Within the first minutes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, there’s no missing the fact that FromSoftware has built its Shinobi-focused adventure from the DNA of the Souls and Bloodborne series. But this new mutated strain is as much its own stealth-action experience, one that’s more focused, cohesive, and in some ways forgiving, despite retaining its predecessors’ trademark difficulty. As I rolled credits after 50 hours of pressurized-blood-geyser executions, fantastical monster fights, split-second swordsmanship, and sprawling, secret-filled areas, I’m left with a deep appreciation for this amazing journey and the skills it demands to master it.
To any Souls veteran, Sekiro’s timing-based lock-on combat of strikes and slashes is familiar, as is the way you weave through the same excellently designed levels that snake, interconnect, and double back on themselves to reveal new shortcuts between little bastions of safety to resupply. Functionally equivalent to bonfires from Dark Souls, or Lanterns in Bloodborne, the Sculptor’s Idols are where you’ll rest, recover your healing draughts, reset slain enemies, access your character progression, and of course, teleport between them for a snappy fast travel.
While I certainly enjoy punishing games that test me and my skills (and have proudly bested everything FromSoftware has thrown at me in this genre) there’s a sense of empowerment that comes from Sekiro’s generally more forgiving nature. For example, due to the seemingly smaller, more linear paths relative to the sprawling hellscapes of other FromSoftware games, I never felt like I had to go too far to find the next Idol and bank my progress. That regular cadence relieves a lot of the oppressive anxiety in wondering if all your work will be taken from you before you can make it to the next checkpoint, and once or twice I simply sprinted through an area, assuming an Idol was just on the other side. It usually was. That relieving sense of safety in Sekiro allowed me to appreciate the mechanical complexities of it in a way I couldn’t if I was terrified of taking any chances. It’s not something I’d wish for every game of this genre to embrace, but it’s refreshing and new.
Go Your Own Way
There’s a sense of empowerment that comes from Sekiro’s generally more forgiving nature.
Though many of the mechanics and level design philosophies of this mystical take on Japan’s Sengoku period (between 1467 and 1615) are nearly identical to the formula laid out previously, Sekiro is immediately its own beast when it comes to stealth, combat, and movement thanks to a Swiss-army-knife of a prosthetic arm strapped to your titular Shinobi character. Its most apparent trick is a built-in grappling hook that can send you flying to the rooftops at a whim, which sends ripples throughout the gameplay. Where all previous Soulsborne characters felt rooted firmly to the ground as they trudged down hallways and slowly climbed ladders, Sekiro’s level design has permission to be much more vertical. Between jumping and zip-lining between anchors, that sense that you’re only ever a dead end away from being cornered, overwhelmed, and murdered in some dark alcove is an almost non-existent concern. When I got into trouble, there was almost always a way out if I thought like a ninja instead of a knight.
And this new mobility reinforces the stealth elements of Sekiro, allowing you to get into advantageous positions for silent assassinations, quickly escape danger and hide to reset a botched encounter, or just explore the varied grounded and mythical environments. When I first reached Anor Londo in Dark Souls or Yharnam in Bloodborne, the sheer scope of the cities was astounding. When I first set foot in the Ashina Castle complex, I was struck with the same sense of wonder but also completely blown away when I learned I could zip between buildings and rooftops for unprecedented freedom in a FromSoftware megacity. Speeding up the process of exploration was a thrilling change of pace.
That same feeling extends to sneaking and battling through the mist-covered forests of the Ashina Depths, and the sheer frozen cliff faces of the Sunken Valley, that make up a small part of the journey through Sekiro. With this freedom, complex environments like these take on an almost platformer-like carefree fun rather than the familiar sense of imposing dread that these places are yet another obstacle in your way. Sure, they’re still loaded with things that want to kill you, but your liberating movement helps to expose the world as a place that isn’t maliciously adding to the pain of getting from one point to the next.
Don’t worry: some of FromSoftware’s worldbuilding staples still make the cut in Sekiro: the bottomless pit, the poisonous (dare I say Blighttown-like) pools in the depths of the Earth, and the pitch-black dungeon in the castle underbelly are all comfort food for the faithful. But the moments spent carefully navigating these damnable places are balanced by the sun-kissed surface where swinging between trees and buildings is revitalizing.
And, as the subtitle “Shadows Die Twice” suggests, that focus on freedom extends beyond death. As an undying Shinobi, you’re gifted with the ability to resurrect yourself upon death, though this comes with a number of considerations that make doing so a decision you have to consider carefully each time. The foundation is essentially thus: if you die, you just lose half the experience and currency you’ve collected – and you no longer have the option to run to your corpse to collect your dropped goods. (The only exception to this is a mechanic called Unseen Aid, which is essentially divine intervention giving you a penalty-free death.)
If you die, you lose half the experience and currency you’ve collected.
