Sekiro: Shadows Die a Thousand Times

It’s the Dark Souls of FromSoftware games!

Sekiro, the one-armed wolf shinobi.

FromSoftware, Inc.’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is certainly one of the hottest games released in 2019 so far, if not the hottest. To no surprise, its announcement and release have generated a large amount of hype as a lot of people have been looking forward to the company’s new original IP after the president Hidetaka Miyazaki claimed that there would be no more Dark Souls games, the critically acclaimed series the company’s well-known for. Now that the title’s released and taking the gaming world by storm, does it live up to the hype? How difficult is it? In my humble opinion, it definitely deserves the hype, and at the same time it is likely among the most difficult games I have ever experienced (in a largely good way).

The game’s premise can be a bit confusing, which isn’t really a surprise to any veterans of FromSoftware’s games, but Sekiro takes place in feudal Japan, during the Sengoku period, around the 15/16th century. You control a shinobi (ninja) called Wolf, or Sekiro, and your job is to rescue a boy who has the power of immortality stored in his blood from people who wish to seize that power for their own. That’s not actually all to the story; there’s more but I don’t want to tread in spoiler territory so I’ll just leave it at that. A lot of the enemies you encounter are generally reminiscent of what one would expect from the time period, though the game actually features a lot of fantasy elements (not surprising considering the premise), and you’ll actually fight a lot of non-humans as you progress through the game. But at the end of the day, the game is very similar to the Dark Souls predecessors in that you don’t actually need to care about the story if you don’t want to; you’re free to just go through the level murdering almost every single entity until you reach the boss, then murder the boss as well without ever bothering to know their backstory.

How is Sekiro from a technical/display perspective? In my opinion, the game looks fantastic. The details are nice, the animations are super fluid, and I’m a fan of the medieval Japanese aesthetic. The game runs fine as well and getting 60 FPS isn’t much of an issue; I did have frame drops in a few places but a recent Nvidia driver more or less resolved those problems. Also, considering I played the PC edition, the PC port was actually really satisfactory, which isn’t really something I can say about the Souls games (though 3 was passable). I also found the UI for the most part straightforward and easy to use/understand, with my only gripe being a minor issue with how prosthetic upgrades are equipped; it sort of makes sense due to some of the prosthetic upgrades having different functions from the original but I personally think they could have streamlined the earlier upgrades better. The controller/keyboard customization is also really generous, and you’re able to map most, if not all of the controls in a way that can fit you the best. I played the game using an Xbox controller, though I’d imagine the mouse/keyboard experience wouldn’t be too shabby (I played the Souls games with mouse/keyboard).

Like any other famous FromSoftware title, Sekiro’s meat and potatoes lies in its game-play (and difficulty), and Sekiro’s game-play is absolutely tight. The combat is extremely smooth, and you as the player have a ton of control over Wolf’s movement and attacks. Traversing around the map via jumping, dashing, and grappling are all very fluid and there are few awkward animations, if any. Combat revolves around two important mechanics: posture and vitality. Attacking and damaging an enemy reduces their health and builds up their posture, and your goal is to either max out their posture bar or deplete their vitality bar (whichever one comes first) while preventing the same from happening to you, and then finish them off with a stylish execution, called a “death blow.” For veterans of the Souls games, there are a few important differences. One, there’s no stamina, so the player can attack and dodge without limit. Two, the emphasis on posture and the changes to dodge mechanics makes defense very different. Dodging in Sekiro has very few invincibility frames, so it’s a lot more difficult to evade attacks that you would normally roll through in the Souls games. Instead, focus is shifted on blocking and deflecting (perfect blocking, a.k.a blocking an attack the precise moment it would land). Blocking prevents most damage in the game, with the caveat that your own posture bar builds up, and if your posture bar fills up, you’ll get guard-broken which leaves you open to counter-attack for a short moment. However, if you learn the proper attack timings and deflect, your posture will never break, and you actually build up the enemy’s posture as well. Knowing when to be aggressive and attack, as well as learning enemy patterns to master deflections is absolutely key to getting through the game, and mastering the system really makes combat feel rewarding.

