Mortal Shell Beta Impressions
It’s no secret that I love Dark Souls and have likely stated such on more occasions than is necessary. But as repetitive as that statement is, it doesn’t compare to the number of repeat plays I have on the trilogy and Bloodborne. Yet, I still yearn for more. Since FromSoftware’s Elden Ring has essentially gone silent, my attention half-heartedly turned to Mortal Shell, only to learn that I severely underestimated its potential.
In April of this year, Cold Symmetry dropped a reveal trailer for their debut game that got a lot of attention from Souls fans hoping to see a strong spiritual successor. Ultimately the trailer showcased a lot of pretty environments, some baddies, and a little bit of light combat, but nothing that immediately made it stand out from its inspirations. Nonetheless, it generated a great deal of interest and fans.
Just recently Cold Symmetry released a beta for Mortal Shell. Originally they were selectively distributing access codes, excluding a large percentage of their following from the beta demo. After a massive outcry, Cold Symmetry opened access to the public on July 3rd via the Epic Store and closed on July 10th. In case you missed the short week-long window, we’ve got all the details for you.
The beta version of Mortal Shell opens with a slow camera pan to your character, referred to only occasionally as Foundling, lying in a shallow pool of water. You, a faceless grey being, awake in a shallow fogged over lake surrounded by ruins. As you step forward into the mist, only a few small flickering torches in the distance guide you. The first stone gate slides down into the water to make way for you to step forward and face your first foe and experience the first taste of what makes Mortal Shell so different.
The brief tutorial area takes you through three quick battles that introduce the Hardening mechanic and give players a bit of practice before the beta demo opens up into the larger arena. A hooded knight is the first enemy that takes aim at you, swinging a two handed broadsword toward you, and a pop up instructs you to hold the left trigger down to Harden. At first I giggled a bit, thinking about the famously useless Metapod Harden ability from Pokemon, but I obliged. My character immediately turned to stone and froze in place, but took no damage when the knight’s broadsword collided with me.
I immediately changed my attitude toward Harden and took a few swings at the knight. After a few successful blows, he withdrew his weapon, faded into the shallow pool below, and then the next gate opened. I proceeded down the road expecting another tutorial prompt and was met with just that.
This time I was greeted with a statue holding a broadsword similar to the one that was previously used against me. Approaching the statue, I picked up the sword and a new knight appeared. This time the game prompted me to Harden mid-attack. I expected to see an over-the-top animated special attack, but instead froze mid-swing. When the knight attacked me and made contact, it broke the Harden and immediately completed my broadsword’s arc landing a surprise counter-attack. For the second time in the first few minutes of the tutorial Mortal Shell showed me that I underestimated how clever it was.
Shortly after defeating the second knight, I was eaten by a giant fish and spat back out in a new starting area, released from the constraints of the tutorial and free to die as frequently as I wished.
Now I was free to roam and discover what Mortal Shell had to offer without the constraints of the tutorial. I emerged from the cave I awoke in to find a dead body on a hill, propped up against two rocks. Standing next to it, I was prompted to interact with the body, unlocking a brief cutscene where I possessed the empty shell and was now in control of a new body, fully equipped with heavy armor and my trusty broadsword.
Below, two raggedy looking enemies sitting around a campfire. One was shirtless and the one with the goofy looking leather cap was playing a lute. At first I thought they might be friendly until I got close enough for them to see me. They immediately attacked but went down without much of fight. When they died, I immediately gained a small amount of Tar. Tar is a form of currency that is essentially replacing souls. It’s spent to purchase items from the occasional merchant and is also spent alongside Glimpse to obtain new abilities (more on that in a bit). Much to my surprise, I was also able to pick up and play the lute and in came Familiarity.
Mortal Shell is loaded with item pickups, but has introduced a new system called Familiarity. Unfamiliar with the world around it, the Foundling must learn about the world by interacting with it. Only by using new items can players learn about their effects. The Familiarity meter will increase with each use of an item until it maxes out eventually revealing flavor text information about the item’s history, place in the world, or in some rare cases, new effects.
I sat around the campfire playing my newly acquired lute just for giggles and not unlike real life, I was terrible at it. With each new use, the Foundling improved until he played a delightful little tune that I enjoyed listening to between waves of enemies. While impractical, experimenting with Familiarity helped me understand that I’d need to make more of a habit of interacting with the world around me than I’d expected to. Exploring the area revealed a few different types of mushrooms that you could pick and consume, though their effects remained a secret until taking the gamble to consume them.
One of these mushrooms, the Welcap, would restore a total of thirty hit points over a period of thirty seconds. It was slow, but I frequently found myself in need of these little boosts. However, my health regeneration came at the costs of consuming my resolve meter (another system we’ll dive into later). It was less than ideal for combat, but often a necessity. After many uses, I maxed out the Familiarity meter for the Welcap mushroom and gained a small boost to the amount of health I gained.
But not all items are beneficial at first. Another type of mushroom poisons the Foundling when consumed. Of course, I learned this immediately after eating one to recover from a tough battle only to die on the spot. Not understanding how I would ever benefit from that effect, I stockpiled the mushroom, but never intentionally used it. In the middle of combat I would sometimes eat the wrong mushroom thinking it was a Welcap, but instead would poison myself and fall in battle due to my own stupidity. After many mistakes and much frustration I earned maximum Familiarity and discovered that it no longer poisoned me and instead granted temporary immunity from poison.
At first, Familiarity felt like a bit of a gimmick, but I found that it drove me to explore the world more intensely and experiment with different items and their effects hoping to unlock some new secrets. The areas included in the beta demo were fairly small and contained a tiny selection of inventory options, but left me excited to see what else I could uncover.
