“I’ve kept your flesh safe, Foundling”
Coming from developer Cold Symmetry is a new entry in the action RPG genre, often called the “Souls-like” genre after its most famous member, Dark Souls. I’ve played and reviewed a fair few of these games now, and have no hesitation in saying that Mortal Shell is very different from all the rest, in both good ways and in the difficulty level of the game. Come with me to the obligatory post-apocalyptic wasteland that these games generally inhabit, and I’ll show you what I mean.
Now, Mortal Shell has some very interesting ideas that immediately open up some distance between it and the rest of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a kart-based racer, and some of the mechanics are pretty similar to what any genre veteran would be familiar with. There is the traditional life bar, and the traditional stamina bar that works in the traditional way; every action you make, be that attacking, dodging or running, causes the bar to deplete, and when it’s empty, you can’t do anything. In most games this is seen as a death sentence, letting your stamina run out, and this is no different. It’s also presented in a third-person perspective, with an enemy lock-on function that keeps the camera locked onto the one you are currently trying to murderise. So far, so good, right? Well, it’s where Mortal Shell deviates from the template that things start to get interesting.
The character you play, the “Foundling” that is referred to in the quote at the top of this review is, in essence, a hermit crab. Bear with me here: the Mortal Shell of the game’s title refers to the dead bodies of warriors that you find dotted about the place; dead bodies that you can inhabit and run about in, like a fleshy suit of armour. Think about that for a moment: you are playing a creature inside a fleshy man suit, running about and trying to stay alive.
Getting your shell damaged too much will cause you to be thrown out of it, and in this state you are like a fish out of water – one good hit will usually kill you. Getting back into your shell is vital, but the enemies that you fight usually have other ideas and will proceed to kick seven bales of whatever colourful metaphor you prefer out of you. Make it back to your shell and you will regain full health, but die too often or too close together, and the second time you are knocked out, it’s curtains. And this is where the rest of the quote at the top comes in: it’s a line from Sister Genessa, an NPC who not only lets you power up the shell you are in, adding extra strength, health or even a cool kick move, but she acts as a checkpoint. She welcomes you back when you revive with that particular quote, and despite thinking to myself “If you’d kept my flesh safe, I wouldn’t have died, love!”, she’s very welcome. She’s the closest thing you are likely to get to a bonfire, and while talking to her doesn’t reset the enemies, it does heal you, and as there is no Estus equivalent here in Mortal Shell, she’s doubly welcome!
Another innovation is in the blocking, or rather the lack of it. There is no traditional block; no shields, no nothing, only a parry that can be unlocked by finding a certain item which requires Resolve to use. Resolve is built up as you fight, and takes the form of a third bar on your HUD, just above the health bar in this case. Each segment represents one parry or kick, and certain items can give you Resolve, while others heal you at the cost of Resolve. Finding the right balance of items to keep yourself alive is very tricky.
What the Foundling can do is harden, which practically sees him turn himself to stone. As you can imagine, this can be used defensively to disrupt an enemy’s flow of attacks, for instance, but with a little lateral thinking it can also be used offensively. Imagine you are swinging your sword at an enemy, and realise it’s going to miss, leaving you open to a counterattack. If you hold the harden button while attacking, the Foundling will freeze in place until he is hit, whereupon he will unharden and finish the attack he started, often while the enemy is off balance. It doesn’t work all the time, and learning enemy attack patterns is absolutely critical, but it’s another string to your bow.
Now we have to address the elephant in the room: the difficulty. Souls-like games live and die on the challenge, and I think the difficulty here is best characterised as “extreme”. Even my wife – who has no interest in these games – remarked that I didn’t die this much playing Dark Souls, and it’s true… this is by far the hardest game of this type I’ve played.
If you have to fight more than one enemy at once (and you will, because they keep piling on!) then you might as well run, especially if they are of different types. As an example, in one area on the way to the first boss, there is a giant hammer guy, a guy with two swords, and a lovely chap with a long spear of some description. Singly, they are manageable, and getting close enough to aggro just one of them is an art form. Aggro all three and you are just pounded into the ground, literally in the case of the dude with the big hammer.
As for the bosses, oh my, I’m still in shock with how quickly they went about flattening me. Now, the good thing is the difficulty doesn’t feel unfair or arbitrary: it feels like the devs sat down and thought “Let’s see how good these guys are!” and any progress you make in Mortal Shell certainly feels earnt. Finally cracking a section that had you stumped is a great feeling, and requires you to be much more careful, much less gung-ho than you would be in Hellpoint, for instance. Having only whatever healing mushrooms or items you’ve managed to scrape together really makes you feel vulnerable too.
Mortal Shell looks great, with wildly different locales, ranging from a deserted library to a swamp and everything in between. The enemies are a mixed bunch, with a lot of imagination thrown in, albeit along the lines of big armed guys, and the Foundling himself is a funny looking thing, all skin and gristle when he’s out of his shell. The sound is great as well – very minimalistic, with the breathing and cries of creatures off-screen clearly audible. It is so good that it is able to cause anxiety before you can see the baddies, which shows the thought that has gone into the world. The only issue I have had is when trying to fight multiple enemies in a confined space, when the camera goes into freakout mode and death is the only possible result. There’s a section that is particularly bad for it, on the way up a tower towards the archive, where if you got surrounded… well, forget surviving. Running and a clean pair of heels will save you more grief in this section than any amount of sword swinging.
All in all, Mortal Shell on Xbox One has delivered a hugely enjoyable and frustratingly, pad bitingly, hard experience. I love the gameplay, the lore and the general ambience, though the difficulty could be a little toned down if I’m honest. But then it is that which acts as a spur to keep you pushing on. Taking down that row of enemies, getting to the item you saw, beating the boss; you really feel like you earn the victories, and the uncompromising way the game deals with you is actually a very big part of what keeps the appeal high.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think if I upgrade my shell a little more that boss is going down!