Games modeled after the Dark Souls formula are among some of my favorite masochistic punishments. From the trial and error design to gradual mastery of the player’s toolsets, there isn’t a genre that I punish myself with (and still enjoy) as much as a good Soulslike. While I’ve been following Cold Symmetry’s work since it was first unveiled as Dungeonhaven, the concept of Mortal Shell was quite intriguing: rather than creating your own character, you step into uninhabited shells of former warriors and control them in battle. It’s a unique concept for a Soulslike and I was glad to finally get my hands-on with the title, courtesy of a preview build on the Epic Games Store.
Much like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, players are given two incarnations to live through before they’re truly defeated and brought back to their last checkpoint, dropping their current stash of tar (Mortal Shell’s form of currency/experience) where they last stood. Upon taking enough damage to incapacitate the player for the first time, they’re forcibly thrust out of the shell they’re currently inhabiting with only a sliver of life and force to evade whatever enemies put them in such a mortal dilemma and recover their body before death strikes a second time. I’m guilty of using the shell ejection and recovery just to get a full bar of health, as healing items are few and far between in Mortal Shell, but it most definitely isn’t the ideal way to play. Death comes quickly in Mortal Shell and taking only a few hits is enough to sever your tether to this mortal coil.
Mortal Shell is undoubtedly one of the prettiest Soulslikes that hasn’t been touched upon by Hidetaka Miyazaki himself. From a team of only fifteen, Cold Symmetry already has a firm grasp on the world they’re designing and how to make it look its best on PC. In addition to this, Mortal Shell also natively supports higher framerates and my RTX 2070 SUPER was able to put out a constant 144 FPS in Full HD. While Mortal Shell will be making its way to current-gen consoles, the developers haven’t completely ruled out a next-gen version to come.
Nailing that perfect balance between impact and effect is a very tricky aspect to get right in any hardcore action title. If your attacks don’t have enough weight, they’ll feel like you’re just smacking the enemy with a cardboard tube; veer too much into the weighty territory and the action will feel like it’s being smothered in tar and molasses. Mortal Shell does a fine attempt at trying to toe the line with the fundamentals of combat, although I did still find some lapses in the fluidity of combat. It can be all too simple to try and mash out another quick attack on the right bumper then attempt to switch to a defensive move, whether it’s the dodge roll or parry/riposte, only to get smacked in the face by the enemy.
Mortal Shell’s hardening mechanic is what sets it apart from any other Soulslike I’ve played before. As the de facto defensive move in a shell’s arsenal, knowing when and how long to stiffen up and brace for impact is a crucial step in combat. By tapping and holding the button to harden your shell (L2 or left trigger, the same as the standard blocking button in Dark Souls), you’ll assume a defensive position in the middle of whatever action you were taking and either absorb or deflect the blow that’s coming at you. Because the hardening takes place in the middle of whatever you were doing, weaving this action in can lead to some very interesting attack patterns. Say you want to hit an enemy with your combo ender but they’re just out of reach. You can swing at the air for the first two hits, harden and wait for the enemy to approach into range, then release the button to finish your combo with the final hit. This momentary bit of super armor doesn’t last forever and lasts for either a set amount of time or a specific amount of damage. Afterwards, it needs to be refreshed with a skill cooldown that takes time to recharge.
From the narrow slice I’ve been sampled of Mortal Shell, the developers seem to be taking the Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice approach to character progression. Nowhere could character stats or a proper experience pool be found, nor did attacks show any numerical points of damage to either the player or enemy. Instead, the focus for Mortal Shell seems to be on two simple tenets: improving the player’s weapon and investing currencies into developing skills (tar and glimpses being the two forms of currency so far). The two weapons in the preview build could each be upgraded with a specific form of acid to increase its strength while there were specific items that could be used to imbue the weapon with a more powerful Resolve attack; the hallowed sword had a special ability to extend a spike from the hilt and attack with it for massive damage.
At the same time, the tarnished seal that the player carries to aid with parrying oncoming attacks could be enhanced to give additional healing on empowered ripostes or gain more resolve through combat (though I couldn’t find the necessary materials during my demo). For character progression, the tar and glimpses acquired can be invested into specific skills for each of the two available shells that augment their core abilities in new and interesting ways. Beyond this, there were no upgrades to the player’s health, stamina, resolve pips, or other numerical upgrades that even other titles such as Sekiro offered.
With four shells hinted at during the preview of Mortal Shell and only a small number of weapons to upgrade, I could see Cold Symmetry wanting to hone down the focus of progression into a smaller number of archetypes and builds while still retaining some unique identity. Sekiro was a phenomenal action game but beyond the shinobi tools that could be equipped, each player had a similar experience throughout the campaign, unlike the dozens of weapons in a typical Souls game or even Bloodborne. There’s still enough differentiating factors between the shells and weapons that I could see two players developing wildly differing play styles throughout the adventure. Strangely, the only time you can swap between shells and weapon styles is by finding them in the world and approaching them. The crypt that served as the hub leading to the preview’s first and only boss fight thankfully held everything you needed to switch and upgrade your shell in one location.
While my time with Mortal Shell was limited to little more than a standard E3 appointment, it has already cemented itself as one of the few Soulslikes coming out this year that I’m genuinely interested in keeping up on. Only time will tell if the developers can flesh out a fully crafted world that holds up to the test and erosion of time.