Coming from developer FROM SOFTWARE, it’s fair to assume that you’re in for a tough ride. The creator knows difficulty well, so much so that their Souls series is often described as a difficulty entirely in itself. Believe me, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is no different. That being said, there’s something particularly alluring about the whole affair. Whilst punishing, and quite frankly frustrating at the best of times, it’s that constant pull found in its setting, and indeed in your need to overcome the game’s taxing aspects, that never once gives up.
You’re free to play the game in either English or Japanese; with English subs. I would certainly recommend the latter for that extra theme-authentic kick. Sekiro takes place during the late 1500s, at the conclusion of the Sengoku era. This era in particular is known for its constant bouts of life and death conflict. Sitting at the center of this plot rests protagonist Sekiro, an orphan saved in the midst of the raging war. Some twenty year later and now a fully fledged Shinobi, Sekiro finds himself at the mercy of fate once again.
Sekiro is bound to a young lord, who just so happens to be the descendant of an ancient bloodline. However, following an invasion from his clan’s enemies in the face of his dying master, Sekiro sets out to save the young lord and protect his clan’s honor. Though, before too long at all, Sekiro comes up against his first formidable foe. During the fight, Sekiro loses his arm and is left for dead, and more importantly, the young lord is captured. Donning the name “one-armed wolf”, Sekiro awakens in unfamiliar territory, and with a new arm.
The twist? This new arm is prosthetic, but it’s an arm that’s going to serve Sekiro in ways that he couldn’t possibly imagine as he sets off on a journey to right wrongs and retrieve his lord. Some would argue that the plot is very cliche, but it’s delivered in such a captivating way that it’s hard not to fall in love with. It goes without saying that ancient Japan is such a fascinating and rich era, but the way that Sekiro merges with that is unlike anything you’ll have ever played. With that firmly in mind, and spoiler free, let’s move on to the meat.
One thing I want to address right off the bat – this isn’t Dark Souls, nor is it Bloodborne. It’s a completely fresh experience. The only thing that remotely ties this developer to those games is that of its aforementioned difficulty. You know that when you’ve failed (and fail you will) that it stinks of FROM SOFTWARE. I mean that in the greatest of respects. Sekiro wouldn’t be half as gratifying as it is if it wasn’t for its steep difficulty. That’s not to say that it’s always fun, because it isn’t. In fact, I felt compelled to shut it off on many occasions.
I didn’t, mind, but I want you to understand that it’s brutally unforgiving. I want you to understand that death is plentiful. I want you to understand that this game is designed to piss you off, at the same time as holding you hostage to its splendor. The game does a wonderful job at feeding you into its basics. You’ll get a firm and instant understanding as to how everything functions from the onset, despite the few ass kickings you’re destined for along the way, and by the time you get your new arm, you’ll have established some grip.
Think of Sekiro’s new arm as the Swiss Army Knife of ancient Japan; one tool, plenty of uses. You’ll not get to see its true capabilities until later on, but that is what we’ve come to expect from the game’s developer. It opens slowly and with a linear framework, before branching out with all the mechanical depth of the Grand Canyon. I could talk to you for hours on end about the ins and outs of Sekiro, but to do so would be an injustice. I see no need in diving too deeply here, because this is an experience that needs to be witnessed first hand.
Sekiro is many things, and it’s a game that can be played in many ways. Do you favor stealth over brawls? Or, perhaps the contrary? Maybe you have a taste for mixing things up and finding a middle ground between those styles of play? Sekiro accommodates that. Though, however you come at this, you’re going to need skill. Unlike the developer’s previous works, Sekiro’s combat is fast-paced and to the point. You’ll not spend hours on a single boss whilst playing parry and dodge. Instead, you’ll glide with fluidity and crack at any opening you find.
Sure, parrying and dodging play vital roles in this game, but not to the degree that you’ll dedicate an entire band of evenings just trying to overcome one towering foe. Here, combat is as fluid as your skill allows it to be. Timing is everything, and knowing exactly when to defend, exactly when to deflect, and exactly when to attack, will often be the difference between succeeding and failing. This means that any given fight can be over in an instant, but it’s learning the mechanics that drive the game’s enemies that will see that through.
You cant merely strut up to any guard with your sword and turn them into kebabs. No, not by a long shot. You’ll need to spend time working out their movement and attack patterns, carefully deducting where and when they show an opening or a weakness, to then exploit it. Sekiro’s enemy variation is impressively deep, with all foes housing their own routines and techniques throughout. Hell, even the same enemy types typically have wildly different attack patterns. It’s a game in which its deep combat constantly keeps you on your toes.
