It’s here people, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a game that will be brilliant and frustrating in equal measure. I know a lot of people, including myself have been waiting in anticipation for what From Software will create next. The Soulsbourne games, as they have been lovingly dubbed on the internet have a very large cult following. They are known for their difficulty, amazingly deep lore, brilliant level design and great combat. For me though, they are known for the rewarding feeling you get when finally overcoming that boss that’s been haunting you for hours on end.
I have not always been a fan of these games and on several occasions nearly left the genre forever. I bought Dark Souls on the PS3 and traded it in the day after. Then I bought Dark Souls 2, tried and tried to get into it but couldn’t. It was Bloodborne that kindled my love for these games. After 2 days of struggling with the opening section, it finally ‘clicked’ and I have been addicted ever since. I was playing them completely wrong and did not understand the mechanics and gameplay flow properly.
I have since gone back and got the platinum trophy in all these games I gave up on and it was a great experience. They are hard but never unfair. I will say this, once I had got over the steep learning curve they actually were not that hard. They do take dedication and some learning but that’s what makes them great. They do not hold your hand, they respect your intelligence and expect you to put the work in and evolve as a player. This genre of game is now one of my favourites and I have been waiting for Sekiro with anticipation.
Right onto Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice then. As always with these games, the plot and lore are heavy and sometimes overwhelming. You play Sekiro, bodyguard of the divine heir Kuro. Kuro is captured by Genichiro, who thinks he can use the heirs ‘Dragon Heritage’ to create an immortal army and prevent the fall of his clan. You attempt to stop Genchiro but after a valiant battle, lose your arm and are presumed dead. Eventually, you wake up, find out you had been given the Dragon Heritage years before and are now immortal. You are given a prosthetic arm, given some brief directions and you set off on your quest. It’s time to take revenge. Restore your honour and kill ingeniously.
Straight away I noticed some glaring differences from the Soulsbourne formula. I know it’s a new title but I will be comparing it a lot to the Soulsbourne games, it’s impossible not to. Firstly, the world is a lot more vertical, mainly due to your prosthetic arm being fitted with a grappling hook. You can access rooftops, trees and all sorts of shortcuts and hidden areas. It really changes up the formula by just adding this feature. You can survey the area from above and plan your attack strategy. This brings another new feature to the table, stealth. You could be stealthy in the previous From Software games but Sekiro does up the sneaky-sneaky quite a lot.
There are overgrown bushes dotted through the areas that you can crouch in to stay hidden. This paired with the grappling hook and verticality mean you can kill a lot of enemies before the action kicks off. Making things a bit easier on yourself and who doesn’t want that? The areas, therefore, become more tactical in nature. In previous titles, I moved slowly through areas trying to take enemies one at a time attempting to make progress. With Sekiro, I tactically planned my route from on high, stealth killed a bunch of enemies then cleaned up the rest as normal. It does feel different and gives Sekiro an identity of its own.
Secondly, the death mechanics are very different. While you are killing enemies you build up a restoration meter. This meter allows you to revive yourself once and changes the gameplay massively. On death, as long as the meter is full, you can choose to die or resurrect. It does not take many kills to fill so you will usually have it available to you. It’s a nice feature and saved my life a lot. Sometimes you can even leave it for a few seconds, the enemies turn around and you can get a couple of stealth kills in upon your return to the living.
When you die, you do not drop all your experience points and have to try and retrieve it like previous From Software titles. If you die, really die, you lose half of your XP and money. There is another meter which normally sits at 30% called Unseen Aid that sometimes activates and prevents you from losing your money and XP. Giving you a free death, so to speak. Sometimes upon death, you will be infected by Dragonrot, a blood disease that decreases your Unseen Aid percentage. Luckily, this can be healed by an NPC in the game so it’s not too detrimental. It was always nice to die and not lose your hard earned experience and currency, even if it was quite infrequent.
Let’s get stuck into the combat, this combat system, while familiar is quite different from From Software’s previous titles. Gone is the stamina bar that we all were bound by, now we have a posture bar to be constantly aware of instead. Posture is vital in this game and can make the difference in beating an evil boss or being shredded for the 40th time in a row. Once an enemies posture or yours for that matter is broken, you are open for powerful attacks and you can deal out death blows. Death blows are instant kill finishers, or in the case of bosses take them on to their next stage, form or health bar. These can also be performed from a stealth location, meaning stealth does play a vital part in deciding on how to approach an area and sometimes bosses.
Combat takes the form of sword fighting most of the time, blocking, parrying and counter-attacking are all vital skills to master. They have been present in previous games but are a must in this game. Some enemies and bosses are very hard to hit and the battle is a case of counter-attacking, dodging and gradually chipping away at their posture. Once you have broken that you can perform death blows and can emerge victorious. The combat systems are superb, they do take some practice and have a steep learning curve but it’s definitely worth it. When you have got to grips with its combat Sekiro makes you feel incredibly powerful, you will be sneaking, slicing and dicing through its enemies and breakneck speed. It’s beautiful to see and even more beautiful to perform.
As always in From Software games, the enemy and boss designs are just incredible. Just as you think you have all the mechanics down you get thrown a curveball. There is so much enemy variety and amazing design work on the bosses. You have to constantly adapt and change your style to suit your adversary. There are no games like these and that’s why they are so popular. Everything from archers to giants, weird creatures to ninjas. You are never fully comfortable and it feels amazing. You never know what’s around the next corner, you always have to be on your toes and make sure your prepared. In no other type of game can you be killed by the easiest enemy in the game if you take them for granted. Believe me, it happened to me a few times.
