Mortal Shell is very much a Dark Souls wannabe, although it might be integrating enough new systems and mechanics to make it stand on its own.
Over the past decade, many games in the Soulslike genre have borrowed ideas that FromSoftware first implemented within its own Souls series. From Nioh (and its follow-up, Nioh 2) to franchises like The Surge and Code Vein, many publishers have released games within the past few years that either rode the coattails or elevated the increasingly popular subgenre. However, of all the Souls “clones” that have emerged in recent years, Mortal Shell, which was revealed in April, might wear its inspirations on its sleeve more than any other game.
Set in a similar dark fantasy world with enemy types and loading screens that look like they’ve been directly lifted from Dark Souls, Mortal Shell wants you to know that it is directly inspired by FromSoftware’s beloved series. Despite having so much in common with Dark Souls, however, the upcoming project from the 15-person team at Cold Symmetry luckily seems like it might be doing enough to make the final release stand on its own.
Recently, I was able to go hands-on with a preview build of Mortal Shell that let me get a better idea of how the game functions. My demo, which took me somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours to complete, let me primarily test out the intricacies of combat in a couple of different areas–both of which were pretty small. Before venturing through these two locations, though, I had to get familiar with two of the most significant differences in Mortal Shell compared to other titles in the genre.
As the title indicates, Mortal Shell allows your main character (a faceless, white Prometheus-looking fellow) to possess the bodies of different “shells” that you’ll find around the environment. Each shell has a different playstyle and skill trees to level-up throughout the game. In the demo, I got to try out two of the four various shells that will be available in the full game.
‘Harros, The Vassal’ was the first shell that I came across and he plays mostly like a general knight/tank class. While movement might not be Harros’ forte, he has more health than other shells–in short, you won’t be so quick to die. The second shell that I utilized was known as ‘Tiel, The Acolyte.’ The opposite of Harros, Tiel came with far more stamina which meant I could more easily dodge attacks from enemies. The logical trade-off here comes with his health, of which there isn’t much to speak of. If you don’t dodge properly when facing off against foes as Tiel, you’ll go down pretty quickly.
Mechanically, Mortal Shell plays very similarly to Dark Souls with a few vital differences. Likely the most significant difference in the way of general combat comes with the ability to “harden” your character. This feature is the first thing that Mortal Shell teaches you how to do in the game’s tutorial, and for good reason. Hardening your character essentially makes them invulnerable for a few moments, which becomes exceptionally vital in many situations. I was getting absolutely trounced by nearly every enemy thrown my way until I started learning how best to use this tactic both in defensive and offensive techniques.
Mortal Shell also has a little bit of Sekiro’s key “Shadows Die Twice” mechanic, too. When your health drops to zero, you won’t outright drop dead. Instead, your actual character (that weird-looking pale dude that I mentioned before) will eject from its current shell. If you can then get back to your shell and reintegrate with it before losing the small portion of health you currently have, you’ll be fully revitalized. This can only happen once, though, and then you’re dead for good the next time your health drops to zero.
When it comes to improving your character in Mortal Shell, this is perhaps where the game differentiates the most from its counterparts. While you still gain a basic currency, that is known as Tar, upon defeating any enemy in the game, you don’t then cash this currency in to upgrade broad stats. Instead, in addition to a secondary currency called Glimpses, you can purchase specific improvements to your different shells that give you passive bonuses. For instance, with Harros, I could buy an ability that would improve the capability of my hardening.
What I found to be a bit annoying with this system is that Tar and Glimpses didn’t transfer between different shells. For instance, if you happen to pick up some Glimpses as Harros, you can’t switch to Tiel and still have that same amount of currency on-hand. I understand that the reason behind this is likely that the dev team wants you to only level-up shells that you’re actively using, but it also kind of stinks to have your Tar and Glimpses tied to one shell. This especially became annoying for me as about halfway through my own time with the game I started to prefer using Tiel rather than Harros. Sadly, all of my Glimpses and accompanying Tar had already been given to Harros, essentially stranding themselves on this shell with no discernible way to transfer them over.
While my brief demo of Mortal Shell gave me a decent idea as to how the game will play in a general sense, I was left with a ton of questions and potential concerns. Items are a bit awkward in Mortal Shell, for starters, mainly because the game doesn’t explain to you what they do until you use them for the first time. One instance had me picking up a nearby mushroom only to consume it and immediately be poisoned, which was super fun. There’s a familiarity system in the game as well that seems to improve items the more that you use them. I’m not sure what this system will look like for the full game, but it has me curious.
I also found that the lack of an Estus Flask equivalent in Mortal Shell made combat situations awkward. The only healing item I came across was yet another mushroom, this time of the healing variety. However, rather than healing a set amount all at once, the mushroom regenerated my character’s health slowly over a set period. This style of health regeneration led to combat encounters, and especially boss fights, being really stilted. If I was ever extremely low on HP, I mainly just had to keep away until I had a fair amount of health again. This made combat a drag at times and slowed down things way more than I would have liked.
Speaking of boss fights, I also only came across one in my own time with Mortal Shell, and as you would expect, it was freaking difficult. After a few attempts, I was finally able to best the Enslaved Grisha monster that stood between myself and the demo’s end, but it took a fair amount of screaming at my computer monitor to pull this off. Even though a high level of difficulty is always expected in Soulslikes, Mortal Shell seems like it could be for the most extreme masochists of all. Cold Symmetry even sent us over a note saying the game has been designed specifically “for battle-hardened Soulslike fans.” I’m legitimately worried to see what the rest of the game has in store.
Despite having played a fair amount of Mortal Shell, I’m still unsure where I stand with it. Mechanically, I started to think that it was doing some interesting things by the time that my demo wrapped up, but some of the surrounding systems are still leaving me with doubts. There’s a lot of promise with Mortal Shell, and Soulslike fans should keep it on their radar in the coming months. Hopefully, Cold Symmetry can end up making good on its exorbitant attempt to fill the space that Dark Souls has left behind.
Mortal Shell is set to launch later this year on Xbox One, PS4, and PC via the Epic Games Store.