The Sengoku period in Japan; a field ravaged by war sets the stage for an epic clash of swords between samurai warriors. One warlord approaches a fearless young boy amidst the chaos, and holds a blade to his face, cutting a deep wound into the emotionless child. He clutches the blade with a firm hand, blood dripping down his face and arm, ready to embrace death. “The Wolf” is etched into his identity. A path of vengeance is set from this day on. Stern samurai generals, a cackling monk, an enormous White Serpent, an imposing guardian ape, and the hordes of warriors now stand in The Wolf’s way of saving his young Lord, Kuro, from the clutches of the Ashina leader. His journey – and I must emphasize this – is not an easy one. Welcome to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice marks the next ambitious game in From Software’s catalogue of brutally challenging titles. The Japanese developer left their mark on the world with Demon’s Souls, spearheaded a cultural phenomenon with their Dark Souls trilogy, and crafted one of the best PlayStation exclusives ever made, Bloodborne. Now, they’ve done it again, and this time they’ve upped the difficulty to an extraordinary new height.
Unlike Dark Souls and Bloodborne, Sekiro builds its identity on the foundations of Tenchu, another From Software-owned IP featuring a heavy emphasis on stealth, and the way of the shinobi. However, they’ve also found a way to make Sekiro feel remarkably Souls-like, without committing to its familiar mechanics entirely. Instead, players are forced to adapt to the game’s relentless flow, built on three principles: parrying, posture, and positioning. Large sections of Sekiro’s brilliantly interconnected world are designed to accommodate stealth, as engaging in direct combat can often lead to tough encounters.
Should you find yourself forced to battle any of the game’s numerous standard enemies or mini-bosses, parrying is a necessity as it quickly depletes the newly implemented posture bar: a mechanic that replaces prior games’ stamina bar. The more aggressive you are in combat, as well as how perfectly you time your deflections through parrying, the better your chances are of filling up an enemy’s posture, which opens them up to a fatal deathblow. To balance this mechanic, From Software also wisely chose to give players their own posture bar, meaning you’re just as susceptible to a deathblow as your opponent. It makes each enemy encounter feel incredibly personal, as if you’re two skilled warriors on a level playing field.
…the game goes as far as punishing players for attempting to play it like a Souls game.
Sekiro’s superb, breakneck gameplay elevates the game above and beyond what the Souls games were capable of. In fact, the game goes as far as punishing players for attempting to play it like a Souls game. From the very first few enemy encounters, it becomes apparent that they want you to play by the rules. Simply rolling or dodging won’t work anymore because the gameplay is designed to bottleneck players into understanding the inner workings of parrying and posture. Of course, this creates the steepest learning curve out of any From Software game, and easily makes it their hardest game to date. It’s not for the faint of heart.
To alleviate some of the stress, the Shinobi Prosthetic – a multi-functional mechanical arm that replaces your severed limb – houses an assortment of skills and abilities. The grappling hook allows players to navigate the world on a vertical level, latching themselves onto nearby buildings, cliffs, and trees. It can be used as a quick escape too, especially when you’re outnumbered in a sword fight. Additionally, players can upgrade the Shinobi Prosthetic with flamethrowers, Shurikens, a heavy axe for breaking shielded enemies, and a heavy-duty umbrella that protects you from oncoming attacks, among many other handy techniques. It all works seamlessly together, and adds a great deal of depth to how you approach combat.
The subtitle “Shadows Die Twice” refers to the excellent resurrection mechanic, which allows players to revive themselves upon death for another crack at their opponent. It also gives players the chance to re-enter stealth in order to get the jump on enemies as they walk away from your presumed corpse. However, you’re only allowed one revive (or two depending on if certain conditions are met), meaning that you have to be constantly on your toes if you want to save your resurrection option for a later phase, as certain bosses never actually die once either.
All of your upgrades are done in various hub areas, usually through NPCs that you find yourself getting attached to. Emma, a beautiful maiden, is responsible for all of your vitality upgrades. The Sculptor, an old man that oddly sounds like Liam Neeson in the English cast, fits your Prosthetic with new skills. The best addition to your hub is an NPC named Hanbei the Undying, who allows you to practice combat with him – but he’s also a zombie. As a repercussion for dying (and you will die a lot), Sekiro punishes players by halving their collected in-game currency and points earned, though, the harshest punishment isn’t done directly to the players, but the NPCs littered around the world. Every time you die, all NPCs are inflicted with a blight called Dragonrot that slowly kills them. Yes, From Software targets your feelings this time.
Sekiro arguably has some of the best (and hardest) boss fights in the developer’s history.
We can’t talk about a From Software game without mentioning boss fights. Sekiro arguably has some of the best (and hardest) boss fights in the developer’s history. Most of the main bosses are unforgivingly tough, but you can overcome them with perseverance and a deep understanding of their patterns and weaknesses. Some methods of beating them aren’t immediately obvious until you backtrack and discover new areas, which often hold the key to their defeat. Thanks to the sprawling nature of Sekiro’s world, which weaves in and out of previous and new areas, it’s easy to miss an area at first glance – and even after your initial playthrough, may miss out on entire optional boss battles in the process. Replay value is incentivized to get the most out of Sekiro’s rich and layered world. All things considered, the game is packed with some of From Software’s finest and most surprising boss fights, on both a mechanical and aesthetic level. One in particular made my jaw drop when I first encountered it.
Sekiro attempts to separate itself from From Software’s more cryptic and ambiguous storytelling of past titles by telling a far more cohesive story. While it still isn’t entirely a narrative-driven experience like Uncharted or God of War, it’s a welcomed breath of fresh air for the developer’s style. It allowed them to experiment with storytelling techniques that blend the old and new of game director Hidetaka Miyazaki. It does greatly work in favour of the tried and tested lore-building that From Software typically excels at, but it’s more straight-forward story beats stand out as a result.
On a technical level, Sekiro is pure bliss. While it may not have the “next-gen” polish in terms of graphics, the visuals feel old-school in a good way, bolstered by fantastic art direction. The Sengoku world may not feel as immersive as Bloodborne’s Yharnam, but it’s absolutely captivating around every corner. The sound design and score is spectacular as well. This is especially evident in the clashing and clanking of sword exchanges, the brooding ambiance of each environment, and some of the most terrific Japanese voice-acting I’ve ever heard in a video game – particularly the horse-riding boss, Gyoubu, whose prideful boasting is a delight to listen to as much as his fight is a visual treat. It all culminates in a masterfully polished game with very few glitches that aren’t even worth mentioning.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is another spectacular entry into From Software’s growing library of instant classics. The gameplay, while brutishly tough, is extremely rewarding if you play by the game’s rules. It also features the developer’s fastest, most refined combat yet, where every single encounter is a test of wits, patience, and timing. Sekiro tells a more straight-forward narrative without the baggage of ambiguity (mostly), but it leaves enough to be desired for veterans while enticing newcomers to explore its refreshing twists and turns. Any games that release this year following Sekiro will have big boots to fill if they want to stand toe-to-toe with 2019’s first true masterpiece.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is masterful in almost every conceivable way. Don’t let the brutal challenge deter you from one of the best games of this generation.