After spending a good five or six hours with the beta, lets just get this right out of the way. Developer Cold Symmetry’s Mortal Shell is a love letter to the Demon/Dark Souls series. From the dark and gruesome world to its brutal combat, it looks and feels just like a From Software game. While it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a carbon copy, it brings some new things to the “Souls” genre. The way gameplay and your character progression works is very unique and unlike anything we’ve seen before. Gone are the days where you pick a certain type of character with base stats and with each new level you earn, dumping those new stat points into vitality or dexterity to create a class tailor made to suit your play style. Mortal Shell instead has you inhabit the bodies (shells) of certain deceased characters, and who you choose to inhabit at any given time is the play style you’re stuck with (until you decide to take over someone else’s body). It’s a welcome breath of fresh air for these types of games, and gives each shell a proper history and story to discover as you play. What makes it all worthwhile in the end though is being able to pet a merchants cute cat. No Souls game ever let you pet a cat.
Shame on you From Software.
At the start of the Mortal Shell beta, our character awakens from a pool of water, unarmed and looking a little naked. We’re just this grey-skinned husk of a person with no discerning facial or body features. In order for us to be prepared for the perils ahead, we’re put through a series of training exercises that teach us the basics of combat. As far as I know, we won’t get a shield at all in the full release. Instead, there’s a feature called Harden, which causes your character to turn into stone for a short period of time. If you time it right when an enemy attacks, it will knock them off balance, allowing you a chance to get in a few extra hits. Hardening has a certain amount of uses before it has to cooldown, so it isn’t something you can spam. This makes the combat feel much more akin to Bloodborne, where using dodge is key to survival. There are light and heavy attacks, powerful special attacks for each weapon type, and a parry system that allows you to get a portion of your health back if you pull it off correctly.
After completing the training area, the first shell you take over is a knight named Harros the Vassel who wears a suit of armor and can take plenty of damage, but unfortunately has limited stamina for movement. Not too long after cutting my way through hordes of enemies in the starting swamp area, I came across an underground crypt and found a shell named Tiel the Acolyte, who has maxed out stamina but wears light cloth armor which makes you more susceptible to damage. Each shell (there were two out of four that were playable) you inhabit has its own Tar (souls/experience) and Glimpses (ability unlocks) that you earn through defeating enemies. Depending on what character you play as, that’s who you’ll be leveling up. Spending Tar and Glimpses on a character will unlock abilities and also give you a bit of background story on that character. I liked taking on these different personas and being able to switch my play style on the fly was a nice departure from being stuck with one character archetype.
If you’ve played a Souls game, you’ll adapt fairly quickly here to the combat. Attacks have some pretty great animations if you pull off combos. Two light attacks followed up by a heavy attack will have you swing your sword twice before grabbing the tip of the blade to swing the hilt of your sword at your enemy. The weapon I used the most was the Hallowed Sword (two-handed) but I did try out the Hammer & Chisel (dual-wield). I had already upgraded the damage on the sword, so that one was my go to. It hits slow, but using Tiel as my shell, I was still able to do plenty of dodging in-between sword swings before needing to stop to regain stamina. It all feels great and once all the elements clicked, I was diving around my enemies, hardening to block incoming attacks, and performing slashes and parries with my sword like a champ in no time.
Enemy types are varied, ranging from creepy bandits to shuffling humanoids with spikes coming out of their body. Their attacks can be predetermined and easily dodged if you pay attention to their animations. The spiked creeps will pull the spikes from their body and throw them at you from long range. After you chip their health down enough, they will pull their head off and throw it at you, and if it hits you, it will burst into a green puff of smoke and cause poison damage. Since this is only the first area, this uncertainty with enemy attacks is unsettling, and I can only imagine what kind of horrors we’re going to bear witness to in later parts of the game. If one of these beasts does manage to drain all your health, you’re literally knocked out of the shell you were in (and you’re that grey-skinned husk) and you can get back into it as long as you don’t die on your way back to reclaim it. Getting back inside your shell gives you full health and a second chance at life. If you die again though, it’s back to the beginning of the area for you.
The beta is pretty well paced, with you exploring the outskirts of Fallgrim (which is a swampy type area with some beautiful views among the fog) and the Abandoned Chamber (a dark crypt of walls lined with coffins). Each area looks great and has plenty of detail. The swamps are full of frogs hopping around, adding a nice touch and bringing the world to life. There are two vendors you’ll come across. A merchant that sells healing supplies and has that cute cat I mentioned earlier (that you can pet!) and Sester Genessa, an ominous woman that will heal you and upgrade your abilities. She acts like a bonfire from the Souls games because if you do heal at her, all the enemies will respawn in that area. Item usage isn’t as normal as you’d expect. They don’t show you what they do until you’ve used them. You’re in the dark when you pick up anything new, so sometimes you’ll just have to keep using an item to figure out what it does. You’ll gain ‘familiarity’ with each item, like the lute. This means that you’ll suck at first, but you get better at it the more you play it, and playing it will cause enemies to come and attack you.
If you want to overcome everything, you’re going to have to spend at least a couple of hours to power yourself up. Once I was able to get through the main areas after plenty of exploring and killing, I came across the big bad. The beta boss battle is against a creature called the Enslaved Grisha. It’s an intimidating first boss, donning a giant cage type mask that covers its head, two giant weapons and a powerful smash that can cause icicles to fall from the cavern ceiling down on top of you. This guy seemed impossible, but after upgrading my sword to +2 and gaining some new abilities to withstand his attacks (and doing a lot of rolling around) I was finally able to down him. I felt that sweet satisfaction I love getting from these types of games, and I was disappointed that my play time was over and I wasn’t able to continue going further into new areas.
Despite the fact that it shares plenty of similarities to Souls games that came before, Mortal Shell changes up the mix with different character classes that can be changed at any time, refreshing improvements to combat, and interesting items to use that give it a feel all its own. The graphics and textures look fantastic, and the world is shrouded in mystery. Mortal Shell already has the potential to be a fantastic game that I’m very eager to continue exploring. I guess we’ll find out if it’ll be worth the wait when it launches later this year on PS4, Xbox One & PC. – NVJ
The Mortal Shell Beta is now available on the Epic Games Store to download for free. Pre-order for PC here.