The arduous but rewarding path of the shinobi
Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice
Genre: Action, Adventure
Release Date: Mar 21, 2019
After the release of Dark Souls III in 2016, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director, has stated that he has decided to put Dark Souls as a series on hold. No games have been able to fill the gap left opened by Dark Souls ever since. Nioh came out but it was not able to scratch that itch of mine for exploration and shortcuts due to it being mission-based, taking place in several significantly smaller maps. It was nowhere near as satisfying. Dark Souls Remastered did also come out but that was a re-released game that, while it took a couple of steps forward in terms of performance, failed to meet certain expectations for many in other areas. Some may even go so far to call it a downgrade. It was not until I got my hands on FromSoftware’s new title that my needs for Soulsborne style games was fulfilled and even exceeded in certain aspects with its different approach to the formula. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a breath of fresh air, worthy to stand side-by-side with Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
You assume the role of a shinobi named Wolf/Sekiro who has been rotting away in captivity with no purpose in life. His master, the Divine Heir, is dead…or so he thought until one fateful night he receives a mysterious letter detailing his lord’s whereabouts. With his conviction renewed, Wolf sets out to free the Divine Heir from his captor while unraveling the past that he has forgotten.
Because there is no character creation option as you are locked to Wolf, the story is more focused and heavily featured this time around. The main character, although stoic, is not a blank slate silent protagonist type that you would normally see in a Soulsborne game. He is an actual character with his own thoughts and will develop as the story progresses. While there are more cutscenes pertaining to the plot, the game does not completely explain everything. It leaves plenty of space for the players to piece the lore together from NPC dialogue to item descriptions. I am glad that this aspect is not lost as this is one of the things I enjoy most about these titles.
Gameplay & Combat
Being a FromSoftware game, one cannot help but compare Sekiro to other Soulsborne titles. The change in setting and scenery is quite drastic and something that I immensely appreciate. As one can probably guess, Sekiro takes place in Japan during the Sengoku era (warring states). As such, it incorporates many Japanese style architecture styles for buildings like temples and castles. The environment with its vibrant color palette really makes the game shine aesthetically. Wolf will get to travel to locations such as a snow-covered battlefield, to mountains filled with autumn orange leaves taken straight from traditional Japanese scroll paintings. Save for some obligatory dark places in Dark Souls fashion, the surroundings are beautifully realized. The ability to grapple and climb on to things also opens another dimension to map traversal as you can now reach rooftops and other vantage points. Of course, as per Soulsborne tradition, the majority of the map is interconnected, several shortcuts exist, and exploration is greatly encouraged. Before we go any further, I should mention that the basic control scheme in Sekiro is different from its counterparts. This should not pose any problems whatsoever to newcomers but could take the veterans some time to get used to.
Outside the environment and general control, combat is where Sekiro diverges from other FromSoftware games the most. Firstly, there is a stealth mechanic befitting the role of shinobi. Except for some rare cases, this is not actually used during combat but something that will start the engagement with the element of surprise. Approaching enemies from their back or from Wolf’s various hiding positions will allow him to perform a deathblow that will instantly kill any unaware hostiles. There are some situations that you can dispose of everyone without ever alerting anyone but those moments are extremely scarce. Unique to Sekiro, Wolf has the ability to resurrect on the spot upon death. Resurrection charge can be refilled by resting at any Buddha statues (bonfire). This may sound extremely broken in theory but not so in actual practice considering how little health you have and how much damage you will take. It will save you a lot of time and preserve your sanity, I assure you.
Wolf has access to only one main weapon, the Kusabimaru. This katana allows him to do slash attacks which can be done either on the ground or mid-air. Holding down the slash button will result in a charged thrust attack. Outside sidestepping, guarding is another defensive option that Wolf has access to. Deflection, a superior version of guarding, can be performed by timing your guard to incoming attacks. It is always satisfying to hear the sounds of metals clashing with sparks flying around as you succeed in deflecting attacks. However, I must warn you to not get too complacent with blocking or Perilous Attacks will give you a rude awakening. Denoted by a kanji symbol for danger before the attack commences, Perilous Attacks will always be either a sweep, a thrust or a throw. What is special about these moves is that 2 out of 3 of the possible outcomes, sweep and throw, are unblockable and undeflectable. They all have the potential to deal massive damage and can only be prevented by evading in a specific manner depending on the type.
In contrast to having only one main weapon, many shinobi prosthetic tools are available. These tools act like sub-weapons and require a special resource called Spirit Emblems to activate, Sekiro‘s equivalent of Bloodborne‘s Quicksilver Bullets. You initially start with nothing, but as you come across items that can be fitted in you ninja prosthetic, so too will your arsenal. Some of these tools are versatile like the ninja stars while others can be niche and situational. In addition to these, Wolf also has access to skill/upgrade trees that can unlock new attacks, passive abilities, and more powerful versions of his various shinobi prosthetic tools.
