FromSoftware has done it again with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which sits comfortably as one of the year's best releases—and by far one of its most difficult.
So goes the nature of the beast that are FromSoftware, an incredible developer over the years flexing its muscle consistently in a brutally difficult subgenre. The Dark Souls series' rise to prominence captivated gamers, punishing them for the tiniest of mistakes but offering some of the most rewarding, if not fleeting moments in gaming outright.
Mastery of this space achieved, From and director Hidetaka Miyazaki has shifted to something else with Sekiro—innovation upon the existing formula.
Sekiro very much retains the feel of the Souls games, but makes several refinements and changes seemingly aimed at those veteran Souls players accustomed to playing From games a certain way. With feudal Japan as the backdrop, Sekiro promises a unique and enjoyable experience, provided players understand what they are getting themselves into.
Graphics and Gameplay
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Sekiro is pretty and detailed.
The fantastical take on Japan and the ninja era, among other things, is engrossing. A gloomy color palette sets the mood and mystique. Fires blaze brightly underneath a sheet of rain as a town burns. A lonely castle's crumbling walls have a presence to them. Stacks of books fly apart every which way when a character slams into them. Gorgeous backdrops, from mountain ranges to towers, set the stage and give an immense feeling of a lifelike, inhabited world.
Enemies, of which there are many, range from disgusting to grunt-like. Simple enemy movements are so good it feeds the player information. The grunty strut of a baddie on a bridge tells the player he's fodder, and sure enough he fights lazily, using his sword with one arm like a hammer. Another enemy might have an upright posture with one hand on his sheath—he's lethal and ready. Even Sekiro himself gracefully runs his left hand across the ground at varying speeds while stalking through reeds or bursting into a sprint.
It's a good thing everything looks and runs (aside from a few fire-based framerate dips on consoles) great—players are going to be looking at the same settings and rooms quite often.
Sekiro is brutally difficult. One hit and/or mistake can end the game, period. Players and enemies alike have traditional health bars. More important is the "posture" gauge. When that gets broken, a character is vulnerable to a killing blow. This includes Sekiro, who if he isn't skillful, can get executed by even the sloppy grunt with no actual technique to his fighting.
Attacks and deflects chip away at the posture bar, the latter being the biggest departure from Dark Souls. Where that was more about avoidance and looking for a counter, Sekiro wants the player in the face of enemies and on the assault at all times. Dodges aren't going to accomplish much—well-timed deflections will.
And there is an important distinction to be made here. Players can hold down the button and block everything for the most part. But blocking isn't deflecting, which means no progress on an opponent's posture. Oftentimes a battle against a tough enemy or boss comes down to winning the posture battle, keeping Sekiro's posture regeneration rate ahead of the enemy's at all costs.
The only time dodging or retreating is really a viable strategy is when an opponent sends off an unblockable attack which can't be parried either. The game at least tells the player it is on the way with a red kanji highlight, but it too demands pristine timing and decision making for the tell to actually assist the player.
Being a shinobi who lost an arm in the game's opening moments, Sekiro has access to a vast array of interesting prosthetics-based weaponry and gadgets. The first is a grapple, but they get more offensive-minded from there, with some defensive feats mixed in for good measure. Sekiro can use these to navigate the world and battles, as well as pair them with items such as ash, which he can fling into an opponent's eyes for an advantage.
The world is at a player's fingertips here in a much more robust way than the Souls games—and they're going to need it, as a guerrilla-warfare approach to combat is a must given the unfair odds the shinobi always has to overcome.
It's funny—other games where the player faces an onslaught of enemies get laughed at sometimes. In those, the player would go one-on-one with a single target while the rest of the baddies stood around and watched. It was a suspension-of-disbelief thing. They could all gang up and kill the player easily enough, but didn't.
Yeah, Sekiro doesn't care. They all come at the player at once and kill quickly. The only i-frames a player gets come from the killing animations, otherwise it's parry multiple swords flying at Sekiro's face or book it out of there.
Unfortunately, the stealthy approach is one of the game's big negatives. It's a mess in that enemy A.I. can sometimes unpredictably spot Sekiro. Slipping out of cover, getting an instant stealth kill and being discovered by enemies happens all the time, but those enemies go right back to doing whatever it was they were doing after a set period, despite their dead friend next to them. They even line up back in the exact same spots.
This isn't gamebreaking by any means. Outdated, rather. If anything, there is a little charm to it. Abusing unfair tactics makes story sense within the situation. But it can also mean reinforcing bad habits instead of refining skill. Later in the game, the bad habits get punished. Hard. Taking the time to train with the sparring partner back at your hub area is a good idea. Matter of fact, a few hours is advised.
Another innovation upon the formula here is the death mechanic. Death doesn't end the game in Sekiro as long as the player has the resurrection option available. Resting at a Sculptor's Idols recharges one of his revives, as does killing enemies. But dying after a revive and needing to start over at a camp welcomes in the Dragonrot mechanic.
Dragonrot is the game's way of punishing those who die often. The Rot Essence seeps into a player's inventory and also makes side characters chronically ill. If they get too sick and Sekiro doesn't cure them with rare items, story progression for those characters gets locked. Using a revive in combat assures the player doesn't lose the experience or area progress gained since the last save at a Sculptor's Idol. The Rot Essence slowly chips at a player's Unseen Aid, which sits at a max of 30 percent and gives that much of a chance for the player to retain skill points and items, even in death.
Even here, players have to make the toughest of decisions. Timing when it comes to curing Dragonrot is critical. Curing it comes from a supposedly finite resource and doing so and then dying a bunch can have unforeseen consequences. No pressure, right?
