I have to admit that when I loaded up Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice I didn’t know exactly what to expect. As you have likely heard, this title was developed by the same team that gave us the ambrosia that is the Souls series, FromSoftware, and was published by Activision. I kept myself in a bit of a media blackout outside of screenshots and its release date so I could enjoy a truly unspoiled experience. Let me tell you, it was worth it. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of the Souls series and Bloodborne, consider this an open thank-you letter.
As the Story Goes…
We enter the story as a Shinobi in feudal-era Japan tasked with the protection of his young lord. Not long after, our main character, Wolf, is attacked and rendered unarmed by an enemy warrior. The rival leaves us bloodied and dying in the moonlight, short one young lord and one left arm.
He awakens in a run-down temple apparently rescued by a elderly man. Sekiro, raises his left arm to see a prosthetic replacement. The old man, who is referred to as The Sculptor, tells Sekiro that he was the one who dragged him here and affixed the prosthetic arm to his almost-corpse. This is where the game truly begins.
So let’s get this out of the way right now. If you want a Dark Souls clone, well, this isn’t it. If you want to hear about a genuinely good game then keep reading. It will make Souls veterans nostalgic and reminisce, though, as FromSoftware did carry over several mechanics from their previous franchise.
Sekiro incorporates aspects of action and stealth, depending on your personal method of “taking care of business.” Honestly, it reminds me a lot of the Metal Gear series if someone dropped it in Japan a few days and several hundred years ago. Sometimes stealth is the answer and other times I just want to chop things.
Movement and mobility play a large part in Sekiro. Soon after beginning, you are given the ability to grapple-hook to certain points in the environment. These are usually high points such as trees and the top of structures.
You also have the ability to traverse the environment by jumping, wall-jumping, swimming, and sprinting. This allows you different options when getting around, approaching enemies and even handy escape routes when you aren’t quite “gud” enough. Fortunately, there isn’t a stamina gauge to worry about.
Simply exploring and running around in this game is so much fun. The grappling system transitions gracefully from running to jumping to “Tarzan-ing” across valleys. Every creak of a tree trunk and rush of air as you sail across expanses makes the simple action feel so thrilling.
The combat requires timing and attention, so sword-and-boarding isn’t going to work here you strength mains. Attacking the enemy reduces their posture as they block attacks and lowers their vitality when they receive hits. You have posture as well, and it is drained by blocking too many hits in succession. Vitality is their health, but it also affects how quickly their posture recovers. Once an enemy’s posture drops to zero, they are open to a Dealthblow. This is an attack that will kill an enemy immediately, however stronger enemies and bosses will require multiple Deathblows to defeat.
Mashing the attack button isn’t going to cut it either as enemies can deflect your attacks and reply with a variety of their own. Thrusts, sweeps, grabs, and special attacks all require their own answer. You will have to decide if blocking, deflecting, dodging, or something else entirely is the best solution for the situation at hand.
Reactions and reading attacks plays a big part in this game. Simply mashing dodge and block will only get you so far. Learning to deflect proficiently will make combat much easier.
Sometimes the solution is a stealth attack. When approaching an enemy without being seen, Sekiro is able to perform a stealth attack. This stealth Deathblow will kill most enemies with a single attack. It can be performed crouching, hanging from a ledge, or falling upon the enemy.
The stealth aspect is very forgiving in this game, especially after attaining upgrades in it. With that being said, it does become trite when revisiting areas. After a single upgrade, it’s very possible to rush thru previous areas, stealth killing most of the enemies and fighting the rest in a few minutes.
Which is actually fine, great even. This is very conducive to grinding, a core aspect of FromSoftware’s gameplay. Furthermore, since the combat is so well designed and smooth, it’s easy to learn enemy behavior and chop thru them if you prefer a more aggressive approach. Either way, you’re going to have fun.
Oh man. The bosses don’t play around this time. If you don’t know what you’re doing or run in without a plan then you’re going to have a long day.
Most bosses have either a method to cheese, a weakness, or both. There is dialog hidden before bosses that give you hints on how to defeat them. Even still, each boss is an ordeal and will require your attention and reflexes to overcome. With that being said, each major boss is exciting, frustrating, and satisfying as all get-out when you finally defeat them.
It is fortunate that most of the bosses are situated fairly close to Sculptor’s Idols. So when you die, it is only a skip and a hop away from another brisk death.
A Real Hands-On Experience
Speaking of hands, our Shinobi’s prosthetic arm also doubles as a swiss-army knife of death and mobility!
The prosthetic arm is more than a bold fashion choice, it has the before mentioned grappling hook built in to help our Shinobi reach distant points and traverse the environment. It can also be modded with different Shinobi Tools to aid in battle. The tools can range from throwing shurikens to hit distant foes, a stout ax to destroy shields, or even a flamethrower. Each of which is limited by the number of Spirit Emblems you have.
Reminiscent of Souls games, Sekiro can upgrade his skills and take several other actions at rest points called Sculptor’s Idols. These idols are statues of a kneeling four-armed man praying lit with a blue flame.
