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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

If I could summarize Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice in one word, the word would be ‘satisfaction’. Satisfaction is a feeling that oozes off almost every facet of Sekiro, from the swordplay, mobility, world design, enemies, bosses, and most important of all with any game developed by From Software, the immense satisfaction of overcoming its challenging difficulty. For all the game does right, there are a few blemishes that keep the game from being the best it can be, but it is no wonder why so many selected this game as the Game of the Year in 2019.

Let’s open up with some basic information for the uninitiated. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a third-person action-stealth game developed by From Software and published by Activision. The game released on March 22, 2019 and is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Google Stadia. I am reviewing this game having played on a base model PS4.

Over the last decade From Software has carved its way to the top of gaming excellence with its challenging third-person RPG games in the Dark Souls trilogy and its gothic/cosmic horror-themed action game Bloodborne, all receiving critical and commercial success. Sekiro Shadows Die Twice is both a departure from From’s other titles listed above, and familiar in many ways to returning players. 

Set in a fantastical representation of Japan with a backdrop based in the Sengoku era, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice follows the character referred to as Wolf, a shinobi raised from a young age whose been tasked with protecting Lord Kuro, a kidnapped child who is a descendant of an ancient clan. Lord Kuro bestows upon Wolf the ability of resurrection which stems from his bloodline. This immortality through resurrection is important to the plot of the narrative as well as having gameplay implications that I will expand upon soon.

Before I dive into all the great parts that make up this game, I want to open with my biggest complaint against the game which is the inconsistent framerate on the base PS4 version. From the very beginning of the game all the way to the end, the framerate has issues. In the game's defense, these base model systems are old by modern standards and with this being an ambitious game made at the end of the console cycle before the new Xbox and PlayStation systems were released, problems are bound to come up. Unfortunately, poor framerate with From Software games has been a consistent issue with their last few releases on console, especially on these base models. There were several examples of the game hitching while running through more detailed environments and quite a bit of stuttering throughout many other areas in the game. On base PS4 at least, the game runs closer to 30 fps than 60 at a glance. 

There are many players out there (myself included) who do not upgrade to the “pro model” versions of systems, so ideally games should still be designed with the base model being the standard. I have been able to see examples of the game running on PC and the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, where it has a much higher and more stable framerate, so this is only really a word of warning to those of us still playing on base consoles.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Screenshot

But onto the good stuff. This narrative and focus on a named protagonist marks the first major departure from the Souls/borne games which had players create an avatar to experience the story and gameplay through.  The story in Sekiro plays out in a much more grounded and linear way compared to previous From Software games. Many of their prior game narratives are shrouded in layers of mystery, many elements of the stories being left up to player interpretation or not being directly explained. While Sekiro still maintains much of the fantasy elements that make From Software games a wonder to explore, its story is told in a far more traditional way. The tale of the lone shinobi seeking revenge on an army of samurai is not the most gripping or original story told in games, however, the narrative does move in surprising directions, and the performances of the characters do a great job at keeping the player invested. While the story is serviceable, the biggest things that keeps players invested are the action-packed gameplay and From Software’s incredible world-building and enemy designs. 

I mentioned at the beginning of this review the word satisfaction. This word came to me while engaging in a tense sword battle between Wolf and a large creature with claws for hands. Sekiro focuses more on parrying, counter-attacks, and posture-breaking as its primary ways of engaging in combat. 

The player and all enemies and bosses in the game have a posture meter that will begin to rise when blocking an incoming attack. If the meter is filled all the way, then the posture of the enemy or player will become broken, leaving them open to a devastating attack. Parrying is another major component of this system. For example, should the player see an incoming attack and they can successfully hit the block button at the exact moment of impact, then a loud clash and bright flash will occur in game, a successful deflect that reduces the amount of posture build up the player takes, and opens the enemy up for a counter-attack. 

