Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
As developer From Software has mentioned several times in the past, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not a Soulsborne series game, though it sports many of the same characteristics as its Dark Souls and Bloodborne predecessors. Instead, Sekiro feels like a natural evolution of the narrative concepts and gameplay traits From has spent many years perfecting through its Soulsborne titles.
There are still secret-filled environments to explore, tense combat trials to master, and, naturally, mighty boss enemies to overcome. That, however, is pretty much where the similarities end. Sekiro is very much its own beast, inviting players into a mesmerizing world of Japanese mythology, and pitting them against some of the most grueling challenges From has ever dreamed up.
Of course, to best those challenges players get to wield the unbridled power of a master ninja, making for a gameplay experience that expertly rides the line between intimidating and awe-inspiring, between unapologetically frustrating and incredibly satisfying.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Sekiro’s protagonist is a seasoned shinobi known only as The Wolf. However, just because he wears little armor and has a penchant for stealth, doesn’t mean he’s not also a capable combatant. The Wolf can face down foes in open conflict and strike them dead from the shadows with equal degrees of mastery.
It’s in acclimating to The Wolf’s various movement and combat capabilities that Soulsborne veterans will see one of the biggest departures from the classic Soulsborne formula. Unlike the playable Soulsborne protagonists, The Wolf is incredibly swift and agile, able to leap, sprint, crouch, slide, and even swim with ease.
Shortly into the game, The Wolf’s left arm is replaced with a unique ‘Shinobi Prosthetic’ that further opens up his range of movements. One of the prosthetic’s key functions is a grappling hook which allows players to vault up to previously unreachable perches. For a tried and true Soulsborne fan, it can actually be quite jarring to suddenly have such unfettered vertical freedom, but once you get used to it, you start to see just how dynamic even a routine combat encounter can be.
Of course, grappling around the environment is just one of the many advantages granted through the prosthetic. Players can also find special shinobi tools which augment and expand the prosthetic’s combat functionality. Depending on the tool that’s equipped, the prosthetic can transform into a shield-breaking axe, a shuriken launcher, or even a close-range flame cannon amongst other things.
The player can have three different prosthetic tools equipped at any one time, ensuring they’re ready for whatever tactics their enemies utilize. These tools can also be interchanged on the fly, making the whole prosthetic tool system feel akin to Bloodborne’s weapon transformations. A particular enemy (or boss) may be hardly affected by one tool and highly vulnerable to another, encouraging players to experiment and pay close attention to enemy behaviors.
Another key departure for Sekiro is in how it tells its story. From’s previous games tended to obscure their larger narratives to the point where only the most dedicated sleuths could piece together what was going on. With Sekiro, From provides a more even balance of clear story beats and unfolding mysteries.
The Wolf’s driving motivation is to rescue a young lord from the villainous Ashina clan, but what starts as a simple find-and-rescue mission slowly expands into something much bigger, and much stranger.
What are the Ashina clan’s motivations for kidnapping the young lord? Why is The Wolf unable to remember his past? How is he able to resurrect himself after falling in combat? The answers to these and other questions are slowly teased out over time, adding another layer of motivation for players to pursue. This is a From Software game, though, which means it won’t just hand those answers over without first making the player clear some seriously high hurdles.
Again, much in the vein of the Soulsborne series, Sekiro imparts lessons to the player through constant failure. Even standard enemy grunts can cut The Wolf to pieces if given the chance, and no matter how much the player improves The Wolf’s stats and combat capabilities there will always be titanic boss enemies who can easily fell him with a single solid blow. The odds are forever stacked against the player, but through perseverance (and no small degree of patience) victory is always attainable.
The rhythm a Sekiro player must fall into should again feel familiar to Soulsborne vets. When you first encounter a boss they can seem virtually untouchable. But after a few deaths (or ten or twenty) you start to see the seams in their armor, the holes in their defenses. Discovering these weak spots doesn’t make the battle itself any easier, but they do provide a glimmer of hope.