Resting and Healing
As you may have guessed, communing with the Sculptor’s Idols will completely restore your vitality and cause most defeated enemies to respawn and return to their original location. Resting also refills your Healing Gourd which is you primary means of healing other than single use items. The Healing Gourd has a limited number of uses between refills, so be aware. However, its capacity can be upgraded with special items found in your travels.
When communing with these idols, skills can be unlocked via the skill tree. There are three different types of skills: Latent, Combat Martial, and Shinobi. Latent skills are passive and give you a constant buff like increasing the effectiveness of healing items or your stealthiness. Combat Martial skills are powerful special attacks that can used during combat. Shinobi skills vary, some unlock techniques in battle, special counters, or blocking in mid-air, while others give you movement options like sprinting into a crouch.
You can purchase skills with skill points. When you fill the experience bar you are awarded a skill point. These points can then be used to purchase skills of varying cost. Every time the experience bar fills and awards you a point, it resets.
Sculptor Idols can be used to fast-travel to other idols you have found. This option is available as soon as you find your second idol. They also act as a checkpoint upon death. When you die you will be transported to the last idol you rested at. Lastly, you can use Sen, the game’s currency, to purchase Spirit Emblems. Like I mentioned earlier, Spirit Emblems are basically points used to perform special actions like advanced Combat Martial skills, using your Shinobi Prosthetic Tool, and some other abilities.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has a several mechanics incorporated that revolve around death. You will become well acquainted with these aspects as you will be dying a lot. This game isn’t afraid to kill you.
Losing Money and Experience
A few of you will be relieved to know that not all of your experience will be lost upon death. Skill points can’t be lost, but half of the experience bar between points is lost when you die. Half of your currency, Sen, will be lost as well.
I think this is a good change. It’s punishing, but not in the soul-darkening way that is losing a boss’ worth of souls like in the previous franchise.
An interesting mechanic introduced in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is Dragonrot. Having a tough time with battles and find yourself dying often? Well, FromSoftware has some salt to rub into that open wound.
If you die too often, NPCs may become afflicted with Dragonrot. They will begin to cough, wheeze, and generally look sick. This will cause their side-quests to be locked until they are cured. Dragonrot can be cured with Dragon’s Blood Droplets. They can be bought from shops, but be careful as they are a finite resource. Plan ahead and carefully decide who you want to cure.
Or, just don’t die. Good luck with that.
Upon death you have the option of resurrecting immediately or simply dying and returning to the last idol you rested at. You begin with two chances to resurrect that can be used whenever you die, even mid-combat. One is restored whenever you rest at a Sculptor’s Idol and the other is refilled gradually as you defeat enemies. Don’t get careless though, there is a cooldown time between revives that is removed as you perform more Deathblows.
Don’t worry, resurrecting upon death won’t increase the chances of spreading Dragonrot. Only true death, dying and reviving at a Sculptor’s Idol, does that.
Losing Unseen Aid
Unseen Aid is your chance of not being punished upon death. Although low, there is a percentage chance Unseen Aid will prevent the loss of experience and Sen when you die. However, with every person afflicted with Dragonrot you will receive an item called Rot Essence that is tied to a specific individual. Having these Rot Essences in your inventory will decrease your Unseen Aid chance slightly. The only way to remove these Rot Essences from your inventory is to cure the afflicted individual.
Graphics and Design
Not much to say here that we didn’t expect. FromSoftware developed this jewel so it’s going to shine like one. The graphics are top notch and the animations are smooth. The environments vary and each area stands out nicely with their own style. On more than one occasion I found myself staring into the distant background admiring the view.
The design blends together well. From the magic carp fish to the weird guy talking out of a jar, every aspect of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice feels natural and fitting.
The music sets the mood just right for Sekiro. When exploring the “less is more” music style creates a sweet melancholy that matches the tone of the game excellently. It doesn’t contrast with the gameplay, instead creating a lovely white-noise to explore to.
The music does take a upturn when in combat. The tempo swells and the score becomes heavy with stringed music that shifts well back into the usual calm tones. It’s useful to quickly determine when enemies have lost interest in pursuing you after being spotted.
Whether in combat or exploring, the music is enjoyable. Subtle yet effective, and seems very fitting for the setting.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a great game through and through. It’s a blast to play and it’s gorgeous to watch. It’s different from what Souls veterans may be used to, but the core is still there. The bitterness of death and the pride of an earned victory are ingrained into this title just as much any FromSoftware product.
Movement is fluid and fun, whether I’m jumping around or evading enemies. Every encounter requires my attention, no matter how small. Enemy encounters, either stealthy or combative, are always enjoyable. Not to mention, there’s so much to explore.
There’s very little negatives that can be said about this game. It’s slightly more forgiving, in a way, than the Souls series seeing as only half of your Sen and “loose” experience points are lost upon death, which is mitigated by two resurrections. This could be a good aspect, however, opening up the game to a more fast-paced, action-oriented audience. I see it as less stressful, but still punishing. It might also save a few controllers from getting thrown out a window.
So, what do you think? Are you a Souls veteran that played Sekiro or are you completely new to FromSoftware’s games? Tell us how you feel about it and all the puns I made.