The more of them I play, the more I’ve come to understand that From Software’s catalogue of games are not for me. My Souls-loving friends assure me there will be a moment of clarity, a a beautiful instant suspended in time where the final piece of the Souls puzzle snaps into place. In that moment, they say with confidence, I will understand why these games are so great.
I don’t think that moment is coming. I’m simply not the audience for these games and I’ve come to terms with that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice for what it is — a shrewd and surprising evolution of the Soulsborne formula by the people who understand it best.
Sekiro‘s approach to story and design is quite different to previous From titles. It eschewes the high fantasy settings of Dark Souls and Bloodborne in favour of something more akin to a folk tale set in feudal Japan. In Dark Souls, getting behind an enemy often allowed for an instant takedown. Sekiro leans into this mechanic by making your character a Shinobi named Wolf, a light-footed swordsman with an upgradeable prosthetic hand and an apparent inability to die. A significant part of the Sekiro experience is creeping between cover and taking enemies out with a single backstab.
Souls players are familiar with rolling to avoid incoming enemy attacks. I am sad to report that the roll is gone. RIP Roll. Instead, Sekiro asks you to combine directional dodges with well-timed blocks and parries. Both Wolf and his foes have what is called Posture, an indicator of how strong their defensive movements are. Take enough hits in a row and your Posture will weaken, opening you up to stuns and devastating damage. For Wolf, breaking an enemy’s Posture down means creating a Deathblow opportunity — the ability to kill them instantly and end the fight. For stronger enemies like mini-bosses, you will have to create multiple Deathblow opportunities in order to fell them.
But Sekiro isn’t done messing with the formula. The addition of the grappling hook, a ranged rope that can grapple certain points on the high ground and quickly draw Wolf to them, is a game-changer. The ability to disengage from a fight and hide in a tree saved me over and over, giving me room to breathe in the midst of an intense or unfavourable fight. Don’t stay up there too long, however. If your enemies break line of sight, they’ll wander off and if they get too far away from you they automatically return to full health.
However, it’s Wolf’s ability to revive himself after dying that will be the most startling change for returning fans. On each run, Wolf will have one resurrect in reserve, a get out of jail free card he can play should he get caught in a fight and killed. A second possible ressurect is offered as a reward for strong play — kill enough enemies to fill a little round progress ball to get it, taking your total resurrects to two. Use both resurrects and the game will lock the ability away for a period.
The resurrection mechanic is a bit of a swerve for From, known for meatgrinder game design and placing a high value on the idea of failure as a teacher. I can already hear the cries of Souls devotees claiming it dilutes the formula or damages the high stakes boss fights that are From’s hallmarks. I can’t say that they don’t — I think these things are entirely the point of their inclusion — but they also allow for an evolution in how Soulsborne titles like Sekiro play.
Being able to ressurect Wolf lets you be a little more aggressive in your approach. Dark Souls and Bloodborne frequently had the player on the backfoot, reacting defensively to a hostile world. Sekiro flips this on its head and it takes some getting used to. It encourages the player to get stuck into enemies in ways that they might have normally shied away from.
The catch is that From knows resurrection makes the game easier. They don’t want it to be easier. Thus, and this is primary complaint, they have allowed the game greater reign to cheat in order to destroy you. One mini-boss I dealt with had an insta-kill lunge move that seemed able to grab me no matter how far away I moved from him. I saw this motherfucker do a 90-degree turn in the air to grab me and end me. Sekiro knows you can come back from the dead and so it does everything it can to make you waste it. This makes positioning more important than it’s ever been.
To help keep Wolf on his feet a little longer, players can find upgrade components for his prosthetic hand. These upgrades provide new special moves and techniques that increase Wolf’s survivability beyond anything he would be without it. The upgrades for his prosthetic are just one of three different skill trees for the character, with the others providing expanded sword techniques and overall buffs.
Visually, Sekiro is one of From’s most accomplished titles. The environmental design is beautiful and perfectly evokes its Feudal setting. The levels are much larger than they may appear at first blush, proving how far the team have gone to giving players the freedom to find their own path through much of the game. Everything feels very much of a time and place, often dark and angular, but still quite beautiful.
The character designs owe a significant debt to beloved Japanese stories, pulled as much from traditional folklore as much as more contemporary works like like Ninja Scroll. From are known for some of the most grotesque monster designs in gaming history and they put those skills to work on much more human characters. Sekiro‘s bosses are bloated, exaggerated, disgusting men. They are as ugly on the outside as they are in their hearts.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice may be From Software’s most accomplished title to date. It is clear-eyed in its vision, considered in the changes it makes, tough as nails in ways that returning players crave and utterly brutal in all new ways. If Soulsbornes are your thing, you’ll find an awful lot to love. If they’re not, Sekiro won’t change your mind.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: A smart, subtle evolution of the From Software playbook; Extremely cool setting; Res mechanic is a great one
Lowlights: If Soulsbornes aren’t your thing, it will not change your mind
Developer: From Software
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Review conducted on a PlayStation 4 Pro with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.