It’s adapting to the combat, while dealing with a couple of tough mini-bosses in one of the earlier areas, where Sekiro hits its wall – that equivalent of the main street in Bloodborne where you convince yourself that the game is completely unfair and impossible to beat. But even though it seems that way, it’s not. Everything relies on split-second reactions that are exactly the right counter to the incoming attack, and that gives the combat a degree of formalisation that the other Soulsborne games do not impose.
Many encounters in Sekiro last only seconds, if you only count the moments when swords clash, recalling many a classic samurai film where minutes of posturing and positioning end in a sudden explosion of violence. But once you do break through that wall it’s easy to argue that Sekiro is slightly easier than its stablemates. Because not only do your enemies require more than one deathblow to kill but so do you, giving you an optional second chance in any battle.
Sekiro has a direct equivalent of bonfires that you are returned to when you die, resurrecting all nearby non-boss enemies and robbing you of half your accumulated experience points and money. But unlike Soulsborne there’s no way to recover it except for a random chance that will decrease the more you die.
This will frustrate many, but in most other respects the game is slightly more accommodating than Dark Souls or Bloodborne. Not only are bonfires more numerous but Sekiro goes to the trouble to carefully explain all its mechanics and allows you the chance to practice and train in safe areas. Although it is disappointing that there is no multiplayer element at all, in terms of co-op help, useful messages, or competitive modes.
Although there are no character classes or stats you do earn experience and level up, with multiple skill trees full of extra abilities to unlock. It’s this which the harsh punishments for death make difficult though, as you’re often left unsure how much you can actually achieve without upgrading and whether you should be trying to use stealth – which is not explicitly rewarded in terms of experience – more than combat to proceed.
Persevere with the game and its logic does become clearer and more palatable though, even as the difficultly level ramps up further. The punishment for death does create a certain inconsistency in the level of accessibility, in what might have been the perfect game for FromSoftware neophytes, but the only other issue is the sometimes unpredictable and illogical enemy artificial intelligence. Although the problem is no more acute than in most other stealth games.
Some might be upset that Sekiro is more restrained in terms of enemy design than a Soulsborne game, but while the majority of enemies are human there’s some memorably bizarre creatures and the art design still shares a haunting melancholy with its stablemates – the natural beauty of the landscapes juxtaposed by the violence and evil of its human inhabitants.
Sekiro requires a mixture of patience, trial and error, and careful observation that few other games would dare to ask from its players. But the depth of the challenge is equalled by the intensity of the elation when you do finally conquer an enemy. You never do so by luck or accident and in Sekiro the ultimate reward is not a cut scene or new in-game gadget but the knowledge that you have overcome overwhelming odds entirely though your own skill. As FromSoftware have proven before, it’s the hardest won victories that taste the sweetest.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
In Short: Its demands on players is as great as any FromSoftware game but persevere and Sekiro reveals itself as the most rewarding and nuanced ninja game in decades.
Pros: Intense combat is as thrilling as it is punishing, with versatile stealth mechanics and an interesting array of unlockable gadgets and special abilities. Typically excellent level and art design.
Cons: The punishment for death is extreme, even for a FromSoftware game. Some questionable artificial intelligence and no multiplayer.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 22nd March 2019
Age Rating: 18
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