Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019)

It’s impossible to discuss FromSoftware’s new game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, without talking about Dark Souls and the rest of the Soulsborne series. While not being directly related to its Soulsborne cousins, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice obviously shares the same DNA as FromSoftware’s prior works. Since diving into the Soulsborne series a couple of years ago, I cannot get enough of their brilliant level designs, oppressive atmospheres, inspired environments, and challenging bosses. I was immensely excited for Sekiro and waited to see what Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team could accomplish with a brand-new IP.

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Sekiro is a third-person action-RPG set in feudal Japan. This particular point in Japanese history, the Sengoku period, was a time of constant war and shifting political powers. You play as Wolf, a shinobi who was left without a family due to the relentless bloodshed. Wolf’s job is to protect a young boy, Kuro, who possesses a mystical bloodline that all of the lords are vying for. Kuro can make anybody immortal using the powers of divinity. The lords realize how valuable this power would be in their struggles for control, and begin to compete for control of Kuro and his special abilities. Without spoiling much, Kuro realizes that the power of resurrection is burden for himself, those he grants immortality, as well as everybody else. Kuro requests Wolf’s aid to help him end what he believes to be a curse.

The power of resurrection manifests itself in gameplay through a revive mechanic. When defeated in combat, the player is given the option to resurrect once at the spot they died rather than being sent back to the checkpoint. Soulsborne games are notorious for their difficulty, and Sekiro is no different. Arguably, Sekiro is the hardest of the six games in series. One mistake can often lead to taking massive damage or outright dying, so I appreciate that resurrection exists to give the player another chance. Nothing is more disheartening than almost killing a boss and then panicking and dying, so resurrection acts as a safeguard against that. Additionally, since bosses have multiple phases in this game, resurrection gives the player extra time and chances to learn the attack patterns of the new phases. I kind of wish there was some reason to not revive, as right now there is literally no downside to resurrecting. If there was some cost to resurrecting, then the player would have to make a choice whether or not it was worth doing so in any given instance. Regardless, I think resurrection is a great addition to the game as it reduces frustration without significantly reducing difficulty.

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It is apparent that Sekiro makes great strides to be unique amongst the Soulsborne series. These games are famous for their vague story telling and obscured plotlines, but Sekiro is much more straightforward. There is more dialogue, cutscenes, and readily available information. Whereas in Dark Souls for instance, the player had to interpret unclear lines of dialogue and needed to read item descriptions to get in-depth lore. The main story of Sekiro is easily comprehendible and accessible for players without deeper digging. Of course, in classic FromSoftware fashion, there is plenty of environmental storytelling, hidden details, and lore that can be uncovered by more perceptive players.

Additionally, Sekiro takes place in a far different setting than any of the other five Soulsborne games. Those games took heavy inspiration in European history, themes, architecture, and environments. Sekiro on the other hand takes places on FromSoftware’s local soil of Japan. Instead of Christian themes and imagery, Sekiro leans on Buddhism and Shinto. I personally appreciate this departure, after five games with similar scenery, a stylistic change is welcome. Japanese folklore and mythology influence the areas and visuals of Sekiro. Blossoming sakura trees, sprawling temples, wooden structures, lofty pagodas, and a central area that bears a striking resemblance to Himeji Castle are a few of the beautiful scenes that you will encounter. Sekiro is a visual marvel, everything in the game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Not only the backgrounds and vistas, but the animations are sharp and satisfying as well. Obviously with a change in background comes a change in characters, enemies, and fighting styles and the gameplay reflects this.

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As a shinobi, swordplay is not the only available option to the player. Stealth is an incredibly important mechanic of the game. The stealth mechanics of Sekiro are simple, but are essential to conquering the game. You can sneak past enemies, stab them in the back, or lunge at them from above for a quick kill. This can even be done on some bosses and mini-bosses to delete large portions of their health bars. There’s nothing too spectacular about the stealth, its fairly barebones but it works for the most part. Occasionally when enemies spot the player, they never lose track, even through walls. This can be irritating, but it’s hardly a game-breaking issue. Other than stealth, the other essential instrument available to the player are shinobi prosthetic tools. Things like shuriken, firecrackers, and an axe can be equipped and used. Each tool has intended uses to exploit on certain enemies. For example, firecrackers disrupt any kind of beast or animal because it frightens them. The axe nullifies shielded enemies by splintering their defenses. These tools get refillable uses every time you rest, so they should be used sparingly. Additionally, you can find upgrade materials around the world to improve the tools to add special effects.