This is where things get tricky. Every time you rest at an Idol you’re given a single-use resurrection (you can normally have a max of one at a time) which you can decide to use once you’ve been struck down – and you will be. Sekiro is, after all, a FromSoftware game, and death is part of the learning experience. But if you die a second time before reaching another Idol there’s a chance your tampering with the divine forces of resurrection will cause the cosmic disease called Dragon Rot to affect NPCs throughout the world. In the fiction, these characters become visibly sick, but the mechanical cost is that your chance to trigger Unseen Aid will be reduced, each time degrading from the maximum of 30% until you hit the minimum of 5%, mitigating that hail Mary effect on death.
It’s an effective reminder that there are still consequences for dying, but because there are ways to bank your money and you don’t lose experience once you’ve reached certain thresholds that convert experience into skill points, the danger is relatively slim. Early on, I just accepted that dying meant losing half my unbanked experience and currency and so I was never bothered by the penalty. To me, the forgiving nature of Sekiro that allows you to usually get out of a bad situation meant that if I let myself die, I probably could have avoided it, and losing my resources was mostly my fault. And in the event Unseen Aid triggered, well, it was just a nice surprise. Since Sekiro is less about managing your resources than it is about raw skill with a sword, I can appreciate the penalty keeping me honest, while also appreciating that I wasn’t truly hamstrung by zigging when I should have zagged.
There are ways to use additional resurrections beyond the first, tied to killing enemies or bosses with deathblow attacks and are fairly self-explanatory once you get into the swing of things thanks to Sekiro’s uncharacteristic penchant for explaining its mechanics in a way Dark Souls or Bloodborne never did.
In the end, the real decision-making I would wring my hands over when it came to whether or not I should resurrect upon death boiled down to whether or not I thought I could finish a fight I’d lost, based on my supplies and the state of my opponent. If I’d whittled him down to next to nothing, then I’d pop back up to finish the job; but if I’d used most of my healing draughts without doing much damage to my killer there’d be no reason to rise from defeat. I’d take my death on the chin and try again, this time with a little more knowledge of what not to do.
In a first for a game of this type from FromSoftware, Sekiro is an entirely single-player experience, and that has both advantages and disadvantages. The most immediately noticeable pro is that, due to the fact there’s no persistent multiplayer, you’re able to pause mid-fight, which is its own second chance mechanic, in a way. Did you miss a dodge and eat the full brunt of a poison attack? No problem – hit pause, use an antidote item, and get back to it without having to fumble through your inventory as you’re dodging for your life. That ability to call timeout and tend to your ailing status sucks a lot of the venom out of a tough battle.
That said, I do at times miss the small notes left by others in the world alerting me to imminent threats or hidden secrets, or that vague sense that danger lurks behind me in the form of an invading player. But Sekiro is a more streamlined experience, and more direct, meaning the value of player-placed clues would already be mitigated, so the loss isn’t felt as strongly as I’d feared it would be.
The real disappointment is the lack of PvP battles, which seems like a waste of the new emphasis on skill-based swordsmanship. It’s not quite as in-depth as something like For Honor, but I could see a unique community evolving around the rock-paper-scissors formula, with sword fights between rival player-Shinobi lasting minutes at a time.
Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword
When you’re not skulking around looking to get the drop on your enemies to score easy kills with stylishly gory execution animations that spray gushes of blood in every direction like a rotating lawn sprinkler, the emphasis of Sekiro’s combat is on skill-based swordsmanship that requires a mastery of an excellent new rock-paper-scissors countering system. While parries and dodges have always had an organic feel in Bloodborne and the Souls series, in Sekiro they’re much more heavily emphasized and crucial to finding any measure of success against enemies big and small.
Sekiro’s combat is skill-based swordsmanship that requires a mastery of an excellent new countering system.
Peppered in with the standard fare of attacks are specific thrusts, sweeps, and grapples that are difficult, if not impossible, to simply block or dodge. But these, of course, come with the fairness of telegraph animations, with a literal big red sign for DANGER appearing on screen and giving you a split second to figure out what’s coming and how to counter this specific type of attack. Thrust attacks must be deflected or redirected, sweep attacks must be jumped over, and grapples must be step-dodged. Done properly, it becomes a regularly thrilling exchange of clashing blades, precision timing, and tactics that looks as great in action as it feels to execute.
There’s a steep curve to mastering it, though, because the timing windows between telegraph and delivery are so varied and often so narrow. But once I overwrote my reactionary muscle memory of just trying to get the hell out of dodge when I saw a big attack coming I found a simple beauty in being able to stand toe-to-toe with any enemy. It took a while, for sure, to let that sink in. But after I was beaten to death dozens of times for instinctually dodging backward when my attack was blocked, I finally started to realize that standing your ground and living by the sword meant I would die less often (also by the sword). And when a 15-foot-tall monstrosity swings 10 times at you in quick succession and you’re able to not just block but deflect the flurry of attacks, there’s a sense you’re the greatest swordsman that ever lived.
