Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice | Principal Platforms: PC (version tested), PlayStation 4, Xbox One | Developer: FromSoftware | Publisher: Activision, FromSoftware | Genre: Action-Adventure | Year: 2019
Controller gripped tightly, I sneak deeper into a patch of overgrown reeds. The enemies occupying the adjacent village have lost sight of me now, and one of their number — a mangy soldier carrying a musket — has wandered too close whilst scouting my position. The contextual deathblow marker lights up his head like a Christmas tree; entirely fitting considering the festive colour that will soon be spraying from his windpipe.
For all of Sekiro’s violent glamour, it’s these stealth mechanics that currently have me obsessed with the game. It’s exactly the variety of stealth that I like; unconcerned with lighting or misdirection, rather it’s the simple variety that just wants to make sneaking up on enemies really fun. Unaware baddies can be subdued in ways that would make Adam Jensen blush, and after spending several hours learning the basic concepts during one of FromSoftware’s most uncharacteristically welcoming tutorials, I’m enjoying myself immensely.
With the village now mostly secure, I turn my attention towards the large pagoda in the distance. A tall samurai in black armour is the last remaining enemy nearby. He’s going to be a handful. Sekiro is bursting with boss fights, with even minor bosses like the one yonder presenting a considerable challenge. I know because he’s slain me five times already!
These lesser bosses aren’t always immune to backstabs though, so within moments I’m circling around the pagoda to find another hiding spot. These precarious ledges would present impassable obstacles to any normal protagonist, but our eponymous shinobi can shimmy and somersault with the best of them.
Minutes later I’m inside the building looking down at the imposing figure of “Seven Ashina Spears” Yamauchi. Confident, I stride towards him with sword raised. My deathblow cuts deep into the officer’s flesh, but this guy has two health bars. It’s far from over. With one of his lives consumed, Yamauchi charges wildly and immediately catches me off guard with his massive spear.
Sekiro’s methodical combat system gives you a lot to learn in every fresh engagement across its 40+ hour campaign. It’s a game of relatively few gimmicks, as deflecting blades and kicking ass is what usually wins the day. Whereas FromSoftware’s own Bloodborne took the Dark Souls template and enforced a more frantic dodge-based combat rhythm upon it, the similar Sekiro is all about Posture.
There’s no stamina bar to manage this time around, rather players must consider another auxiliary meter that governs the stability of their combat stance. Continue to block attacks or clash swords and this Posture meter will increase, with a full bar shattering your guard and allowing enemies to get free hits on your delicate frame. Delicate really is the word too because combatants can quite often die in the space of a single decisive blow.
It’s a high skill cap game, then. No surprise there. This is a FromSoftware game after all. Yet that remains a small comfort as Yamauchi approaches with a weapon that will kill me dead in two hits if I’m not careful. Fortunately the Posture system that so tightly governs my own approach also applies to my enemy. If I can break his Posture quickly enough, it won’t matter how much health he has left because a “broken” enemy immediately becomes susceptible to a fatal deathblow.
Building up an enemy’s Posture meter can be done by striking them or more reliably when deflecting their counter-attacks. Press the block button just as an incoming blow connects with your sword and you’ll deflect it away whilst also dealing significant Posture damage to your aggressor. This sort of parrying is a familiar mechanic where video games are concerned (hello, Street Fighter III), but the execution here is a lot more forgiving than usual because of the long activation frames that won’t punish players for mashing the buttons in a mad panic.
Not that I’d know about that kind of thing …
You must still aim for precision because even the basic enemies can be hard to push around without you wearing down their posture first. Sekiro is a game that wants you on the offensive, which is why an enemy’s Posture will start to recover if you don’t keep up the pressure during combat.
It’s a dilemma I’m facing with Yamauchi; the boss who is currently chasing me around the level. Every time I move in to start a combo I see a familiar red Kanji symbol flash on-screen to warn me that one of his “Perilous” attacks is winding up. His animations are deliberately misleading, however, causing me to stumble into a crippling sweep when I expected to receive a thrust. My healing flask is nearly empty, so I fall back and begin checking Sekiro’s inventory for something that might improve my chances.
Consumables can bestow a range of helpful buffs that take the sting out of tough encounters. The ceramic shards that aid you with stealth are a bit situational and lame, but other power-ups like the healing pellets (which you’re cunningly restricted to carrying three at a time) are good, with the simple Fistful of Ash actually feeling somewhat overpowered. It’s this same dirty item that I’ve decided to abuse now. Screw my sense of honour, I’ve decided. I’m a sneaky shinobi and if I’m not cheating then I’m not really playing!
