Title: Mortal Shell | Developer: Cold Symmetry | Publisher: Playstack | Initial Release: 18th August 2020
There are not very many examples of punishingly difficult games that are popular virtual photography titles; maybe because the unforgiving nature of such games is not particularly compatible with photographing enemies rather than defeating them, or simply because there are few games in the genre that actually have photo mode tools. In the case of the latter at least, Mortal Shell is looking to change that by bringing a fully featured photo mode as part of its Rotten Autumn update, and could be the perfect lead-up to the remake of genre-defining Demon's Souls on PS5 later this year.
The debut title from Cold Symmetry, a small studio founded by a quartet of AAA industry veterans and comprising just 15 people, Mortal Shell is the very embodiment of the "Souls-like" sub-genre. Not only thanks to its uncompromising combat, but also in the medieval fantasy setting and grimdark overtones.
Amidst the dark and somewhat depressing world of Fallgrim, the game does very little to guide you in uncovering its secrets as you wander, aimlessly at times, around the wretched yet intricately detailed environments. The multitude of grotesque foes that you encounter on the way are, of course, intent on making that task as difficult as possible as you engage them in slow and merciless combat. The mechanics are actually too slow for my personal taste as the drawn out animations create an uncomfortable feeling of disconnect between your inputs and the protagonist's actions, something that is compounded by the need for very precise timing on defensive parries and the odd cheap trick. Getting killed by an unseen enemy lunging from off-screen unfortunately never becomes fun.
Until you get a feel for things then, the foul groans and gurgles of the Fallgrim inhabitants may well be matched by your own disconsolate sighs as you die over and over again. Gather enough Tar and Glimpses (think Souls) to make headway into the interesting RPG skill-trees though, and things soon get more engaging as you become able to reap more reward from your perilous ventures.
This may be a familiar loop for fans of the genre, but Mortal Shell also adds some unique elements into the mix. The ability to harden your character into stone at any moment, rendering them impervious to harm but also unable to move, is a key game play mechanic that you should learn early on, while an array of consumable items evolve their effects as your character become more familiar with them. Anatomical by design, your mortally fragile protagonist is known simply as Foundling, and possesses the title-invoking ability to inhabit the "shells" of fallen warriors found in the world. This not only greatly enhances durability, but also grants you the unique capabilities of each shell's former inhabitant.
Where Cold Symmetry may be really leading the way though, is in their approach to adding photo mode support. Mortal Shell's latest update makes it a rare example of this type of game that embraces the increasingly popular art form, but the tools are not a token gesture and have been crafted with direct input from experienced virtual photographer shinobi_space. Recognising that the best creative tools are made with the people who use them in mind, the studio may have ensured that their photo mode stands out from the rest by tapping into shinobi's expertise and willingly implementing his wish list of features. So, lets find out what a photo mode made for virtual photographers has in store.
a photo mode that has been granted tools which afford creative freedom to the capture artist...
Key Photo Mode Features:
Unlimited camera movement
Game animation advance
Colour temperature and RGB tone control
Controls and Implementation:
When it comes to requesting photo mode features, something that may top many people's list of priorities would be to remove inhibitions, especially in camera movement. Almost all games enforce a bounding limit that determines how far their photo mode camera is able to move from its starting point, some are generous while others are highly restrictive, but Mortal Shell removes the limit completely and allows you to take the camera anywhere in the current level. This does mean that you will inevitably encounter lower levels of detail on characters and objects, and even find areas where enemies have not spawned at all as you venture further from the player, but Cold Symmetry should be commended for embracing this.
"I have kept your flesh safe, Foundling..."
The complete freedom to roam is ideal for exploring the environments but crucially it means that there is no artificial limit on the type of compositions that can be achieved. As long as it obeys the object and environment collision, you are free to place the camera wherever you like to achieve your desired perspective, and can even venture high above the map for an aerial overview.