Once I overwrote my muscle memory I found a simple beauty in being able to stand toe-to-toe with any enemy.
And in time, this process actually makes Sekiro more forgiving and somewhat easier than its predecessors. In part, that’s because as you appropriately counter the attacks of towering monsters and impossibly lethal assassins they’re almost always left open to attack immediately afterward. You’ve got a guaranteed window to punish them if you can pull it off, which is reassuring to know when you’ve locked swords with a seemingly invincible enemy for the first time.
Beating your enemies into submission with raw damage alone isn’t the only option, however, because Sekiro introduces variety in ways to take down opponents with the idea of posture: composure during a fight that’s effectively a second, parallel health bar. As you exchange attacks and counters, both you and your opponents will chip away at one another’s posture meter. When you do unblocked damage, you degrade their posture. When you deflect their attacks, you degrade their posture. And when they block your attacks, you’re degrading their posture. This means that enemies who constantly block – never allowing you to chip away at their health – can still be taken down because when you eventually break their posture they’re immediately open to a deathblow.
This system reinforces the idea of standing toe-to-toe being the best way to fight because let’s say you deflect an attack, cut them with an unblocked quick slash, and then swing another blow toward them that they block. Sure, you only did a small amount of damage, but all three actions degraded their posture. Keep up that pressure and you’ll find your sword in their neck in no time, which means that fights never feel like they could drag on forever. One way or another, even a fight between perfectly matched adversaries will have a victor.
Sekiro continuously throws a variety of unique and challenging enemies at you that reliably ratchet up the pressure and complexity.
Not all enemies need to be bested with martial prowess. Occasionally, I’d come across a monster that simply hit too hard, or too wildly, to risk attempting deflections with any consistency – as was the case with one particularly nasty giant headless ape. In these times, the old reliable tactic of sprinting in circles around it until it swung big and missed gave me the opportunity to quickly stab it in the back over and over and over. Old habits die hard.
Which route you take to get the kill matters less when facing the rank-and-file threats – they quickly die in a shower of gore when you apply constant attacks – but Sekiro continuously throws a variety of unique and challenging enemies at you that reliably ratchet up the pressure and complexity. Whether it’s a corrupted monk with a massive halberd, a twisted quadrupedal monster with Wolverine claws for hands, expert swordsmen, one-armed ninjas, gun-toting hill people, or supernatural threats from the other side, taking down each enemy means different tactics, and there’s rarely much overlap. Learning their moves and abilities becomes a tricky dance of flexibility, and while there are less than a dozen Bosses – those with a capital B – the world is positively lousy with high-health, highly capable minibosses that serve as skill-checks to keep you on your toes and your reflexes sharp.
Tools of the Trade
Relative to its predecessors, Sekiro’s character progression is admirably streamlined. There are no attributes or numbers to build up by grinding Souls or Blood. You don’t increase your Strength to do more damage – there’s no Strength. Instead, your Vitality (health) and Attack Power (damage) only increase as you receive and spend key items you earn by taking down bosses and difficult enemies (of which there are a finite amount, though ways to further inflate toward the end do exist). There are no real weapons to find, or armor to acquire. Outside of – outside of one or two others that serve a purpose in the story, you’ll use the same trusty katana from the start of this 50-hour adventure to the finish.
Sekiro places emphasis on getting better with what you can do rather than looking for another weapon or piece of armor.
In this way, you already have the foundation to succeed in Sekiro, which places emphasis on getting better with what you can do rather than looking for another weapon or piece of armor to complete some gear-check gimmicky encounter. What fun and varied functionality new weapons and armor would add to the gameplay is mirrored in the inventive prosthetic tools, so the experience of finding new mechanical advantages throughout the adventure isn’t lost entirely.
Instead of buying attribute points, the experience you earn is cashed into Skill Points which you spend on a robust, tiered, multi-page skill tree that allows you to unlock passive skills like a more potent stealth for easier assassinations. You might buy the ability to recover health when performing a deathblow (which is hands-down one of the most valuable passive skills I’ve gotten in Sekiro) or increase the max number of Spirit Emblems you can hold, which allows you to make more frequent use of your prosthetic tools.
For active skills, there are a wealth of combat maneuvers like devastating posture-pounding strikes, lightning-fast flurries of slashes, secret sword techniques that kill in the blink of an eye, and so many more. There are, in fact, a staggering number of abilities, skills, and combat techniques to unlock and, incredibly, each one I used felt unique and useful, even if only in specific situations.
