Mortal Shell Review

August 27, 2020
Also on: PC, Xbox One
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Also on:
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The Soulslike is a genre that has grown more and more saturated over the years, and at this point it takes a truly unique spin on the genre to stand out in a crowded field. Mortal Shell asks the question: what would a Soulslike be like if — instead of having a shield — you had the ability to harden at will like a Weedle. The game builds its core gameplay around this mechanic, and it’s certainly a novel and fresh way to engage in combat. The rest of the game is a 3D action adventure that takes place in a surreal, grim fantasy universe in which you must fight one challenging foe after another with few checkpoints in sight. In that sense, you’ll be in familiar territory if you’re a fan of FromSoftware’s games or their many impersonators. As its own game, I found Mortal Shell at turns thrilling and mysterious and then agonizing and infuriatingly opaque. On my base PS4 playthrough, I also encountered various bugs and egregious loading times that left me with the impression that the game lacked polish. I would suggest the journey only for the most hardcore, looking for a strange remix on formula. 

I suppose this isn’t a “No Shirt No Service” kind of shoppe. 

You start off in Mortal Shell as a sinewy body, crawling out of a strange tube like a newborn baby, and then wandering around a bog with no idea where to go, until you come upon the playfully named Hadern - a being made of pure tutorial that you must fight each time you unlock a new weapon. Soon after, you find your first shell, which are bodies you can inhabit. The four shells you find in the game are each given their own personality and distinctive stat builds, so as you level them up you also hear little snippets of memories of the shells from when they were human. The voice acting in the game is truly wonderful, but it’s hard to piece together the narrative when you’re hearing one small morsel of it in between lengthy sequences of fighting. This is especially true if — like me — you decide to stick with one shell for the most of the duration of your play. The overall story of the game revolves around you being stuck in some sort of purgatory and trying to find out how you got there and how to get out. That’s at least how I interpreted the plot. The storytelling is deliberately opaque, and while the game is atmospheric, most of that atmosphere whittles down to:  “everything and everyone sucks and this is oppressive.” I never felt intrigued by the mystery at the core of the game, because everything felt so piecemeal and disconnected. The environments, while occasionally striking, were generic and didn’t leave me wanting to know more about the world in Mortal Shell. There is one absolutely glorious temple filled with sky high reflective rocks and expansive, abstract areas that felt detailed and memorable. The rest, however, I felt like I could have picked out of a number of fantasy games. You meet several NPCs who look truly detailed and grotesque, and the bosses look gorgeous, but it all feels wasted on a meandering —  though baroquely written —  series of snippets and hints. It felt to me like the game is mysterious because other games in the genre are, but there was nothing to really latch onto here in terms of an emotional pull to keep playing. 

This opacity leans into the traversal and item mechanics of Mortal Shell, too. The game forces you to use items a number of times before it reveals to you — or you figure out the item from using it — what they do. This is cute at first, when you accidentally poison yourself or use a buff for no reason, but it makes the first few hours of the game quite annoying, especially when you know a boss is coming up and you just want to figure out the best way to be prepared. There is one item that was heavily advertised as being in the game — the Ballistazooka, a ranged cannon — that is an absolute chore to find. I had to resort to looking up how to obtain it, and the solution still left me scratching my head as to how I was supposed to figure that out on my own. I’m talking 90’s JRPG obscurity.

You’re probably wondering how I got myself into this situation…

The wayfinding is irritating, as there is no map or fast travel in the game. Mortal Shell isn’t the largest game, geographically speaking, so you won’t find yourself wandering around lost forever, but you will find yourself backtracking over and over again, especially in the early hours when you’re looking for key locations that you see in “glimpses” the game gives to you. This is exacerbated by the fact that the central hub in the game — which you need to traverse each time you want to visit a dungeon —  is a labyrinthine marshland that looks the same in every direction. If you don’t make sure to memorize exactly where you died and the path to getting there, you can kiss your painstakingly accrued tar — the game’s currency for levelling up and purchasing items that clings to your corpse upon death — goodbye. In what I found to be an absurd troll, the game also forces the player to backtrack through an entire dungeon after defeating a boss, through additional waves of monsters. While I figured how to dash through these instances, the whole idea just felt wildly unnecessary and took away from the gleeful rush of defeating a boss. 

Per the genre, enemies respawn every time you die so you’ll find yourself going through the process of rote memorization or risk being snuck up on or surrounded by enemies. I found myself giving up at some point on fighting and just dashing through and avoiding enemies as much as I could to reach different locations. Strangely, the game has great weapons and combat tutorials, and tells you exactly what can be levelled up in different shells. I particularly loved how when you got a new weapon you had to fight Hadern, and through doing so could observe the weapon’s different moves, weaknesses, and harden timing strategies.

Thank you for keeping these rocks pristine and shiny for me. 

Though the combat is heavily reliant on the hardening mechanic, you’ll find other options to mix up your playstyle. You have four weapons to choose from, each with their own small levelling trees, and the ability to parry. One of the shells also offers the unique ability to do this incredibly quick shadow dash, which became extremely helpful for some bosses. The bread-and-butter of the game, though, is in mastering the timing of your harden, which can be used even during an attack. For example, you can attack, harden while the enemy attacks, and then your attack will continue exactly where it left off and you can really put together some herky jerky combos and play with it. When it works, it feels incredible and — like many great mechanics —  you’ll be wondering why no one has tried it before. It’s like the slide in Vanquish where it completely changes how you approach a battle. I also really liked some of the upgrades to the shells, the shadow dash, and the quick-hitting hammer-and-pick weapon.

On the other hand, I could never figure out the timing of the game’s parry, and it always felt off to me. The early bits are unforgiving and I found myself grinding for tar, or going to a temple to fight a mini-boss only to find it impossible and backtrack to a different temple, or simply wandering around dying because I couldn’t get where I wanted to go. The game does become exponentially easier once you get good upgrades, however. For me, this came hours into the game, after I beat my first boss. Mortal Shell will likely test the patience of many players. There are only a few bosses, however, and once you get going full speed ahead the game starts to click and it becomes quicker to navigate. I would absolutely suggest playing this in as few focused sessions as possible, as you’ll likely forget the maps and combat timing if you don’t. 

Never spend too long in the bathtub. 

The game looks good, and there are some great atmospheric effects and lighting, but the performance is often poor, and there are abysmal loading times that can last thirty to forty seconds — which you’ll be seeing every single time you die — and the game is rife with glitches. I was attacked through objects and walls. Multiple times, I strategically kicked an enemy off a cliff only to have the enemy stand up in mid-air and continue to attack me. Sometimes, when I was surrounded by the same enemy model I’d see that all of their attacks and animations were synced up identically. There is also an animation to charge up your longsword that lasts forever and the enemies just clip through you with their attacks for the duration. Not knowing when I would lose my animation invincibility to this was infuriating.

I absolutely loved moments with Mortal Shell, and really found tinkering with the harden ability to be rewarding, but I would only recommend it to those who are absolutely thirsty for a patience-testing challenge. Severe loading times, mediocre world-building, and backtracking keep this nasty, twitchy, Soulslike from fully breaking out of its shell.

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Mortal Shell unleashes an astoundingly creative new combat mechanic in a brooding and strange world, but its meandering narrative, uninspired and confusing maps, and punishing-to-the-point-of-cheapness gameplay will test the patience of all but the most hardened of Soulslike fans.