From Software are back with another game in the Souls mould. Much like Bloodborne before it Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice makes some major changes to how the game plays whilst keeping the the atmosphere and exploration that makes the likes of Dark Souls 3 so popular. What are those changes and are they for the better?
Unlike other recent From Software games you do not get to create a character at the beginning. You play as a set character called Wolf, a shinobi in a fantasised ancient Japan who is devoted to protecting his young master. His master has magical blood that prevents death and so others are out to use it to their own ends. He is kidnapped and Wolf loses his left arm trying to defend him. Luckily his master has bestowed his gift upon him and a mysterious sculptor has provided him with a new arm which comes with many new tricks.
If you can imagine a Souls game mixed with a Tenchu title then you’ll have a fairly decent idea of how the gameplay has changed in Sekiro. Stealth plays a rather large part as does mobility and verticality. Being a sneaky shinobi Wolf can hide in tall grass, hang from ledges or press up against walls. This allows him to skulk up to enemies and perform a Death Blow – a one hit kill. All but the strongest enemies will be killed with one stealth attack so clearing out an entire area with stealth is possible.
If you get caught or stealth just isn’t your bag then you can take down enemies the old fashioned way with sword attacks. Luckily the combat is far better than Tenchu‘s but Souls fans will need to reprogram their approach. The basic flow of combat involves attacking and blocking or, better yet, deflecting enemy attacks. Most enemies you encounter will have swords or spears and so the clashing of weapons is a common and awesome occurrence in Sekiro.
Enemies have life, as do you, but it’s not necessarily their health you’re trying to deplete to defeat them. Both you and your enemies have a posture bar which fills as you block attacks. If your posture bar fills then you get stunned long enough to be left open to attack but if you break your opponent’s posture then you can perform a Death Blow on them. Different enemies will require different approaches but your goal is generally always to break an enemy’s posture for a quick(ish) kill.
Early enemies can be bullied as you attack them over and over again, not allowing them to fight back whilst others will deflect you and counter attack meaning you then have to defend or if you defend at the perfect time deflect their attack, damaging their posture even more and opening them up for more hits. Having a sword fight with a boss as you clash swords constantly before finally opening them up for a Death Blow and finishing them off is where this game shines. It takes the offensive approach to Bloodborne‘s combat and gives you a means to defend yourself, but only to encourage you to be even more offensive. The fact that there is no stamina limitation helps in this regard also.
You still have an invincible dash move but it is far less important though still incredibly useful when used at the right time. The other ability you have in your armoury is your prosthetic arm which houses shinobi tools. You find these as you explore and you can equip three at a time. Each offers a different skill which can be used to gain an advantage in specific circumstances. An axe allows you to destroy the shields of enemies whose defences cannot be breached whilst a poison blade will slowly sap the health of those struck with it. They can be very useful and can turn the tide of battle in your favour if the correct one is used at the right time but their use is limited by spirit emblems which you collect in the environment or from defeated foes to stop you from spamming them.
If you do die, which you will, then your master’s gift gives you a second chance. As long as you haven’t revived recently then you can come back to life with half health to hopefully defeat whoever or whatever you’re facing. Which is important as death is quite punishing. There are idols which act in the same way as bonfires do in the Souls games, as teleport points and checkpoints for when you die. However you don’t drop a bloodstain like in those games with a chance of recollecting all your gained experience. Instead you lose half your unspent experience and money with no chance of getting it back. Something called Unseen Aid can happen which stops you losing anything but it’s only a chance and the more you die the less chance there is of it popping.
Sekiro is a very hard game, even by Souls standards so you better get used to this harsh penalty. If you have a lot then it’s best to spend it or farm enough experience to push yourself over the threshold to get a skill point as a few failed runs on a boss will quickly deplete your stocks. Although both currencies are important they aren’t how you strengthen like in the Souls games. Attack power and your maximum health are tied to progress now, with mini-bosses rewarding you with an item that can be used to increase your maximum health and bosses granting you an item which ups your attack permanently. The skill points you earn through experience are used to fill out skill trees which grant you both passive and active skills which can be incredibly useful and money is used to buy items from vendors or upgrade your prosthetic tools. For those who usually get through Souls titles by grinding out levels, things may be tough. Similarly there is no multiplayer, so no calling on help for bosses.
Bosses are far tougher than the enemies you’ll encounter when exploring. Sekiro‘s environment design is strong as you’d expect but it’s taken a different approach with areas acting as little sandboxes for you to stalk and take down your prey. You can use your grappling hook to latch onto predetermined points to get above your enemies or use items to lure them away from the crowd. Even if you’re spotted you don’t have to risk fighting, your infinite stamina and grappling hook allowing you to get away to a safe area and wait for things to die down before going back to pick off the rest. That’s not to say that normal enemies are push overs, especially in groups, but using your abilities will give you a huge advantage, whilst bosses will often just pound you into submission until you learn their attacks or simply go elsewhere if you can to return when you’re stronger.
The world isn’t quite so intertwined as the Souls games but it is still a strong character in its own right and beautifully designed, both structurally and visually. Paths will branch off in multiple directions, often I would forget I hadn’t fully explored an area because I’d just kept following a path which would lead to another area and then another. Being able to teleport between idols makes it easy to go back and clear areas out however and NPCs do their best to point you in the right direction without being too overtly helpful.
Speaking of NPCs, Souls fans will appreciate their tales and side quests as these are something that are very recognisable as Souls. Indeed the characters, story telling and world is all reminiscent of the Souls series and what stops this from being classed as a different type of game altogether. Despite the different location the feeling of exploring villages, caverns, dungeons and more mystical areas is the same, which is one of my favourite parts of these games.
One major problem has carried over from the other games as well. The camera really struggles in tight areas to give you a view of the action and, possibly because of the style of combat, I found the camera to be a far bigger problem in Sekiro than any previous title. If you happen to be backed into a wall Wolf will simply disappear making judging deflections and dodges nigh on impossible. Certain larger enemies can also be difficult to read as the camera struggles to give all the information you need. It can be overcome and you quickly learn to try and stay in the centre of a room, but it can lead to added frustration when you die from something that isn’t your fault, as you’ve probably already died plenty of times when it is your fault. Also due to the lack of levelling there’s not a lot of variety for character builds or weapons which may take away from the replayability for some people, though there are four endings to go for.
That’s not enough to ruin Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice however. I won’t say I prefer the combat to normal Souls titles, but once you’ve got your head around the more in depth combat crushing weaker enemies with a single, well timed deflection is empowering, as is having an epic back and forth with a powerful boss. It’s some of the best swordplay I’ve seen in a game. Exploration is still rewarding, whilst the atmosphere is as strong as ever. Certain changes will actively put off many, it depends how you play the games usually and what you play them for, but for those who get satisfaction from overcoming an initially impossible obstacle then you’re well catered for here. Just be prepared to die more than twice.
+ Incredible swordplay
+ Beautiful visual design
- Replayability may suffer due to lack of build variety