Another excellent game-play feature is the incorporation of stealth and assassinations, which makes sense since Wolf is a shinobi. Fighting multiple enemies at once in Sekiro is super difficult, so you make up for that by using your wits and the environment to avoid detection and thin out enemy numbers so that way you engage in open combat as rarely as possible. Most bosses and mini-bosses in the game require two death blows to properly finish off, and knowing how to use stealth can make a lot of very difficult fights more manageable, as you can use a stealth attack to instantly remove a mini-boss’s health bar (actual boss fights unfortunately won’t really give you the opportunity to erase their first health bar most of the time). This makes sense; after all you play as a shinobi, not a samurai, and your only goal is to get the job done, whatever it takes, honor be damned. The stealth mechanic is also really enhanced by Sekiro’s brilliant level design, as each area gives you multiple ways to approach the situation from angles the enemy won’t expect.

Sekiro also handles character progression in a fairly unique way. Killing enemies gives Wolf money (sen) and experience, and enough experience gives you a skill point, which can be invested in various skill trees. Most of the skills give you more abilities and options to defeat your enemies. However, one interesting thing is that you can’t actually increase Wolf’s base stats like health, posture, and attack power without obtaining the right items (prayer beads for health/posture and memories for attack). Prayer beads are generally dropped by mini-bosses, and memories are dropped by actual bosses. That means if you want to up your stats and stay alive longer or hit harder, you need to actually defeat the big enemies first. Wolf’s progression also comes in the form of his shinobi prosthetic left arm, and as you go through the game you’ll find more tools to be used at your disposal, and with upgrade materials found/dropped you can make those tools even stronger. The different prosthetic tools are all super cool, ranging from standard shuriken to a hat you can wear to block enemy attacks. Wolf also gets access to special techniques known as combat arts (performed by pressing the block and attack buttons simultaneously), and much like prosthetics, combat arts give you an additional option to take on your foes outside of your standard sword attacks. The brilliance behind the prosthetics and combat arts is that the game does not force you to use them; you can beat the entire game without using any of those tools, but knowing how and when to use certain arts/prosthetics will reduce the difficulty of most encounters in the game significantly.

Mikiri counter, a badass move that lets you intercept a thrust attack by stepping on the enemy’s weapon.

So just how difficult is Sekiro? In my opinion, it’s probably the hardest FromSoftware game I’ve played, for two big reasons. First, it’s completely single player; there are no multiplayer elements involved at all. In the Souls games, you can cooperate with other players or NPC’s to assist you through the level and even on boss fights. You can’t in Sekiro; every encounter is completely decided by you alone. Second, in the Souls games, any particularly challenging boss can be made easier by simply grinding souls and dumping them into levels to up your character stats. Being one-shot by a boss? Level up a few times and drop a few points into health so that no longer happens. But due to how improving base stats work in Sekiro, you can’t do that anymore, and you’re forced to actually beat the fights before you can actually improve your stats. Sure, you can acquire more skills via experience grinding, but skill points won’t make you hit harder or tank more hits. Sekiro’s boss fights are generally very well done (with one personal exception) and defeating each one really feels rewarding due to the effort required behind each victory. However, despite those difficulty changes it is easier than the Souls games in some aspects. For one, you’re not limited by stamina, your animations are generally a lot quicker, deflect windows are somewhat generous, and you can actually cancel attacks into a block, whereas most actions you perform in Souls are all commitments you need to make so you’re more vulnerable to punishes if you screw up. Also the Souls games don’t give you an option to stealth and instant-kill enemies while they’re unaware. My general opinion would be that Sekiro has a much higher skill floor than the Souls games with its steeper learning curve, but it becomes easier than the Souls games once you actually get a grasp on the fundamentals behind its combat system (assuming you don’t summon in the Souls games), which basically revolves around calculated aggression and mastering deflects.

