When Dark Souls released in late 2011, it took the gaming world by storm. It came out at a time when a lot of people didn’t think there was much of a market for difficult games anymore – and it proved all those people dead wrong. The Souls series by From Software became so successful and garnered such a reputation for difficulty that they became a kind of measuring stick of difficulty which other games are compared against. Beyond that, other companies started trying to create their own Souls-adjacent games, and thus the Soulslike genre was born. 

Many companies have taken a stab at it, but only a few have even come close to recreating the same feelings I experienced when I played Dark Souls for the first time. It always felt like the developers either didn’t quite understand what people loved about the Souls series or that they had forgotten to put in some special sauce somewhere along the line. 

Mortal Shell is one of the few exceptions to what I just said. It is the first soulslike I’ve played in quite a while that both encapsulates much of what I love about the Souls series and throws in enough of its own new and exciting ideas to stand on its own – as an experience that goes beyond just retreading the same ground that the Souls games have. 

The most important thing to me when I’m trying out a new soulslike is fluidity. These are games that revel in creating extraordinarily dangerous and challenging combat encounters, so the most important tool I expect to have at my disposal is fluid and responsive control. Thankfully, for the most part Mortal Shell passes with flying colors. From a performance perspective, the game seems to run pretty much flawlessly, which is much better than expected for a beta. I had no problem maintaining a stable 75FPS at 1440p with all of the graphics settings cranked up. In terms of the actual movement mechanics, it has the exact kind of smooth responsiveness I’ve come to know and love from the best Souls games. The only exception to this is that your character awkwardly locks up for a second if you fall even from a very short ledge, which throws a little bit of clunkiness into an otherwise great movement system. 

Another very important element of the best soulslikes is atmosphere and story. This can mean a few different things and doesn’t necessarily boil down to just one formula. It doesn’t matter so much if the story and lore are presented to you in a fragmented fashion a la Dark Souls or if they take a more direct approach like The Surge or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The more important thing here is that the world is developed and presented in meaningful ways that facilitate immersion. From what I saw of the beta, Mortal Shell seems to be more on the Dark Souls side of the fence; the story isn’t just given to you – you have to work a bit for it. Unlike other soulslikes though, just picking up most items isn’t enough for you to learn what they do or what their significance is. Instead, you need to use them a few times to gain familiarity and unlock the full story. It’s an interesting idea on paper, though I also find it a bit unsettling. It was awesome to find a lute lying around and to unlock the full familiarity by playing it a few times, and hilarious to find out that playing it is a way to aggro enemies from further away- but I’m concerned about the potential frustration that might be invoked by using new items in tough spots and being unpleasantly surprised by their effects. 

The basics of the combat system work very much as you’d expect, with health and stamina bars you have to keep an eye on as you fight. A small but fascinating addition here are the resolve bars, a resource which is used to perform certain skills or parry attacks. The resolve system addresses one of my biggest complaints about some soulslikes wherein mastering the parry trivializes many enemy encounters – because you can’t just parry everything. Instead, the resolve system incentivizes and rewards aggressive play: you build resolve by damaging enemies, and until you completely fill up a bar, it’s susceptible to decay if you stop dishing out damage. The end result here is that parrying and riposting is just as powerful as it is in something like the original Dark Souls, but is a resource you have to carefully manage rather than just use every time an enemy swings a weapon your way. I also love that a successful riposte heals you and activates a flashy slow motion attack animation, which upgrades an already exciting moment to something that feels totally badass and incredibly rewarding. 

One of the most interesting new mechanics Mortal Shell introduces into the Souls formula is the ability to harden. Hardening allows you to briefly turn your body to stone at pretty much any time. You can use this to block a single attack, and the moment of deflection it provides is generally enough to sneak a hit in. What makes this ability really interesting is that you can use it in ways you might not expect. For instance, you can harden in the middle of an attack, deflect the enemy’s attack, and your attack will finish afterwards. It’s quite a powerful and flexible defensive ability to have at your disposal, and feels absolutely amazing to use well. 

Another awesome new thing Mortal Shell brings is the concept of shells. Shells are basically the defeated remains of warriors that are scattered across the world. You can inhabit these shells and they act kind of like different character classes – each one has different stats and abilities in its arsenal. The beta showcases two different shells – one with relatively balanced durability, stamina, and resolve, and one that has a special shadow dodge ability and is much more agile, but also much less durable. Each one also has a different upgrade tree you can go down by spending this game’s equivalent of souls. These two shells already facilitate very different play styles, and I’m really excited to see how many more they’re able to throw into the mix in the final game. 

If that were all the shell system had to offer, it’d be neat, but two things elevate shells from “neat” to “awesome”. First of all, when the health of your shell reaches zero, you don’t die, you’re knocked out of the shell into your “empty vessel” form and can either make a last stand in your weakened state or hop back into the shell if you can get there quickly enough. If you run out of health again though, it’s game over. It’s kind of like how Sekiro offers you another chance at life through the resurrection system. The second thing that makes shells more awesome is that they have names and lore, which really helps the narrative aspect of them being actual people that fell in battle – a fantastic touch that helped me get more immersed in the world and the stories that it holds. 

Another area of the beta where Mortal Shell seems to excel is its enemy design. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making generic enemies that get overused or enemies that look different but are functionally the same – but neither of those are issues here from what I’ve seen so far. The enemies are all quite distinct in ways that are interesting from a visual and lore perspective and make sense from a gameplay perspective. One of my favorite enemies so far are the tormented abberations, which have swords skewered all over in their bodies, probably from those who fell to them in the past. They use these swords and other parts of their body to attack you with in various ways – they might pull a sword out and throw it at you, dual wield them, or throw its head at you when it’s about to die as a last “screw you.” 

All in all, I had an awesome time with Mortal Shell’s  beta, and I don’t really have many bad things to say about Mortal Shell. Aside from the small lockup that comes with falling from ledges and the possible annoyance that might come with not knowing what items do until after you use them, there’s almost nothing I dislike about this game so far, and that was a really pleasant surprise. Even though this was just the beta, the design and polish on display here felt like what I’d expect of a complete product. To summarize, the Mortal Shell beta is the best and most refreshing soulslike I’ve played in years, and I can’t wait for it to come out this September.

Mortal Shell is slated for release in Q3 of 2020 on Epic Games Store (PC), PS4, and Xbox One. It will also be hitting Steam sometime in 2021.

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