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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Written by Sean Colleli on 4/4/2019 for PS4  
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I was a little apprehensive to try my hand at reviewing FromSoftware’s latest action adventure, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I’ve never played any of the Souls games before; frankly they sounded a touch on the masochistic side, and while I never shy away from a difficult game, the gothic fantasy setting of the Souls series just didn’t grab me. Honestly when I’m itching for a challenge I’d rather throw myself against Cuphead, test my wits against the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation, or jump back into Doom and crank the difficulty up to nightmare. But a feudal Japanese setting infused with twisted Shinto mythology? I am there. Thus began my trepidations journey into Sekiro.

Just so I don’t bury the lede, let me get this out of the way first: Sekiro is a very difficult game. It punishes laziness, short attention spans and just plain clumsiness. It demands that you burn away your inadequacies and hone your skill to the maximum, and it absolutely does not pull any punches when teaching you this lesson. Coming out of FromSoftware, that really should go without saying, but I’m seeing a lot of bellyaching about it from other writers and critics. Frankly, that’s like going to Bob’s Extra Spicy Wing Shack or wherever and complaining that the wings are too hot; it makes you look kind of stupid, or at the very least entitled. FromSoftware makes their games for a specific audience, the kind of gamers that love a bitter challenge; expecting anything else is frankly ignorant and presumptive. Asking FromSoftware to throw in an easy mode just to assuage your bruised ego is missing the point. From this point forward I won’t be doing any whining about Sekiro’s difficulty. If you don’t like hard games, do not purchase this one.

With that nonsense handled, let’s set the scene. Sengoku-era Japan is in the midst of a bloody civil war. An orphaned youth is taken from the battlefield by an aged general, and trained to be a Shinobi. Years later the youth has grown into a seasoned warrior and assassin named Sekiro, or simply “the Wolf.” Sekiro is charged with protecting the royal family’s sole remaining heir, Kuro, a young boy with a sacred bloodline. Sekiro pledges his life to Kuro, but the rival Ashina clan kidnaps Kuro in a bid to use his bloodline for nefarious purposes. Sekiro mounts a rescue, but he is cut down by the Ashina general and loses his left forearm in the process. Sekiro awakens later in a dilapidated Buddhist temple, neither alive nor dead, and discovers that a withered old monk has attached a mystical prosthetic to his left arm. Sekiro vows to find his young lord and fulfill his pledge, killing anything that gets in his way.

Sekiro frontloads a lot more lore and plot than your average Souls game, and I appreciated this; is gives the world a lot of texture early on and adds valuable context to your actions. The young boy Kuro is wise beyond his years and saving him from whatever horrific ritual the Ashina have planned for him is a compelling motivation to strive against the brutal challenges ahead. I really did feel a sort of honorable obligation to the kid and got a strong “Young Wolf and Cub” vibe from the story, which I’m sure were intentional on FromSoftware’s part.

This rich setting and beautiful world make it a little easier to swallow the bitter pill of the game’s multilayered, and extremely challenging, combat. While the Souls games focus on endurance, dodging and wearing enemies down, Sekiro appropriately layers in stealth, skilled swordplay and the special abilities granted by the Shinobi prosthetic arm. While you can batter smaller enemies into submission or dodge their attacks, taking advantage of the game’s “stance” system is far more rewarding and efficient. Every enemy has a battle stance, indicated by an angled bar below their health meter. Basically, if you can affect their posture this opens them up to attacks and even lethal finishers. You can dodge out of the way to make an enemy overextend with his sword, or parry at the right instant to put him off balance and open him up to a killing blow. I’ve practiced some martial arts before and a big part of it is taking your opponent’s balance, or getting out of their way until they make a mistake you can take advantage of, so I really appreciated that FromSoftware worked this concept into the combat.

Battle stance becomes crucially important against stronger enemies and bosses. These guys have multiple strong attacks that either can’t be dodged or blocked, but enemies will telegraph which attack they are about to use. This is how you can tell when to block, sweep their balance or get the hell out of the way. Failing to recognize the telegraphing and performing the correct counter means you’ll take a serious butt-kicking, but if you get the timing and counter correct, it opens your enemy up for a powerful counterattack and saves your bacon in the process. Learning this dance required a subtle reprogramming of a few of my gamer instincts. I typically approach action games from a defensive posture; I block a lot and learn an enemy’s patterns before exploiting them. Sekiro doesn’t really let you do that. It almost forces you to approach each fight with a combination of caution and courage, but you always need to be paying attention, even in encounters with low-level enemies, lest you grow careless. Any enemy in this game is apparently programmed to take advantage of laziness and complacence.

