A skeleton wakes in a cave, wades through a pool of milky water, and prises a sword from the hands of a nearby sculpture. “Beyond the grip of the familiar,” a message informs us, “a threshold demands to be crossed. The Mortal Shells yearn for meaning.” So begins Mortal Shell, the debut of developer Cold Symmetry, and a clear love letter to Dark Souls. (Spare a thought for Hidetaka Miyazaki, the cheery magus of From Software, sifting through such letters—damp, browned with mould, and inked in blood—frowning at the morbid spirits of his fan base.) It’s a quick, stark intro that stirs up a couple of heady questions: Will Cold Symmetry merely provide a chilly reflection of greats gone by? Or might it find the meaning it yearns for?
Our hero, referred to as “Foundling” by a helpful wraith, is not quite a skeleton—more a calcified crust in the silvery pale form of a body. Given his woeful lack of a moisturising routine, you may assume him to be the desiccated husk of the title; but no, he is the filler. The shells are the bodies of fallen warriors, and our hero, like a roving millennial, leads a purgatorial life of rental. His trick is to slip into these corpses, kick-start their dwindling currents of life force, and ferry them back into battle. A process, one imagines, not too dissimilar to making a game in the shape, and the shadow, of Dark Souls. Only, that game’s life force, almost a decade on, has refused to dwindle; any kick-starting is required on the side of the imitator, and you can sense Cold Symmetry on the hunt, like a hermit crab, for interesting shells to inhabit.
This is what livens the combat, taking a traditional model, steeped in heft and timing, and levering in some variety. Take Tiel, for instance, one of your available hosts; garbed in a dark hood and brandishing a hammer and chisel, he moves in vaults and dashes, loosened up with a long stamina bar. He belongs in Bloodborne. Now compare Eredrím, a hulking knight encrusted with a gold crown and a health meter that takes up half the screen, with a stub of stamina to compensate. It’s possible he thumbed a lift straight from Lordran. In lieu of character-levelling and number-bound tinkering, the clashes are pepped up with a class-based approach—you can switch between fighters on the fly, by clutching an effigy, or by going back to your hub of operations: a bell tower composed chiefly of rot and rubble.
This ability to shuffle between strategies, and the skills therein (each character has his own web of upgrades), at your restless pleasure makes Mortal Shell something of a dilettante’s dream—from which devout Soulsians may recoil. (Note, also, the nod to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, in your talent for resurrection—climbing back into your cadaver after being knocked free, like an escaping spirit, and being granted a second go.) Wait till they get a load of the game’s best mechanic. You can, whenever the desire takes you, transform into a statue. This produces a number of pleasing effects. First, there is the chance to watch your foe shudder and judder as their next attack clangs off your stony skin; second, in similar fashion to the Focus Attack in Street Fighter IV, you can inhale a blow in stride without breaking momentum; and third—perhaps best of all—you’re able to chicken out mid-swing, cancelling your aggression into a crumble-proof defensive position. For those weaned on Dark Souls, in whose animations you were entombed, this will either feel liberating or profane. Cold Symmetry, enamoured of From Software’s series, is also a scholar of its sins, more than willing to blaspheme for the sake of fun.
Also worthy of mention are the animations (Vladimir Yarmolik is the principal animator), especially those with a sword, which convey the loping motions of the whole-body wind-up—the way that each muscle and metal plate is wrapped and pressed into the smooth release of power. If only that same sealed cohesion were there in the lore that’s thinly laced throughout the setting. Lacking in Mortal Shell is the impression—present in Miyazaki’s best work—of a complete body of myth, smothered in oblique but chippable armour, yielding only slivers of the full picture. Instead, what’s here feels sketchy and faint. One item description reads, “This glimpse of futility is nearly opaque.” Well, quite.
Your quest is doled out by a deep-voiced creature in shackles, whose head is caged in a birdlike plague mask—shades of Eileen the Crow, from Bloodborne. You’re to fetch a series of sacred Glands, for some questionable cosmic purpose, probing the low and sticky places of the land while breathing familiar air. There are swampy woods, muffled in a grey-green mist; a snow-blasted fortress, half-buried in frost; and an oily vista of volcanic rock. All sights that don’t strike the eye so much as stoke the memory, whipping up flashes of the Forbidden Woods and of Cainhurst, but so, too, exerting their own oozing atmosphere. Benjamin Roach and Artem Demura, the environment artist and concept artist, respectively, seem to be trying on a style, but their skill has shone through the fog of their influences, and the world on offer is surreal, blurry with déjà vu yet vivid with odours of its own. There’s no place like homage.
If you’re willing to devote a weekend to its mood of windbitten despondency (it’s only fifteen or so hours long), you will not emerge from Mortal Shell unrewarded. For one thing, you will have lunged and hacked your way through a carefully wrought, underwritten, but satisfying action game—one faithfully arranged in the patterns of From Software’s masterwork, with its shrines, its currency (lost, but recoverable, after death) and its difficulty (not as alpine as that of its inspiration). For another, you may find yourself, like me, excited for what Cold Symmetry may have in store—beyond the grip of the familiar. Consider the love letter sent. A threshold demands to be crossed.
Developer: Cold Symmetry
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC
Release date: August 18, 2020
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