Where Familiarity serves to deepen the effects and information available on items, each body you inhabit (known as a Shell) has a similar system referred to as Glimpse. On occasion an enemy might drop Glimpse or the Foundling may come across an item that will grant a little Glimpse, all of which can be by interacting with certain characters to grant insight into the body you inhabit. In the case of the demo, you could speak with Sister Gennessa to spend Glimpse and learn more about your Shell.
Who were they before they died and you took over their body? What was their story? By spending Glimpse you not only learn the name and story of the Shell you inhabit, but also unlock their skill tree. Unlike other Soulsborne games, Mortal Shell doesn’t allow players to level up their stats so they can eventually one-hit Ornstein and Smough. Instead, each Shell has its own set of stats and abilities that can be unlocked by spending Glimpse. This approach forces players to master the tools given to them rather than soul farming spamming stat increases. Players will have to grow to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each Shell and what situations to best use them in.
The demo allows players experience only two different Shells from the full game. After spending a healthy amount of Glimpse players will learn that the knight from most of the trailers is known as Harros, the Vassal. He’s a bit slower than his late demo counterpart, but can deal a heavy blow and doesn’t get knocked around very easily. Harros reminded me a bit of playing a Dark Souls 3 tank build. In a later section of the demo, a cavern filled with poisonous enemies, we discover the body of Tiel, the Acolyte. Tiel moves significantly faster than Harros does and plays a bit more like a Bloodborne hunter. Any damage taken will send his health down far faster than that of Harros, but he’s far more successful when attempting to dodge.
Personally, I prefer the play style of Tiel. I would rather dodge attacks altogether than have to worry about timing blocking and attacking all while staying in reach of my enemies. My love of Tiel grew even more when I discovered that his skill tree unlocked abilities that would allow him to poison enemies with well-timed counterattacks, making my ability to quickly react even all the more rewarding.
The demo showcased two different Shells, but Cold Symmetry opted to display two other future Shells by showing their silhouettes in the player menu. While this may just be a tease of some of the other available options, I worry that Mortal Shell may not have as much variety in playable characters as I had hoped. But as this is just the demo, I’ll have to put those fears aside for now.
Even if Mortal Shell releases with a total of four playable characters, they do allow players to mix and match Shells and weapons for greater variety. In the same area I uncovered Tiel’s body, were what I presume to be his weapons in life: a long hammer and chisel. Armed with one in each hand, Tiel and Harros were able to strike much faster than with the broadsword. By mixing and matching weapon types with a Shell’s increasing innate abilities, players will be able to experiment with difference combinations to find their perfect match.
The last mechanic I wanted to highlight is Resolve. There’s a small yellow bar above the health meter that will gradually charge as players land hits on their enemies. Consuming this bar will allow players to execute special weapon abilities. In the case of the broadsword, Harros will slowly draw it back and lunge forward and fatally impale his target. Not unlike anything else, each Shell has a separate Resolve stat. Harros has three bars worth of Resolve that can be earned and stored, while Tiel can only earn two. It’s an excellent way to insta-kill weaker enemies, but it certainly won’t work every time and should be treated sparingly.
After completing the demo by beating the one real boss, Enslaved Grisha, I can definitively say that Mortal Shell is harder than any Soulsborne game I’ve played. You can’t level up your strength to do more damage or boost faith to magically heal yourself. Damage is what it is and if you run out of healing items, tough shit. Clever use of Hardening and Shell abilities will be players’ only way to improve and progress making it somehow even less forgiving that the games that inspired it.
When the Foundling’s health gets low, he gets violently ejected from his Shell. The empty Shell is hardened and frozen in place where the Foundling was pushed out. The Foundling has significantly lower health and is incredibly vulnerable in this state; one or two hits from even the weakest enemies will be enough to take you down. If you’re able to return to your Shell, your stats health and stamina bars will return back to the Shell’s default values. However, this will only happen once. The next time the Foundling’s health comes down, it’s game over.
When players die, their Shell, not unlike when they’re ejected during combat, will remain frozen in place and in possession of all your earned Tar and Glimpse. If players are able to retrieve the empty Shell before dying again, like Soulsborne, all of their dropped currencies will be returned to them.
I’ve heard a lot of concerns from people who have only watched the trailers or gameplay videos that Mortal Shell looks slow and clunky, and I’d like to take a moment to address those concerns. While there are moments when the combat is definitely clunky, there are two reasons for that. First of all, the game is still in its beta state. There’s a lot of fine tuning to do before the game’s initial release and some of these issues will absolutely be addressed. On the other hand, the primary Shell that’s been featured in these videos is Harros, the slow and heavy hitting vassal. Jumping into Tiel’s body instead gives players a smoother gameplay experience.
Mortal Shell has done an excellent job so far of recreating the intrigue and excitement of exploring worlds like Lodran and lifting some of the more successful systems from Soulsborne, while bringing a lot of their own new ideas to the table. If I have any concerns of my own, it’s that Mortal Shell will only cost $29.99 on release. While I love saving money on my gaming, I fear that may mean we’re in for a shorter game than what Soulsborne fans are used to and there will be fewer areas to explore. However, Cold Symmetry has certainly impressed me and I look forward to diving into the full experience later this year, no matter how short a time that may be. In the meantime, I’m just going to hang out by the fire and become more familiar with my lute.
Mortal Shell is set to release later this year to consoles and PC as an epic Store exclusive for $29.99. It’s currently scheduled to hit Steam in early 2021