Over the last couple of years, fans of “Soulsborne” games have been clamoring for an announcement of Bloodborne 2 and/or Dark Souls 4. Instead, Japanese video game developer FromSoftware was working hard on what would become Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Set in 16th century Japan, the game is a strong departure from the developer’s previous works in the genre.
The fantasy elements within the game remain, but Sekiro offers a vastly different combat system, means of traversal, and approach to music. The game also removes the multiplayer element, character creation, and simplifies its leveling system. The end result is a game that undoubtedly feels like it was made by FromSoftware, but also feels totally different. And true to form, Sekiro never allows the player to get too comfortable with the gameplay.
Story-wise, Sekiro is much clearer and straightforward than Dark Souls and Bloodborne. A beautiful opening cinematic shows a war-torn Japan and introduces the protagonist as a young boy with no family and no home, before being taken in by a massive shinobi who goes by Owl. Fast forward twenty years and the player controlled character (initially referred to as Wolf) is the sworn protector of a young lord, who inevitably gets kidnapped. Without spoiling anything, it is at this point where the game begins.
Once the game starts, the new gameplay mechanics keep rolling in. The tutorial area covers the basics (blocking, attacking, hiding, etc.), and soon enough, the resurrection ability is introduced. This really separates Sekiro from its predecessors and the function is perfectly woven into the story. However, resurrection and death come at a price. The more deaths you incur, the lower your chances are at recovering your currency, and more importantly, the more disease you spread amongst friendly NPC’s. This action is reversible, but only a finite number of times.
Another major new mechanic is the posture meter. Rather than a standard endurance meter, the posture meter measures attacks that have been blocked, deflected, or sustained during battle. Both the player and enemy have these meters and the goal is to keep your posture as low as possible while attempting to completely fill theirs, and subsequently performing a deathblow. And of course, we can’t forget the grappling hook. Jumping is a plus too. With these changes in mind, how does the game stack up overall?
Although it will take some practice, Sekiro has amazing combat that’s incredibly precise. The game strongly emphasizes deflecting attacks (as opposed to blocking or dodging) and rewards those that are aggressive without being reckless. As mentioned before, having no endurance meter while running around is nice. During combat, the music intensifies in a satisfying way. Ranging from strong drum beats to creepy orchestral pieces reminiscent of Bartok, each battle is important, and the music accentuates that point.
Thanks to the grappling hook, the verticality in which you navigate the environment is a welcome change. Speaking of environments, they are stunning. The beautiful trees, mountains, and pagodas provide a visual treat throughout the entire game. One other major change, you can pause gameplay!!! If a moment of reprieve is needed, a change of inventory, or a YouTube video showing how to beat a nasty boss must be watched, it can be done in a secure manner.
While you can pause during regular gameplay, you can’t pause during cutscenes (always a gripe of mine). Playing the game on weaker hardware feels jagged when moving the camera around. It’s as if the system can’t keep up with everything it’s rendering. It was extremely noticeable at first, but the feeling does eventually go away. It’s worth noting that playing on more powerful machines gives a smoother experience overall. Combat can feel button-mashy at times. Even though the bosses and mid-bosses require strategy and perseverance to overcome, there are times when it feels like you’re just spamming the attack button to gain traction.
For fans of the genre, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an automatic purchase. Newcomers will probably find it extremely challenging, but should be able to persevere. It’s an absolute treat to see FromSoftware find ways to challenge gamers again, again, and a million more agains, without having to use the same formula repeatedly. With Sekiro, they have created something that’s new and fresh, while tweaking their ideas of gameplay mechanics to perfectly fit. While it’s not perfect, it is another iconic addition to their already impressive library.