The internet won’t shut up about Elden Ring. I almost feel sorry for the passionate community lurking in squalor as they sit waiting for even a crumb of news on the project that isn’t a leak or a far-fetched rumour. Bandai Namco and FromSoftware will likely lift the lids on things later this year, but for now, there’s a hugely underappreciated Soulslike you need to play – Mortal Shell.
Developed by a small team of developers at Cold Symmetry, Mortal Shell manages to stand alongside its contemporaries with a fraction of the budget, and far more ambition than it has any right to possess. Thanks to a selection of unique mechanics and a desperate sense of dread punctuating its world, Mortal Shell pulls you into its mythos and refuses to let go. Sure, it’s a smidge rough around the edges, but look past these imperfections and you’ve got a slice of third-person excellence.
Mortal Shell begins with me awakening in a swamp awash with Eldritch horrors. The land is clouded in fog, with disturbing noises reminding me that something horrible lurks beneath the watery surface you walk upon. I begrudgingly step forward, realising I am little more than a grey, lifeless husk wandering a wasteland hoping to find some form of purpose. I stumble into what is obviously a boss arena and tear a sword from the ground, and now it’s time to learn the mechanics that make this game so special.
The tutorial teaches me that it’s possible to harden myself, turning my entire body into an impenetrable object that even the toughest of weapons can’t break. Hit me while hardened, and you’ll stagger backwards in a state of sudden confusion. This is the perfect time to strike, opening enemies up to a barrage of slashes that will oftentimes down them in seconds.
Think of hardening as a shield in Dark Souls, except it can also be chained alongside normal attacks and acts on a cooldown. Once the tutorial is over, I’m immediately thrown into a swamp level. Opening your game in the worst locale ever made is a power move if I’ve ever seen one, but Mortal Shell does so many fascinating things with exploration and combat that it became an easy flaw to overlook. Instead of traditional classes, you inhabit the corpses of famous warriors scattered throughout the land.
Known as shells, they are the class archetypes you’d expect from a game like this. Some specialise in light attacks, while others favour heavier strikes or a more all-rounder approach. But you can’t select them from a menu or anything like that. You need to trudge through the world and uncover their final resting place, taking control of rotting bodies and using their abilities for your own gain. It’s a compelling system, only propelled further by the storytelling behind it.
New skills can be earned by using tar (Mortal Shell’s equivalent of Souls) to unlock them, although each new piece of character progression comes with a hauntingly narrated piece of narrative that offers just enough context to keep you going. Mortal Shell’s world isn’t huge, which is likely a product of its budget, but it does such a fantastic job of making you feel lost in a world drenched in oblivion.
There’s no hope here, the opening swamp descending into a dreamlike web of otherworldly nightmares that only grows more and more disconcerting as you progress. But the bottom of the world is also filled with a surprising amount of light, like a battle between heaven and hell has occurred in your absence and you’ve no choice but to pilfer the ashes for some form of understanding.
Item descriptions in Mortal Shell only surface once objects are used or interacted with, forcing you to risk poisoning yourself or wasting a precious resource simply to figure out what is even going on. The best example of this a Lute picked up in the opening moments. Pluck at the strings in the beginning and it sounds dreadful, but after a little practice, you’re like a post-apocalyptic version of Taylor Swift, strumming the night away as monsters lurch past in blissful ignorance.
Mortal Shell is filled with innovative ideas and precious moments like this that make it worth playing, especially if you’re a fan of FromSoftware’s work and want something to hold you over until Elden Ring. Having just arrived on next-gen consoles with a free upgrade for existing owners, there’s no better time to give Cold Symmetry’s underrated gem a look.
Next: Six Years Later, Bloodborne Is Still The Best Soulslike
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Jade King is one of the Features Editors for TheGamer. Previously head of gaming content over at Trusted Reviews, she can be found talking about games, anime and retweeting Catradora fanart @KonaYMA6.
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