The other aspect of the combat that is important to highlight is the ability to resurrect. In Sekiro, should the player die in combat, they have the chance to use a resurrection to get back up and continue the fight. Players can use this resurrection as a strategic advantage, tricking an enemy into thinking they’ve died only to come back and stab them in the back as they walk away. This mechanic also is useful in boss fights, giving players another chance at victory when bested by a tough foe. Resurrection has other narrative and external implications that I will get into later on in the review. 

It is of this reviewer’s personal opinion that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has some of the most engaging and viscerally satisfying sword combat of any game released in the last 5 years. Combat encounters are designed with strategic variation, some enemies are big and don’t take much posture damage, some are fast and unleash furious attack barrages that leave little room to breathe, while some involve a number of ranged enemies in addition to sword and spear users which takes some creativity into how the player approaches taking them all down, facing them head-on or taking the stealthier approach.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Screenshot

Stealth is another relatively new system in Sekiro to differentiate it from its predecessors. Stealth has always felt as somewhat of an afterthought in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but in Sekiro it is given much more attention. Environments have areas of tall grass for Wolf to hide in, enemies have indicators that appear if they suspect the player, and Wolf has a number of skills and items at his disposal that reduce noise or enhance stealth takedowns.

If these stealth mechanics sound familiar to you, you likely are not alone. The stealth mechanics in Sekiro do not break new ground in the greater stealth genre. As was stated above, they add an interesting new layer to this game that hasn’t been present or focused on nearly as thoroughly as in other From Software titles, but players that are familiar with basic stealth mechanics in video games will find themselves falling into familiar motions and strategies to deal with taking down a large group of enemies.  

In Sekiro, players will gain experience from defeating enemies like usual, but once the XP bar fills beyond a certain point, the player receives a skill point. Players will lose half their held money and half of any experience that is in their XP bar if they die, but they will not lose any skill points they have accumulated. Wolf does not have individual stats that they increase. Instead, players can use skill points in a variety of skill trees to unlock various combat abilities, stealth abilities, or beneficial upgrades like increasing the effectiveness of healing items. In order to increase Wolf’s health or strength, the player needs to collect prayer beads and battle memories, earned from besting mini-bosses and main bosses respectively. Wolf can also unlock shinobi prosthetic tools that they can fix to their prosthetic arm that allows for the use of shuriken, firecrackers, an ax, and more. These tools also can be upgraded with materials found out in the world as well as collected from downed enemies. 

This system is more streamlined than in the other RPG-focused titles and is more immediately rewarding, unlocking new moves and abilities that expand the depth of the combat and stealth systems. There are quite a few different paths of upgrades from skill trees, shinobi tool upgrades, health upgrades to attack upgrades that end up being a little overwhelming at times, specifically when trying to figure out how to best use your accumulated upgrade materials. After a while, this overwhelming sensation does disappear but the game may have benefitted from streamlining these unlocks even further, particularly the shinobi tool upgrades. They definitely feel less consequential than learning new combat abilities or increasing health and attack.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Screenshot

Another aspect of Sekiro that should be familiar to veterans of From Software games is the challenging difficulty. What is particularly challenging for someone who is a fan of Dark Souls and Bloodborne is changing the mindset and muscle memory away from prioritizing dodge rolls to standing your ground and guarding. Once the transition takes place in your mind, you will start to see yourself dying a lot less and pulling off more daring attack opportunities. That said, there are still a number of fights that will test your mettle (and the strength of your controller). 

What I find most interesting in my pondering about the game in regards to its difficulty, is that I would actually recommend people that are new to From Software’s games start with Sekiro. Let me explain. First, the game explains itself in a much clearer way than the other games. Items and special moves have very clear directions as to what they do or what buttons you press to activate them. The game has a much greater emphasis on tutorial, there is even a practice dummy you can use to hone your skills in attacking, blocking, and parrying. Second, the difficulties I discussed above stem from someone whose mind and body were trained by the previous games in From’s library. By not having that knowledge base, it would likely be easier for new players to grasp the systems in Sekiro, and while this is merely a hypothesis, I would imagine players that start on Sekiro would find the Dark Souls games and Bloodborne a bit easier by comparison. 