While health bars do exist, 99% of the time your aim is not to deplete them. It is the posture bar that you should be focused on instead. The Posture bar is a new mechanic introduced in Sekiro that represents the integrity of your guard which both you and everyone else are tied to. Each hit blocked will increase this posture gauge and will naturally decrease to its initial blank state over time if no posture damage is taken. This process becomes faster if the guard button is held continuously. Deflecting attacks will lessen posture damage taken and inflict some damage back to the attackers. It should be noted that the amount of vitality left is directly tied to the opponents’ posture recovery rate. Due to these mechanics, an aggressive on-your-face playstyle is rewarding because the fights will end much faster as opposed to the stay away or hit and run styles which will significantly drag the fight on. In the event that the posture bar is maxed out, a guard broken state will occur. Enemies in this state become automatically susceptible to a deathblow.
Bosses & Progression
Bosses are uniquely named enemies and, in my opinion, one of the major highlights of Sekiro. I am not going to say much about them specifically as I feel I would be doing this game a disservice. All I will say is that there are some extremely cool moments featuring them that made my jaw drop in awe. If you have any plans at all to play Sekiro, I would recommend refraining from spoiling yourself by watching streams or let’s-play videos at least until you are done with the first playthrough.
As one would expect from FromSoftware, the bosses can be quite formidable as they are exempted from the deathblow instant kill rule. It is not that they are immune to the move, far from it. It is the fact that they have multiple life bars and, in turn, require multiple deathblows. Deflecting your attacks, afflicting you with status ailments, rushing down while you are trying to heal, super fast posture recovery, these are just the surface of what the bosses are capable of. You will need to adapt and figure out a counter strategy as that is the only way to progress through. Do not expect to just go farm souls and try to brute force your way through by overleveling your character like in Dark Souls. Yes, you can upgrade your attack power, vitality, and posture but the materials needed for that are almost exclusively only obtainable from defeating bosses. My advice is to always keep in mind that there are multiple ways to approach the fights so try experimenting with new strategies.
Outside bosses, there also exist mini-bosses who are no slouch themselves. They are uniquely named like normal bosses with the difference being that you will encounter multiple versions of them throughout the game and are usually skippable. Do not be conceited just because these enemies do not have as unique or elaborate moveset like actual bosses. If not enough care is given, these elites are more than capable to kill Wolf in a hit or two. Personally, I found some of these to be even harder than real bosses during my original playthrough.
Difficulty & Replayability
Let’s not beat around the bush. Sekiro is a hard game, there is no doubt about that. Is it so hard that it warrants multiple clickbait articles all over the internet? I definitely do not think so. After having completed the game three times, I feel that I know enough about the game in relation to its mechanics and overall design to say that Sekiro is about as hard as Dark Souls. Yes, bosses and enemies are more ruthless and attack relentlessly but that kind of risk is to be expected in a game in which aggressive play is heavily favored. One has to acknowledge that the game is purposely designed and balanced differently based on the mechanics, tools, and resources that the players have access to. Just imagine how broken it would be if the chosen undead were to have Wolf’s unlimited stamina run or the ability to resurrect on the spot in Dark Souls. Despite any of this, like other SoulsBorne games, it is still all about pattern recognition and reacting to them accordingly but in a different manner and pace unique to Sekiro.
Most of the difficulty of the game will be on the first playthrough when you are exploring the world and fighting bosses for the first time. Once you have figured out their attack patterns, unfortunately, things will not change much for your subsequent playthroughs. Wolf may encounter a couple of new bosses depending on the ending you are going for and they will provide great challenges but that would be it. Because enemies gain no new moves, this reduces replayability by quite a bit. Yes, they become more durable and dish out significantly more damage and, in that sense, the game is indeed harder. It does not change the fact that you are going to use the same old attacks while dodging theirs due to various limitations. There is a special item that appears on later runs that can affect one of the major mechanics which may, at best, mildly alter your playstyle. The main drive of completing Sekiro more than once or twice is mostly going to be for the alternate endings, purely the story. The replayability gameplay-wise is nowhere as robust as going through Dark Souls or Bloodborne with different builds and/or equipment.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice puts an interesting twist on the Soulsborne formula and it works. The changes in the setting, the vibrant color, and the combat are a breath of fresh air that brings a unique experience to the table but not to the point that its root is lost. Bosses are even cranked up to 11 in presentation and uniqueness. Elements that we all have come to know and love such as the exploration and discovery aspects with shortcuts, lore that can be derived from item descriptions, and interesting NPCs are all retained. While the replayability department of the game does take a bit of a hit compared to others in the genre, this is still an extremely strong title that can stand side-by-side with its predecessors. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is definitely not a game for everyone due to its difficulty but an easy recommendation for any Soulsborne veterans looking for a new experience and a great starting point for anyone looking for a good challenge.