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Mortal Shell beginner’s guide and tips

Understanding this pared-down soulslike

Mortal Shell beginner’s guide and tips Image: Cold Symmetry/PlayStack via Polygon

Mortal Shell’s first hours do something pretty incredible: prove that the soulslike formula isn’t limited to FromSoftware greatness. The developers at Cold Symmetry created a game that stand toes-to-toe with the developers of Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls series, and Bloodborne.

As anyone who’s ever played one of those games would expect, Mortal Shell is at once evocative, confusing, tantalizing, brutally difficult, and frustrating. Your first few hours will test your skill and your patience. They’ll also be worth the sweaty palm stress, because Mortal Shell is also fun and fair. You can do it, if you’ve got wherewithal and knowledge.

Whether you’re playing on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or PC (where it’s an Epic Game Store exclusive for now), Polygon’s Mortal Shell beginner’s guide will introduce you to the basics of playing this stubbornly tight-lipped game, with tips on combat (check out our in-depth Mortal Shell combat guide, too), exploration, and understanding the items you find.

Treat it like a rhythm game

We've been giving this advice for years, and it remains as relevant as ever.

Soulslike games are notoriously difficult, but they’re also fair — and slower than they seem at first (after you stop panicking). You have a unique human advantage over the enemies in Mortal Shell: You can identify their patterns. Take your time, pay careful attention to what your foes are doing and have just done, and you can attack and defend with confidence.

And that brings us to rhythm games. Your job in Guitar Hero or Rock Band is to do the right thing at the right time. At any given moment, you’re watching what’s happening now, thinking about what just happened, and finding repeatable patterns to anticipate what’s coming next.

Enemies in Mortal Shell aren’t all that different in concept. They’re the note. You’re the strummer. They telegraph their moves before attacking (usually slowly, usually drawing from a well of three or four possible attacks). Observe. Learn their patterns, and respond at the right moments.

Put differently, we’ve often referred to FromSoftware-inspired combat as “the dance,” by which we mean that there is a prescribed way of approaching enemies. If you think of encounters as dance steps, then it won’t be a stretch to think of Mortal Shell as a rhythm game.

Wash, rinse, repeat

If Mortal Shell is a rhythm game, then it’s Guitar Hero on Expert difficulty. It’s fine if you don’t finish the song your first time through. Assume that nobody will because nobody’s supposed to. In the moments that you find yourself most frustrated, remind yourself that you’re really just practicing for your best run, and practice makes … well, if not perfect, then it makes you better.

You will find success in repetition. Almost without fail, if you use the same successful strategy against the same enemies in the same areas, you’ll get the same results. There is, of course, some variation, and things can always go haywire, but keeping a level head and executing proven strategies leads to victory.

Here’s an example that you can find within your first hour in Mortal Shell.

  1. Jump attack on the guy with the lute, and finish him off.
  2. Kill the guy next to him.
  3. Kite the dude on the left or right into the bear trap, and attack when he’s stuck.
  4. Do the same thing for the other guy on the left or the right.
  5. The last guy is now on his own, and you can handle him however you want.

Most of the time, it plays out exactly like that. Could something go wrong? Sure. And it’s a lot easier to think on the fly when you’re not wondering who and what’s around you. Keep your cool, back off, and execute a slightly modified plan.

Take your time

Often the worst thing you can do is convince yourself that you’re better than you actually are, that you don’t have to follow steps that paved the way for your success, that you can hammer on the run button and beeline your way to your destination. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Even the weakest enemies can kill you in moments. Charge in all brash and cocky, and you’ll almost always find yourself ambushed, surrounded.

We get it. It’s annoying to retread ground. But retreading is also learning. It’s practice. And practice, particularly in punishing games like Mortal Shell, is an essential part of success.

Take your time, fight the feeling that you’re moving slowly, secure in the knowledge that it’ll save you time in the long run (because you aren't dying, speedy, so ease up).

Use the items that you find

One of Mortal Shell’s most interesting twists on the soulsborne formula is that you play an active part in solving its mysteries, and that’s particularly true with the consumable items that you find around the world.

Go ahead and assume that every consumable item is more or less plentiful — or if not plentiful, exactly, then not unique. You’ll find more is what we’re saying. Use that weird mushroom to find out what it does. It’s exceedingly unlikely that you’ll use something that you absolutely need a few minutes later. You’ll find another one soon enough.

Better yet, the more that you use an item, the more you learn about them. As you become more and more familiar with each, you’ll even get bonus benefits when you use them.

Make a mental map

Mortal Shell’s level design feels like trying to navigate a bowl of spaghetti from the perspective of an ant. You won’t have a map, so pay attention to anything that helps you makes sense of your surroundings — an ugly tree, a broken bridge, a cluster of upturned gravestones, places where consumable items respawn.

Consider the lowly Weltcap, a reddish mushroom that restores 30 health in 30 seconds. Those spawn in a few areas around Firelink Shrine the starting area. Memorize those locations, run between them, and you’ll build a steady supply of healing items.

(Also Weltcaps take five minutes to respawn. We timed it so you don't have to.)

Understand the world’s design

Not long into the game, you’ll reach a shrine in Fallgrim. That shrine will act as your hub and base of operations.

When you first arrive, you’ll find six instincts to sense — basically visions of what you should do in the game. The three instincts downstairs will lead you to shells. The three upstairs will lead you to weapons. The visions will show you a series of landmarks on the way to your goal, so you’ll have to figure out which way to go from your mental map. At least until we make a map for the area.

Think of Fallgrim as the center of a wheel — the hub. The three shells are in the area around Fallgrim — you can get to most of them relatively early in the game, depending on your comfort with fighting.

The weapons are hidden in mini-shrines at what amounts to the cardinal directions on the edge of the wheel-map. When you reach a mini-shrine, you’ll have to face a mini-boss — Hadern — wielding the weapon to earn it.

Just as importantly, there’s a self-contained level on the other side of those shrines. You’ll find tough enemies in these levels, at least one boss fight, and lots of upgrade materials. (These self-contained levels attached to each weapon shrine are also where you’ll find the special items — Sacred Glands — you need to complete the game.)

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