Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review: Cut to the Feeling
Ben Sheene / Mar 21st, 2019 No Comments
Ten years ago, FromSoftware released Demon’s Souls onto an unwitting gaming public. The game was noted for its fair difficulty–what would become a trendsetter and staple for years to come. Though it lacked the singular connected world of later titles, Demon’s Souls gave players an unprecedented amount of control over how they grew stronger against relentless beasts and, well, demons. Whether a combination of magic or sword and shield, combat was deliberate and thoughtful, requiring retreat just as much as engagement. In essence, that formula has changed little outside of Bloodborne, which enticed players who received damage to continue their assault and be rewarded with a small chunk of returned health.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an extension of the Japanese developer’s philosophies. Acting as an homage to a beloved series, veterans will see the strands of SoulsBorne DNA etched into Sekiro, as FromSoftware proves that a near-perfect grouping of gameplay elements are both unwise and impossible to escape from. Ultimately, though, Sekiro is about embracing change and delivering a constant rush of adrenaline befitting a lethal shinobi.
Sword of Destiny
Entrusting players to slice through an army of grounded and otherworldly foes is an easy task. Merely place an edged weapon in their arsenal and watch as a flurry of swings chips away at a health bar. This may be fitting for a simple paladin or a chunky samurai but not for a shinobi. Sekiro allows players to embody the mythical “power fantasy” preached about in so many games.
A shinobi is a lithe reaper. Their crop, flesh and blood. Their tool, the razor-thin steel of a sword. Think of any game or movie where these Japanese warriors and assassins swept through villages and battlefields unscathed while a trail of death laid in their wake. Sekiro will push you there. But it will take time.
Though it may be strange to say, I feel as if FromSoftware has been training me for Sekiro. Starting with Demon’s Souls and up until Dark Souls 2, a reliance on a shield or bulky armor was a moderately guaranteed way of prolonging life. Combat had a generally slower pace, especially when gravitating towards magic. Then Bloodborne came along and stripped those crutches away. Distance only worked as a method of avoiding a room-clearing attack. Instead, hunters were required to brush beast hairs with blood-drunk villagers and attack with the ferocity enabled by trick weapons.
When Dark Souls 3 came to pass, I no longer felt comfortable using a sword and shield combination to hide from danger. Much to the chagrin and humor of my friends, I decided to play the game wearing minimal to no armor to maximize my stamina and slice monsters to a pulp as fast as possible. Though this strategy resulted in several difficulty brick walls, I realized it stemmed from my deep love for Bloodborne. The game mutated FromSoftware’s formula in a few incremental ways that altered my perception to how these games could be digested.
The combat in Sekiro comes from the same school as Bloodborne but has evolved into something wholly unique. A sword is now the primary instrument of death and its capability of playing a symphony is quite apt.
Posture is the governing combat mechanic in this game, foregoing stamina and all its limitations. As the Wolf, players are meant to be thoughtfully and cautiously relentless with their blade. Instead of focusing on an enemy’s glowing red bar of health, players are meant to focus on the expanding yellow one. Taking place in 16th century Japan during the Sengoku period, it makes sense that most are in possession of a bladed weapon. Naturally, when an enemy is attacking, they will stand guard and hold up a sword or spear in defense, blocking the Wolf’s blade.
When striking an enemy, their posture, represented by a yellow-orange bar above their health, begins to weaken. The more hits blocked, the more the bar will expand until their posture breaks. However, the same applies to the Wolf’s posture as he can only withstand so many guard attempts before becoming stunned.
The core strategy of Sekiro‘s combat then becomes a dance of when to engage an enemy with an onslaught of slices, when to back away, and when to block. Blocking an attack right as it is about to carve into you results in a deflection, costing no posture damage to the Wolf but to the enemy and potentially leaving them open to attack.
Nearly every enemy in the opening hours of Sekiro has a sword. This deadly fodder allows players to become acclimated to the art of guarding and deflecting or simply constantly attacking. The intensely satisfying clang of a deflected attack is liquor enough to ease the pain of a failed guard attempt. These enemies also serve as a combat lesson to players: FromSoftware wants you to be toe to toe with any opposition, just like a shinobi.
It took me awhile–as in after the first major boss–to learn that despite not having a stamina bar, dodging and jumping away from an attack or a terrifying General riding a horse is not always the best option. Sekiro does not force players to possess cat-like reflexes and deflect every attack. Holding up your guard through a flurry of swings is not instant death and more so a way to get a feel for the patterns of various enemies.
Breaking through your opponent’s posture or health will grant you the chance to initiate a deathblow. These are some of the most gratifying and brutal moments in any game. To wrest control away from certain death and shove a sword into its neck only to result in a gruesome spray of blood… wow, it should feel disturbing to relish in such things.
Bosses require multiple deathblows before being felled and, I won’t lie, are some of the hardest encounters FromSoftware has concocted. While I would like to consider myself a “veteran” of the series, I’m not by any means incredible, especially not on the level of those who can speedrun through a Souls game in under an hour. But few things (outside of the Dancer of the Boreal Valley) could have prepared me for the crucible of Sekiro‘s main baddies.
Trailer and promotional materials have hinted at many but the game’s bosses upon defeat caused me to take a moment to give my heart a moment’s peace. Don’t get me wrong, the language of Sekiro‘s combat is absolutely brutal and almost unforgiving at times to translate. But when you become fluent in its dance of blood, there are few better rushes of adrenaline.
