Mortal Shell

Mortal Shell - Beta impressions

We thought we'd take a closer look at the punishing new souslike from Cold Symmetry.

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I don't imagine everyone has heard the name Cold Symmetry before, but those days are numbered, as the release date of their debut title Mortal Shell is creeping ever closer. The team, consisting of fifteen people, is made up of veteran developers, with Call of Duty, Ghost of Tsushima and Alita: Battle Angel on their respective resumes. That kind of pedigree shows in this beta, even though it's not always very well presented.

Its been nearly a week since the game went from closed to open beta. It's not overly long, depending on how good you are with soulslikes, and once you have the muscle memory down pat, it's over in about an hour. If you're a fan of the genre you'll find it quite familiar; there's your standard vague introduction, establishing you as a worthless grotesquery in the seasick cradle that is our hellish existence, back from the brink of death to ruin someone's campfire songs. But what are we, exactly?

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Well, we're not alive, that's for certain, as we enter the world a naked wretch, inhabiting the bodies of others lucky enough to die, which is the closest thing Mortal Shell gets to a traditional character creator. The beta lets us control two "characters", a sword-wielding knight and a nimble rogueish type armed with a hammer and chisel, of all things. Who these people were is further elaborated in the progression tree, where each perk also provides you with a voiced diary entry from their lives.

It didn't take long for me to find the hammerninja - roughly twenty minutes or so - and while you can switch between the two at your leisure, the level design in the latter half is not very rogue-friendly. With its linear and tight corridors, any amount of dodge-rolling on your part is likely to end in smacking into walls, which doesn't really showcase the character's strength. In theory, they both offer two different playstyles, but in practice, they don't, save for the knight being easier to control.

Combat is - for sake of reference - a mix of Bloodborne and Sekiro. You've got your standard attack and dodge-rolling, with parrying and weapon skills added for good measure. Using the two latter requires a steady supply of ''resolve,'' which you earn by landing attacks. I have yet to figure out how the parry function works; while I understand that you're supposed to use it when the sigil on your back turns red, it would straight up not work with certain enemies. The overall pace and feel of combat is quite sluggish, and while landing a blow can feel like smacking God across the face, the timing can take some getting used to. You're bound to make a couple of stumbling ballerina steps, but when you inevitably screw it all up, you can always fall back on blocking incoming attacks with your face.

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No really. Early on you get the ability to harden your entire body, which upon impact knocks the enemy off balance, allowing for a couple of friendly prison-stabs between the ribs. It's an amazingly well-implemented function, which you can activate before, during and after your attacks, serving as a get out of jail free card for when your attacks miss and you're about to be smeared across the wall. That's not to say that all is lost if you die. As soon as your health bar is empty, you are thrown out of your flesh tuxedo, providing you with a limited window of time to get dressed into your second chance.

You'll probably find the way Mortal Shell conveys lore familiar as well; the unmistakable feeling of showing up to a party uninvited, characters speaking as if you're supposed to understand them, and lengthy item descriptions. As with every game in this genre, it's all about finding out what things are called this time around, and the usual suspects are still here; there's no bonfire, but some half-dead priestess insisting on you drinking her "divine tar", which refills your health and resets all the enemies. You don't collect souls, but "tar" and "glimpses", although upgrade materials are a bit more varied.

I'm not quite clear on the game's relationship with its items, though. While items are easy to find, you also get familiar with them, illustrated with a bar underneath each one. Every time you use something, you get more familiar, but what practical function this is meant to serve, I have no idea. Initially, I thought a bonus awaited me as the gauge increased, but a poison mushroom killed me just the same the eighth time around as it did the first. The only noticeable difference was in the way your character played the lute - the first time sounding like his arms fell asleep while trying to play Free Bird, and later getting the medieval flair one would expect - so it wasn't a total waste of time.

While falling a bit short in length and presentation, Mortal Shell does by all accounts intend to powerbomb you into submission with its face-as-a-shield-combat and progression tree storytelling. Finally, Mortal Shell doesn't have an official release date but it is scheduled for a Q3 release.

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REVIEW. Written by Kieran Harris

"A knockout first release for Cold Symmetry that's able to embrace what made the Souls series so special, whilst successfully bringing its own original ideas."

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