I have never been able to get into Dark Souls and to be even more honest, Bloodborne bored me but I have a lot of admiration for the work and world building of FromSoftware so when I first saw the reveal trailer for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, my interest was more than a little peaked. I have always had a fondness for feudal Japan, so when the trailer showed that this was indeed the setting of Sekiro I finally felt that this could be the title to finally win me over and win me over it did, in quite a surprising way!
In the run up to the games release on March 22nd, I was still very nervous about the prospect of attempting another FromSoftware title considering how poorly I enjoyed both the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne. I had delved into other Souls style games which did appeal more to my nerdiness such as The Surge and Nioh, with the latter really grabbing me. But they were Souls like games, not true FromSoftware games which are quite frankly the benchmark for this now genre of games. But everything I saw and was learning about Sekiro just kept ticking boxes for me from the main character to the Japanese setting to the differences in gameplay which would set Sekiro apart from the other iconic gaming series Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
Set in 16th Century Japan at the end of the Sengoku era, the game opens at the successful coup takeover of the Ashina lands by the Warlord Isshin Ashina. A Shinobi named Owl is walking through the battlefield where he comes across a young boy and is intrigued when this boy does not flinch when he runs the edge of his blade across the boy’s face. Owl decides to take the boy into his care, to train him as a Shinobi and raise him as his own. The game then skips two decades, and twenty years later the young Wolf is now a fully trained Shinobi, but the now old Isshin is weak, and his clan is close to ruin forces Isshin’s grandson, the General Genichiro to try and kidnap the Divine Heir Kuro, the boy that Wolf is sworn to protect by the code of the Shinobi, that should his Lord be taken, a Shinobi must do whatever it takes to bring him home. But the game actually starts off with Wolf at the bottom of a well, weaponless and seemingly having given up on life itself and is simply waiting for the end when a mysterious woman who drops a message down the well, reminding the Shinobi of his duty which does enough to make him stand up, and escape the well.
The immediate difference players familiar with more traditional FromSoftware games, is that the first couple of hours of Sekiro are actually a full-on tutorial which is a first as most often players are simply put into the world of Dark Souls or Bloodborne and pretty much have to work things and the world out for themselves. This can be put down to have very different the movement and combat is in Sekiro but to actually have that early safety net from the start really makes this game far more welcoming to new players as well as helping more experienced Souls game players adjust to the changes. Now some have mistaken this new approach to mean Sekiro is far easier to play than previous FromSoftware games but that would be a mistake, and one I will come back to a bit later on.
Movement is now more in line with action adventure games as players can now finally jump properly which gives a new range of agility for players to use to traverse and explore areas as well as in combat. As someone very used to playing traditional action adventure games, this feels very natural whereas Souls and Bloodborne felt very restrictive to me so to have this new freedom is very refreshing. Not to mention the addition of the grapple rope, giving the ability to grapple across spaces but also to high points on structures giving a new verticality to the map areas. Such freedom really is a big game changer to me and from speaking with friends who have also come to Sekiro expecting something more Souls like, are rather happy with it.
Stealth is also very much a part of what makes up the skill set of our Shinobi hero and was perhaps the biggest surprise to me to find, as someone who plays a lot of Assassin’s Creed, being stealthy when taking out enemies and moving around areas is a tactic I know and use very well. So Sekiro allows stealth in order to navigate the world by hiding in tall grass, using ledges, moving under buildings and using the grapple to take the high road above enemies. This gives the ability to not only avoid fighting and enemy encounters along the way, but also to find and use shortcuts where available. It can also be used to sneak up and take out enemies with a surprise attack known as a death blow, something that works on enemies large and small which makes the use of stealth over an all-out sword swinging bloodfest very appealing as well.
Which brings me nicely to the new combat system which is rather elegant and breathtakingly good. Sekiro uses a posture system as the foundation of the combat which in a way almost replaces the stamina meter of Souls games. Blocking and taking hits will build the posture bar and should it fill up, your posture will break leaving you open to taking damage. This also works against enemies, and breaking their posture will open a death blow opportunity. By using deflect to parry incoming attacks, you can begin to break down the posture of your opponent, successive deflects and sword hits can break an enemy’s posture leading to a very bloody death blow that will take them down. I love the deflect system as all blows if timed right can be parried with it and oh the clanging of sword on sword hits is so satisfying as well as the added detail of sparks flying off the blades. It is also very affective when in mini boss battles and main boss fights as well. You can always tell when you are taking on a mini boss as just above their health bar will be two or more red circles to indicate how many deathblows it will take to defeat them.
