Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the newest game to be released by FromSoftware, the forerunners of “hard games” like the Soulsborne franchise. Relying on combat loops, low health values and beginner traps around every corner, FromSoftware has earned the title of most used franchise when writing any review, with people referring to Dark Souls when a difficult game comes along. Sekiro looks to continue this occurrence with its own brand of difficulty, or some may say unfair design.
Sekiro starts off without too much warning, very similar to the beginning of the first Dark Souls game, with our main protagonist Wolf within a cell, to have something dropped within to urge him onward. After leaving the “cell” Wolf will reunite with his lord master, giving him the task of saving his master from Clan Isshin. It isn’t too long until we get to the pivotal moment of having Wolf’s arm severed regardless if you are able to beat Genichiro, the would-be kidnapper of our Lord.
Fast-forward sometime and we awaken to find our missing limb replaced with a wooden prosthetic, named the Shinobi Prosthetic. From here we will work our way through villages, mountainsides, interiors and rooftops as we search for our Lord once more. Along this journey, we will deal with members of the Isshin Clan, from highly trained warriors, big brutes and Genichiro himself.
It is always hard to pin down a proper time for FromSoftware games, as plenty of your game time will be looking at the “You Died” screen or backtracking to take on optional foes for better loot. Sekiro will take you somewhere in the region of 20 hours to complete the main story, give or take 5-10 hours depending on your aptitude with this type of game. Like other FromSoftware titles, Sekiro does contain several optional paths, bosses and items to collect, easily doubling your playtime to over 40 hours long. Like the Soulsborne games you can also replay Sekiro, either through a full reset or going into New Game+, where the game gets harder, items dropped by bosses change slightly and the overall difficulty goes up.
Sekiro plays like a strange combination of Tenchu, Shinobido and Dark Souls. Set as mostly an action-adventure game, you will control Wolf within a third-person view and change between fighting enemies and exploring your environment. Exploration is rather fast with the addition of the grapple hook, increasing the verticality of the game several times over any other FromSoftware titles, allowing you to zip line to most corners of buildings or perches.
Combat in Sekiro is very focused, with much greater detail paid to combos, guarding, dodging and deflection. You may win in a 1v1 fight against weaker foes, but add in 1 additional enemy and you will be overwhelmed quite quickly. As you attack or are attacked, you will deal, or take, posture damage which is essentially how long before you are staggered and left open for an attack. The main aim is to break an opponent’s posture to deal a deathblow, which instantly kills most enemies unless they have several health bars, instead only dealing only 1 health bar to those foes.
While you could R1 to win in Dark Souls, Sekiro goes heavily against this playing mindset, as opponents will guard against you and even parry you, dealing heavy posture damage which leaves you open to a counterattack. You will need to lay off your onslaught to let the foe attack, to then allow you to parry them to deal more posture damage, leading into a deathblow. This isn’t the only tactic either, as plenty of attacks will be more dangerous, requiring you to either dodge away or into the attack or put in your own attack to counter their dangerous attacks. Moving into a kind of “Rock-Paper-Scissors” minigames with how you’re meant to deal with danger attacks, trying to rush enemies will more than likely end in your demise.
Through defeating enemies you will gain experience towards a new skill point, instead of the normal levelling systems found in previous games. As you play through the game you will unlock new skill trees to unlock, from wide attacks, single target combos, increasing the amount you heal from your gourd to the charges for the Shinobi Prosthetic’s weapons. Rather than just boosting a strength stat, these skills give you new options to attack or withdraw from opponents, adding to your repertoire during combat.
Exploring the levels, or buying at shops, will allow you to find items that give temporary buffs or additional healing. Feeling even more finite than Soulsborne, the items in Sekiro give you a great advantage over both normal enemies and bosses alike. Some items are even necessary for some optional bosses like the headless variants of bosses as well as spirits.
While Sekiro doesn’t focus too much on stealth, you are able to sneak up or descend onto targets for stealth kills. Plenty of the levels are set up in a way that goes against this however, with groups of enemies looking at one another on top of the stealth kill creating noise. If you do wish to go for more of a stealth route, be prepared to do plenty of hit-and-run tactics to keep it going.
Music within Sekiro continues to be top-notch, though shifting heavily from a demonic, metal soundtrack to more rustic, drum-filled oriental tracks. While the music may not be as memorable as tracks from the Soulsborne franchise it definitely brings a unique style of tracks, where the older OSTs did borrow from one another at times. The music in the levels blends wonderfully into combat, though there were times where I was just left with ambient sounds, which some gamers may not like.
The difficulty of Sekiro definitely feels higher than that of the Soulsborne franchise, though that could be down to the fact I have a lot of experience in that franchise. Sekiro changes up plenty of rules, especially with the new emphasis of dodging, blocking and parrying as well as the updated posture system. There are still beginner traps around the world, from hiding enemies to pitfalls but when it comes to combat you will have to pay much more attention and slow down to come out unscathed. Since you cannot spam levels into Strength or Agility you are confined to your own skill, at least until later in the game where a certain mechanic allows you to increase your attack power.
For fans of FromSoftware’s other works, Sekiro may be a bit too much of a departure from the normal formula, whereas others will love the new direction it is taking. The removal of RPG systems like stats can also be a huge detractor, even more so for those who rely on grinding stats to get them through harder sections. This is compounded with the lack of co-op, as an ally would have made the game several times easier, but again it is a personal opinion on that front.
Overall, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice gets a 9/10, the world is beautiful alongside the flashy combat that improves and develops previous systems to give a whole new experience. It could seem too hard or unfair for some gamers whereas others will relish in the new difficulty. Exploration is rewarded amply, with rush gameplay being slightly punished due to the overwhelming numbers at times. It does lack the ability to do proper stealth runs, at least in the beginning, if you’re aiming to kill all enemies but does allow you to bypass a good chunk of them. Fans of the franchise may want to look at some videos to see if the combat is for them, but if you’re a fan of challenging gameplay then Sekiro could be for you.