surge to Darksiders 3, I can safely say Mortal Shell is one of the best I have played.
It would be wrong to call Mortal Shell Dark Souls Lite. Yes, it carries a large amount of the same ingredients and it is a shorter experience depending on your skill level but it’s not asking full price. Coming in at a generous £24.99 there is plenty to be impressed with, from the high-end visuals to the tight gameplay and intriguing lore. Hats off to developers Cold Symmetry for bringing something to a crowded genre that can truly stand on its own two feet and provides a great experience for both seasoned players and newcomers looking to dip their toes. Obviously, by default, the formula is not for everyone, but they have nailed it for the core audience.
Review code provided
Format: PC, Xbox, PlayStation
Genre: RPG, Action
Developer: Cold Symmetry
Download link: Microsoft Store