Powered By Square1.io
A broken warrior trapped in a deep pit, the key to his salvation dropped from above by a mysterious figure in the night.
You’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the intro to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the latest game from the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne developer FromSoftware and directors Hidetaka Miyazaki and Kazuhiro Hamatani; haven’t we been here before?
However, this is a radical re-invention of the formula FromSoft established in the last decade, a punishingly difficult masterpiece with arguably the most intricate, rewarding and satisfying combat system of any action game released in years.
A quick technical note: I played Sekiro on the basic PS4 without any major technical issues, bar very occasional dips in frame rate in certain areas with loads of enemies.
Whilst every enemy has a health bar, the real meat of the game is whittling down their posture with your grizzled shinobi Wolf and his sword. Landing a hit on an enemy, either blocked or a direct strike, parrying an attack at the last possible moment or countering an ‘unblockable’ attack all gradually break your opponents down until you can land a single decisive ‘Deathblow’, which instantly wipes out weak enemies and tears through one health bar of a boss.
There’s a great symbiosis here; the lower an enemy’s health, the slower their posture resets to neutral, with permanent posture damage building up the closer they are to death.
This creates a lovely dichotomy to fights; in the first half you mainly focus on dodging attacks to land direct hits, a huge risk in a game where one hit can almost wipe you out and timing windows are tight. Every posture-breaking ‘threshold’ is indicated with an increasingly deep-red hue surrounding your enemy’s posture meter, letting you know when to transition into an aggressive flurry of parries and strikes to bring the fight to a swift, decisive conclusion.
Add in boss fights with evolving move sets, having to top up your health and correct your posture mid-combat, all while adapting to the countless obstacles that can trip you up in the environment. I lost track of the number of times I accidentally jumped off a cliff during a fight. Sekiro initially feels overwhelming and downright punishing.
To help out, you can collect prayer beads from mini-bosses and consume battle memories to get stronger. This simplified and flavourful approach makes character progression tactile and finding upgrade items satisfying for the entirety of the lengthy campaign.
However, Sekiro’s difficulty is almost entirely regulated by your willingness to dig deep and learn the delicate balance between aggression and defense that defines combat. FromSoft’s typical adherence to staunch fairness means every death (or two) is a learning opportunity, culminating in a massively gratifying sense of mastery that turns each encounter into a balletic performance.
The learning experience is well-guided, with the wonderful boss fights serving as tutorials for every aspect of combat. One of the first major fights, the mounted general Gyoubu the Demon chasing you down in a huge field of corpses, mixed devastating unblockables into his barrage of bladed spear swings whilst galloping around a huge arena.
Suggested Reading: A Dance of Death and Victory in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
At some point during my first playthrough, in the depths of a dozen damning deaths, it clicked; I stopped playing it so safe, hanging back and nervously getting a sword slash in before running away at a panicked sprint. Suddenly, the tables turned. I was chasing him; the hairs on my neck raised as the bombastic soundtrack drove me forwards, weaving through his intricate move set and piling on the aggression to break through his posture. I got physically immersed, tightly gripping my controller and physically bobbing and weaving with every attack.
Finally beating him, as the battlefield fell still and silent, gave me the feeling of intense satisfaction I’d normally associate with a great final boss.
Almost every single boss is just as difficult, just as frustrating and just as rewarding. You’ll constantly think you’ve finally gotten to grips with the game’s fundamentals, only for that confidence to be pummeled out of you by a gigantic ape with a sword in its head that hurls shite and farts poison. In particular, a rooftop boss around the mid-game is easily the closest I’ve ever gotten to giving up on a FromSoft game; you’ll either fight through the pain and fall head-over-heels in love with Sekiro’s combat or tap out from sheer frustration.
For me, these fights were beautiful experiences from artists at the height of their craft; In particular, one late game encounter where you zip through the air of a fantastical wasteland amidst a lightning storm is deeply moving, interactive poetry in motion.
Not that it’s perfect; although Sekiro uses the undead warrior at the Dilapidated Temple, your home base, as an optional combat tutorial, certain aspects of combat can be missed far too easily, such as active posture recovery being introduced during the chaos of the fight against Gyoubu.
Boss fights climax with unique and extravagant animations that feel like God of War finishers. The streamlined crafting system would feel at home in any given Ubisoft game, while Sekiro’s grappling hook feels directly inspired by Rocksteady’s Batman games. Certain semi-scripted sequences even reminded me of Uncharted, like sneaking past a giant monster in a frozen valley or the exhilarating sprint to the Gun Fort. Falling off cliffs is no longer an instant-kill, you can resurrect after your first death and – most jarring of all – you can actually pause the game!
This influence is most noticeable when you look at the game’s story. Whilst elements of their previous games are buried deep into Sekiro like the rambling muffled voices behind doorways from Bloodborne or the manic laughter of Dark Souls this is a far more traditional narrative, voiced protagonist and all.
It feels more dynamic, with characters taking greater agency as you guide the shinobi Wolf on his quest to rescue his Lord Kuro and sever the region’s links to immortality, all while a rebellion rages in the mid-sixteenth century setting of Ashina, Japan.
