The satisfying misery of Mortal Shell

By Dave Tach, Contributor
Mortal Shell is a game of sweaty palms and hard-fought inches of progress, and every moment is challenging and satisfying. Unless you die—then it’s infuriating.

But here’s the thing: Well-crafted Soulslikes—hard-as-nails action role-playing games that take their name from developer FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series—mostly make you blame yourself when something goes wrong. They make you see your potential. They make you believe in yourself just enough to see what you could have done differently. They make you want to try again. And so you do, getting a little bit better each time you try to trudge through the satisfying misery.

With Mortal Shell, developer Cold Symmetry have crafted an ode to the Soulslike formula that understands what makes its predecessors great. It's also smart enough to expand the genre with clever twists that make it interesting for both veterans and neophytes. And you don’t have to wait long to find out what’s new.

You enter the bleak and dangerous world of Fallgrim naked, weak, and outmatched. Armed only with a gigantic sword that requires all your feeble might for one clumsy swing, Mortal Shell quickly introduces a way to at least momentarily defend yourself. The Harden mechanic effectively allows you to become stone, freeze in place, and defend yourself from a single attack.
The Satisfying Misery Of Mortal Shell Fight
Over time, you come to recognize that because your rocky exterior breaks when you’re hit, Harden doesn't just offer a defensive advantage. If you Harden mid-swing, you finish that swing when an enemy attacks. That clever twist combines offense and defense to add a fourth dimension to combat: time. It reverberates throughout Mortal Shell regardless of the weapon or shell you’re inhabiting, challenging you not just to react to danger by blocking but to anticipate it, plan for it, and punish your enemies for their aggression.

Mortal Shell also dispenses with much of the fiddly class management of so many other RPGs. Instead of pouring points into half a dozen or more nebulous attributes, it innovates with "shells," which are effectively premade classes. Each plays differently. Some shells specialize in big weapons, and you can feel the heft of their attacks with each swing. Others work better with smaller, faster weapons, which means they favor a more agile approach. You can wear shells like outfits, so you’re free to specialize in one or switch between them. The more you play, the more you learn, and the more you can upgrade each character’s moves and weapons.

Mortal Shell constantly rewards your curiosity. When you find items scattered throughout the world, you know very little about them. But as you use them, you learn a little more about each. The item’s description expands, teaching you more about its utility and purpose. This cleverly intertwines your knowledge and experience with that of your player character, as you both gain familiarity. It also provides constant, practical incentive to remain curious and experimental. Being precious and hoarding items will only hurt you.

Great ideas become genres. Sega took the side-scrolling platformer that Nintendo popularized with Super Mario Bros., added a bunch of its own ideas, and created Sonic the Hedgehog. Cold Symmetry took Dark Souls and made Mortal Shell. If the difference between parody and homage is how much you like a game, this one fits squarely in the homage category. It’s a challenging, interesting, and fair action-RPG.

You can buy Mortal Shell on the Epic Games Store.