What does deserve special praise is From Software’s excellent world-building and enemy design. This has been a major constant throughout all of the games listed in this review. The world in Sekiro is as breathtaking in its snow-covered mountain tops as it is creepy in the poison-filled Ashina Depths and swampy Mibu Village. The massive Japanese castles loom tall, and the scale of the world is truly incredible to behold. The world is interconnected much like it is in the original Dark Souls and Bloodborne. It is always a treat being able to look to the horizon and witness a new and interesting locale that drives the player to explore further, while being able to look back and reminisce on the hardships and journey they just went through to get where they are. 

Verticality in the game world and levels are much more emphasized in this game as a whole which goes hand in hand with changes to player mobility, namely the introduction of a dedicated jump button and a grappling hook. Grapple points are placed on the tops of buildings or on large tree branches which allow for interesting platforming opportunities for the player to partake in. One great implementation of this is scaling the Ashina Castle, a truly monumental structure that pulls the game camera’s gaze upwards when standing at its gate. Enemies hide on the rooftops and dive from floating kites to try an ambush the player from above, while the rooftops also act as a point of advantage Wolf has in surveying the grounds beneath. Jumping long distances to midair grapple points never ceases to feel amazing, and being able to utilize an easy-to-access jump during fights ends up being a very useful tool in getting the upper hand in battle.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Screenshot

Another interesting aspect of the world-building that ties into both the narrative and the gameplay is the concept of Dragonrot. When Wolf resurrects in combat, while he can rise again in an attempt to seize victory, this act of rising from the dead has consequences in that NPC’s throughout the world will become sick with the titular Dragonrot. The concept of immortality and the runoff effect of Dragonrot begin to play a large part of the narrative around the halfway mark of the game. It becomes the theme and the main driving force of the plot, specifically finding a way to sever the bonds of immortality and get rid of the Dragonrot. 

But what is most interesting is the effect it has on the player. In-game, Dragonrot doesn’t actually have much of an effect. NPC’s will cough and groan and, in some cases, won’t be able to share information or talking points like they normally would. This can be particularly saddening or fill the player with a bit of guilt and grief because ultimately, it is the player’s fault that the NPC’s become afflicted. The more the player dies, the more the world becomes sick, and you will likely die a lot. The Dragonrot can be temporarily cured, but it requires the use of a consumable item that is fairly tough to come by, making it a tough decision for players to wrestle with. From Software loves discussing the implications of death in their games, but I was taken aback at the approach to Dragonrot in Sekiro and I think this is both the most digestible and far-reaching implementation/explanation of a death mechanic in a game insofar as to make the player have an emotional response of how their failure affects others. 

And as is to be expected with any From Software game, the bosses are exceptional. These fights truly test your mastery of the gameplay mechanics while also being creative and imaginative foes. Tense 1-on-1 sword duels between armored samurai soldiers, massive fantastical beasts, and ghostly dreamlike foes keep the player on their toes while also playing with expectations that veteran players may have going into a fight (shout out to the Guardian Ape). These battles above all else are the most memorable parts of the game, and it is truly amazing to witness the creativity of the team at From Software and their ability to continue making enemy and boss designs that captivate players game after game. Even if those bosses make us want to tear our hair out (looking at you Great Shinobi). 

Unfortunately, the mini-bosses suffer a little due to there being a few instances of repeated enemies. When these enemies are first encountered, they are a real challenge and are often as interesting as the main bosses. However, as the game progresses and you see the same enemies with the same attacks just sporting a different name, it is a little disappointing to see this recycled content compared to the freshness that is present throughout most of the rest of the game. Fortunately, the repeated mini-bosses are not used as egregiously to where it becomes a problem. 

There is a reason From Software is held in extremely high regard in the gaming industry. Their games are full of wonderfully fantastical environments, brutally challenging yet supremely satisfying gameplay, and expertly crafted and designed systems. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is no different. The game has a few shortcomings but ultimately, the good far outweighs the bad. From Software has been at the top for the last decade, and the future looks even brighter.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice | 9 | Excellent

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