Of course, this is a FromSoftware game, so you will die a lot, but the game actively encourages against checkpoint spamming by punishing you for dying too much. Sekiro’s mysterious bloodline allows him to resurrect once per checkpoint, and he can gain a second resurrection by killing enemies. Basically this lets him respawn instantly upon death without getting kicked back to the last checkpoint. If you die again without any resurrection charges left, it’s back to the checkpoint for you, and your XP and money are cut in half.  Even worse, if you do the checkpoint dirt nap too many times, friendly NPCs are infected with a supernatural disease called “Dragonrot,” which prevents you from completing any of their side quests. There are ultimately ways to cure this disease, but it’s really more efficient to just not die as often. FromSoftware’s point seems clear: get better at the game and it will be less of a hassle in the long run. You want to avoid dying especially to conserve that XP, because it is used on the game’s extremely handy and extensive skill tree. There is nothing superfluous here—every skill is useful, from the ability to regain health from killing blows, to improved sneaking, because after all, Sekiro is a shinobi.

A frontal assault isn’t always the best option, particularly for a ninja. Sekiro can sneak with the best of them, but any ninja can crouch in tall grass or sprint over pagoda tiles; Sekiro has something special. This is where the Shinobi prosthetic comes into play. Sekiro’s mechanical arm gives him the baseline ability to grapple-hook to specific mounts placed conveniently throughout the world, dramatically enhancing his mobility. This is particularly useful for sneaking across rooftops or through tree branches. Stealth is not the main thrust of Sekiro’s gameplay but it is a valuable tactic; it lets you set up insta-kill sneak attacks on smaller enemies and get in a health-slashing blow against heavier foes, but sometimes it’s just as useful to avoid combat altogether, or beat a hasty retreat from a fight that is going badly by grapple-zipping away. Remember, this game steals money and XP from you for dying and ultimately impedes quest progression. Split-second decisions between running, fighting or sneaking can save you a lot of trouble if you think like a ninja.

But if things get truly messy, the Shinobi prosthetic is a nasty saving throw, and you upgrade it throughout the game to make it even deadlier and more useful. The first upgrade you get is a shuriken launcher that is particularly useful against leaping enemies, but eventually you augment it with a heavy axe for shattering shields, firecrackers to dazzle and confuse multiple bad guys, and even a freaking flamethrower. Naturally using these special attacks costs a sort of ammo—you never get something for nothing in a FromSoftware game—but you restock your prosthetic abilities by killing enemies, so once again the game is designed to reward skilled, efficient play, and punish lazy spamming and overreliance on special moves.

FromSoftware’s dazzling production value is on full display in Sekiro, possibly more so than in any of their previous games. Between the tense stealth sequences and white-knuckle combat, I often found myself marveling at the environments and detail of this mythological spin on Sengoku-era Japan. Snowy, desolate peaks, feudal castles, cult-infested villages and subterranean pits are just a few of the environments I trekked through in my quest to save my divine lord. The soundtrack matches the visuals elegantly, swelling with percussion and harsh woodwinds during combat and fading into the background during those quiet introspective moments, almost blending with the howling wind. My wife commented on just how affecting the game is, and I have to agree; FromSoftware understand how to set a mood…and then eviscerate said mood and rip it to bloody pieces.

Ultimately, that’s the dichotomy of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It’s like a majestic mountain: gorgeous to look at, but if you don’t give it adequate respect, it will send you plunging to a swift, agonizing demise. Playing Sekiro is like climbing a mountain too. It’s about deepening your skill, immersing yourself in the game’s layers of combat strategy, evolving your character and truly learning from your mistakes. Sekiro is not for anyone looking to unwind with an easy power fantasy, but it is a master class is modern game design that rewards diligent, adaptive play.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has FromSoftware’s typical brutal difficulty, but honestly that’s beside the point. What matters is the thoughtful, precision-based combat, smart use of stealth, and a skill tree that’s trimmed of fat. This game shows what you can do with game design if you dispense with the extraneous and focus on strong core mechanics. It’s a punishing, rewarding, and beautiful experience.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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