Mortal Shell by Cold Symmetry is one of the few soulslike games that I was cautiously hyped for when I saw the trailer for it.
I mean, look at it. It could BE a Dark Souls trailer, down to the many bosses reveal. By the way, I never watch trailers for FromSoft games because they give away so many bosses. I always wait until after I play the game to actually watch the trailers because I don’t want to spoil the surprise of bosses for me. I am on the far end of ‘don’t want to be spoiled’ when going into a FromSoft game, which isn’t easy in this day and age.
Anyway, I knew the basic premise of the game which was that you were a…zombie? A walking skeleton? Something in between? Unclear. What was clear was that you could put on different ‘shells’ of enemies you…found? Beat? Unclear. But it was a cool concept, and I was intrigued. The graphics were gorgeous and very Souls-y, and the atmosphere was properly epic and bleak.
When it came to closed beta, I was doubly intrigued. It was so popular, they opened the beta. I downloaded it from Epic and hopped in. Immediately, I was aware that I was in a soulslike. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, mind, especially one that was as high quality as this game. There was a cutscene much like the ones at the beginning of the you-know-what games, and then I was dumped in an area much like the tutorial area of Dark Souls III but with much harder enemies. The shell I had at this point was that of a knight, and my weapon was a big fuckoff sword. Were we about to get OG Dark Souls up in this bitch? Apparently so.
They do tell you what the different buttons do, but it’s a lot to take in. They’re different from the Souls buttons, and they add a wrinkle that the first time you press B (Xbox One controller), you dodge. The second time you press B, you roll. I don’t like not having a dedicated roll, but I have to admit it’s an interesting conceit. In addition, it makes you have to be much more deliberate about your movements, which has both positives and negatives. Yes, combat is deliberate in Souls games, but it feels…almost clunky in Mortal Shell–at least in the beginning.
One interesting twist to the formula is that you have to use consumables in order to know what they do. The more you use them, the more familiarity you have with them. Sometimes, it’s not immediate obvious what they do and sometimes, it’s all-too-obvious. One item, something like Nekkar’s Flesh, immediately kills you. I’ve only used it once, and the lore I received from using it is that it blasts you out of your shell. So maybe it’s not an immediate death, but I certainly died when I took it.
Let’s talk shells. As I said, you’re a skeleton who inhabits shells you come across. There is a matching weapon with the shell that you may get with the shell as is the case with the knight’s shell or you may not. I’ll get more into that later. With the shells come a mechanic called hardening. You press the LT button and you ‘harden’ which means the next blow you take doesn’t do damage. I misunderstood and thought I could prep the harden by using LT ahead of a battle, but that wasn’t right. It’s more like a 100% block shield that you hold up as you’re being attacked.
In tandem with the harden mechanism is something called resolve. I’m not exactly sure how it works, but you build it up by attacking? I think? I don’t want to look it up because as I’ve said, I like to go into these kinds of games unspoiled. Using the harden mechanism drains resolve, but if you build up enough resolve, then you can use LB+RB for a special attack that is really fucking cool. I haven’t figured out how to do it deliberately, but hopefully, I’ll get there one day.
One of the consumables I picked up was Lesser Moonshine. Once, while I was exploring and at low health, I decided to take it to see if it was health related.
Side note: One thing I really dislike about the game is that there is no dedicated healing. It’s one reason that Bloodborne is my least-favorite FromSoft game. When you’re as terrible as I am at the game and a manic healer, it’s difficult to have a decent back supply of vials. I distinctly remember going through Hemwick Charnel Lane and running alarmingly low on vials. I made it to the Witches, and I died with like two hits to go. I had one vial left when I revived, and I was done with the game. I went back, obviously, but it was so frustrating.
In Mortal Shell, there is no Estus Flask as far as I can tell. You have to use consumables, which is not the way I like to roll. I’m a compulsive healer, and I’d rather know the set amount of healing potions I have for a run than pick them up as I go. Anyway, I tried a Lesser Moonshine while low on health, and I lost a chunk of health, but gained crazy resolve. I was able to motor through all the remaining enemies in the section, and because you can regain health when attacking with resolve (again, I’m not sure exactly how it works), I was doing ok–until I fell off a cliff.
Yes, my friends, the dreaded gravity boss is strong in this game. I hate it in the FromSoft games, and I’m not any more amenable to it here. In fact, it’s worse in this game because it’s unclear what is safe grounds and what isn’t. In addition, the enemy placement is set up in such a way that it’s really hard not to fall off the edge in more than one case. I don’t mind being killed because I suck–I’m used to it, actually–but I hate deaths which feel as if they’re not my fault.
The enemies at the start of this game are much harder than they are in any FromSoft game. MUCH. Even the scrubs can kill you in a few hits if you’re not careful. And, they’re bunched up in such a way that it’s constantly drawing one away and picking him off. Plus, you know the Black Knight equivalent who is always at the beginning of any Souls game, but not in the tutorial, and not compulsory? There are THREE of the equivalent in one small place in the very beginning of the game here. One is the third, fourth, or fifth (depending on how you move) enemy you face. You can avoid the other two if you run, but it’s still annoying.
I went into the second area divided. I really liked the general concepts and it was a good soulslike. However, I felt it was wildly unbalanced and the enemy were too hearty and plentiful. Minor annoyance, there’s a Fire Keeper at this bonfire (no, neither term is correct, but when you make your game a soulslike, you have to deal with it), and she talks to you every time she ‘revives’ you. It’s annoying, but a minor thing.
Here’s where things get interesting. You can pay a certain amount of souls* to find out who your shell is. Then, you can level up certain skills related to the shell. In the next room are two bodies. One is the body of the knight shell you inhabit and the other is the body of a rogue. You can take his shell and you can go back to your lady and find out who he is as well. Then you have his skill tree, too, and you have to decide which shell you want to upgrade. I mean, you can do both, obviously, but that’s a lot of currency.
