At times more Bushido Blade than Dark Souls, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is one of the most pure, exhilarating action adventure games I have ever played.
Developer – From Software
Release Date – March 22, 2019
Platforms – PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
The lineage of From Software and and creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s “Dark Souls” franchise has been seen and felt across the entire gaming landscape. It has essentially created a new genre of games. It has brought back difficulty into the mainstream and inspired untold amounts of clones that try to capture the same magic.
After the Dark Souls trilogy was completed, they went with a different approach with their next title, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Sekiro ditches the European medieval aesthetic in favor of a trip to the Sengoku period of Feudal Japan. From Software has changed the core gameplay almost as dramatically as the shift in location. Gone are the monolithic cathedrals and castle gates. In their places are dojo rooftops, cherry blossoms and stunning outdoor vista’s. Just looking at the game presents a very different atmosphere and clearly separates it from their previous work.
If you are a student of history however you will recognize that this isn’t the first time they have made a game in this setting. Tenchu for the original Playstation was a classic, and in many ways Sekiro is just as inspired by that game as they are the “Souls” games. Outside of some base mechanics from Dark Souls, Sekiro is a very different title and this will be the last time I bring that franchise up in this review. Sekiro is something new, inspired by elements of From Software’s history but those concepts are forged into something decidedly unique.
One of the more dramatic changes is the story itself. Sekiro has a much more clear and concise story than their previous work. Your character, named the Wolf, has a clear and direct purpose. You will meet and interact multiple times with a varied casts of characters who all speak plainly for the most part. Despite the non-linear level design, the narrative does move forward and can end in a multitude of ways with each ending bringing a clear sense of finality to all of the plot that has come before it.
Everything from gameplay mechanics, items, and upgrades are direct and clear as to their purpose. In game upgrades are very direct about what they will do for you and the deeper loot and RPG mechanics have been stripped down in multiple ways. Many of the skills in game are passive abilities, and when you acquire active skills usually only a handful can be equipped at any given time. The Wolf is a set character, and you wont be scouring the world or farming enemies to get a good piece of armor or a new weapon. Skill points are earned when you fill up a meter, and despite losing half of your resources upon death, once you gain a skill point no matter what happens you cant lose it.
On paper, many of these changes seem like a simplification of the depth and nuance you would expect from their previous games, but in no way does that mean this game is easy or lacking challenge. The very limited loadout brings greater important on the handful of skills you can use. Even with the tools at your disposal being a bit more narrow, each one remains viable and useful through out the entire game. Character builds are now based mostly on gameplay preference, rather than an online guide showing you some unstoppable build so to speak.
All of these changes to the core storytelling and the game systems are very welcome because it allows for a much greater focus on the piece of the puzzle that Sekiro does better than any action game in years, the core combat itself.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an action game featuring moments of stealth. The Wolf is extremely nimble, with no stamina bar to restrain his movement or options. The ability to jump and grapple like the Tenchu games is back. Yes, Sekiro doesn’t feature a fat roll of any kind. Instead you can run full sprint, jump off an enemies head, grapple to a roof then back-flip down while throwing ninja stars.
If all of that sounds like a radical departure from the slow paced, methodical style of combat of its predecessors that’s because it is. The Tenchu lineage shows up in regards to stealth. The Wolf can use the shinobi arts to stalk his enemies and try to balance the scales as much as possible. Using the grappling hook, wall shimmies and sneaking around tall grass are some of the more basic ways to sneak around a battlefield. Enemies have a yellow indicator to show when they’re aware and close to catching you. This allows you a chance to slip back into the shadows before all out combat erupts.
The stealth of Sekiro is honestly one of it’s weakest features. It’s never bad, but it just doesn’t innovate or bring anything new to that particular style of gameplay. The bonfire mechanic that basically lets you reset an area does add a nice wrinkle to the stealth, as knowing the enemy layout and placement is just as important as how you go about sneaking around. Despite not being great, the stealth is a huge part of the gameplay. Using it properly can make many combat encounters much less stressful. It’s also important because every single enemy in Sekiro, even the mini bosses are susceptible to stealth attacks.
When stealth fails and you must draw your sword, Sekiro is at its best. The Wolf and his enemies all have the standard life bars you would expect, but most enemies and bosses in this game will be killed without ever chipping away at said lifebars. Instead the focus on close, intimate one on one combat and swordplay is front and center, and with the removal of the stamina system comes the arrival of the posture system.
Every swing you throw at an enemy will cause a meter over their head to begin filling, this bar represents an enemies posture. Your attack and parries will cause this meter to fill. When it fills, the enemy becomes vulnerable to a deathblow. Deathblows are a clean one shot execution that will finish off the opponent regardless of how much health they have left. Some mini bosses and bosses will have little red pips next to their names, and each death blow will successfully remove a pip, and then combat resumes.
The posture system is a two way mechanic, and the same rules apply to you during combat as well. If you just hold block, or mistime your deflections, your posture will break. Being posture broken is almost always a sure fire way to end up dead quickly. The stunned state you enter upon posture break can have the enemy quickly finish you off. The tension and quick reflexes needed to stay alive in combat really separate Sekiro from the pack. Most enemy fights are a ballet of parries, side dodges and leaps over huge sweeping attacks on both sides until one fighter makes a mistake, or is countered at just the right moment. It’s violent, fast, and sudden, and it resembles the lethal fights of the “Bushido Blade” series much more than a Souls game.
Just like the title implies, if you do fail at combat or make that critical mistake you have a second chance. A resurrection that you can do which brings you back with half of your health and it allows you to get back into the fight. Or if you’re like me, you can come back and sprint back to a checkpoint and rest up. The resurrection isn’t a free gimmick as you will have to defeat enemies in order to replenish it’s use.
Visually, Sekiro seems almost pedestrian at first. Pretty straight forward locations based on feudal Japan dominate the first half. Dojo’s, bamboo thickets, carp filled ponds and snow covered mountaintop shrines litter the open world. Things do start making a big shift to the more fantastical, as From Softare pulls from Japanese mythology in cool and unexpected ways. It doesn’t reach the levels of Ni-Oh or Onimusha with its fantastic elements, but it does fuse them with the real world setting in a more cohesive way than its peers.
On consoles, the looks and performance is about the same as Dark Souls on those platforms, with frame pacing once again rearing it’s head. On PC, which was the platform I reviewed this on, it ran and performed fantastic. The game remained locked at 60fps, and never wavered in my playtime despite some huge moments later on in the game.
The audio design also performs well. With a fantastic suite of battle music that swells and falls at the right moment to give the bigger fights a truly cinematic feeling. the rest of the score is pretty average however, with out a real memorable theme that I feel fits how unique this game is.
The story itself also features multiple endings. It also holds up pretty well, with great voices, especially if you play with the heavily recommended Japanese audio mix. I did encounter some slight moments of frustration, as the non linear nature of the world design can break some scripting in ways. New story elements would sometimes require me to go into areas I have already explored just to trigger the right cut-scene to advance the story.
Those minor nitpicks aside, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was a thrilling action experience, and is firmly my favorite From Software game ever made, even with the great run of titles they have made in their long and storied history.
At times more Bushido Blade than Dark Souls, Sekiro:Shadows Die Twice is one of the most pure, exhilarating action adventure games I have ever played. Don’t miss it.