The deathblow system really adds that extra little oomph to battles, knowing you have to work your way to earn one and then repeat to get the final one. What is also rather lovely about this system is that quite often, you can use stealth to get a head start by landing an early deathblow before the real fight starts. But what is key to any battle from the lowest grunt enemy to the toughest boss fight is learning how your opponent fights and knowing when to use deflect, when to block, when to dodge and creating the opportunity to strike. Another weapon in your arsenal is the Shinobi Prosthetic Arm, which not only enables you to use the grapple rope but can be fitted with different tools to help in battle such as the shuriken star tool, the flame vent tool and the Axe tool. Each one can be utilised in different ways for different enemies and situations such as the Axe is great for breaking enemy shields leading to a deathblow chance and the shuriken can be used to take out enemies at range. The options are further enhanced by new skills which can be acquired by spending the XP collected from defeating enemies to unlock new skills as you progress more into the game.
Each fight can be a challenge if you get the timing wrong and that can be where the frustration creeps in and in that regards, it maintains what is so iconic about FromSoftware games. The big difference for me is that whilst Souls and Bloodborne would make me rage enough to just not bother with the game, Sekiro enables me to realise that the fault of the loss, is mine but at the same time makes me feel like I can do better. Just by knowing that I have to get better and that the game will give me the tools to do better as well as a handy practice area with undying sparring partner, every defeat I suffered only made me want to do better and get better.
The final feature of Sekiro that makes it stand out on its own has to be the ability to resurrect, as it can be used as a tactical device as well as a last chance option. This ability can be upgraded to have extra resurrections slots and they can be refreshed at the sculptures which serve as the Souls style checkpoint bonfires for Sekiro, as well as the gourds of healing water which can also be increased through gameplay. Now whilst this sounds like a cheat, there is a price for using this ability, and it can be quite a heavy price. The more you die and use the resurrect power, the more of a toll it has on the innocent people around you who will begin to suffer from a disease known as Dragon Rot. The first time the game revealed this penalty to me I actually felt a wave of guilt, because not only does the game tell you that it is having a detrimental effect on other people, but you can see how they are affected by their coughing and appearing in ill health. The more you die and come back, the sicker they become. Now at a point in the game, you will gain the ability to heal Dragon Rot in the region you are in, but to keep doing it you have to find the right elements needed to heal it, so there is an added pressure to not die, which means getting better at the game, and when you encounter one mini boss fight or main boss battle that is just kicking your ass, it is knowing that failing more effects the world around you as those inflicted with Dragon Rot will stop responding to you, which can be annoying if it happens to be a character you need to talk to for information.
There is just so much about Sekiro I have come to love and it does not end with the gameplay but the visuals alone are just stunning from the environments and area designs to the character models and combat animation. The sound scheme connects everything together with a musical score that instantly transports you 16th century feudal Japan, with its soft ambient tracks to the high impact heart racing battle musical tracks which elevates each boss fight into something beyond just the fight itself. The game also allows you to choose which language you would prefer for the game, but this must be selected before you start the game as you are unable to change it up at the moment, once the game has begun. I have tried both the English and default Japanese language, and whilst being in English does allow for a more natural storytelling, all the characters are American and just sounds wrong to me. But in Japanese, even though I have to rely on the subtitles to give me the story, the tone of the voice acting is enough to get the emotional tone of the situation and just lifts it right off the screen for me.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the title I needed by the creators of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. The changes have allowed me to embrace this game and its story more than I could have possibly hoped for. It is still very challenging and the difficulty spike from where the game is allowing you room for error as you learn the different systems including combat and moving to be learned, you will know when the game is fully in ‘get good’ mode. But for me at least, I welcome this challenge, and right now I have been having my ass handed to me but a boss that is just reflecting my mistakes back at me every time I think I have it right where I want it. Sekiro has me firmly in its grip, and I am rather enjoying the challenge of it because it is just so satisfying to play.
To anyone like me who were put off playing the Souls series or Bloodborne, I suggest giving Sekiro a try, it may just be different enough but still keeping what makes FromSoftware titles so epic to offer a refreshing experience for you.