I’ve seen controversial articles talking about how this game needs an “easy mode” or how it disrespects its players due to its difficulty, etc., and honestly after playing through the entire game and achieving the “true” ending, I disagree. With the exception of one boss that feels like it should be in Souls rather than this game due to how its mechanics function, Sekiro’s bosses generally adhere to the FromSoftware formula. Yes, you will likely get your ass handed to you the first few times you attempt each boss fight, but if you’re a Souls veteran you’ll know that death is to be expected. However, the game also expects you to learn from each death and understand your mistakes, and to slowly master each boss’s set of moves, and if you do that, you will eventually triumph. Blindly rushing into each fight expecting to button mash and win without paying attention to what the enemy does at all will only get you killed, and will continue to get you killed until you actually decide to consciously play the game. Another thing to note is that the game also encourages you to fully take advantage of your load-out and skills, and a lot of bosses in this game often have very exploitable weaknesses to certain prosthetic tools or other items, so each fight is not just a case of learning how the boss works but also learning how to master your own tool kit. Sekiro’s difficulty is great because it forces the player to play with awareness and be mindful of their own approaches and mistakes, and yields great rewards once the player does so.

Moving on from the game-play, Sekiro’s narrative is pretty interesting. For one, it’s actually more explicit/straightforward than the Souls games, and rather surprisingly there’s a lot more exposition and dialogue (also your character actually speaks). However, it still follows the classic Souls formula of prioritizing the world building, and you can figure out a lot more about the game’s universe through exploration and picking up hints and clues here and there as well as talking to NPC’s. It also conveys very similar themes to the Souls games as well; the obsession with immortality and fear of death is prominent in Sekiro, just like how the Souls games deal with the fear of change and death. The important characters are all very intriguing and on average are more interesting than most characters in the Souls games, and overall I personally enjoyed Sekiro’s story more than the Souls games. That said, mind-blowing storytelling isn’t something FromSoftware does and I wouldn’t exactly call it a storytelling masterpiece, but it is surprisingly good and honestly the majority of players who play these games aren’t really expecting one anyways.

I don’t have too many problems with the game, but there are a few minor issues. One is an inherent consequence of a design choice, and that’s the replayability. Compared to the Souls games, the incentive to replay Sekiro isn’t nearly as high, due to your inability to create different characters with different play-styles and the lack of multiplayer. Sure, you can mess around with different prosthetic tools and explore different skill trees (and I strongly encourage this in the NG+ play-throughs), but at the end of the day you’ll always be Wolf with a katana. After you’ve acquired all the skills, upgrades, and have unlocked all the various story endings, there really isn’t much left to do. In Souls, players create new characters and can use them to fight other players online, which gives the games a very long playing life-span that isn’t there with Sekiro. There’s probably a good reason why FromSoftware avoided dealing with online activity altogether for this game, but one can dream. Final issue would be with the mini-bosses, and that a lot of them are just re-hashes of the same few fights. On one hand, it’s boring, but on the other hand once you learn the few templates beating them should be relatively easy. At least the few mini-boss templates are all interesting and have challenging move-sets, so they’re still fun to fight even if you end up fighting the same mini-boss a bunch of times. And as far as the actual bosses go, there is some boss re-use, but the few re-used bosses spice things up to change the encounter and they’re excellent fights anyways so I don’t mind. I think almost all of the main boss fights are excellently designed and I think Sekiro has the most consistently good boss line-up of all the Souls games so far (excluding Bloodborne as I haven’t played that).

Overall, Sekiro is a masterpiece, and for all the hype leading up to the game’s release, FromSoftware certainly delivered. If you enjoyed Dark Souls, you’ll certainly feel at home with Sekiro (provided you actually take the time to adapt to the game’s different play style).

Rating: Definitely worth getting at retail price, easily a must-buy if you like FromSoftware. Not to mention this game won Game of the Year at the Game Awards show.

Software engineer and gaming enthusiast, writing reviews to share quality media; check out my personal site at www.edmondwu.dev

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