I think Master Yoda says it best of Star Wars fame with his iconic saying: “You must unlearn what you have learned”, and this applies very much to Souls and Bloodborne veterans when taking on Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. With this ninja game, From Software has more or less built Sekiro to subvert and destroy its existing fans. Unlike the other titles in the series, if you go into this with an ego you will be humbled very quickly with even more repeated death screens.
Formed from the genius mind of Hidetaka Miyazaki and oddly published by Activision, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a third-person action-adventure title with RPG elements. This is an important distinction, because while platforming fast-paced katana swinging action is what the game excels at, a number of key elements that I’d usually associate with a Souls game have been changed into new mechanics or have been killed off completely. For example, online functionality has gone completely away and while this creates a more streamlined and story driven experience, the originality of this mechanic made the Souls-like experience something special.
You start off being put into the role of Bushido assassin Sekiro, the one-armed ninja who is at the beckoning call of a young Lord in the late 1500’s Sengoku Japan. Without giving too much away, what starts off as a clear-cut rescue mission branches off into a murky journey of self-discovery and redemption. Sekiro is an amnesiac, and the young Lord is of a cursed bloodline and the young boys influence may be twisting the world and the people around him to some degree.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is very much its own beast when it comes to combat. When playing previous From Software titles you were conditioned to stand at a distance to observe and then know when to land attacks from a studied enemy pattern. Combat mainly focused on attacking and then rolling until attacking yet again. Rarely will that tactic help in Sekiro as you’re expected to stay right up on your opponent in an effort to repeatedly deflect, or parry, consecutive attacks to fill up a posture break bar above your target. If you are successful in completing that bar, you’ll earn a death-blow and these will instantly kill smaller foes, but mid and end-stage bosses will require multiple death blows and those will only be offered once you chew through health bars that take a lot of time to whittle down.
If you fail to maintain pressure on your opponent, they’ll recover their posture. Ignoring this system altogether by attacking your enemy in a sheer katana laden barrage and it’s going to be a battle of attrition that you most likely won’t win. While Sekiro isn’t bound by a stamina bar, don’t let that fool you. Button mashers will get overwhelmed and destroyed. While this certainly feels like an action game on the surface, it’s very much original Dark Souls rules underneath. Even the most innocuous looking enemy (yes, even giant chickens you encounter) can be your undoing if you show a lack of respect.
It’s great that Sekiro has many other techniques, abilities, and tools he can acquire and use throughout the adventure. As you progress you can unlock many new special abilities called ‘combat arts’ that are tied to five skill trees. They’re essentially Sekiro’s idea of heavy attacks and these can be complimented with Ninjitsu techniques that you can buy with XP you swap at shrines.
Sekiro also has access to many prosthetic tools in his arm that can be deployed by pressing the right trigger at the cost of spirit emblems. Three of these can be equipped at any one time by cycling through them with the triangle button and they open up many useful techniques to assist you in combat. You go from throwable shuriken and enemy stunning firecrackers, to loaded umbrellas and an axe for an elbow that can shred shields in half. Most of the fun comes from combining certain prosthetic tools with combat arts to create super effective combos on certain enemies. Hardcore players will love learning the nuances of how remaining enemy vitality affects their posture recovery rate.
Needless to say, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has some depth to it with its rock-paper-scissors balancing of knowing when to block, parry, or dodge, and you’ll have to learn to respond at a blistering pace unlike any other Souls game. Fortunately, Dark Souls bonfires return in prayer shrine form, however, death is handled differently. Sekiro has the limited ability to resurrect after a fatal hit, at which point you’re still going to be in a desperate sudden-death situation. If you die again, you’ll lose half of whatever XP and money you had on you at the time. Unlike a Dark Souls title, there is no retrieval and it’s all gone for good.
That’s not all, the more you die the more your friendly NPC’s will exhibit symptoms of a hideous disease known as dragonrot. You can reverse this by sacrificing a certain item to a shrine and you want to do that because NPC plot-lines can be halted by infection and the more rot in the world, the less unseen aid you’re going to get. The unseen aid is basically a percentage chance to negate XP and money loss when you die next. You peek unseen chance is 30% and can drop to 5% if you keep dying multiple times in a certain section.
Though it took a lot of time to adjust to the combat and overall faster controls, I very much loved the gameplay and improvements the developer made for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It’s fast, furious, and rewarding if you can think on your feet quick enough. The stealth and platforming side of Sekiro wasn’t as great, but it was still enjoyable and brought back some vibes of classics like Tenchu where you could strike from above or around corners. Also, being able to zip out of trouble with the grapple hook was a nice traversal addition and satisfying. However, the grapple is very contextualized on where you can use it and don’t expect to be able to have free reign like a Tenchu game.
The removal the online component, character creation, player classes, and the usually RPG trappings of weapon and armor seeking/crafting was definitely a disappointment. I can certainly see how missing al of that would be a deal-breaker to some, but Sekiro never professed to be a continuation of the Souls franchise, nor should we have expected it to be a similar experience. What we have here is an action-packed experience that’s branching off in an engrossing new direction. It may not be as deep as a Souls game, but there still is the framework of those past titles to make it irresistible to all but the most obstinate action fans. The art style and graphics are the best From Software has created and the music perfectly encapsulates the time period they set of feudal Japan.
Overall, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not just some lazy spin-off made from a new publisher and new audience, but rather a near perfect bridge between old fans of Souls-like experiences and players looking for something more original in the action department. Environments are strikingly detailed, enemies and bosses are truly memorable in presentation, and the fast-paced combat is engaging and nearly flawless. Sekiro is a masterclass in how to progress and From Software remains the prominent developer in the video game medium.