In typical FromSoftware fashion, there are hints of things to come scattered throughout the world. Shortly before that first boss fight I traveled off the beaten path and happened upon a cave. An ominous note nailed to a hut a ways back informed me of something along the lines of “turn back, you can’t behead the headless.” Inside the cave it was pitch black, save for what looked to be the dim light of a flaming sword, gripped by a grumbling something I could not see. Curiosity got the best of me and I was greeted by the swift death of an oversized ogre who I suppose moonlights as swordsman.
Death, however, is a modicum less punishing in Sekiro when compared to its brethren. Gone are souls and blood echoes, instead replaced by sen and skill points. Players will kill enemies and hold down a button to suck up sen like a vacuum–think Onimusha–which can be spent on items an upgrades. Kills also net experience points towards skill points which can be spent on various skill trees. Upon dying, half of the sen and experience points towards a new level are lost forever. This means no having to run back to your death location to collect lost experience, yet it also means no chance at getting back what was lost.
The Wolf is also able to resurrect one time after death, opening up a new branch of choices in combat. Do you resurrect in hopes of landing that final blow, or do you use your second life to run away and reset your health at a sculptor’s idol? Players will not be able to resurrect a second time until more enemies have been defeated or a certain amount of time has passed, meaning that those with enough skill can go a long stretch without ever having to refill their health.
A full death has consequences outside of lost progression, however. After a few deaths, players will be told that a strange sickness called Dragonrot is beginning to infect those who have encountered the Wolf. They will start to cough and may be further incapable of giving you any assistance. Occasionally, the player may receive “unseen aid” which negates the sen and experience loss but the chances of this occurring are also reduced when an NPC is afflicted with Dragonrot. The mystery of Dragonrot is a not only a clever incentive to be smart with death, it expands on the story in surprising ways.
Quickly into the game players will be given a Shinobi Prosthetic, a replacement arm after the Wolf’s was cut off. Capable of becoming an axe that breaks through wooden shields, fireworks that stun enemies, or a flame-spewing tool, the prosthetic amplifies the dynamic of Sekiro‘s combat. Though it is limited to a finite number of charges as to not be cheesy, the prosthetic rewards creative players who take advantage of enemy weaknesses. Acting almost like Mega Man’s mega buster, up to three tools can be equipped on the prosthetic, giving players ample opportunity to be prepared for multiple scenarios.
The prosthetic tools can be further enhanced using items found throughout the journey and unlock additional move sets. These are further coupled with unlockable skills that are both passive and active. Combat arts, like weapon skills in Dark Souls 3, are specialized sword attacks that are often acrobatic and meant to hit multiple foes at a time or allow the Wolf to be more strategically placed in battle. A total of five skill trees exist in the game which enhance stealth and overall combat efficiency. But as the game continues on, the decision behind what to unlock becomes increasingly agonizing, much like deciding what skill points you should invest your 50,000 souls into.
Don’t Think Twice
In a surprising turn, Sekiro lacks the online backbone of previous Soulsborne games. There are no ghosts of other players, no messages informing you to step over a cliff or to attack a fake wall (which reminds me… I never tried attacking walls in Sekiro). This is a single player experience meaning if you want, you can press the pause button during combat and not risk a rogue jerk stabbing you while in a menu.
This allows FromSoftware the opportunity to introduce new elements into a game. I can’t imagine trying to fight another playing online while we are both capable of infinite dodges, jumps, and grapples. But being able to use the shinobi prosthetic to grapple around locations rapidly is a thrill, even if it initially feels a bit terrifying to nail down the timing.
Stealth is now a factor and completely necessary for survival. Players can sneak around tall grass, hug walls, and hang from ledges to get out of view or eavesdrop on enemies for relevant hints at something coming up. Better yet, sneaking up on an enemy means an instant deathblow which can take a lot of pressure off. There were multiple times I rendered a few encounters simple because I could execute a few stealth kills, run away, and rinse and repeat but it is not a strategy that works for too long.
Sekiro‘s story is more direct that most will probably come to expect. Characters will speak at length (shout out to the excellent Japanese voice acting and pretty good English voices as well) about the world or the task at hand. This seemingly puts deep lore at a distance but there is a lot of meat on the bone, especially in item descriptions and environmental clues to piece together extra appreciation for this world.
On the surface, Sekiro is about the Wolf trying to rescue his young lord who is sought out for his bloodline. Initially, the story plays out similarly to Nioh in which there was a heavy emphasis on reality peppered with folklore. Hours into the game, players will then encounter massive snakes, demons, and more mystical elements that represent Japanese culture. It’s a beautiful contrast that also results in stunning locations. Players will frequently be sprinting across the roofs of snowy pagodas but across the dozens of hours, there is room to be impressed.
What the single player structure has especially done for Sekiro is allow for immensely cool setpieces that aren’t always combat focused. Of particular note is an early section in the game where players must stealthily navigate a canyon and stay out of sight of a massive white snake that’s at least a few miles long. It is in these moments you can see FromSoftware stretching beyond the borders of what anyone has come to expect of it, providing a moment that would be just as breathtakingly tense as if it were in God of War.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a brilliant achievement by a developer that has already proven to be a master of their craft. The pulse-pounding thrill of felling a boss after multiple deaths is an exquisite slice of gaming. The moments of triumph that were buffered by defeat is one of the reasons to play a game in the first place. Players have an objective set in front of them and they must overcome it.
This is an addicting challenge. A kind of bloodsport. Each corner of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice bleeds with creativity, care, and fun. It takes elements of the Soulsborne series and ratchets it up. With each victory comes a moment where you want to take a breath and gather yourself. Even then, this masterpiece of a game calls to you, asking for another round of punishment and another round of exaltation.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro using a review code for the game provided by Activision for the purposes of this review.
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