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The core of Soulsborne gameplay revolves around using resources to dodge and counter enemy attacks. In the five previous games of the series, you had a stamina bar that you could use to dodge, block, sprint, and attack. The less stamina you used to avoid damage, the more stamina you had to deal damage. There was also an intrinsic risk and reward system built into the combat. Blocking was easy, but you lost a lot of stamina for doing it. Rolling would require timing, but would give the player big windows to punish the boss. Simply walking to avoid hits requires a lot of confidence, but since it consumes no stamina, the reward for doing it was high. Finally, parrying boss attacks was incredibly risky because it required specific timing that if executed incorrectly would lead to the player taking big damage. The payoff was that it would open the boss up to immense damage. Sekiro changes all of this. As a katana-wielding shinobi, there is no more stamina, but instead the game is built around a resource called posture.

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The player and every enemy in the game have a posture bar. When the posture bar is filled, they are susceptible to what is called a deathblow. Deathblows kill enemies regardless of their remaining health. The majority of the time, the player ends up killing enemies via posture damage instead of the traditional health damage. This is done by hitting the enemies and deflecting their attacks. In Sekiro, dodging has far less invincibility frames than it did in previous Soulsborne games, so the primary method of avoiding damage is blocking and deflecting. Blocking is safe and requires no timing, but will quickly fill your posture bar. Deflecting, on the other hand, requires the player to time their block at the moment of an enemy strike. If too early, you end up blocking, if too late, you take the hit. If done correctly, it will quickly fill the enemies’ posture bar. This is equivalent to parrying from the rest of the series, but the timing is more lenient.

The intention of nerfing dodging and replacing parrying with deflection was to make combat feel like a flurry of swords. Every engagement is a rhythm of deflecting and returning swings. This is definitely my favorite iteration of combat in the Soulsborne series. It took a little while for me to unlearn the muscle memory I had from previous games and get used to the importance of deflection, but once it clicked, I was enthralled. The satisfying sounds of clashing swords provides great auditory feedback that makes Sekiro really achieve its goal. The game is centered around duels with enemies, taking turns swinging at each other and capitalizing on mistakes. Filling up the posture bar is the most reliable way to defeat most bosses, and this positively inspires player aggression. Instead of standing far away from enemies and waiting for the opportune moment to strike, the player is encouraged to get in the face of a boss and confidently deflect all of their attacks. Sekiro really manages to capture the feeling of two samurai clashing, and I cannot overstate how much I love the combat in this game.

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Admittedly, I do have a few issues with the combat of Sekiro. The first being perilous attacks. If every attack in the game was deflectable, then once you master the art of timing deflections, the rest of the game would be trivial. So, FromSoftware added 3 kinds of perilous attacks: grabs, thrusts, and sweeps. These attacks cannot be blocked, and each has a specific action to counter it. Grabs you can dodge, thrusts you can deflect, and sweeps you must jump over. These attacks are accompanied by a red visual effect and a distinct sound. My issue is that it can be very difficult to quickly discern between these attacks. Especially since the visual effect often is overlaid directly on top of the enemy. Mostly, I had trouble telling the difference between thrusts and sweeps quickly enough to react. I had to just learn bosses attack patterns and figure out which attacks they used. It’s not a big deal, but I wish the sweep and thrust distinction was a little more clearly telegraphed.

Additionally, at its very core, Sekiro is about dueling opponents. The game is at its very best when you are locked in a swordfight with a challenging foe. Soulsborne has always had issues with situations involving multiple enemies. They are rarely balanced well and often end up being a fiasco. Windows of opportunity to hit back at enemies quickly diminish when there are more than a couple enemies coming at you. Sekiro is no different in this regard, in fact, it’s worse. Since the main tactic in Sekiro is depleting enemy posture by staying in combat with them, you cannot abuse the common tactic that is used in most Soulsborne games. That strategy is to unlock the camera and use hit-and-run attacks to whittle down the enemies’ health. This obviously not effective in Sekiro as enemies block most of your attacks. The only legitimate way to defeat most enemies is to fight them one-on-one. I understand that in most scenarios the best way to deal with multiple enemies in Sekiro is to make extensive use of shinobi tools and stealth, but sometimes this just is not possible. Unfortunately, the game’s combat just crumbles in scenarios where the player has to fight multiple enemies at a time.