Similarly, the prosthetic limb can be outfitted with a number of different gadgets that must first be found in the world and then upgraded with precious materials. These tools really open up your options as you go, and like the aforementioned combat skills, many serve a distinct purpose. The Firecrackers, for example, can startle beasts, which is helpful when you’re attacked by a pack of wolves, face an enemy mounted on a horse, or come face to face with a flaming bull on a rampage. Alternatively, the Loaded Spear is great for pulling weaker enemies toward you to keep them in range, and can also strip loose-fitting armor off of foes – though this never really seemed to be much of an occurrence. The Flamethrower says what it is and does what it says, but it’s more than a straightforward damage-over-time device because certain rage-prone foes fear only fire, so blowing a pipe full of flames in their face leaves them open to follow up attacks.
Firecrackers, for example, can startle beasts, which is helpful when you’re attacked by a pack of wolves.
Some of these tools seem more universal than others: the always-handy Shuriken is essential for consistent long-range damage, and the Mist Raven Feather that lets you phase through enemy attacks and reappear next to, behind, or above them for some life-saving distance and an unprotected vantage point got me out of countless jams. Others, like the Loaded Umbrella that blocks incoming projectiles or the Loaded Axe that smashes shields to splinters, are supremely useful, vital even, in their narrow, intended purpose, and rarely outside of that.
These tools also come with their own excellent upgrade trees that require precious resources to build into but produce better and better versions of themselves. That Loaded Umbrella is still useful by default, but when you upgrade it to negate all damage from apparitions – which cause the Terror status that will instantly kill you if you take too much – it’s a game-changer. Though expensive, when you finally build some of these up to tier two, three, or four tools and combine them with unlockable skills, they’re absolutely devastating in a way that’s not only flexible but regularly fun in seeing what lethal synergies between tools, skills, and abilities you can come up with.
World at War
While there’s no shortage of rich Japanese atmosphere in the background, Sekiro’s story is where I connected with it the least. On the one hand, it’s a much more straightforward tale than FromSoftware usually deals in, as your undying, one-armed Shinobi dutifully serves, protects, and endlessly murders at the behest of your master, a child Divine Heir blessed with immortality. On the other, because Sekiro is much more linear in its tasks, because the characters actually speak to you in coherent sentences and give you direction, and because there are ample clues and hints throughout the world that let you draw correct conclusions, it’s easy to blow through the journey without ever needing to stop and ponder, as I’ve come to expect in a FromSoftware game.
While Sekiro starts out like a work of historical fiction it quickly takes a hard turn into the mystical and supernatural.
That’s not something that’s inherently bad – far from it – but I realized that through the majority of the time I was playing Sekiro I was just doing what other people told me to do. I wasn’t discovering or uncovering or deciding what needed to be done, I was given orders and I’d follow them to the letter until the next set of orders, and so on, as though they’d accompanied each demand with a “Would you kindly?” Until I finally got to the point about X way through the campaign where I started making key decisions that changed the course of the story and determined which of the possible endings I’d see, I was feeling a bit powerless over my fate.
And while Sekiro starts out like a work of historical fiction in a bloody but atmospheric period of Japanese history, in typical FromSoftware fashion it quickly takes a hard turn into the mystical and supernatural. Granted, it has to, since resurrection is a core feature and all existing scientific data points suggests that 15th-century Japanese people couldn’t actually do that, but it’s done so in a way that’s both relatively grounded in reality and rooted in actual mythology, which I genuinely appreciate. These incredible environments ripped straight from myth and legend regularly overshadow the actual story in a welcome, compensatory way. Moments of traipsing through divine gardens, reliving memories from the past, and tangling with fantastical beasts all deliver a unified vision of a world that straddles this plane and the next, and I loved it. The vibrant, colorful sights and moody, atmospheric sounds create a varied world, set to a period-appropriate soundtrack that’s equal parts calming and haunting.
Though Sekiro is overall a less obtuse FromSoftware experience and things are more straightforward, the world still retains much of that mystery that makes these games so engaging. You’ll find an item with seemingly no purpose or hear a rumor of a sword that can open a portal to the afterlife, or maybe just see a building on a cliff that doesn’t seem reachable. When I solved some of these riddles I was bound to Sekiro in the same excellent way as I was bound to Bloodborne when I finally saw the unseeable, or helped Solaire become so grossly incandescent in Dark Souls. And perhaps as importantly, the nagging clues I’ve uncovered and yet to solve will stoke the fires of my run into the New Game+.
Sekiro evolves From Software’s formula into a stylish stealth-action adventure that, naturally, emphasizes precision and skill in its combat. It walks the line between deliberate and patient stealth and breakneck melee combat against threats both earthly and otherworldly. Its imaginative and flexible tools support a more focused experience that shaves down some of From Software’s overly cryptic sensibilities without losing its air of mystery. Sekiro is an amazing new twist on a familiar set of ideas that can stand on its own alongside its predecessors.
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