As if gameplay in Sekiro wasn't demanding enough, this mechanic working in the background against the player is something to keep in mind. It doesn't make the fun, timing-based combat any less enjoyable, but it does up the ante.
Story and More
Sekiro isn't going to blow everyone away in the narrative department. The shinobi must protect a young lord and it spins its yarn from there in a tale that fully embraces the imaginative side of feudal Japan and its legends.
To say much more would be to spoil some of the most shocking, fun moments of the past year or more. Sekiro squeezes every last drop out of its setting and tale, even if the characters surrounding the player-controlled character are shoe-horned in quickly and don't have a ton of depth.
Good thing the world is a blast to explore. FromSoftware has done an excellent job using the verticality of its environments to great effect. There are layers and layers of options when it comes to progressing everything, too. Stuck on one mini-boss? Leave the area and go to a different one somewhere else. Sekiro doesn't tell a player where to go, and while the lack of information can be frustrating at times, it encourages exploration.
Not everything is mandatory and neither is exploring—but it would behoove players to explore often. The mystique of the environments, the depth of the waters, the length of the tunnels, the secret passages, it all lends to an incredible time and makes a point of rewarding those players who risk looking around and pay close attention.
In a testament to the game's superb design, there isn't a great way to tell the difference between mini-bosses and the big bosses. The former are incredibly unique on their own in how they look and fight, demand impeccable timing and understanding and often come with some help. They require at least two killing blows and are critical to progressing Sekiro, equipping him better for the big boss fights, if not opening new paths, too.
Overcoming these bosses is taxing. There isn't a way to cheese the encounters. And their design begs the player to go on the affront as opposed to backpedaling. But doing so requires an almost impeccable understanding of the fight and likewise superb reaction times. Besting a boss is exhilarating to the point it feels like even beating the first boss is beating the game outright.
There is a little RPG feel to Sekiro. Three different types of skill unlocks offer unique builds and scream of replayability. But the genius of the design is how open-ended it feels. Throwing points into stealth never means an inability to juggle multiple enemies in straightforward combat or vice versa.
Keep in mind those Souls players who would use the multiplayer mechanic to get through tough spots won't have that option available to them here. It's solo or nothing.
Sekiro is impressive enough in today's gaming market. But the fact it avoids modern trappings like microtransactions, season passes, staggered releases and other oddities is worth praise, too.
Speedrunning has always been a massive part of From games.
Going back to the original Dark Souls, the best runs flirted with hitting only the 30-minute mark on an any-percent run. The appeal isn't hard to figure out—these are intense, skill-based games with brutal punishments for mistakes and plenty of workarounds players unearth in terms of routes, skills and even glitches.
Sekiro offers all of this at launch, sans glitching or exploits. Any-percent runs, all bosses and other sorts of run categories are bound to emerge as the community dives in and starts tearing the game apart.
The original Dark Souls allowed for some sequence breaking, meaning going about things out of order, leaning on skill to get past events earlier than a normal playthrough would have permitted. There is some of that here in potential Sekiro speedruns. Going into specifics would be a little too spoilery, but it boils down to tackling bosses while missing certain equipment or upgrades, which is doable with refined skill.
So goes the freedom of the most open-ended game FromSoftware has created yet. And when actually navigating the world, outright avoiding combat when possible is likely the best approach. Farming low-tier enemies for a revive would make some sense. But mowing through mobs will only prove useful if gunning for a particular stat on a skill tree.
It should go without saying, but keys to a successful run will include world memorization and knowing general shortcuts to best navigate the world quickly. Combat-wise, intimately understanding each encounter and how to prioritize them, if at all (not every mini-boss needs to be defeated in certain types of runs) will be critical.
Item management and skill tree unlocks are a tad more complex. For the former, it would make sense to throw some of the hard-earned coin at a vendor in exchange for coin purses, which is a way to prevent monetary loss upon death. While at a vendor, a certain skill he sells is incredibly important in various boss encounters.
For the skill tree, unlocking the ability that nets health recovery when performing a deathblow will be critical. While avoiding combat is a tactic mentioned here, several major encounters feature low-tier enemies helping the boss. Farming those for free health refills in addition to healing items could be the difference between a successful run and a near-miss.
In the end, this will serve as one of the best speedrunning titles released in a long time. The verticality of the multiple branching paths of the world, the risk-reward of skipping content by acquiring as much DPS as possible for mandatory bosses and the intimate combat requiring pristine skill and reaction time have looped together the perfect speedrunning environment that will have decade-long legs like the Souls series has enjoyed, if not longer.
There is an interwoven flow to Sekiro that is both difficult to describe and impossible not to appreciate. Each fight is like a chess match with tells and bluffs and instant death. The shinobi missing an arm but desperately outfitting himself and becoming stronger against all odds to save those he was entrusted to protect weaves perfectly into every consequential encounter, no matter how minute.
Players are going to die a lot in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. A lot. Seemingly endlessly. Quite more than just twice. The bosses might be the most difficult in games.
Yet, as maddening as this sounds, there is an addictive and fun gameplay loop. Honing one's skills alongside Sekiro himself is an intimate solo experience few games have been able to replicate. Leaping from a tree to plunge a katana into an unsuspecting enemy and shifting off into the night again before dueling an unforgettable boss is an almost unexplainable joy.
Seasoned Souls players will have to rewire years of conditioning completely. New players will have to understand what they have to tackle in order to get the full experience. It isn't for everyone, but Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is boldly unique and will flourish for it.