Mortal Shell review: A snack-sized Soulslike with a clever twist

Though not perfect, Mortal Shell is an excellent ARPG that Souls fans will thoroughly enjoy.

Mortal Shell
(Image: © Cold Symmetry)

Though many have tried, it's arguable that no developer other than FromSoftware has been able to create a Soulslike game that manages to feel as engaging and enjoyable as Dark Souls, the franchise that kicked the genre off. Several titles have come close, though, and Mortal Shell — a new Soulslike ARPG from small developer Cold Symmetry — comes the closest. And while Mortal Shell does miss the mark in a couple of ways, it's nonetheless incredibly impressive what Cold Symmetry was able to achieve here.

What you'll love about Mortal Shell

Out of everything within Mortal Shell's 12-16 hour adventure, the game's combat system was, by far, my favorite thing about it. As is expected from a Soulslike, light and heavy attacks, stamina management, dodging, and parrying all have an essential place in your moveset. However, what sets Mortal Shell apart is its replacement for shields: Hardening, a cooldown-based mechanic that allows you to turn into stone whenever you want (including while you're attacking) and take one hit without taking damage while also staggering whatever hit you. Since Hardening doesn't require committing to an animation but can only block one strike, it uniquely encourages aggressive play in a way that no Soulslike before it has. Pair that with Mortal Shell's "Resolve" meter that builds when you attack and can be used to either perform devastating special attacks or deliver a health-regenerating riposte post-parry, and you've got an offense-focused gameplay loop that's as addicting as it is clever.

Mortal Shell allows for mid-playthrough playstyle swapping, which is rarely the case in Soulslikes.

Something else that stands out in Mortal Shell is its "shells," or bodies that can be taken over by the player. There are four, and each comes with a different amount of health, stamina, and maximum Resolve. They can be found in the world, and each shell comes with its own skills that can be unlocked with earned resources. For example, Harros the Vassal is a jack of all trades with average stats and Hardening skills, while Eredrim the Venerable is a tanky knight with high health, low stamina, and damage skills. You can switch between these shells at any time, too, offering the player a ton of freedom in terms of mid-playthrough choice.

Finally, Mortal Shell's Fallgrim is a beautiful and interesting world filled with marshy swamplands, underground dungeons, icy caverns, and even crystalline obsidian vistas. The game's fidelity is stunning as well — considering Cold Symmetry is a team made up of only 15 people, it's incredible that Mortal Shell looks as AAA as it does. There's a good amount of interesting lore to find throughout Fallgrim also, which will please narrative fans. Lastly, Mortal Shell is a dream in terms of performance. In my playthrough, I didn't experience a single bug, and the game consistently ran at 60 FPS on my gaming PC with Ultra settings.

What you'll love less about Mortal Shell

Mortal Shell

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

As enjoyable as Mortal Shell is, it isn't without problems. My biggest issue with it is that the level design is lacking. Firstly, the game's swampy hub area is confusing to navigate because there are next to no landmarks you can use to keep track of where you are. Secondly, one of the game's major areas has segments where hordes of enemies are thrown at you, and it feels impossible to fight them all regardless of skill level (I ran past them). Lastly, nearly all of the zones are connected by little holes that you crawl through. These disguised loading screens feel way too "video-gamey" and immersion-breaking.

The small weapon variety in Mortal Shell is disappointing.

Additionally, I was disappointed by the fact that there were only four weapons. While each of them are distinct from one another, I would have liked to see more options. Part of what makes Dark Souls fun is that players have an arsenal of different weapons at their disposal, and while I didn't expect Mortal Shell to have dozens, having eight or ten instead of just four would give players a reason to keep playing and experiment more.

Lastly, Mortal Shell's music — mainly consisting of boss themes — is really, really lacking. Overall, the score is very forgettable and bland, which is a shame considering a huge part of what makes Soulslike boss battles feel epic is their top-notch soundtracks. There are a few decent ambient tracks in the game, but by and large, I was really disappointed.

Should you buy Mortal Shell?

Mortal Shell

Source: Cold Symmetry (Image credit: Source: Cold Symmetry)

While Mortal Shell's issues with level design, small weapon variety, and an underwhelming score are disappointing, the game as a whole is great. Mortal Shell's combat is stellar and unique, and the shell mechanic gives players plenty of freedom to try out new playstyles mid-playthrough. On top of that, the world of Fallgrim is gorgeous and intriguing, filled with interesting sights, items, and lore to discover.

If you're a fan of Dark Souls and games like it, I highly recommend giving Mortal Shell a shot. It's a small, yet creative take on the genre, and I can't wait to see what Cold Symmetry does next.

Mortal Shell is available for $30 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC through the Epic Games Store. If you do decide to pick the game up, make sure to refer to our beginner's guide for some starting tips.

Brendan Lowry

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.