Movement of the camera itself, which glides around with a slight inertia, is also mostly unrestricting with a simple truck / dolly assigned to the LS, and a full 360° pan and narrower range of tilt on the RS. The latter affords only around 120° of movement and unfortunately ignores the game's inverted Y-axis option, but thankfully all inputs remain consistent at any degree of camera roll in order to avoid the difficulties that can be otherwise encountered when working at portrait orientations.
defying well established conventions of menu navigation...
Not everything is perfectly straightforward though as there are some unconventional inputs for certain actions. Accessing the photo mode may seem like one such example with a requirement to press and hold the OPTIONS button that adds a small delay and can make timing tricky, although this is perhaps in keeping with the game's combat-by-proxy feeling of responsiveness. It's worth noting that you can also reach the photo mode via the options menu, but because the game does not pause while the menu is up, the press and hold route is easily the most reliable method here.
Something that lacks any saving grace though, is the mapping of vertical craning to L1 / R1 and menu tab navigation to L2 / R2. Not only is this defying well established conventions of menu navigation, even those of the majority of Mortal Shell's own menu systems, but the decision to use analog triggers for a UI button input and digital buttons for precise movement control is frankly baffling.
Thankfully, the photo UI is a much more typical affair with a set of tabs arranged in a box in the lower-right corner of the screen. Perfectly functional, if a little visually cramped, the UI is manually hidden with a simple press of the touchpad after which all settings can still be adjusted, or automatically and temporarily hidden via the alternate Take Shot input using the X button. Housed within the menus, we find several areas of innovation that, like the unrestricted camera movement, serve as a reminder of the experienced input that went into its creation and reflect some of the better aspects of other photo modes to make Mortal Shell's tools an interesting mix.
ideal for tweaking the timing of action shots...
Easily one of the most impressive, and actually the first option you arrive at when entering the photo mode, is Game Speed. Similar to the Next Frame feature found in Bound, this feature surpasses that of its peer and enables you to continue the animation of the game in super-slow, slow or normal speeds as well as by stepped frame advance using R3. The option allows forwards animation only with no reverse, but that does not detract from a wonderful feature that is ideal for tweaking the timing of action shots and acts as the perfect foil for the delayed photo mode trigger.
The remaining options on the opening menu tab include a small selection of border crops with an approximation of a 21:9 letterbox (actually 19.6:9) and a 1:1 square, as well as a logo overlay which I will come back to later, but for now let's look at the other compositional tools.
Split across two tabs, the camera and focus settings offer 360° roll and fields of view from ultra-wide angle to lengthy zooms, plus manual focus and aperture value settings. The latter two options provide effective depth of field control with foreground and background defocus and a subtle bokeh rendered on some but not all specular light sources. The slightly obscure focus distance scale of 5 - 10,000 does tend to become hyperfocal across much of its range, especially with wider fields of view, so keep that in mind when trying to create a shallow DoF.
Another of Mortal Shell's more novel features is also found tucked away on the camera tab. The function of the Available Recent Cameras option may not be immediately obvious, but it serves as a memory of recent and precise camera locations that are logged each time you exit the photo mode. The motivation to do this may be tenuous but with >100 camera positions recorded until you travel to a new area (that is as many as I tested and is already more than enough), there could be the potential to setup a series of viewpoints around a scene to which you can return as the action unfolds. All other photo mode settings are retained on exit too, until you manually reset them with △ at least, further enhancing the ability to take a series of matching shots; be warned though that with no confirmation on that reset button, there is always a risk of accidentally wiping your setup.
With captures composed, it is time for some image adjustments and Mortal Shell is equipped with a healthy selection of options that produce some mixed results. Firstly we have a set of 11 preset colour filters complete with intensity slider; actually found on the camera tab, these feel a little out of sync with the workflow and would be better placed along side the complimentary settings such as brightness, saturation and contrast. The filters are also not the most transformative with more imagination in their names than their influence and you will see a similar green hue to most of them, especially with fog enabled. That said, a few do stand out, such as the matte shadows of "5AM Kiss" and the high contrast monochrome look of "Who Needs Colours", but in general you will likely achieve better results with the manual settings.
