Mortal Shell hands-on preview: A gooey hack 'n' slash center

We got an early peek of what Cold Symmetry's Mortal Shell and its Souls-like gameplay has in store for us. On first taste, the shell may be jagged and bristling, but the contents seem rich.

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Mortal Shell has been interesting in its presentation ever since we first learned about it. Cold Symmetry are unabashedly fans of the Dark Souls style of hard-as-nails action-RPG gameplay and have have made no qualms about pouring that gothic and gritty love into their game. But Mortal Shell has to do more than just talk the talk of this style of game, especially when compared to numerous contemporaries doing the same. Fortunately, I got my hands on an early gameplay-centered build of Mortal Shell recently and I have to say, it not only handles its genre well, but has quite a few stylish flourishes of its own to show for it.

The pale jerky man needs new clothes

There’s very little to say about the story behind Mortal Shell right now as the preview I played focused almost entirely on gameplay and skirted any semblance of the narrative that's in store for us. What I can tell you is that you play some kind of pale, skinless humanoid that has the ability to rekindle the bodies of dead warriors and utilize them along with their strengths, weaknesses, and abilties.

Before we get to what that entails, I will say that our pale humanoid has a few universal tricks of their own, and they figure heavily into defense and offense throughout the game. For one, our friend can harden their body for a short time to become statue-like and chewier than ever. When most enemies attack, the stone skin will deflect their aggression and buy time for a counteroffensive. The hardening ability is temporary, but recharges after a short time and is a main means of deflecting incoming damage. The other main universal mechanic is a rune that we can use to spot unblockable attacks, and if they’re not unblockable, we can use it to parry them (using a special meter of resolve as energy for the parry) and set up for a deadly riposte that will restore lost health points. Outside of this, the pale fellow can run, sprint, dodge roll, and perform your other usual Dark Souls-style traversal. Notably as usual, there is no jump button.

A Mortal Shell makeover

As you play Mortal Shell, you'll discover warriors like Tiel, who you can inhabit to bend their talents and abilities to your will in your journey.
As you play Mortal Shell, you'll discover fallen warriors like Tiel, who you can inhabit to bend their talents and abilities to your will in your journey.

The pale jerky fellow certainly isn’t without tricks, but they are hardly enough to take on the plights of Mortal Shell alone. To that end, the character also has the means to awaken and inhabit the bodies of dead warriors and utilize their unique abilities and skills. This is where Mortal Shell really starts to carve its own path in gameplay. I got to play two different “shells” in the preview build. One was your standard knight, who packed reasonable health, stamina, and resolve gauges, featured some standard offensive and defensive abilities and was good with a broadsword and standard hack ‘n’ slash engagement. We also got a roguish fellow named Tiel who featured low health and resolve, but a massive amount of stamina to throw out a never-ending flurry of attacks.

The shells act as classes of sorts and each in the preview was good in their own way. Eventually, I could unlock skills and, with the roguish Tiel, I unlocked an ability that allowed him to deploy a cloud of poison during a successful parry, dealing massive base damage and then extra damage over time. The knight similarly has perks that can be unlocked that play to his strengths. Alongside this, each character can utilize any weapon they want. Some feel better suited to a specific shell than others. For instance, I collected a hammer and chisel set that made for dual-handed attacks. It worked great for Tiel who could overcome the weak damage with a flurry of attack, but for the knight, whose stamina is less, the higher damage, lower-energy costing sword felt better suited. Even so, between the weapons, the shells, their perks, the hardening, and the parry and riposte, Mortal Shell’s approach to player control allowed a ton of versatility on attack and defense, even in its limited early offering.

Shell-hungry baddies in their myriad forms

Make no mistake, Mortal Shell is as hard as any game of its kind and a reckless approach will lead to a quick death.
Make no mistake, Mortal Shell is as hard as any game of its kind and a reckless approach will lead to a quick death.

The other side of a solid Souls-like equation are the enemies and the environment they inhabit. To this end, Mortal Shell is promising too. We fought our way through a swamp full of bandits and brigands, a tunnel system full of undead and other creatures, and a nasty blade-armed boss in an icy cave. The enemies in this build featured varied threats and encouraged different approaches to dealing with them.. For example, there’s a zombie creature stuck with swords like a pincushion that will tug its head off and throw it at you when you’ve damaged it enough, killing itself, emitting a poison cloud, and robbing you of precious experience for the kill unless you finish it fast.

More interesting foes with unique approaches to enemies could be found throughout the preview. Get smacked around by these foes enough and you’ll be knocked clean out of the shell you’re inhabiting, forcing you to try to get back to it in your enfeebled form. Deplete your health again and you’ll die, leaving behind your experience in the trademark Souls-like style and being forced to go collect it, lest you die again and lose it forever.

Perhaps one of the more interesting systems in the game is the item system. Games like this - Dark Souls, Code Vein, Bloodborne, and plenty more - include a wealth of items with sometimes very little practical application or simply vague description. In Mortal Shell, there is an eight-tally experience meter tied to most of the items. The only way to figure out what they do when you first get them is to use them. It can be a boon, like a poison healing shroom that will boost you against further poison attacks. Moreover, the more you become familiar with an item, the more beneficial it can become, so even a deadly item can become benificial with further use. It’s an interesting approach to this style of game which has often bogged the player down with multitudes of items they will never touch.

The teased richness underneath that tough Mortal Shell

A perilous fight has been teased in Mortal Shell, and it's one game that any self-respecting Soulsborne fan should absolutely keep on their radar.
A perilous fight has been teased in Mortal Shell, and it's one game that any self-respecting Soulsborne fan should absolutely keep on their radar.

My time with the Mortal Shell early gameplay build was short, but surprisingly delightful once I started to crack the shell and see what was underneath. This is a game that absolutely and unabashedly knows where its inspiration came from. Yet once you get past all the usual Soulsborne things, Mortal Shell’s hardening and parry system, the unique shells and their abilities, the item use discovery, and more make it uniquely its very own beast. It very much seems that Cold Symmetry knows how to take that foundation and play around with it. If anything, I’m more excited than ever to see what the full body-skipping adventure of the pale jerky man has in store for me as we await this game’s beta on July 3, 2020 and a full launch later on.

News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. When he's not handing out beatdowns in the latest fighting games, exploring video game history, or playing through RPGs with his partner, he's searching for new food and drinks in the constant pursuit of good times with good people inside and outside the South Texas area. You can also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

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