Title: SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE
Platform: PS4, XB1, PC
Developer: From Software
Publisher: From Software (JP), Activision (WW)
Release date: 22 Mar 2019
This review was written based on the Japanese release of the game, and may not reflect changes made to versions released in other regions.
Sekiro, having been directed by Souls series creator Miyazaki Hidetaka, immediately has most players ask, due to its pedigree, if it is a Souls game, if not in name. Though information disseminated prior to the game’s release seemed to emphasise it being different to some extent- Miyazaki himself had gone on record saying that the game is heavily influenced by the Tenchu series– The end result, while significantly different from Souls games, will still feel extremely familiar to series veterans, in terms of gameplay, narrative, and even aesthetic.
The changes to gameplay are immediately apparent in how players can jump and have a grappling hook, allowing them to navigate the terrain freely. This means that in the majority of cases, the player does not have to confront enemies head-on, but can assassinate or sneak past them. Even if they do choose to fight the enemies, surveying areas to get an idea of what the opposition is like can help to a great degree.
Combat in Sekiro is typically a faster-paced version of the Souls series’, akin to that of Bloodborne, except with a new focus on “posture”. Both the player and enemies have, in addition to their life bars, a yellow posture bar which goes up as they block attacks, take damage, or get parried. When this bar is maxed out, their guard is broken, which for the player results in a window where they are staggered and open to enemy attacks, and in the cases of enemies allows the player to perform an instant kill.
While the dodging and timing of combat is mostly familiar, the introduction of this new element makes it necessary for players to be more agressive, as the posture bar goes down with time, and the rewards for doing so can be massive- In some cases, the player might even be able to get an instant kill on a boss in half a minute.
Boss battles are balanced around the instant kill mechanic, however, by having multiple life bars- An instant kill will only deplete one health bar, and most bosses have at least two. This also serves as a phase indicator, with bosses using different moves depending on how many life bars they have left.
The player also has multiple new options at their disposal, in the form of special moves, some executed by pressing attack while blocking, others activated on command after assassinating an enemy, and the tools the player character has hidden in his prosthetic arm. Many of the stronger moves, and all of the tools, consume ammunition in the form of Shinto paper dolls which can be obtained from enemy drops or purchased at any statue (the Sekiro equivalent of Souls bonfires). Though dressed in a new skin, however, these work very similarly to Bloodborne’s guns, or weapon arts and magic in Souls, and should feel familiar enough to series veterans.
Finally, one of the biggest additions to the game is the resurrection system: Killing enemies builds up a gauge, and upon death, the player can choose to expand this gauge to come back to life immediately. Against regular enemies, the player can even choose to play dead for some time, and come back once the enemy has their back to them, allowing for an assassination. While the player cannot resurrect multiple times in a row, killing enemies re-enables this option. The game also eventually allows the player to stock multiple resurrections, and while resurrecting multiple times in a row is still not an option, depleting a boss life bar typically does re-enable a resurrection, meaning that a player can die multiple times in a boss fight, as long as it is to different phases.
Though Sekiro does not have levelling, it does have stats and skills. and purchasing of items. Skills the player can learn include both special moves and passive skills such as one that reduces the sound that they make, making stealth easier, or one that improves loot drop rates. Defeating certain important bosses allows the player to increase their attack power (as does another option, which only becomes available in the late game), and finding certain items, some of which are dropped by mid-bosses, increases the player’s health. The equivalent of the Souls’ Estus flask- A healing item with multiple charges which replenishes each time the player rests at a statue- Can be upgraded with more charges by finding items, and can heal more through the player learning specific skills.
Despite the addition of the resurrection system, combat in Sekiro is undeniably tougher than that in the Souls games. This is only applicable, however, to when fighting enemies head-on with no thought or preparation. The majority of bosses and mid-bosses allow the player to approach them in alternate ways: Many will allow the player to assassinate them at least once, reducing their life bars by that many a count, and in addition to this many bosses also have weaknesses to specific tools or items. The game does do its best to hammer this in at the beginning, with eavesdropping on soldiers outright giving the player the information they need to abuse these weaknesses, but weaknesses in the later game become less apparent, and might require experimentation.
Of note is how Sekiro feels like the most “complete” of From Software’s games in some time; Many From games- Not just those in the Souls series, but including some Armored Core titles- Feel like they are missing several pieces. This is not the case with Sekiro, which in both narrative and gameplay feels like they managed to include everything they set out to.
There are a few issues with Sekiro, however. The new game plus mode is mostly underwhelming; Though there are some interesting system-level changes to how posture and blocking works (with the blocking change being optional), the game remains mostly the same, and one cannot help but feel that making more significant changes to the game, such as with different enemy placements or bosses like was done in Dark Souls 2’s NG+ or Armored Core 4 and For Answer’s hard mode, would have made the game a lot better; This combined with the removal of RPG elements means that the replay value of the game is unfortunately noticeably lower than usual.
The single save per character limit remaining is also odd, especially with the game being single player only; While it might be to make it so that a player can only get one ending per playthrough, the reasoning behind this is questionable (especially since PC players can bypass it by simply backing up their saves). This also means that players cannot easily replay boss fights they’ve already won that they might want to, which is especially disappointing given how many of the bosses in Sekiro are a pure delight.
Additionally, the implementation of consumable items and ammunition in the game, given its nature of having the player to retry many times, feels highly flawed. Despite the removal of RPG elements, a player who does not do too well at the game may very well have to end up grinding; Not only to buy ammunition, but also for certain consumable items which are absolutely necessary when confronting certain types of enemies.
Finally, the issues with the camera that were in previous Souls games is not only still present, but exacerbated. The higher speed and addition of jumping results in more cases where the camera goes out of control and removes the player’s lock-on to an enemy, and can be a source of extreme frustration.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice offers Souls fans a high quality experience that is at the same time familiar and refreshingly new, and will not disappoint them. Players unfamiliar with the Souls series however should recognise that Sekiro, like the Souls games, features a very classic feedback loop, reminiscent of 8-bit Megaman, Castlevania or Contra, which might have players have to attempt a boss fight dozens of times, gradually learning what the boss can do and how to handle it, before finally winning; Though published by Activision, the game makes few modern western-style concessions, and players who come in expecting there to be an easy mode might be disappointed by the lack of one.
The Good: A refreshing new twist on Souls-style gameplay, with some of the best boss fights From Software has ever put out. Also has a more distinct and easy-to-follow narrative.
The Bad: Camera and camera-related lock-on issues are worse than ever, and can be a source of extreme frustration when such an issue results in instant death. Replay value is also relatively low.
Conclusion: Sekiro succeeds at turning the Souls formula into a streamlined but not compromised action experience, and is one of the few modern games that allows a player to truly experience the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment from “getting better”.