Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest game from storied developers FromSoftware. The team that previously focused on deathly-difficult games with western medieval and gothic themes in the form of Dark Souls and Bloodborne brings that special brand of game design to ancient Japan. It shares many similarities to those titles, from an interesting death mechanic, a strange and magical world that is gently boiling with corruption before finally bubbling over, and an almost cruel level of difficulty. It does stray from the well-worn path of the Soulsborne games in many ways, however. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is many things, but is it a good game?
Prepare To Try
A consistent criticism aimed at FromSoftware is that the make Dark Souls for Dark Souls fans. When you get comfortable with one title, you can make your way through the rest of them without much issue. With Bloodborne, they took a few steps off the well-worn path, but the game was largely comfortable for most Souls fans. With Sekiro, it feels at times like FromSoftware is trying to punish everyone equally. Much like their previous games, a lot of the difficulty is front loaded. The early hours are spent grappling with nuance. Instinct, built up from years of playing other FromSoftware titles, is just as much of an enemy as ignorance to the things that have come before. It feels as though the FromSoftware loyal and the more recent buy ins are all on the same foot, and that foot is about to be chopped off.
In Sekiro, you play the Wolf. He will shortly become the One-Armed Wolf, but when we first meet him, sitting at the bottom of a well, he is fully intact. A stranger arrives to send him on a quest to extricate himself from the well and get to his duty of saving his master. Because the well is really just a metaphor for a sense of loss and the struggle of self pity, it is not all that hard to get out of. We are now free of the well, but the self pity is just beginning. A short while later we find our master, a young boy named Lord Kuro, and we try to free him from his captors. We run into an unknown figure in a field, the swords come out, and our arm is lopped off. When we come too, we have a shiny new arm built of metal and bone that will allow us to do some very neat things. It is this prosthetic arm that largely underpins all the ways that Sekiro is different from the things that came before.
Firstly, it allows us to grapple. Movement in Sekiro is vastly different to previous Soulsborne titles. Rather than plod around on the ground like an armor laden Knight, we can instead take to the rooftops. We can grapple to trees and use it to sneak around. It compliments the stealth system by allowing us to blindside and hide from our enemies. We can also equip the arm with a multitude of tools. Out in the world we can find all kinds of things to give us an advantage. Once we find a tool, we can simply return to the Temple we awoke in, give it to the Sculptor who made our new arm, and he will attach it for us.
We can find tools that smash shields, spit fire, throw shuriken, or even whisk people away into other realms. All these tools have a purpose and many make enemies much easier to deal with. Finding them is a reward for curiosity and exploration. If you see what looks like a route up a cliff, then you can more than likely take it and will almost certainly end up somewhere interesting, dangerous, and important. It is clever design in that the prosthetic arm (or Wolf’s Claw) both enables and demands that we look around as much of the world as possible. Every time we grapple to a new location it reminds us that it can be a useful ally in our journey, and it hones our instinct to always be on the lookout for a potential upgrade to its abilities.
A Trusty Friend
The malleability and and adaptability of the Wolf’s Claw also contrast the fact that we will use the same sword for the entire game. Your Katana is the only weapon that you will really use. This has allowed FromSoftware a rare degree of focus when it comes to combat. Fighting in Sekiro is brutal. A constant knife’s edge of blocking, deflecting, and positioning, slowly wearing down our opponent’s stance until we get an opening and deliver a death blow. For the first few hours I felt like I was constantly on the verge of losing fights, and the sense of victory when I rammed my sword through an enemy’s neck was immense. Slowly, it all started to fall into place and my old instincts were shed to form a whole new understanding. I couldn’t afford to let enemies have space. The often passive fighting of a game like Dark Souls just meant death here. Victory was found in forcing enemies to react to me, constantly hammering at their guard and forcing them to block and deflect, then paying close attention to their counters. Waiting till the last possible second to deflect, side step, or even step into a blow would yield the opening I needed. My enemy defeated, I would move into the next encounter with more swagger. Attack patterns and animations had to be learned, memorized and then abused. At the risk of running a cliche into the ground, I had to get good. Not just good, but better than I thought I would be able to get.
