I swing up to the top of the pagoda, the highest point in Ashina Castle. Once I land on the torn tatami mats, it’s on. I am once again facing the boss I have been throwing myself at for the past couple of hours. Swords are drawn as we move towards each other.
Things are different this time. I have learned. I have figured you out, I think as I run towards my opponent. Swords clash. Blows and parries are traded back and forth but I am putting pressure on my opponent and he is visibly being pushed back. I have learned his patterns and I know how to goad him to attack when I want him to. He does his power moves and I smirk. Though insanely powerful and intimidating at first, I have come to love them. They are predictable and I have learned how to counter them effectively. The dance continues and my opponent is on his last ropes. I deal him one Deathblow and soon afterward the second. Victory. I breathe out and relax. Mistake — this guy had a second phase. In a panic, I see my little shinobi get fried and stabbed to death within minutes. Back to the drawing board.
This is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the latest action RPG from developer FromSoftware. The above situation and the feelings of confidence and despair is something I believe most, if not all, players will experience multiple times throughout this game. I know I did.
Naturally, many will come into Sekiro and compare it to FromSoftware’s previous games, Dark Souls and Bloodborne. However, this is doing both players and Sekiro a disservice. There are some similarities on the surface; you have estus flask and bonfire equivalents, for example. However, it will soon become abundantly clear that Sekiro is an entirely different beast to tame.
For one thing, it is quite a lot more difficult than the Soulsborne games. This is because the combat is a great deal less forgiving and you are not able to simply grind out levels to overpower the opposition. Likewise, there is no chance of turtling and hanging back when facing an enemy in Sekiro. Combat is a full commitment and you don’t get the luxury of being passive or engaging at a distance. In other words: if you try to play Sekiro like you played the old games, you will most likely hit a brick wall real soon.
Speaking of combat, it is just tremendously fine-tuned and fun in a way that I don’t think I have ever encountered in an action RPG before. It makes me think about games like Bushido Blade and Ninja Gaiden instead of RPGs. It favors both aggressiveness and a solid defense in an extremely satisfying way.
At its core, it evolves about two concepts: posture and deflection. Rather than focusing on depleting an enemy’s health bar you want to break their posture. When posture is broken you are able to deal a deathblow, this will kill most normal enemies and gravely injure bosses. While attacks do posture damage, deflecting incoming attacks is far more effective. This makes the combat flow in a very different way than you are used to. There is a lot more back and forth and each encounter is essentially a duel more akin to a fighting game.
The system is geared towards reflexes and recognizing patterns and the AI is really fun to spar against. Sekiro must be the first game I have played where I actually feel the AI becoming more and more insecure as I get better. Once you figure out, or ‘solve’, an enemy’s pattern you can start to really push them around — even bosses. You goad them into attacking so you can deflect and break their posture. You jump over enemies, kicking them in their head as they perform unblockable sweeping attacks. You dodge around to strike people in their sides or back. If you keep the pressure up, you will really start to corner enemies and you can feel opponents unravel before you. It is all great fun and lends itself to mastery that Dark Souls and Bloodborne never came close to.
These combat lessons are paid for in blood and toil, though. You will die multiple times on the same enemy or boss in this game. Death is also handled a bit differently from what we are used to. Before having to respawn, you have access to two resurrections. This is very much needed as you don’t have a ton of health at your disposal — in the early game, a single combo is likely to put you down. The resurrections are a great idea as it lets you stay in the fight longer and even if you get one-shotted, you can still come back and try to learn more about the attack patterns you are facing.
Once you do die, you lose half of your accumulated XP and gold, but there are no corpse runs and there is no way of getting what was lost back, unless you are granted Unseen Aid by Buddha, which makes your death come without a price tag. Additionally, as you die, you have a chance of spreading Dragonrot: a sickness that afflicts NPCs in the world and lowers your chances of receiving Unseen Aid. NPCs who suffer the symptoms of Dragonrot cannot help you with quests or give you information about the world, so accumulating Dragonrot really sucks. Of course, you do eventually get a way of cleansing the sickness but the item to do so can be rather rare.
As mentioned above, you are a lot more mobile in this game — Sekiro can even jump. Indeed, traversal is a big thing in this game and besides jumping, you can make use of a really cool grappling hook and even swim. This is a great step above previous games, which always felt stilted and slow. All this traversal makes you really able to get around swiftly and take in the beautiful environments better. However, it is also essential in becoming an effective shinobi in combat. You can grabble around opponents and wall jump above them in order to flank and get the drop on them. This, of course, also contributes to the beautiful dance Sekiro’s combat can become. I could gush about the battles for days, they are just that good.
