Monday, August 17, 2020

[Review] ‘Mortal Shell’ Can’t Quite Escape the Shadow of ‘Dark Souls’ Despite its Interesting Combat Ideas

It’s rather easy to make comparisons between games in reviews. There’s a clear blend of genre mechanics and styles that bleed into so many different games these days that it’s practically impossible to avoid mentioning that game Z borrows from games A-Y to some degree.

Then there are games that brazenly try and emulate a particular success story, and that invites extra scrutiny because if you’re going to essentially remake something iconic, you need to do something at least a bit better than it. Sometimes that happens, but mostly, you just end up wishing you were playing the very thing being ‘homaged’. That is, initially at least, the case with Mortal Shell.

Developer Cold Symmetry’s game is ‘homaging’ Dark Souls in a lot of familiar ways. There’s a Gothic/ Medieval aesthetic, methodical, punishing melee-based combat, a vague story that promises something deeper if you scratch beneath the surface. Even down to the way you awaken as a wretched version of yourself and restore some semblance of humanity (here it’s by ‘stealing’ corpses and using them as a ‘shell’ for your semi-spectral husk) is lifted from the From Software series. 

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At this point, when there have been countless insipid attempts at recreating the winning Souls formula, and the notable successes generally do one important thing; they put in something genuinely fresh. See The Surge 2’s limb-lopping cyber-take, or Nioh’s Japanese mythology and history come to life. In this regard, Mortal Shell begins by feeling underwhelmingly unoriginal. It undeniably takes time for its differences to truly grow out of the long shadow cast by its inspiration.

As with Mortal Shell’s inspiration, combat is about fighting one or two enemies at a time in sword-based duels (other weapons are available), and naturally, this means one mistimed move is near-fatal. The usual cycles of dodge, block, parry, and attack permeate each and every battle, and it’s essential to learn as fast as possible because providing healing items isn’t really Mortal Shell’s style, instead implementing health retrieval via the combat itself. Parrying builds up a Resolve meter that eventually gives the player an opportunity to strike a critical blow against foes, and gain some health in the process. Until you’re familiar with this process, expect to die swiftly and often.

The ‘Harden’ ability is where Mortal Shell actually differs most. An alternative to the block and parry technique, it reinforces your body with a stony substance that roots you in place and repels an attack, which can help to draw an enemy in before reverting back to normal and striking them. It comes with a significant cooldown period, meaning it doesn’t end up feeling pointless to have two block/parry systems. 

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Harden is inarguably Mortal Shell’s neatest trick as it gives the overfamiliar set of mechanics some much-needed tactical depth. Something that is quite necessary for Mortal Shell given it relies on its combat to do the heavy lifting.

The other key difference is in how the game handles its ‘classes’ instead of being bogged down with a choice from the start, you can inhabit different ‘shells’ and thus play in different styles. Some shells are from hulking, lumbering warriors, others more graceful and quick. This also affects what weapons are used, which makes for interesting shifts in gameplay and allows for experimentation where sheer frustration may have otherwise been.

Impatience has always been a players’ biggest enemy in games like these, as the cycle of death chips away at resolve, causing increasingly rash decision-making as frustration builds. The laboring boredom of having to repeat a section time and again, making little or no progress is something that can be tough to accept. Ordinarily, if you’ve picked the wrong loadout for the job, you’re pretty much going to have to drive through the frustration or start over. Mortal Shell’s body-hopping system means you can flit between types to suit the situation.

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Interestingly, the shells have backstories that can be discovered as you level up and gain abilities. The story is typically ambiguous, asking you to unearth it through objects in the world, but at least the shells bring something a bit different to the table.

None of this would matter much if Mortal Shell wasn’t at least half-decent to play, and I’d argue that it’s more accessible than a Souls game whilst still managing to maintain depth and mastery. Unfortunately, the feeling of it doesn’t sit quite right with me. In boss fights, it arguably shines brightest, where your various abilities come to the fore and showcase the game at its very best. The ‘harden’ system alongside the scarcity of health makes each of these epic encounters feel like the fight to the death they are. Against lesser foes, it doesn’t have quite the same luster to it. Dangerous enough to see you die easily, but rarely as interesting or engaging as they could be beyond being practice for the bigger showdowns.

It took a lot to get myself out of the mindset that this was styled a little too much like its direct inspiration. The early going was unpleasant and dreary. I did not expect to like Mortal Shell in that first hour. That had everything to do with how it was presented and my expectations of that, but once it opens up, the comparison begins to feel a lot less fair, even if it does remain valid to some degree. It scratches that Souls itch, and does some interesting things with combat. It feels like there’s a peak it should hit that it ultimately doesn’t quite reach, so instead, the endgame ends up rather routine.

This is a game made by a relative handful of people, and viewing it from that perspective, the whole package is more impressive, and shows plenty of room for growth in any future project. It certainly explains the limitations and faults found in certain areas. It doesn’t excuse them, but that knowledge does soften their impact. 

Mortal Shell review code for PS4 provided by the publisher.

Mortal Shell is out digitally on August 18 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC via the Epic Games Store. A physical edition will release in October.


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