Note: the camera filters are disabled if HDR is enabled in your PS4 console's settings.
The aforementioned brightness setting is an important feature in a game with few direct light sources and, while failing to allow overexposure, it does a good job of handling the darkness and controlling mood. In truth, the slider is an extension of the game's existing brightness setting, so expect it to tweak and compliment the look rather than overcome it. Saturation meanwhile, is functional enough to exaggerate or remove all colour to greyscale, but the contrast implementation is rather crude and not particularly well suited to the misty environments. Along with a seemingly unnecessary toggle to activate the contrast setting, the slider appears to simply shift all pixel values indiscriminately towards black or white and does not provide the more subtle changes of a non-linear / proportional adjustment.
More useful then, are the colour temperature and individual RGB channel contrast sliders; a more user friendly version of those previously seen in Days Gone. These combine well to give you more localised contrast control and afford plenty of adjustment to the overall tones of the image, especially helpful in balancing the murky greens that pervade many of the preset filters.
a great opportunity to capture shots of a dark yet deceptively intricate world...
Your approach to photographing a game such as this should also be about embracing the mood though, and the gloom is certainly well suited to the use of low light shots and imperfections. Film grain can be added to authentic effect, matching the lack of available light, while a simple vignette opacity and chromatic aberration create the look of "low-tech" optics.
Controlling the presence of fog is also an ideal way to yet further enhance the mood by manipulating how thick and how close to the ground it appears. The third fog option, Colour Multiplier, may seem less useful and does not add colour as the name may imply. Rather, this option seems to adjust the alpha value of the mist itself to make it more transparent or more opaque white, particularly evident at distance, and can be used to neutralise distracting backdrops and keep the scene enclosed.
Continuing the ambitious but slightly inconsistent feeling that runs through the Mortal Shell photo mode, a couple of the remaining features don't appear to function properly, or maybe produce an effect that is essentially imperceptible. Motion blur, which I would expect to see applied to swinging weapons in particular, simply doesn't seem to be present in the photo mode. At either end of the slider, I was unable to detect any motion blur on characters, weapons or environments regardless of whether or not the effect was activated in the game settings. Similarly, the Hide Post-Process Effects option found amongst the otherwise useful options to hide the character, enemies and ranged weapon, appears to have no visible effect at all.
Finally, we come back to the logos mentioned at the start, not least because this is something I would typically apply to an image at the end rather than the beginning. A single Mortal Shell logo may be overlaid with variable size, angle of rotation and position in a way that shows thoughtful intention with additional X / Y-axis adjustments for fine tuning. I can't help but think that it could have been simplified by implementing full range X / Y positioning though, rather than muddling this with a series of preset zones.
Despite a fairly comprehensive photo mode, there is no point pretending that this is a type of game that is particularly well suited to virtual photography. By design, it absolutely does not reward casual or occasional play and instead punishes a lack of attentiveness harshly and immediately. If you were to approach Mortal Shell in this way, as a quick attempt at a different style of capture, you may be likely to find your creativity being eroded by frustration.
Being a fan of the genre certainly helps; being patient is essentially a prerequisite for tackling the cautious combat and learning how far to stretch the very limited stamina when teasing shots out of dangerous antagonists. Even then, with such small margins for error, failure is never far away and being sent crashing back to the start, far away from your desired subject can happen all too frequently.
Get to grips with it though, and Mortal Shell has plenty to offer. That grimdark aesthetic is distinctly different to the vast majority of photo mode-enabled titles and Cold Symmetry's creation is a great opportunity to capture shots of a dark yet deceptively intricate world and to convey an overbearing sense of plight. The silent and sinewy protagonist may lack character, but the 4 different shells can all be acquired early in the game and offer distinct looks from ornate knight to skeletal thief, while the selection of weapons take more effort to acquire but are equally impressive. The character shade option, placed inconspicuously in the photo mode, also gives access to two additional skins for each shell as well as the Foundling, even if you haven't unlocked them to use in gameplay.
