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 took the initiative by adding a fully featured photo mode as part of its 2020 Rotten Autumn update, and the studio have continued to tweak and improve the photography tools since.
Along with a brand new roguelike game mode to mix up the experience, as well as additional gear and abilities, The Virtuous Cycle update delivers several changes to the photo mode based on user feedback. This original review has therefore been updated accordingly to reflect the latest version...
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 deliberately offers little guidance in uncovering its secrets as you wander, aimlessly at first, 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 uncomfortably disconnected feeling between your inputs and the protagonist's actions. Coupled with the need for very precise timing on defensive parries and the odd cheap trick, it is something that takes more than a little getting used to, and losing your progress to 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 becomes 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 may be a rare genre example to embrace the increasingly popular art form, but the tools are far from 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 those 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 distant characters and objects, and even find areas where enemies have not yet spawned, but Cold Symmetry should certainly 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 with 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.
A small change that brings a big usability upgrade...
The same goes for vertical craning which, having been inexplicably mapped to the digital buttons of L1 / R1 in previous iterations of the game, now operates with much greater precision via the analog L2 / R2 triggers while the former are free to handle menu tab navigation. Implemented as part of The Virtuous Cycle update, this is a small change that brings a big usability upgrade and leaves the method of accessing Mortal Shell's photo mode as perhaps its most unconventional aspects.
With a requirement to press and hold the OPTIONS button, calling up the camera tools is met with a small delay, albeit one that is in keeping with the game's combat-by-proxy approach to responsiveness. Although the lack of immediacy can make initial timing tricky, especially if you are accustomed to instant access in other titles, it really does not take long to adjust to. It is worth noting too, that the photo mode can also be accessed 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.
- PHOTO MODE UI // MORTAL SHELL -
The photo mode UI itself is quite a 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 with a clear view of the result. The UI can even be automatically hidden via the alternate Take Shot input using the X button for added convenience.
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 which include 21:9, 4:3, 3:2 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.
- DEPTH OF FIELD // MORTAL SHELL -
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 not quite allowing 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 remains 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 that can be considered a user friendly version of those seen in Days Gone. These are effective and combine well to give you more localised contrast control while also affording plenty of adjustment to the overall tones of the image in ways that are 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...
The 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 vignette opacity and chromatic aberration options are simple and effective ways to 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, does not customise the colour as the name may imply, but rather seems to adjust the alpha value of the mist itself for a more transparent or more opaque white appearance. Particularly evident at distance, adjusting the fog in this way is a great option to neutralise distracting backdrops and keep the scene enclosed.
Another of the areas that has been improved since the photo mode's initial launch is in the control and application of post-process effects. Not functional during my earlier experiences with Mortal Shell, the Hide Post-Process Effects option is found amongst the useful range of options to hide the character, enemies & ranged weapon, and now controls the visibility of overlaid screen-effects such as poison, freeze and even the trademark harden. Meanwhile, a motion blur option allows photographers to decide how much of the in-game motion blur effect is applied to moving objects from within the photo mode and is particularly useful for adding some dynamism to the selection of long swinging weapons as they take down another foe.
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 in any one of 8 preset locations. With thoughtful intention to add flexibility, each position can also be fine-tuned using additional X / Y-axis adjustments within its box, but I can't help thinking that it could have been simpler to just have full range X / Y positioning without the series of preset zones.
Although there is a fairly comprehensive photo mode here, there is no point pretending that this is a type of game that is particularly well suited to virtual photography, at least not if that is your main objective. 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 to capture a different style of image, 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 with 4 different shells that can all be acquired early in the game and a 5th added as part of The Virtuous Cycle DLC, he can be quickly transformed. The shells offer distinct looks ranging from ornate knight to skeletal thief and, while they may take more effort to acquire, the selection of imposing weapons are equally if not more impressive.
Note: The character shade option found 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.
Like the Foundling, the available enemies may seem limited at first, and even repetitive as they respawn and reset with each death, but they do add variety as you slowly push on through the main areas. It is of course, possible to evade your way past the enemies in order to reach further into the maps, which themselves bring more structure and stone as you travel further before culminating in larger and more visually impressive boss battles. Add into this a photo mode that 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.
- MORTAL SHELL // BY SHINOBI_SPACE -
Being the work of a small studio, there are glitches from time to time, although this can actually be a specific appeal for some virtual photographers who love to take advantage of the unexpected and will also find the freedom to venture anywhere in the map especially rewarding. The quality of character models are also not best to the extreme scrutiny of detailed close-up work, and the lack of light sources can leave some scenes 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