My general rule of thumb is simple. I see a Souls-like game, I want to try it. Through all of the From Software games, to Lords of the Fallen, The Surge, and many more, I’ve seen them all. After hearing that the new gothic-fantasy Souls-like Mortal Shell was getting a closed beta, I was extremely bummed I wouldn’t be able to join in. Thankfully, after vast amounts of positive player feedback, developers at Cold Symmetry decided to open the floodgates on their new 90-minute demo of the game. While some of the mechanics and play style will feel immediately familiar to veterans, Mortal Shell brings the heat with creative new twists and challenging fights.
How Is Mortal Shell NOT Dark Souls?
This is always the crux, isn’t it. For years, developers have tried to recreate the secret sauce that was Dark Souls, but are always required to put their unique spin so-as to not directly copy From Software’s homework.
The schtick here is simple: You are not your body. Players are a husk of a being that must inhabit “shells” of fallen warriors, acquiring their unique strengths and weaknesses in the process. The demo lets players try two different shells, one a more rounded warrior class, and the rogue style with lower health and vastly greater stamina. Once players have access to a shell, it seems that they can swap between them at will as long as they know where they left them.
Another unique feature here is how Mortal Shell treats health and death. Once per life (and this might increase in the full game. We don’t know.), when a player would normally die, their fragile being is knocked out of the “shell” and left to run around the world naked. This thing underneath is extremely weak but has a huge stamina pool. The goal is to run and dodge away from the enemy until you can safely return to your shell. Once you get back to and interact with your shell, you immediately respawn with full health. There’s no Estus Flask equivalent here, but instead a Sekiro-style refresh system with other healing consumables.
In a very interesting departure from the genre norm, Mortal Shell has shied away from the normal definition of “loot” in this game. In the demo, at least, there were not armor pick-ups at all. You could find a couple of different weapons, but advancement of these weapons was dependent on finding very rare consumables out in the wild. Once applied, these would add damage or special effects to the weapon you currently wielded. I didn’t find anything that changed the way my shell looked once it was acquired. It’s unclear if this will change in the full release.
There’s also a new mechanic at play: Harden. Players have access to the ability to momentarily turn to stone which glances off all physical damage. Eventually, whether through upgrades or consumables, this ability can get stronger and regenerate more often. With the right timing players can use the Harden ability to wind up an attack, block an incoming attack, and instantly counter for excellent damage. I’m curious to see how Harden is developed over the course of the narrative.
Finally, when players die they leave a husk of their shell behind where they died. This can be extremely useful during a boss fight. Interacting with this husk again refills the player’s health back to full, thus giving them a third chance at defeating a boss without actually dying.
Heavy is the Weight
Mortal Shell is a heavy game. The sword is heavy. The armor is heavy. The blades that enemies pull out of their own bodies and HURL at you are heavy. There’s weight to every movement and the inertia is tangible throughout. By the end I felt that stamina was far more important than health due to all the dodging I was doing to try to stay alive.
The demo takes players through two unique zones. The first is a forested area fairly reminiscent of the Darkroot Garden or the Forest of Fallen Giants minus the overgrown fort. Enemies are pretty weak minus a couple of brutes here and there. Traps are scattered throughout and are difficult to see but thankfully don’t move between deaths (Don’t get any ideas, Cold Symmetry). This absolutely feels like an introductory area meant to teach you the importance of exploration.
Interestingly the layout was much like a butterfly. If you feel like running straight up the middle, you are welcome to. It’s the exploring of the paths around that leads to a new vendor and many hidden items not otherwise available.
The second area is where things get serious. Players transition to an underground dungeon full of significantly darker beasts. Enemy aggression increases dramatically, and the entire mood of the game changes from exploration to claustrophobia.
The dungeon is also full of enemies capable of poisoning you. I didn’t find a reliable method to deal with poison and the effect is INSANELY strong. Hopefully this gets tuned a bit before release because getting poisoned basically felt like a death sentence to me.
The dungeon terminates in a ferocious boss battle with a beast not unlike if a rhinoceros had been turned into Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head. As with most Dark Souls bosses, the difficulty is in mastering the attack patterns. Once you start to recognize which moves are being telegraphed, life becomes much easier. A handful of attempts later, the demo was complete.
Prepare to Die
There’s no such thing as an easy souls game. Even if you feel yourself a master of the genre, there’s enough different here to make the game feel fresh and interesting. I felt comfortable in the controls but uncomfortable with the world. In a good way. Item descriptions don’t appear until you use an item at least once so everything is an experiment and a discovery waiting to happen. Sometimes this leads to a pleasant surprise. Other times it leads to certain death.
While it’s difficult to say whether this game will be a guaranteed success based on this short demo, developer Cold Symmetry obviously knows their audience and has made a hell of a game for them to explore.
*Mortal Shell is developed by Cold Symmetry and published by Playstack. It is set to release Q3 2020 on Epic Games Store, Xbox, and Playstation 4. Steam will follow in Q3 2021.