The ability to bypass this is present through the ability of killing enemies via stealth tactics, but even so, the game’s smart AI never gives up. Enemy awareness is painfully realistic, meaning that you can rarely exploit a cheap death without consequences of some sort elsewhere. Sekiro isn’t a stealth game in itself, but it certainly has the foundation in place for us to at least consider it as a close alternative. There’s no shortage of ways that you can dispose of your opponents, but however you go about it, you’ll never get an easy win.
Whatever the case, combat is Sekiro is gratifying. It’s brutal, but so damn rewarding when you finally overcome an enemy that’s sent you to respawn hundreds of times over. The key to success is understanding how the game operates. Now, as alluded to above, parrying plays a big role here, as does posture and guarding. Deflecting enemy attacks will not only weaken them, but feed a gauge that ultimately allows you to pull off execution attacks. This means very little if you’ve not got the momentum to get a vital strike in when it matters.
Much like how Sekiro operates, the lower the health, the slower posture will replenish. I found a tactic through guarding, swiping left or right, dishing out a sly attack on their bodies, and recycling this method until their posture regeneration dramatically slowed down. Once there, a few deflections paved the way for an execution attack; which naturally varies in regards to how many of these attacks you need to hand out before you kill your opponent. Nevertheless, you’ll need to spend these deathblows wisely, efficiently, and successively.
You’ll serve one up when stealth killing an opponent, which comes in handy against the game’s low-end grunts. However, you’ll want to be mindful of their health bars at all times. Many of the harder enemies have more than one bar, and a deathblow will only remove a portion of their overall health. Whilst you can indeed chip away at this through a well timed aerial attack, or through stealthy ninja-like offense, it’s very rarely worth the trouble. Sure, you’ll catch the beefier foe off-guard, but that means little when surrounded by grunts.
Whatever the case, combat is deep, varied, and technically robust here. I couldn’t possibly go into the fundamentals of all of it without having you here all day. The bottom line? Enemies are plentiful. The moves at your (and their) disposal even more so. Juggling attacks with defense and dodging is like dancing on a tightrope, but it’s a dance you’ll come to learn and love. Strategy and perseverance play equal parts in Sekiro, and you’ll have a much better time with the game if you’re always keeping those two aspects in mind.
The game is hella-deep, meaning that you’ll certainly find a style of play that suits you, but you’ll need to be very forgiving in the meantime. That’s not to mention the high-end foes or the boss battles. Oftentimes, you’ll come up against an opponent with capabilities that are well beyond your own. You’ll need to spend quite a lump of time here as you slowly bring them to their knees and dispose of them. Sadly, due to how the game has been designed, there’s little room to do anything else, especially as far as the game’s bosses are concerned.
Sekiro doesn’t hold back as far as boss variation is concerned, and they’re all as predictably as tough as they come; tougher than any of the developer’s other work. The problem? They gate progress, often blocking off parts of the map that will remain blocked until you overcome said boss. Whilst there’s usually a few other dead-end routes to take in the meantime, you’ll always be shoehorned back to these sections. The whole get good or piss off vibe wont resonate well with everyone, and I suspect this will make or break a few.
It would have been nice to see some more consideration from the developer on this front, but in the grand scheme of things, by the time you meet these foes, you’ll have decided whether or not you’re seeing it through anyway. Still, it does feel cheap at times, and it can be more frustrating than it needs to be. Talking more specifically about the bosses, they’re all as varied and as well designed as any other notable enemy in the game, also coming with their own distinct behavior and attack patterns – most of which will kill you in an instant.
Hell, I died twenty times on boss two alone. No, that’s not an exaggeration. The bosses can be freakishly hard if you don’t pay attention and give the game your complete will. Once again, strategy, timing, and a bucket-load of perseverance will see you through. This is further compounded by Sekiro’s arm, and the vast amount of abilities that eventually come with. The arm is useful not only inside combat, but during traversal too. You don’t get much starting out; a grapple hook that betters movement fluidity, but things do get interesting.
You’ll soon get a flamethrower, a tool that comes in handy for more than one reason, and the likes of being able to smash your foes up with a gigantic powerful axe. There’s a heap of upgrades to work towards, all of which can be assigned via the carpenter. This not only makes the game more entertaining, but it opens it up to allow for more styles of play, and in essence, makes successive boss battles that bit easier. I should point out that you cant perma-upgrade your armor or sword, which is a refreshing change of pace in today’s world.