Enemies too may seem limited and repetitive at first, especially as they respawn with each death to tackled once more, but do slowly add variety as you move through the main areas which themselves bring more structure and stone before culminating in a larger and more visually impressive boss battle. Add into this a photo mode that is not merely a repurposed debug mode but has been granted tools which afford creative freedom to the capture artist, and the potential is clear. Don't just take my word for it though, here are a few examples provided shinobi himself.
[ images courtesy of shinobi_space ]
Being the work of a small studio, there are glitches from time to time, although this can be a specific appeal for some virtual photographers who will find the freedom to venture anywhere in the map especially rewarding. The quality of character models also do not stand up to scrutiny for detailed close-up work, and the lack of light sources can leave things looking flat, requiring a different style of photography to that which many people may be used to, but that's partly the point. Much like the game itself, Mortal Shell will not always cooperate and will make you work harder for your shots. When it comes together though, this can make it all the more rewarding in the process.
It's hard to really recommend a game like Mortal Shell for casual photographers, simply because of the sheer unforgiving nature of it. In a game that requires you to incessantly concentrate on the act of surviving, the distraction of photography will undoubtedly result in an untimely demise. However, if you are prepared to work at it, this game can provide some refreshingly bleak subject matter that is very welcome in the virtual photography space.
The latest marker along the journey of video game photo modes into the wider consciousness, Mortal Shell's camera suite shows an understanding of the interests of virtual photographers and actively embraces them. The resulting tools may be imperfect but pull together several of the best aspects of other photo modes while blowing away some of the usual limitations, and for that reason alone, it is more than worth your time.
[ Disclosure: Mortal Shell reviewed on PS4 using a digital copy provided by Cold Symmetry ]
Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: OPTIONS (Hold) / Options Menu
Settings retained on exit
Camera Movement: Free (unlimited)
Game Speed: Paused / Super-slow / Slow / Normal
Border: No / Horizontal (19.6:9) / Vertical (1:1) / Full
Logo: No + 8 Preset Positions
Logo Angle: -180° to +180° (± 1)
Logo Offset X: -180 to +180 (± 1)
Logo Offset Y: -180 to +180 (± 1)
Logo Size: 0.5x - 3.0x (± 0.1)
Camera Roll: -180° to +180° (± 1)
Field of View: 8 - 180 (± 1)
Available Recent Cameras: >100 recent camera positions
Camera Filter: None + 11 Presets
Camera Filter Intensity: 0 - 1 (± 0.1)
Depth of Field: Enabled / Disabled
Focus Distance: 5 - 10,000 (± 1)
Aperture: f/1.2 - f/22
Brightness: 0.05 - 3 (± 0.05)
Saturation: 0 - 2 (± 0.1)
Modify Contrast: No / Yes
Contrast: 0.1 - 2 (± 0.1)
Colour Temperature: 1,500 - 15,000K (± 1)
Red Contrast: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Green Contrast: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Blue Contrast: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Film Grain: 0 - 1 (± 0.01)
Motion Blur: 0 - 1 (± 0.01)
Chromatic Aberration: 0 - 5 (± 0.01)
Vignette Intensity: 0 - 1 (± 0.01)
Hide Character: No / Yes
Hide Ballistazooka: No / Yes
Hide Enemies: No / Yes
Hide Post-Process Effects: No / Yes
Character's Shade: None + 2 Presets (per character)
Fog Density: 0 - 1.5 (± 0.01)
Fog Height: 0 - 2 (± 0.01)
Fog Colour Multiplier: 0.1 - 10 (± 0.01)
Game Menu Settings
Video Options: Indie Mode