It wasn’t until I’d seen a notification for the third time during my playthrough of From Software’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, telling me I’d given three poor souls Dragon Rot. This is the game telling you that you’re dying far too many times and now NPCs in the world are sick because of you. Like many, I approached Sekiro like a Souls game. Once I’d realized everything I’d learned regarding these games is everything I’d have to forget to finish the game, I had a much better time.
What amazes me is how familiar Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice feels but at the same time sets itself apart from the Souls series, with fresh ideas and gameplay making this a faster game. What sets Sekiro apart is the emphasis on stealth and action, amalgamating the Tenchu series and the Souls series into something completely new and exciting.
The Lone Wolf
Sekiro strays from expectations in several ways and in many instances is a good thing for players. Death comes quick and swift and enemies prove unforgiving. Each death is a lesson, each death is one step closer to success. Each triumph brings a sense of satisfaction that only From Software titles summon and the feeling of overcoming, adapting, surviving the harrowing world of Feudal Japan bring a rush with it.
Playing as Wolf, a lone shinobi tasked with protecting a royal heir with a special bloodline, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, begins with an escape. The heir to the royal throne is kidnapped by another clan, leaving Wolf with a severed arm and death waiting for him. A departure from the Souls series is coherent and laid out plotline with grounded characters and details that make sense. No longer am I searching the world for breadcrumbs with lore. Instead, there’s a clear narrative with fleshed out characters.
Furthermore, the stark contrast in storytelling mechanics between Sekiro and any Souls game is apparent here. Storylines leak into the world, bodies on the bloody battlefields tell a tale of a world in chaos. Gone are the gloomy areas Yharnam, the depths of Blighttown – replaced by Ashina Outskirts and the Sunken Valley.
Live, Die, Die Again, Repeat
Sekiro’s combat is largely based on parries and counters, mixed with stealth. Using what is known as the Posture System which dictates how vulnerable you and enemies are to Deathblows. Posture ties into health and as health depletes, the longer posture takes to recover. Stealth is largely recommended to thin out areas without risking the loss of half your experience and Sen when death strikes. Death comes twice in Sekiro, as players die, they have an option to resurrect on the spot they were defeated.
Uniquely, this mechanic ties into the plot in some interesting ways. When you’re struck down, the option to resurrect is available but each death comes with a price. In addition to losing experience and Sen, there’s a malady in this world called Dragon Rot. What Dragon Rot does is affect the NPCs in the world and you know they’re affected by the blood they cough. This ailment prevents sidequests from activating and without the right item to cure them, progress stalls indefinitely.
Also, instead of having upgradeable equipment and weapons, the focus is instead on upgradeable skills through skill trees and combat arts – special moves equipped through the inventory menu. Wolf’s Prosthetic Arm includes a series of upgradable tools found throughout Ashina. Enemies on a horse, for example, are more susceptible to Firecrackers, larger enemies like the Chained Ogre fears fire.
Prosthetics for every occasion
Every tool, every item has use in battle. Learning the moves of an enemy, big or small is crucial to success. Sekiro offers several ways to success. Timing an incoming thrust, countering with the Mikiri Counter and dealing large damage to Posture, then finishing with a Deathblow.
That’s not all your Prosthetic arm does, either. Grappling is a masterful shinobi tool that opens ample opportunity to turn the tide. The grappling hook expands level designs vertically – sending you to the rooftops above. Where Souls games focused on being on the ground level, Sekiro offers a tool so useful that it’s a literal lifeline in a tight spot. If you’re ever cornered, take a quick look at your surroundings for a green indicator – and with the tap of a button, you’re out of the fire. By using anchor points found through the hauntingly-beautiful Feudal Japanese landscape, this opens stealth options from above, like silent assassinations on unsuspecting soldiers.
In a surprising move from the developer, Sekiro comes with no online component. This move allows for the ability to pause the game’s action and leave the game unattended or focus on planning your attack strategy. For the first time in ages, relying on your own abilities and learning the opponent’s movements is the only course of action available. Of course, the lack of multiplayer also opens a brief respite from status ailments like poison or burn. Simply pausing and navigating to your inventory, at your own pace no less, is a good trade-off to multiplayer.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice offers a unique, engaging, and rewarding experience for those who seek it. With a unique and exciting setting set in the Feudal era of Japan, mixed with high-fantasy ideas, exploring is a rewarding experience. Combat sets itself apart from the many titles From Software created in the past. Sekiro is imaginative and innovative thanks to several Ninja Tools and Prosthetics and each encounter is unique in execution. The challenge provided is intimidating and serves as a slow-burn but ultimately rewards patience. Don’t go in expecting another Souls game, instead, expect a game that offers a difficult but fair challenge.
[A copy of the game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]