Mortal Shell understands Dark Souls better than anything else I’ve played in the massive wake of that
The game just went into open beta, thanks to popular demand, and grabbed my attention with its phenomenal, Gothic look and concise pitch. Instead of a traditional protagonist, you play a strange, wandering spirit who inhabits empty “Shells” — bodies with history but no current soul to inhabit them. Each shell has its own unique stats, skills, and playstyle, making them function almost like different classes. Combine that with a handful of weapons, each with their own feel and powerful abilities, and you have a game just unique enough to feel fresh while indulging in the conventions of its genre.
It is, of course, built on a foundation of punishing and animation heavy combat. The devs plainly call it a “Soulsborne” in the marketing copy. Understanding when your opponent will strike, and where their flailing violence will leave them after a swing, is key to securing hits and keeping your Shell in one piece.
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Each body has its own short-range dodge, used for micro adjustments between enemy combos. There’s also a full dodge roll to avoid the really sweeping blows of your halberd-wielding foes. There is no traditional block button, however. Dark Souls is often known for a patient, shield-heavy play — especially as players get a feel for each encounter. From Software went on to encourage other, more aggressive styles of play in Sekiro and Bloodborne (the game that put the “borne” in Soulsborne). And Mortal Shell similarly encourages aggression through its own unique system: hardening.
The unnamed protagonist of Mortal Shell can turn their entire body to stone, protecting them from harm. You can do this at any point, even in the middle of an attack. And when you leave this hardened state your momentum catches up with you. You return to whatever you were doing before. For me that usually means stabbing the ghoul trying to tear out my well-armored throat. If an enemy strikes you while hardened, though, they usually get stunned for just a moment. That gives you crucial time to land a hit or two… before they find their footing and get back to the murder.
You can harden up every seven seconds or so, but some of the game’s Shells reduce that downtime with unique upgrades. Replacing the block button with a cooldown ability lets Mortal Shell encourage aggression and a healthy use of the dodge button, while not drastically increasing the speed of play or removing the weight that makes heavy sword swings feel so good.
Combat aside, Mortal Shell understands what I love most about Dark Souls: tone and story. The world is alien, tired, and broken. I loved every minute I spent steeped in the beta. Besides sorrow, though, there’s something else ther —, a fragment of warmth. Immediately following the tutorial area, you spawn into a forest so thick with every step. The air is wet, hot, and hungry. But there is music. A dozen or so feet away, at the base of a hill, is a man with a lute. He strums it gently. He makes me hope there can be moments of solace in this world.
When I approach, however, he and his friend grab their weapons. I kill them. The fight is gross and short. The bear trap outside of their camp makes sure of that. I pull the lute from the muck, test the tuning, and try to figure out if this body has any muscle memory that I lack. It doesn’t… When I find some respite I’ll practice. I promise myself I’ll practice. I hope I get the chance.
Mortal Shell officially launches this summer. I’m beyond excited to put my hands on the full game and to see whatever the developer, Cold Symmetry, does next. If you can’t wait til then, you can download the game’s beta on the Epic Games Store right now!