Fun fact: I read a few reviews of the demo, most of them highly praising the game. Not one of them, however, mentioned that you could *spoiler for the demo* get the rogue’s weapon. It’s a hammer and chisel, and it’s very interesting to use. I was pretty proud I found it, even though it was by accident. I went back to the rogue body after identifying him, and there was a glimmer. Curious, I clicked on it, and I got his weapon. That’s just me giving into my OCD traits and exploring absolutely everything.
Here’s a positive about the game–the rogue shell is loads of fun to use. I am not a rogue player at all, and when I first slipped it on, I thought I’d be out of it in a second. There is less health but much more stamina, and the B button changed from what it was as the knight to pressing it once gives sort of a sliding evasion step and pressing it again gives an invisible roll. To my surprise, I was really digging it. There’s also some kind of poison thing the rogue shell could do, but I wasn’t completely sure what it was.
I will say even though I don’t like using consumables as heals, they’re pretty plentiful. Mushrooms are the healing item (the one I’ve found), and they regrow on a regular cycle. Still. I don’t like not having a set amount after each respawn, but that’s just a me thing. There’s also a…spore mushroom I want to say that cleanses poison, which is good because so many things do poison in this area.
Nekkars. Fuck ’em. Two at the very start of the Catacombs, er, what is this area called? Not sure. But it looks exactly like the Catacombs of the original Dark Souls. Granted, catacombs are catacombs, but still. You can draw one out, but you have to do it very carefully. Then, there’s an enemy who has weapons all over his body and throws poison at you. As he’s about to die, he hurl his head at you before exploding into poison. Hitting him repeatedly is effective, though. With the great sword, however, not the hammer and chisel.
Using the hammer in the right hand, chisel in the left is very different than using the greatsword. And, yes, there’s a parry in this game, which, yes, I stridently ignore. It also gives you resolve, and I think the riposte gives you health. Not sure because any parry I did was by accident. I did try it a few times, but the risk is not worth the reward. One miss, and you can be near death. Given how shitty I am at parrying, it’s a no-go for me.
Oh! One important mechanism I didn’t mention that is super-cool. When you’re close to death, you get knocked out of your shell. The enemy hardens and if you get back into your shell in time, you retain full health. Next time, though, you die. It’s like Sekiro‘s resurrect mechanic, but with a twist. It’s really cool because it adds an immediate tension of wanting to get back into your shell and having to keep an eye on the enemy right next to your shell.
Anyway, I found this area to be a slog. Two nekkars, one exploding guy, then another exploding guy at the end of the room with two nekkars leaping out at you. Next room, nekkar hidden–and by the way, I find that cheap. Again, I don’t mind dying if it’s my own fault, but enemies that jump out of you and don’t give you time to respond is a no-go for me. In this area, there are these two big thick crab-like enemies. They are hard as fuck–and they respawn. One only guards a chest so if you dispose of it once, you don’t have to deal with it again. The other, however, guards the boss room. By the time I reached it and was ready to see the boss, I was so over the run. It’s grueling–and, yes, I know soulsike, blah, blah, blah–and there’s no shortcut. Yes, there’s a room that cuts through the beginning and the end, but it doesn’t really save much time, and you can’t outrun enemies. They don’t really tether, and there’s a narrow runway that is really easy to fall off near the stairs.
I said fuck it. I ran into the boss room past the crab guy. And….he came in after me. I mean, what???? It’s a fucking boss fight! You don’t get to come in with me! I was so rattled even though he wasn’t very fast. I tried to watch what the boss was doing–who looked like a Bloodborne chalice dungeon boss with a Micolash cage over his head–but I had to keep an eye on the enemy as well. I really didn’t think it was fair that an enemy could come into the boss room (maybe a glitch?). Anyway, I managed to get the boss down to half before I died.
I was demoralized and quit the game right away. I didn’t think I’d go back to it because as much as it intrigued me, I really didn’t like the imbalance. But, something in my brain nagged me to play again. It’s the same reason I have to beat FromSoft games–I’m too proud for my own good. No soulslike was going to beat me, nosiree! I changed back to the knight’s shell and weapon, reluctantly, because while I liked the rogue shell better, I wasn’t good enough to wield it yet.
It took me a hot second before I was comfortable in the knight shell once again, and when I was, I decided to grind so I could get a skill for it. Once I did that, I decided I might as well do the boss. I tried to run to it, but I was killed along the way. So, resigning myself, I fought the enemies on the way except the crab guy before the boss arena. I held my breath, but he did not follow me in this time. Once I heaved a sigh of relief, I watched the boss for a bit. He was slow and lumbering, and he was definitely, “Hi, I’ll be your tutorial boss.” Once I figured out his attack pattern, I’d wait until he did his thing before hitting him two or three times, then retreating. He really didn’t have much health, and I got him down to one pixel of health before he nearly crushed me. That’s a Souls thing that I do NOT appreciate (the one last fucking hit bullshit), but I pulled myself away, healed, and regrouped. I circled around and let him do his thing, and then I took care of him. He wasn’t no thing, especially not after the hell run up to him.
I didn’t get the same elation I do when I beat a Souls boss, but I certainly got a hit of satisfaction. In addition, I mentally patted myself on the back for adapting and finishing the demo. There are things that need tweaking (such as enemy balance), but overall, I’m cautiously hyped for this game. It’s the best soulslike I’ve played. What I appreciate the most is that while it’s slavish to Souls in some ways, it’s not afraid to innovate in others. It’s a great combination, and I’m eager to see what Cold Symmetry does from here.
*See earlier disclaimer about being a soulslike.