Since you are a shinobi, it should come as no surprise that a big part of the game is stealth. While the combat is fun and intense, it is almost impossible to take on large groups of enemies on your own. This is where stealth mechanic comes into play. Pretty much every opponent you face in the game can be backstabbed from stealth, including bosses. A large portion of any encounter is to grapple and sneak around in order to take out as many guards as you can before you get spotted and have to either fight or run away. It is not a very deep mechanic but it is fun enough to play around with and, more importantly, it sets Sekiro apart from the previous games FromSoftware have made.
Another big difference in Sekiro is in the way that you progress. The XP you earn from defeating enemies will not let you upgrade any of your stats. Instead, they let you learn new skills and attacks which you can use to tip the scales in battle. The only way to increase your attack power and health is through items that are dropped from bosses. In the same vein, you do not find different weapons and armor. You are basically stuck with the same gear for the entire game. Except when it comes to your prosthetic arm, of course.
After the prologue, you get equipped with a shinobi arm, which not only lets you grapple onto things in the world but can also be equipped with different tools and weapons. As you traverse the areas in the game, you will find various Shinobi Tools. These can be everything from firecrackers and magic feathers to axes and poison short swords. When fitted to your arm, they grant you a bunch of new ways of tackling the world and combat. For instance, the axe attachment you find early on has the ability to destroy shields, making it an essential tool to fight certain opponents. The firecrackers, on the other hand, tend to scare beasts and, believe me, this will be very handy at times.
While the lack of weapon loot might throw some people off initially, I never found it to be an issue. Between the tools and the skills you unlock, there is more than enough variety in the combat for it to keep feeling new and fresh. Besides, really learning the way your weapon works and mastering it in different situations is what makes the combat so rewarding and fluid. I think it would just get messy and diluted if you were able to equip a spear or dagger instead of the katana you have.
What is irksome, however, is the lack of outfits and gear. Since there is no armor stat or any equivalent, I feel they could have let us find different clothes and outfits to equip. After all, ‘Fashion Souls’, where players choose the best looking gear instead of the ones with best stats, is a thing. I suppose they wanted you to look beat up and shaggy though, as it fits the narrative.
The main story in Sekiro has a much stronger and easier to follow narrative than any of the Soulsborne games ever had. You actually have meaningful dialogues in this game and NPCs are not just cackling madmen/women who talk in riddles (don’t worry, there still are a few). Sekiro can even speak himself, albeit reluctantly. So the main storyline is a heck of a lot more straightforward than in previous games.
You play as Sekiro (one-armed-wolf), previously called Okami (wolf), a beat-up shinobi (ninja) who sets out to rescue his master as well as get some revenge at the same time. Of course, as you progress, more and more elements are introduced to the story and it turns out that quite a lot more than your loyalty is on the line. It is initially also a much more grounded world, taking place in actual Japan during the Sengoku era. So a lot of the game has you fighting samurai and other humans as opposed to Dark Souls’ more esoteric lineup. That said, as you learn more and more about your mysterious ability to resurrect, you start to encounter weirder and weirder things, like unnaturally large animals or situations that are decidedly less corporal in nature.
FromSoftware truly are masters at building an intriguing and interesting world and I was constantly trying to seek out more about the things I saw in Sekiro. Doing this by talking to NPCs or eavesdropping on guards rather than having to puzzle together different item descriptions makes for a much more pleasant experience.
Sekiro is also a beautiful game. In terms of raw fidelity, it is very similar to Dark Souls III, but this is a developer who are the masters when it comes to graphical design. The areas are overall a lot brighter and more colorful this time around, which feels refreshing. Dark Souls and Bloodborne are full of spectacular areas, but they tend to be very much on the doom and gloom side of things. Therefore, it is nice to see the brilliant artists at FromSoftware flex their creative muscles on some different kinds of aesthetics.
Both Bloodborne and Dark Souls are games about destructive cycles. Those games are set after they have discovered Old Yharnam in Bloodborne or after the embers have burned out in Dark Souls. You come to these worlds after they have already ended and you are the one sifting through the rubble. Sekiro feels much more like it takes place just before such an apocalyptic event takes place. The ancient secrets which will lead to ruin are about to be uncovered instead of already having been set loose upon the world. As such, the world is much less bleak and, frankly, more interesting.
Sekiro is a tremendously fun and difficult game — everything from the combat to the world itself is crafted in a masterful way. The only thing I had a minor issue with was the camera: it can be a bit temperamental when you move around quickly sometimes. Even after spending around 40 hours to beat it, I still want to come back for more in the coming weeks.