I ready the item and just before Yamauchi can continue his vicious descent, I toss the ash right into his face. The boss staggers backwards with his guard dropping and I take full advantage by performing a heavy stab that catches him square in the chest. It deals a considerable amount of damage and even better is the subtle hint of yellow that suddenly caresses his Posture bar; a sign that it too has been weakened.
Even though totalling an enemy’s posture is the most reliable way of winning battles, dealing direct damage remains a sound strategy because the lower a character’s health, the slower their Posture recovers when they’re not under duress. This careful dance forms the heart of Sekiro’s combat system and it’s quite brilliant.
Battles aren’t always about how many sneaky hits you can land before an enemy recovers. There’s a lot to consider and observe with how fast their Posture regenerates. There are times when you can spend several moments doing nothing except deflecting, only for you then to land one clean slice and still feel satisfied by the ramifications that single wound will have. It’s a lot for newcomers to take in, but the depth it brings is rather fascinating all the same.
Back on the battlefield I’m caught in a bad spot. This game has more than a few dodgy camera angles, sadly, and the screen’s wild spinning as I’ve retreated into a corner has me disorientated. I’ve sustained another heavy slash from Yamauchi’s spear — my dwindling healing flask barely covering the loss — so once again I’m scrambling to regroup.
Fortunately, the environments in Sekiro are expansive. Not just accommodating for stealth and swordsmanship, most of them are also vertically dense and allow players a great deal of freedom when moving around. With Sekiro’s Prosthetic Arm aimed high, a targeting reticule appears prompting me to deploy its built-in grappling hook. This tool represents one of the most striking divergences from the Souls formula as it allows Sekiro to swing through the air like a comic book hero. It’s also one of the features in this game that I’m not entirely sold on.
I get the appeal of stalking prey from up high and leaping down on top of them in a rolling deathblow. FromSoftware hasn’t skimped on the gory detail and there are times when successive grapples allow you to cover a satisfying distance without ever touching the ground. The problem is that the presentation here is a bit wonky. Sekiro feels like he’s being awkwardly jerked towards targets more than anything else, and the screen gets cluttered when there are multiple grapple points within close proximity. It’s often difficult to judge your distance from these points, despite the game’s best efforts, and I think they sometimes get in the way when you’re offered to use the grapple against enemies — especially annoying if you haven’t purchased the skill upgrade for performing combo attacks in mid-air.
The Prosthetic Arm does a lot more than just grapple onto things though. Throughout the game you will acquire weapons to load into its frame. These are used by spending Spirit Emblems that are very easily collected whilst adventuring. The limited use of these tools compliment your combat style instead of providing a primary source of offence, but their range that includes a flamethrower, an axe, and even a projectile-repelling umbrella, can still be deadly in certain situations.
Back in-game my graceful avatar has landed on a tree branch whilst old Yamauchi simmers in the background. I rifle through my Prosthetic Tools and eventually settle on the corrosive attachment called Sabimaru. This is a recent acquisition that promises to poison enemies on the receiving end of its lightning-fast edge. I’m eager to try it out, so I fly at the boss once more, rapidly burning through Spirit Emblems as I arc the blade over his frantic guard.
Prosthetic Tools can be fun, especially when you’ve earned the upgrades that permit their use during your regular sword combos. Whether or not they encourage enough experimentation is another matter though. The Spirit Emblems seem a tad unnecessary considering how ubiquitous they are, and by assigning a resource to tool usage, it’s easy to imagine some players stockpiling them for the game’s tougher battles. That’s all well and good, but there were times in my own playthrough where I’d focused so much on upgrading one tool that I would neglect to learn how the other ones worked. Granted, that won’t be the case for everyone, but a lot of the upper tier crafting materials appear during a late portion of the game, so those wanting to fully expand their arsenal might have to wait until New Game Plus.
It’s a similar situation with the character upgrades that players can purchase from boring skill trees using experience points. Some of these skills are remarkably expensive for how little they offer. For instance: several of them merely increase your Spirit Emblem capacity by one digit. Not very exciting. Other skills allow Sekiro to perform new techniques during combat, but again the utility of these feels unbalanced. I couldn’t find a convincing reason to upgrade from the Whirlwind Slash that you purchase early. By the time I could afford some of the later techniques, I was already quite far into the game and getting along just fine without them.
Meanwhile, Yamauchi has been poisoned. My reckless assault has left me without Spirit Emblems for now, so I stow Sabimaru and go right back to my dependable sword. Yamauchi is suffering, and yet my overconfidence proves fatal as a mistimed jump gets me stabbed in mid-air for fatal damage. My character falls to the ground, dead. But it’s not over yet.
Sekiro’s resurrection mechanic is a posh way of dressing up what is essentially an extra life, but it is another lovely example of how this game meets you halfway for the dangers ahead. Resurrection is a tremendous boon for overcoming those times when you make a stupid mistake, and even better is how it improves pace; instantly reviving you to continue play. There are some mild consequences for repeated deaths, but for the most part the resurrection system is a clear win for a game that already feels nippy in motion.
