Review: ‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest entry in developer FromSoftware’s long line of tough-as-nails games, and it may be their most difficult game to date. Though Sekiro is not part of FromSoftware’s Soulsborne series, it does have many of the trademark qualities of a Soulsborne game, filled with dense environments to explore, brutally difficult combat, and spectacular boss fights. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has perfected what FromSoftware has done in its Soulsborne series and set it in an awe-inspiring and mythological re-imagining of Sengoku period Japan, inviting players on an adventure both relentlessly challenging and incredibly gratifying.

Sekiro follows a veteran shinobi known only as The Wolf, on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped lord he was sworn to protect after getting his arm cut off and being left for dead. The Wolf awakens to find he has been armed (pun very much intended) with a sophisticated prosthetic arm that can be fitted with various weapons, though the player can only equip three at a time. Gone is the character customization found in previous FromSoftware titles. Neither Wolf’s appearance or armor can be changed, but there are still plenty of ways to customize your playstyle.

There are many new mechanics introduced in Sekiro that haven’t been in previous FromSoftware titles, allowing for varied playstyles. Players can rush into combat like in previous Soulsborne games, but now they also have the option to take a stealthier approach. The Wolf can hide in tall grass and sneak up behind enemies to perform special takedowns, offering a more meticulous way to dispatch enemies. Wolf’s prosthetic arm comes equipped with a grappling hook, creating a verticality to exploration not seen in previous Soulsborne games. One of the more significant new mechanics is how the game deals with death. In the Souls series, when the player’s character died, they lost their souls, the in-game currency used to level up and buy equipment, and had a chance to regain their souls but ran the risk of losing them permanently if they died before retrieving them. When the player dies in Sekiro, they automatically lose half of their accumulated experience and gold but there is a new system which allows the player to resurrect, giving them a second chance without losing anything. Be careful though, if you die too many times, a mysterious illness called Dragonrot spreads to the various characters in the world.

Veterans of the Soulsborne series may find themselves having to forget the instincts they learned while making their way through those games. Where the Dark Souls series encouraged you to keep your shield up and roll to avoid certain attacks, Sekiro does the opposite. While you can still dodge attacks, the game encourages you to face enemies more aggressively, and deflect incoming attacks with your sword. Enemies also sometimes unleash attacks that cannot be blocked, marked by a bright red Kanji symbol above their head. You must jump out of the way or get hit with a large amount of damage. Arguably, the most important mechanic surrounding combat is something called Posture. Both the Wolf and enemies have a posture bar during combat which when filled, staggers the person and opens them to a death blow. It’s hard to initially forget your instincts but once you do, you immediately feel like you stand a better chance.

The boss fights in Sekiro are some of the most memorable battles that FromSoftware have created. Whether you’re fighting a horse-mounted general on a corpse-strewn battlefield, taking on an illusion-creating shinobi in a temple engulfed in flames, or panicking as a samurai rains lightning down upon you, each boss fight feels unique and spectacular. Even if the boss fights are unforgivably difficult, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of satisfaction you feel when you finally defeat one that’s been giving you a particularly hard time.

The narrative of Sekiro is told differently than previous FromSoftware games. The Soulsborne games told vague stories that were open to interpretation, leaving it to the player to piece together the story through item descriptions and character dialogue. Sekiro, however, tells its story more conventionally, and strikes an ideal balance between clear story beats and mysteries to be solved.

I’ve been a massive fan of FromSoftware’s games since the release of Demon’s Souls way back in 2009 so I might be a bit biased, but I absolutely love this game. Sekiro is unflinchingly difficult and at times frustrating, especially if you’re not familiar with FromSoftware’s previous titles, but it’s also an immensely gratifying experience. It teaches players a harsh lesson: that attacking with reckless abandon will bring nothing but death, but studying your opponent and striking at just the right moment will bring a thrilling sense of victory because you won with skill rather than button-mashing. With a combat system that gets better and deeper the more you master it and a breathtaking setting to explore, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is everything you could want in a FromSoftware game. 10/10

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

(Photo: FromSoftware/Activision)

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