Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (within the first five minutes)
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
Death. The first (and oftentimes the only) thing you should expect when you see FromSoftware's name on the cover of a game.
Sekiro promises that in spades, in glistening katanas, shurikens, fire, hammer and the occasional failed leap of faith. With that said, dying in a FromSoftware game is about the only thing that is spoiler-free, so the remaining of this review may contain minor gameplay and mechanics spoilers (we've left plot out of the discussion).
Sekiro is, without a doubt, a must-play for fans of the genre that FromSoftware made cool back in 2009 with Demon Souls. The world is beautifully created, the action intense, and the lore is rich and skillfully woven. The gameplay is intricate and complex, though much of the promotional materials focused on the sword-fighting aspect of the game, which is understandable as it is the most flashy and Souls-like element of the game.
At the time of writing, I have played Sekiro for an estimate of 25 hours and I am nowhere near completing the game - so I'm told by the long quest ahead of me despite having executed three major bosses. A large portion of that 25 hours were spent banging my head against the brick wall that are the enemies of Sekiro. And my goodness, are they brutally challenging.
Fans of the SoulsBorne games will find plenty of familiar mechanics. The left arm (a prosthetic shinobi arm) of the titular character Sekiro is, in essence, a combination of the left-handed guns from Bloodborne, and the various magical (Pyromancy, etc.) casting weapons from the various Dark Souls. What this means is that Sekiro becomes capable of spraying fire, throwing shurikens, and smashing enemies with an axe, alongside the katana he wields as a main weapon.
Another mechanic that seems familiar is that of deflecting enemy attacks. Unlike the SoulsBorne games, however, this is not the same as the parry which immediately leads to a riposte opportunity to do huge damage to the enemy's health. Instead, well-timed deflections do damage to the Posture of an enemy. Posture damage builds up over successful deflections, ultimately leading to a breaking of said Posture, allowing for a deathblow. Yes, it was tough enough to parry once. Now, we have to do it multiple times.
Special enemies, including major and minor bosses, require more than one deathblow to die from, though. There are also especially dangerous attacks (thrusts, grabs and sweeps) that require specific reactions: jumping over a sweep allows you to attack your enemy from above, while stepping into a thrust triggers a particularly satisfying Mikiri Counter.
There's also the matter of Health Points, or Vitality as it is often described in-game. This works like the traditional "Health" of an enemy, and chipping it down to 0 works as well for killing enemies. This is a long and arduous battle of attrition, though, and it is clear the game intends for you to work towards deathblows as Posture starts stacking up really quickly (and reduces really slowly) once the HP falls below half.
Sword fights become a battle of wits, reflexes, and the ability to stay calm under pressure while applying appropriate pressure on the enemies. Rolling around enemies, kiting them, and slowly cheesing them to death seems out of the question now.
Navigating the cruel world of Sekiro
Unlike the previous SoulsBorne games, where you could get away with mastering one technique (rolling/dodging at the right timing and inching in a slash or two), Sekiro demands that you use everything at your disposal. Yes, that includes every ceramic shard.
On top of that, Sekiro has done a wonderful job of creating an expansive and connected world-map, a feature we've come to know and love about the SoulsBorne series. Nooks and crannies lead back to each other, and often house items for the meticulous explorer. In addition to the footpaths, however, a shinobi can also take to the rooftops, larger tree branches and perching points to observe enemy movements, plan sneak attacks, and sometimes move past large groups of guards.
What this means is that there's a plethora of ways in which one can move through the game that feel legitimate, exciting, challenging, and punishing when you mess up. Attempts to do a backstab deathblow to the wrong guard (who is currently being looked at by five other friends) can often lead to a painful and quick death as you get hunted down by a bunch of swordsmen. It is rarely advisable to take on combat with more than one sword-toting foe, much less to do so with five rifles aiming at you while you're attempting a sword fight with a samurai.
The openness you can find in any other SoulsBorne game is present, too. Take one wrong turn and you may find yourself battling a bunch of well-versed martial artists who move too quickly, as the minions elsewhere would be more suited to the already steep learning curve being thrown at you by Sekiro. After toiling for almost five hours to beat one annoyingly fast old lady, I swung back to the Dilapidated Temple (the game's starting point) to find out that I hadn't been following the NPCs guidance at all (and they do provide guidance, so please talk to them as their dialogue is rich with lore). I was meant to head somewhere else to fight someone else. I dispatched that horse-riding son of a gun rather quickly as his movements now seemed sluggish and predictable.
Verdict: Finding pleasure in the pain
Anyone who tells you they've picked this game up and dislike the challenge are either lying to you, or living under a rock. They're lying because there's oh-so-much-pleasure to be gained from Sekiro, particularly when you finally complete that Shinobi Execution on a major boss. Or, the moment you work your way through the shadows to wipe out an entire field of enemies, big or small, without losing a single drop of blood.
Under the facade of the subtitle, Shadows Die Twice, the game tricks you into thinking you have two chances at fighting tough enemies. You don't. You have two tries to figure out how not to die.
That is, after all, the struggle we are all looking for in the game, aren't we?
This game is good for:
Complex and rewarding combat system
Rich lore and wonderful storytelling
This game is not good for:
TVs that are owned by people with controller rage