While the combat does feel punishing throughout, it does also feel like mastery of it is possible. The game only really strays into unfair territory when not paying attention. The world we move through constantly tries to give us clues about the best ways to defeat enemies. Careless guards talk about how a monster ahead is terrified of fire, or how heavy armor can be chipped away with thrust attacks. We also get access to Ninjutsu arts, all kinds of skills, and some kit upgrades that give us more staying power in a fight. Killing bosses grants us memories of the fight that make our attacks more powerful, and our healing items can all be buffed to provide more benefit. Finally, there is the death mechanic. If you get cut down in Sekiro, you can revive on the spot to the continue the fight. This can happen once, or twice with the right upgrades, before we are consigned to a true death and must return to the last place we rested.
While Sekiro does limit our options, it provides us a system that supports a quest for perfection. The right tools, at the right time, utilized in the right ways, will bring us to victory, and our destiny. By the end of the game you should have earned a level of confidence in combat, or else you simply wouldn’t have made it that far.
A Warrior’s Tale
I don’t want to talk too much about the story, as I believe that many play these games just to see what kind of insanity FromSoftware will have crammed into the experience. I will say that in many ways it’s more straight forward and less obtuse than other titles they have made. The central narrative is all rather clear the whole way through. Mystery and strangeness only creeps in as we venture into side missions and specific character quests. It was engaging, and I really did like some of the characters, especially the stoic Wolf. While his world burns around him, he struggles with his own code. He has made a promise which defines him as a person, and over the course of the game we need to decide if he breaks that promise or not.
The world we move through is also up to FromSofware’s usual standard. Shortcuts and interconnecting sections mean that just about every location can be reached from every other location. It is a wonderful bit of design, especially when you consider just how many options are opened up by the ability to grapple. Bosses tend to be more human than you might be used too, but there are some spectacular creature fights to be found, including my favorite boss fight in any FromSoftware game ever. In many ways, boss fights are much harder than in the Soulsborne games. They cannot be out leveled and you cannot switch to a new weapon that gives you some innate advantage. This meant I used far more items than I am used to in a FromSoftware title. Some boss fights boiled down to a constant juggling of buffs, antidotes, and tricks to give me an edge. A manic dance of blade and blood that I would fail over and over again until I eventually passed the test. Essentially, though, it is you, your fake arm, and your sword. You will need to find the right solution to the deadly puzzle that is trying to kill you.
Double Edged Sword
All this is not to say that Sekiro is without weak spots, but those weak spots are largely secondary to the highlights. The game ran extremely well for me, happily sitting at 60 frames per second when playing at 1440p on my GTX 980. It does, however, lack some features that just feel like requirements for PC gaming. The FPS is locked, so people with high refresh monitors won’t get to take advantage of them and, as always, we are reliant on mods for things like field-of-view sliders and widescreen support. In 2019 all this feels a bit less like oversight and a bit more like willful disregard for some consumers.
Stealth is also clearly a secondary element and simply didn’t get as much polish as the combat. Enemies can act strangely, often spotting you even when you are stealthy, or sometimes locking on to you through buildings, making it impossible to lose aggro. For much of the game it was smooth, but when it went wrong it would lead to manic situations that felt a bit punishing for all the wrong reasons.
There is also the difficulty question. Some people simply won’t be able to handle the challenge of Sekiro, and I frankly find it difficult to say if this is something the studio should try to address or not. It does feel like difficult games are a genuine artistic choice for FromSoftware so I don’t want to sit here and say anything should be changed. On the other hand, I appreciate that some people will be turned off by how hard it is, and others simply unable to overcome its difficulty due to a lack of accessibility. I wonder what would be lost if they were accommodated in some way.
I haven’t decided where Sekiro falls in my ranking of the FromSoftware games. It will take many more passes to really figure that out, but I get the feeling it will be towards the top of the table. While at first I found the combat off-putting, I can honestly say the game provided a sense of challenge and reward that I think surpasses the Soulsborne games. I also think FromSoftware have done an amazing job of offering fans something familiar yet uncomfortable. A solid marriage of old and new that sets a potentially interesting new path for the strange multi game, multi setting experiment that is Hidetaka Miyazaki’s exploration of the joys and perils of the human condition.