Gorgeous and varied landscapes, inspired by Japan’s natural beauty and its stunning architecture, leap off the screen with remarkable detail. Visual designs strike a lovely balance between normality and grotesque low fantasy, with dazzling particle effects making certain locations involving fire or magic particularly wonderful.
In line with Miyazaki’s past work, Sekiro’s lore is a pleasure to slowly unravel and immerse yourself in, through item descriptions, environmental storytelling and chance encounters. Immortality and death are explored thoughtfully, with multiple perspectives outlined poignantly; an undead warrior trying to break his curse, an old woman fighting to free her impossibly ancient father from captivity.
Even your own immortality makes a mark, infecting characters with ‘Dragonrot’ the more you use surrounding life energy to resurrect. Healing those afflicted is easy enough, but hearing friendly faces coughing up their lungs because of you seamlessly links the game’s larger themes together with gameplay.
Like the narrative, gameplay is invigorated by focusing on single-player, facilitated by the limited-use resurrection system which lets you get back up after dying in a fight. This wildly impacts your flow through levels; a suicidal sprint deep into enemy territory might end with your being crushed by a giant ogre, but wait until his back turns and you can resurrect straight into a back stab… or run away as fast as you possibly can.
Of all things, encounters reminded me of Far Cry’s outpost missions; zipping up Ashina’s detailed scenery allows you to survey enclosed areas for guard patterns, alternate routes, key targets and stealth options.
Unaware enemies can be instantly killed with a deathblow and levels are littered with routes that facilitate stealthier approaches; wonderfully, almost every multi-health-bar-bearing mini-boss has a hidden route that rewards observation and exploration by wiping out one stage of the fight instantly.
Enemy AI is unfortunately at the bottom rung of video-game guard logic, taking some of the wind out of Sekiro’s stealth sails when guards casually walk over the dead bodies of comrades. However, the upside is the relative ease of flowing between combat and stealth, smartly encouraged by the density and aggression of enemy placement in the game and facilitated by the wonderful movement system.
Wall-jumping, grappling and sprinting are fast, fluid and responsive, dumping the genre-standard stamina meter and closer resembling the feel of straight character action games, and facilitate levels with a strong sense of verticality and scope. Re-playing the tutorial highlighted this; sprinting and jumping from a hilltop ruin onto a hard-to-notice log far below skipped a gauntlet of enemies and let me tear straight into the stage mini-boss.
These mini-eureka moments are everywhere, taking the heritage of FromSoft’s labyrinthine approach to level design, like satisfying shortcuts, and holistically weaving in increased verticality and scope to give greater room to experiment, explore and improvise.
Ashina Castle stands out in the early game for nailing this balance; a huge, sprawling area is presented to the player combining two asymmetric layers, avenues patrolled by guards and assassins prowling the rooftops. Each layer can be approached as distinct and well-crafted challenges, but you are constantly encouraged to ebb and flow between the two with shiny loot, hints of hidden NPCs and, well, sometimes you just fall off roofs.
Clever design leans into this improvisational spirit; take my fight against a ninja on the castle bridge. I was getting my arse handed to me until I jumped backwards to avoid a lunging sweep attack. I fell into a moat, expecting to see the dreaded red ‘Death’ symbol, but found myself landing in green murky water. I swam through a narrow waterway and dove underneath to find a secret entrance below the bridge. A hop and a grapple later, I snuck behind the unsuspecting warrior for an instant kill.
The prosthetic system further leans into the improvisational nature of Sekiro, encouraging you to swap between the best tool for the job at the tap of a button like shifting trick weapons in Bloodborne or devil breakers in Devil May Cry 5. Different tools target different weaknesses, and fluidly switching between, say, tossing shuriken to knock down airborne assassins before clearing out hordes with a powerful spear sweep adds tactical depth to encounters. On top of that, a shared ammo system for prosthetics and combat abilities adds a welcome wrinkle of resource-management into the mix.
These abilities are game-changing, a clear showcase of a development team unchained from the shackles of the multiplayer-compatible titles. Prosthetic arts are a highlight, supplementing your toolkit with follow-up attacks that are as useful as they are dramatic, like zipping across the screen to follow up a shuriken with a sword slash.
Eavesdropping and ‘Information brokers’ are FromSoft’s attempt to reduce the infamous difficulty barrier of their games, giving often hilariously blunt clues on how to beat certain enemies. However, plenty is still hidden in plain sight and the relative lack of hand holding compared to many modern games makes every discovery feel personal and meaningful; even something as fundamental as new skill trees are soft-locked behind optional conversations.
I realise this is a pretty marmite thing; for example, I didn’t discover an extremely relevant NPC in the very first area, who gives you access to a massive area with huge story relevance and powerful upgrades, until I stumbled into her on New Game Plus. I love this sort of thing; getting to this area after finishing the main storyline was, for me, a fascinating experience of reverse-storytelling.
For me, these moments add a richness and depth to the second playthrough reminiscent of re-watching a really good crime thriller, as well as the satisfaction of tearing through old bosses, but your mileage may vary.
What’s undeniable is the beautiful artwork that Miyazaki and his team have crafted here, an ornate tapestry that envelops you wholly. If the success of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is anything to go by, Sekiro sees FromSoft, yet again, setting the benchmark for quality action gaming across the industry.
Featured Image Credit: Author’s Own Screenshot.