Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

From Software is no stranger to what fans of their Dark Souls series are hungry for, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice serves up a familiar dish with new spices to keep things interesting. I’ve been an admirer of this developer since way back on the PlayStation One. King’s Field and Armored Core brought me into their ecosystem, and with Demon’s Souls release on PlayStation 3 I became a fan for life.

Outside of Déraciné for PSVR, many of From’s recent releases (Dark Souls series, Bloodborne) have a very similar formula. This style of game has been labelled “Souls Like”. Games that have checkpoints that reset defeated enemies, immensely challenging boss fights, mysterious worlds, and precise combat are brought under this moniker. While Sekiro generally falls into this genre with its core gameplay, the deviations from the expected norms are where things get interesting.

Gone are the many choices for weapons or character class. Throughout your adventure, the Katana and assorted ninja prosthetic tools will be all you need to survive. Speaking of prosthetics, it should be noted that one of your arms has been replaced with a mechanical shinobi artifact; functioning as arm, grappling hook, and capable of attaching many unlockable apparatuses.  Having a single weapon type removes heavy RPG mechanics that are found in other “Souls” games; no statistics to level or unusable items due to improper character builds will be found in Sekiro. Instead, small health and damage boosts are obtained by defeating bosses and cashing in rewards at Buddha statues (similar to bonfires).

Without player customization of the hero, Sekiro tells a character driven story set in Sengoku-era Japan during the late 1500’s. On a quest to recue your kidnapped Lord, a much stronger narrative is experienced than is customary in a From Software release. While mystery is still a part of the unveiling events, characters have understandable motivations and Sekiro has a very clear plot progression. Conversations with people often reveal important clues to finding items, secret areas, and weaknesses of enemies; a pleasant contrast to the cryptic hints and mostly lore based interactions of Dark Souls NPCs.

Another point of difference is verticality. Sekiro has a jump button, which is often missing entirely from games of this style. Combined with the Shinobi Prosthetic’s grappling hook, traversing the game world is a blast. Many outcroppings and rooftops are marked with grapple icons, and with the touch of a button the line is thrown and you quickly ascend to new heights. Staying in the shadows or above enemies is crucial to ambush them with a stealthy assassination. Without stealth, death can come quickly as you are easily overwhelmed by multiple enemies.

Your first death is less an issue in Sekiro, as its title suggests. Early on, the ability to recover from falling in battle lets you rise from your grisly fate for a second attempt at victory. Dying to a regular mob allows you to pop up and escape to the shadows, while bosses are aware of your ability and cannot be fooled by resurrection. This does allow for, and encourages, aggressive gameplay; as the second chance at life offers insurance for foolish mistakes. More than a few times I had a boss nearly out of health or their posture almost broken when they drove me into the ground. Reviving and claiming victory in these situations is what makes Sekiro’s combat so exciting.

Overcoming bosses in Sekiro is what the game is all about. Make no mistake, even when first approaching this game as a “Souls” veteran, it was a challenge. Adjusting to the new “Posture” system is the key to overcoming early struggles. Firstly, blocking fills your posture bar. If you block excessively and fill the bar, your guard is broken and you are left open to attack. These rules also apply to enemies, including bosses. In lieu of blocking, you can timely tap your guard button to parry incoming attacks (filling the opponent’s posture bar). After blocking enough to learn enemy patterns, parrying is highly effective in breaking the guard of your enemies to deliver killing blows.

Sometimes blocking isn’t the best course of action. A “危” symbol indicating a perilous attack, which cannot be blocked, will flash before enemies strike with special moves. Learning the animations of these attacks and knowing how to counter each (jump, dodge, etc) becomes a large portion of learning major encounters throughout the game. The toughest bosses must be practiced. Learned. Only when you can properly guard, parry, and counter the majority of a boss’ onslaught over the course of a multi-phase, multi-minute encounter will you emerge victorious.

There are a few ways to “level up” and increase your chances for success, for when the fighting gets too tough. Shinobi tools can be upgraded with materials found throughout the game, unlocking new features when charged up. Ninja stars can spin for more damage, or axes can be lit on fire to emblaze foes. Unlockable skill trees allow you to learn new attacks and unlock passive bonuses. Each point for these trees is earned from experience by defeating enemies. Take care, as every subsequent point takes more experience to earn, and every death costs half of your experience earned towards the next point (and half your on-hand money). Sometimes getting out and exploring the world and killing some mini bosses for prayer beads, which are used to increase your health pool, can be the best course of action before returning to a fight that seems insurmountable.

Sengoku-era Japan is a beautiful place to discover. Sekiro begins with a fairly linear design. The basics of combat and traversal are practiced until you make your way to the first major objective. After that, the options open up immensely; the level designers really spread their wings when putting together this fully connected environment. From mountainous fortress encampments to dangerous dank caverns, the game can be explored easily and efficiently thanks to the grappling hook and clean controls.

With that said I did, on occasion, run into a few issues with the controls. Reminiscent of past Souls games, input buffering can be an issue if you hit buttons during animations or while taking damage (Or, are just a little mashy with inputs in general). For example: an enemy’s attack connects and while staggering you decide to dodge; hitting the button early, nothing happens. During that stagger, the enemy opens itself to attack. So, instead of dodging you want to attack, and hit attack immediately after you realize this.  Most times your attack will go off as planned; but occasionally that dodge you hit will surprise you by going off unexpectedly moving you out of place. Of course the solution to this issue has always been to be very deliberate with your button presses, although during the heat of battle the stress can cause you to mash a little.

I played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice until I completed every ending, and obtained every trophy. I enjoyed the simplicity and elegance of core combat, the refreshing setting, and the challenge that few games can properly bring to the table. Ultimately, without the depth of RPG based player characters and online multiplayer encounters, Sekiro doesn’t offer much more to do past its campaign (aside from New Game +). My first play through was by far the longest, and most enjoyable. However, that is exactly how Sekiro was designed. These criticisms only exist because I am looking for more reasons to play this game after completion. There are few things to realistically complain about when a game delivers so thoroughly on everything it aims to.

~~Ian Voegtle~~

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