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Most importantly, the lack of variety in Sekiro is shocking. FromSoftware took one aspect of the Soulsborne series and polished it to an absurd level, but many other features were ignored because of this decision. Don’t get me wrong, I love the rhythmic deflection duels of Sekiro, but the game lacks any other options. Subsequently, there is very little replayability. This is not inherently a bad thing, and I often like to see games focus in on a singular aspect and refine it to perfection. The issue is, I think many returning Soulsborne players will be disappointed because Sekiro lacks variety. You must learn how to deflect to play Sekiro, there is no other option. In the previous games of the series, people could come up with entirely different strategies for the same boss. Sekiro is very straightforward, you just have to master the art of deflection. The shinobi prosthetic adds a little variety, but it does not drastically change the playstyle of the game.

It is not just in the combat where Sekiro lacks diversity, but many integral Soulsborne features are missing. The RPG and character-building elements of the game are nearly completely gone. Outside of a few skills that you can level up, the main character of Sekiro is static. You cannot choose stats, classes, weapons, or armor. This obviously was intentional as FromSoftware wanted the game to be more story driven and to do that the main character could not be a blank state. Moreover, there is no online element. At all. Player vs player combat is impossible due to the mechanics of the combat. Cooperation would probably trivialize most bosses because of the way posture works. I get why those things were not included, but again it is a feature that many players will miss. Honestly, neither the character building or online were features that I made extensive use of in the rest of the series, but I know for many people these were integral parts of the game. At the very least, I would’ve like to see one or two more weapons to add some replayability. While Sekiro absolutely nails the combat as its core feature, it loses the essence of experimentation and freedom.

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The first thing that blew me away about Dark Souls was the interconnected design of the world and its levels. Checkpoints were scarce, but there were many shortcuts to unlock that would link back to the checkpoint. Things like locked doors, falling ladders, elevators, or gates open once you had cleared an area. This made levels feel larger and simultaneously increased the relief of spotting a new checkpoint. Unfortunately, Sekiro completely lacks this intricate level design. Areas are far more linear and checkpoints are far more abundant. I think there was a singular shortcut to be found in the entire game. Nearly every boss has a checkpoint right before it, leaving out the necessity of mastering a level to repeatedly fight a boss. Now the player runs through an area one time and is basically done with it forever.

The actual world of Sekiro is incredibly interesting. The central castle of the game constantly must be revisited and it evolves depending at what point in the game you are at. The other areas of the game are more stagnant and linear compared to Ashina Castle, but they are interesting thematically. Sekiro is undeniably beautiful, and the landscapes of Japan make every new area a treat to explore. While Sekiro does not have a labyrinth like world akin to Dark Souls, the areas do have a lot of added verticality. This is due to the grappling hook which allows the player to quickly sling from tree branches and scale up buildings. This additional layer to level design gives each level more paths through any given area. I quite like how levels felt more open and explorable than other games in the series. My only gripe is that there really is no point to fully exploring a level. In previous games, the player could find new weapons or armor to experiment with. The only items you can really find in Sekiro are upgrade materials for the shinobi tools, which are uninteresting in comparison.

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Perhaps I am overly critical of Soulsborne games because it is a series that I seriously enjoy, but don’t get me wrong, I love Sekiro. This game was an absolute joy to play and master. It reignited that familiar feeling of overcoming seemingly unconquerable challenges through persistence and perseverance. And that is really what the Soulsborne series is all about. Since Sekiro is so different from its predecessors with its sharp change in combat, it forced me to master an entirely new skillset. This change in pace is what I love about Sekiro, but it is also the games biggest flaw. Due to the focus on the combat, many traditional features such as character builds and online play got left out. Despite this, Sekiro manages to be an unbelievably poignant and memorable experience. It is for these reasons, I give Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a 9/10. I appreciate Sekiro for refining combat to a ridiculous degree and for being such a different experience, but a little more freedom could have gone a long way.

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