When you’re not bathing in the game’s deep and intuitive combat systems, you’ll be exploring its lush locales. I would heavily advise taking the time to soak this all up. Much to be expected from the developer, there’s a nice band of hidden goodies to uncover; secret enemies, secret pathways, secret bosses, and so on. The game is laid out in such a way that you can tackle the main quest-line by taking a number of branching pathways. These pathways can allow you to take on fresh challenges, or, circumvent some confrontation.
The choice is yours, and it’s never exhaustive. Like mentioned above, you can take to the fields of play through aggression, or through stealth, and although not every encounter encourages choice, you’ll have more than enough freedom for the most part. Now, as alluded to above, you’re not able to change your weapon, but you can indeed change the abilities of your arm; with up to three choices present at one time. You’re free to swap between these three choices at any time with the click of a button. It truly is a blast of adrenaline fueled fun.
Clearly, there’s a strong focus on getting your hands dirty, however, I found stealth to be most safest of choices from time to time. The grappling hook is essential for stealth, being that you can be taken from floor to rooftop in the blink of an eye, allowing you to get a lay of the land before diving back down and picking off your opposition one at a time. Distraction techniques are present; throwing objects to separate a guard from its pack, the ability to blind enemies by throwing ash in their face, and so forth. Like I said, good and diverse fun.
Outside of that, there’s a skill tree present that you can upgrade along the way. To do this, you’ll need to kill. Killing gains you some EXP that goes towards upgrading the tree, but there’s a kicker; should you die, you’ll lose a large chunk of your earnings. You’ll also lose sen, which is basically your gold. This is used for a lot things; new arm upgrades, new materials, or even gaining information. Worst of all, however, is that when you die, you increase the chances of increasing the world’s dragon-rot. This is a very peculiar system.
Dragon-rot will not harm you, but it will harm the game’s NPCs. That’s naturally a bad thing if you wish to keep buying things or upgrading your arm. When you die a set number of times, you’ll be given a rot essence stone, which roughly tells you who has dragon-rot. Dying is the only way to increase dragon-rot, and this game will have you swimming in it if you let it. Rule of thumb? Play wisely if you want the most options available throughout your adventure, and make good use of the several abilities via your arm and your skill tree.
The game will religiously test and reward you regardless as to which path you take, and given the size of the game’s world, it’s painfully easy to miss out on dozens of secret areas as a result; bolstering replay value. Due to how gorgeous the game’s world is, it never feels like a second job. The details are outstanding, and the variation across the board even more so. Whether you’re in small compact camps, towering structures, or even jaw-dropping temples, Sekiro’s splendor never disappoints. I can say the same about its enemy design.
Whilst the bulk of your grunts and mid-tiered enemies are human, there’s many more enemies besides that are fantastical and suitably outlandish. Some of them scary, some of them freaky, and some of them silly, but they’re all remarkably developed with a great deal of care and attention to detail present. The audio design gets a big thumbs up too, not only coming with stellar voice work, but a score that’s perfect for the journey at hand. If Sekiro has made you even remotely interested through its promotion, pick this up, like, right now.
Those coming here with the expectancy of getting Dark Souls with a feudal Japan skin will be sorely disappointed. Sekiro is much more than that, and if anything, a testament of FROM SOFTWARE’s ability to deliver quality and diversity. Sekiro is a story of revenge, one that merges together fascinating storytelling, deep combat, and wide open traversal to great effect. It’s clearly got what it takes to spark a new franchise, I and truly hope that that’s where the developer focuses much of their wildly talented efforts in the coming years.
Whilst I’ve covered many of the fundamentals, there’s so much I haven’t spoken about. I could dive deeper into the many secrets of the game in its rich world. I could talk more about the upgrades and variation of abilities. I could even jump on discussion regarding the hidden meaning of Sekiro. However, to do that would be to rob you of experiencing a near masterpiece first hand. Take my word for it, this is easily a contender for GotY, furthermore, you’ll come out of it feeling like a freaking Shinobi yourselves when you run it through.
Sekiro is quite simply outstanding. It’s stunning, it’s deep, it’s diverse, and it’s wholly engaging across all aspects of play. However, what truly speaks volumes is the developer’s ability to constantly encourage its players’ capacity for improvement. Here, in Shadows Die Twice, due to its punishing difficulty alone, you’re either all in or you’re all out. If you’re of the latter, you’re missing out on what may well be one of the best games of 2019.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.