Indeed, Sekiro is insanely quick on his feet and he’s able to reach Sonic-like speeds whilst sprinting. There isn’t any stamina bar to limit your running about now either, which makes for a tremendous spectacle during the open-air boss battles that give you lots of space to zoom about.
After resurrecting now, I could easily use this speed to retreat from battle altogether. Sekiro is a bit like Treasure’s Alien Soldier in construction though; it’s largely snippets of in-your-face action broken up by frequent boss battles. If I can’t prove myself against Yamauchi, then what chance do I have against the next boss who no doubt awaits close by?
I’m feeling stubborn and so I forge ahead, re-engaging the boss almost as soon as his back turns away from my momentarily idle corpse. I know that I need to improve my deflecting; safe in the knowledge that Sekiro’s stable PC frame rate will carry me through the intense clash to follow.
Yamauchi lunges in with a thrust that has already taken my life several times before, and I counter by stomping his spear into the ground. Yamauchi’s posture bar is near the breaking point, but he shoves me away and follows up with a quick vertical slice whose speed has caught me totally unawares. The blow proves too severe. Once again I fall to the ground in defeat. This time dead means dead and I’m sent back to the nearest checkpoint to dwell on my failure.
Luckily, dealing with defeats like these is all part of Sekiro’s beautiful curve. It’s a huge adventure offering lots of content in many directions of its expansive world. It’s usually quite easy to save any bits you’re struggling with for later. There are many characters to meet and diverse locations to visit, with the opportunity to see new things and to gradually get better at combat without getting too stuck.
Later I would confront Yamauchi again, this time after many hours spent travelling the land of Ashina. I’m a new man at this point; more attuned to the concept of Posture, and more keenly aware of when to block and when to steady my assault against the natural attrition of battle. I’ve consumed the power of several major bosses and have elevated my game with a growing arsenal of Prosthetic Tools and Shinobi Arts. I won’t be stopped this time.
Composer Yuka Kitamura’s soundtrack once again thunders to life as the boss notices me. It’s a soundtrack with few stylistic surprises considering the game’s familiar Japanese flavour, but Kitamura’s compositions create a wonderfully consistent sound nonetheless. Her boss themes are still as bombastic as ever, and yet the clarity of these numbers has improved upon her previous work. Sekiro presents stage themes this time around too, and like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, such tracks are elegantly mixed depending on the player’s current tendency towards stealth or frontline duelling.
Scored by a now incredibly familiar and enjoyable boss theme, I once again face off against Yamauchi’s strength. He’s out of his depth. I’m too fast and too good at the game now; traits instilled in me from a hundred failures at the hands of a hundred very weird and very dangerous foes. I’m deflecting every single one of his strikes; cutting his momentum with well-timed kunais; and embarrassing him with jump kicks whenever he tries for that rollicking sweep attack. His Posture breaks and my sword cuts deep into his neck with a decisive flourish of finality; the health power-up he was hoarding appearing on-screen; and the sweet adrenaline of victory helping me uncurl my aching fingers.
I think about the roads travelled up until now. The number of quality boss battles and story hooks in Sekiro is impressive even by FromSoftware’s high standards, but I must admit to being disappointed by the economy of their design in certain areas. There’s a touch of Dark Souls II boss fatigue at times, honestly to the point where things start to resemble a scrolling beat ’em up due to the amount of asset recycling.
I’m not sure if the final quarter quite lives up to the earlier stretches either. The game doesn’t burden you with cutscenes or tons of story-related blather, but your quest to rescue a kidnapped lord does run out of fresh surprises towards the end, as the majority of interesting NPCs and side quests dry up and we settle into a familiar ‘break the undead curse’ brand of storytelling.
The rock-hard finale will certainly please most genre fans though, as even when the challenge level peaks, Sekiro makes you feel powerful rather than hopelessly outgunned. It’s not as accessible as other genre favourites like Bayonetta, and it does have a silly subtitle, but don’t let that fool you. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice outs FromSoftware’s trademark creativity and flair for the fantastical at every turn.
Yes, the mythological Japanese setting is one that we’ve all seen before, and yes, the lack of multiplayer and character building is one of the many things that will severely impact its longevity. Even then, with its multiple endings, tough achievements, and such a purely entertaining first time playthrough, Sekiro warrants full attention.
Whilst its strong difficulty is still perfectly judged in my eyes, this game remains a challenging experience that’s impossible to casually recommend. Sekiro is unapologetic in its demands, but if you’re looking for a thrilling solo run ‘just like From used to make’, then you simply must play this.