I love the level design on offer in Sekiro. You have multiple paths, shortcuts, secret areas and loot to find. You’re never fully sure you are even going the right way, this is accentuated even more with your grappling hook tool. Swinging and jumping to areas you would normally think are off limits, finding a never-ending supply of new areas and hidden bosses to encounter, and probably get killed by. The areas are varied and have lovely themes to them, dungeons, castles, reservoirs and flaming estates. They are a joy to explore and discover.
Helping you through these areas and serving as checkpoints are idols to locate. These idols, once found, act as fast travel points and checkpoints. You can refill your healing items here too but on doing so respawn all your enemies, minus the bosses and mini-bosses. Standard fare for these games really. It’s always great to be down to zero health items, turning a corner to see the safety and haven of an idol. Rest up, refill your healing gourd and push on. It’s a great system that really sets these games apart, a system I did not understand when I first started playing these titles and a system I now love dearly.
Your healing gourd can be upgraded by finding gourd seeds. Upon giving them to a certain NPC your number of uses will be increased so it’s worthwhile hunting them down to make your journey easier. There are other items at your disposal, many, many, many items. As with all these games you will need to spend a bit of time in your inventory working out what certain items do and which items are beneficial to use. You can equip 5 of them to your quick start menu for emergencies. These include temporary stat buffs, small healing items, powders with different effects and even coin purses.
Another difference I noticed in this game was that you can pause the game. That may sound weird but some of From Software’s previous titles could not be paused. I remember going to get a cup of tea when I was playing one of their previous titles and getting mauled while I was away. I always made sure I put my PS4 in standby after that. Luckily in Sekiro, when you enter the inventory the game pauses, which is nice but also lets you consume items at your leisure. You can pause during a boss battle and survey your situation. Maybe even use some items to turn the tide of the battle in your favour.
During your journey, you will find additional tools for your prosthetic arm. These act like additional weapons and tools to help you vanquish your foes. Your uses are limited though so you need to be sparing with them and use them when required. They range from spears to axes and even include longer-range weapons for you to try. You can have 3 in play at any one time and they all have advantages and disadvantages. Also, some work better against some enemies than others so setting yourself up correctly is crucial for survival.
If there is one thing I missed from the previous From Software games it’s the stat and character building. Don’t get me wrong, Sekiro is great and has plenty to enjoy and experiment with. I just miss deciding what stats to upgrade, finding new weapons and armour and trying out new builds. You have several different skill trees in Sekiro and can upgrade your health and attack power at regular intervals. I missed picking whether to upgrade my health, my strength or any of the other stats available. I missed the number of different character styles you could have but I do feel this is deliberate. It’s more story driven game and you’re playing an actual character rather than something you have created yourself. It’s only a small thing but I thought I should mention it.
Graphically Sekiro is beautiful, it’s not top tier in the graphics department by any means but From Software games never are. It’s very pretty, has a wonderful aesthetic and very enjoyable to look at. The environments are beautiful, bosses and enemies are rendered nicely and the UI simple and easy to use. I have been taking quite a lot of screenshots for this review and some of them are stunning. Some of the character faces can look a bit dated but overall its a very clean, nice looking game.
Sekiro’s sound design is really good, everything from the eerie music to the sound of swords clashing together is believable and well produced. It’s the sound designs job to keep you grounded in the game’s world, accentuate the highs and lows of gameplay and create tension. Sekiro does this and more, the music in boss fights really creates a sense of anxiety and I am completely immersed the whole time while playing. The graphics and sound of this game really work together well to set the scene and ground you into its phenomenal world.
As always I like to stick a performance section on the end of my reviews, no-one likes a broken game do they? While Sekiro is not perfect, it’s damn close. I had zero bugs, no crashes or issues what so ever. I did notice a small framerate drop, it was however very very rare. Almost unnoticeable. On the whole, it was very smooth, very stable and a joy to play. When the combat and gameplay are focused on timing like this game is, performance is vital. The game performed amazingly and there are no qualms in this department. It’s the smoothest, fastest From Software game I have played it and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I would, however, have liked an option to toggle framerate or resolution mode on the PS4 Pro like many recent games.
If you don’t mind a challenge, don’t mind learning systems and techniques, you will love Sekiro. It does not hold your hand and does not mess about. It will be hard, you will hit walls you cannot overcome straight away and must evolve as a player to proceed. Its rewarding gameplay is like nothing on the market and once you understand the game it becomes very addictive. I was stuck on a boss for hours yesterday and when I finally beat it, it was euphoric. That is the feeling I want from gaming, all the time. I had to change, learn and be better to progress and it was beautiful.
The game does lack the character building and weapon options of previous From Software games. I think this is fine and it gives Sekiro its own identity but it will bother some people. There are enough differences in the gameplay to make the game stand out and some of the new additions, such as the grappling hook are fantastic. It’s smooth, fast and unforgiving. The only people I do not recommend the game to are people who get stressed easily and maybe people who do not have the time to dedicate to it. Sekiro will take time to learn, don’t give up and you will come through the other side a better player and feel extremely rewarded. There is a lot of game for your money and I absolutely loved it. I will carry on playing it and hopefully see everything this amazing title has to offer.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*