As the boss’s health drops lower and lower that glimmer builds into a bright fire of determination which gives the player an almost imperceptible edge. Finally, what at first seemed like an impossible undertaking becomes an elative reality. The boss is dead and the player stands triumphant. The victory in turn spurs the player onward to meet the next boss, and the next, repeating the cycle of anguish, learning, and finally victory.
Before the player can reach that victory, though, they have to master Sekiro’s unique melee combat system. Sekiro ditches the established Soulsborne stamina mechanics in favor of a vitality/posture system which feels closer in nature to the Ki system from Team Ninja’s own Dark Souls-esque title Nioh. Rather than simply draining an enemy’s life bar the player instead has to figure out how to “break” their enemy’s posture, leaving them open to a finishing “Shinobi Deathblow” technique.
For smaller standard enemies, breaking their posture can be as simple as whacking them with a few consecutive sword slashes. However, more advanced enemies (including bosses) aren’t felled so easily. The player might have to deflect the enemy’s attacks (i.e. guard right at the moment before the attack connects) or use a particular shinobi tool in order to weaken an enemy’s posture.
Standard and boss enemies alike also become more vulnerable as the player chips away at their vitality (health bar). This means that, similar to Bloodborne, playing defensively isn’t really an option in Sekiro. Sure, you need to worry about not getting hit, but if you’re not aggressively harassing your opponent, then chances are they’ll ultimately overwhelm you. Again, Sekiro forces the player to find the sweet spot between skillful evasion and unrelenting offense.
Thanks to Sekiro’s stealth mechanics, the player can often end battles before they even begin. Unfortunately, those same stealth mechanics aren’t 100 percent reliable, and are actually the root of some of the game’s more prevalent frustrations.
In fairness to From Software, The Wolf can utilize as many different stealth techniques as one would expect of a master shinobi. Players can sneak through tall grass, backstab enemies, and even perform ledge and aerial takedowns. The problem is that sometimes the game decides the player isn’t in the exact right spot to initiate such techniques.
If you miscalculate by even a small degree, your agile aerial takedown can quickly turn into you futilely flailing your sword in the air at nothing. Sneak up on an enemy too quickly and your planned stealth takedown will instead result in a standard attack which alerts your intended target and any of their nearby friends. These constant foibles made me wish that From had implemented a dedicated stealth takedown button rather than having the standard attack button pull double duty.
Also, the different “alert states” which From implemented for the enemy AI oftentimes made me wish it hadn’t bothered with stealth mechanics at all. Based on the player’s actions and position, enemies can switch between standard, caution, and full-alert states. However, some enemies can switch between those states seemingly at random and in a clearly unfair manner. For example, even if they lose direct line of sight some enemy types (mostly archers) can “remember” where the player is even if they’re moving around behind sight-blocking physical barriers.
Oftentimes the only true way to make enemies lose track of your position is by moving far enough away to “cancel” the encounter; breaking line of sight is rarely enough. Also, if an enemy is in a caution state, they’ll often “detect” the player even through solid barriers, forcing the player to wait out the long caution state to ensure they remain undiscovered.
Sekiro’s stealth mechanics aren’t totally unusable, but having to constantly learn their (often unfair) limitations the hard way can be quite grating. When they work you feel like a true master of the shadows. When conditions completely out of your control cost you a sweet stealth takedown for the umpteenth time, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Sekiro’s stealth elements feel just a bit too risky to be consistently rewarding.
Even with its less-than-reliable stealth mechanics, though, Sekiro is a must-play title for Soulsborne fans. It feels both like an homage to From’s roots (specifically Dark Souls and the oft-forgot Tenchu series) and a clear indication of how those roots have in turn shaped the studio.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will challenge you, it will push you, and you can bet it will frustrate you. However, it also imparts the very same lesson which From Software has been teaching gamers for years now: there’s nothing sweeter than a victory won over seemingly insurmountable odds. The setting and specific rules may have changed, but Sekiro once again proves that if there’s one thing From is good at it’s keeping players on their toes (when they’re not dead at least).