Ain't No Grave
When creating a Soulslike, a developer has two options. The first is to innovate on the formula in a way that makes your game memorable. The other is to simply pull off the formula so well that you become remembered not for new ideas, but for refining old ones. In many ways, Mortal Shell, the inaugural project from developer Cold Symmetry, represents the best parts of both of those approaches. It definitely sticks to the formula - stamina management-based combat, sporadic checkpoints, tough boss battles - but it has enough new about it to recommend it to veterans of the genre.
The preview build I played was deliberately lacking in narrative detail so as not to spoil the eventual experience. Still, there's plenty of atmosphere to soak up. There were two areas: the swampy marshland of Fallgrim Outskirts and the dank catacombs of the Abandoned Chamber. Both have a moody, downbeat vibe that suits the brutal punishment of the combat system. Just like in Souls, items and NPCs tell the story of the world, and the writing does an effective job of building the narrative without too much exposition or purple prose.
Exploration in Mortal Shell feels pretty satisfying, too. Wandering around the swampy outskirts, I found a good few side paths and extra clearings to explore, each replete with items and enemies. The catacombs area feels more confined and claustrophobic, but there are still secrets to be found by wandering off the beaten path. Mortal Shell's level design is rewarding and intuitive, unlike many other games of this genre. It's always clear where you need to go and what's stopping you from getting there. Traps and hidden enemies litter the pathways, but if you're clever, you can always spot them and circumvent them should you need to.
Make no mistake: Mortal Shell takes absolutely no prisoners with its combat. Dark Souls looks forgiving and casual next to Mortal Shell's demanding combat. The styles are similar; it's all about stamina management, dodging enemy attacks, and looking for openings. There are two key innovations in Mortal Shell that set it apart, however. The "shield" is replaced by a hardening of your entire body that only lasts for a couple of moments, and there's also a Bloodborne-style parry that restores your health if you land it. This effectively means you have a choice: block an attack and get nothing, or risk your health for a parry that will help you fight for longer.
The system works well and rewards vigilance. Each of Mortal Shell's enemies feels fair. There's always a chance to watch what they're going to do before you engage them, so you'll always know when to strike and when to use each of your parry abilities. Unfortunately, there are some slight technical issues marring Mortal Shell's combat. The three-strike sword combo doesn't quite work as it should. Hitting an enemy with the first strike often knocks them out of the range of your second strike, which feels frustrating. Animations feel satisfyingly punchy and weighty, but enemy hitboxes can feel a touch unfair. It's always hard to tell what's an intentionally hard design choice and what's a mistake in a Soulslike, but it doesn't feel like some attacks land where they should. In a game that rewards precision and observation, that's a problem.
Luckily, with a little understanding of Mortal Shell's unique class system, it's possible to overcome those hurdles. Each class - or Shell - in Mortal Shell opens up a different style of combat. The preview offered the chance to play as a standard warrior type with a massive greatsword and a rogue with...erm...a massive greatsword. Each Shell has a different skill tree that allows you to diversify your play style. Will you lean heavier into the dodge-centered rogue, or will you give yourself more chances to restore health by parrying with the warrior? Of course, each Shell also has a backstory that you'll need to discover through gameplay.
It's clear that Mortal Shell has also taken inspiration from another From Software game: Sekiro. When you die, you're blasted out of the body you're inhabiting (you're not actually playing as the shells, but a weird monster that's living inside them) and you'll have a single chance to haul it back to your shell. If you get to it without being crushed, you'll be able to re-inhabit the shell and get all of your lost health back. You only have one chance to do this, and if you die again, it's back to the checkpoint for you. The death system strikes the perfect balance between punishing your mistakes and being reasonable in allowing you to make them in the first place.
This system is essential for navigating Mortal Shell's brutal, exacting world. It's easy for smaller enemies to take you completely off-guard if you're not careful. While enemies can do pretty significant damage if left unchecked, Mortal Shell follows the cardinal rule of Soulslikes. It almost always allows you to make a recovery so you can try again. Some larger and more dangerous enemies can lock you into one-shot combos, but this is rare and often feels deserved given how much those attacks are telegraphed. By and large, the combat is fair, and that's more than can be said for many other examples of this genre.
Although the combat is fair, discovering exactly how it works is something Mortal Shell leaves entirely up to you. This lack of hand-holding is admirable in one sense, but it extends to many of the core systems, which feels a touch alienating. It's not entirely clear what some resources or items actually do, and Mortal Shell is very tight-lipped about informing you. A little more direction in terms of how systems operate would be welcome and wouldn't detract from the overall hardcore feel. After all, Mortal Shell feels like it's aiming to instill careful combat strategy and exploration in the player, not the desire to puzzle over how the fundamentals work.
Mortal Shell Preview | Final Thoughts
Mortal Shell is shaping up to be a truly excellent Soulslike. Its many interlocking parts all work remarkably well together, creating an experience that feels hand-crafted and compelling. All of the twists it makes on the standard formula feel fresh and welcome, especially the two-pronged parry system and the interchangeable classes. If Mortal Shell can iron out some of its weird physics kinks and provide a little more information about how its core systems function, it'll be a very special experience indeed. I left my time with Mortal Shell hungry to discover more of its world and to get killed in more brutal and insensitive ways. Roll on the full release.
TechRaptor previewed Mortal Shell on PC via the Epic Games Store using a preview code provided by the publisher.