Sekiro: Shadows Die Over and Over
I remember the first tease of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It was during the Game Awards in 2017, a short 30-second clip revealing nothing but the tagline.
I remember the From Software fanbase launching into a frenzy of speculation. This mechanical contraption could be some kind of trick weapon, indicating a sequel to Bloodborne. The script in the background looked Japanese, maybe we're looking at a reboot or sequel to Tenchu. It was exciting to know From had a new game in development, but without any further details we could only wait impatiently for more to be revealed.
Living up to a legacy
I've been a fan of From Software since Dark Souls. I missed the hype around Demon's Souls and played it years later, since I didn't have a PS3 at the release. I hit a wall almost immediately in DS1. I remember when it launched I took the wrong path, delving down into New Londo ruins and dying repeatedly to the ghosts. I played for a few hours and stopped, frustrated and confused why I hadn't made any progress. I didn't look anything up online, and I didn't return to the game for six months.
Eventually, after months of reading online how great the game was, I decided to give it another go. I spoiled my experience and followed a guide through the whole game. That feels a little shameful now, but it lowered the barrier to entry so I could see all the game had to offer. I fell in love with the world and did a few more runs to 100% the game on 360. From Software quickly became one of my favorite developers, if not number one.
I've played through them all, DS1, 2, 3, Demon's Souls, and Bloodborne, but I've never been one of the super-hardcore. I never spent much time in PVP, I didn't mess around with really unique builds or try to get through the games without leveling or taking a hit. I don't think I've beaten any of the games without summoning help for at least one boss fight. I've never been good at the timing for parrying so I rarely bothered with it, either beefing up with heavy armor or dodging my way through everything. In short, I love these games, and I've beaten all of them, but I'm far from a top-tier player.
Sekiro is not a "Souls" game. It feels closer to Bloodborne than any of the others, but it's an even further step removed.
- Instead of a massive roster of weapons and armor you have one weapon, eight or nine prosthetic tools, and no armor.
- You have three stats: vitality, posture, and attack power. These can only be increased by defeating bosses and mini-bosses. You cannot grind to buff your stats.
- Instead of leveling stats, the experience you gain is spent on skills from five different skill trees including passive and active skills.
- There is a dedicated jump button and a grappling hook that makes exploring the world feel amazing.
- No more stamina. Sprint to your heart's desire, and unleash a flurry of attacks without worrying about running out of juice to dodge away.
In previous From games, after DS1, I started with an immediate grasp of all the basic mechanics. The formula never changed too much from one to the next.
Sekiro is a whole different beast, and requires a different approach. Combat still revolves around timing, learning your enemy's moveset and attacking or defending as needed, but there's a huge emphasis on deflecting to create openings for offense. Perfectly timing your parries will sometimes break the enemy's attack patterns, and it will also fill up their posture meter, which you quickly learn is just as important as their health. When you fill up an enemy's posture meter, that opens them up for a deathblow. In the case of trash mobs this is an instant kill, and for bosses and minibosses is the only way to finish off one of their health bars. An enemy's posture takes longer to recharge the lower their health is, so boss battles are often a dance to whittle away their health bar and slowly build that posture meter.
Stringing together a sequence of deflections and using those opportunities to attack feels amazing. I haven't played another game that matches the feeling of a duel between swordsmen. Holding down the block button will quickly fill up your own posture meter and leave you open to attack, but nailing those deflections will keep you in control of the flow of battle. Deflections are especially rewarding against bosses, and give you much needed windows for damage. The Guardian Ape, for example, sometimes attacks with a massive overhead swing. The windup is long and you can easily dodge out of the way, but if you stay in position and get the deflection, the Ape will stagger and you can rip into him for a few hits before he gets back up.
Your suite of prosthetic tools complement the combat and give you a leg up against certain enemy types. Shurikens will knock opponents out of the air, and you can follow them up with a chasing slice to quickly close distance. The axe breaks through enemy shields. The flame vent torches foes, and some enemies are especially weak to fire. You can have three tools equipped to cycle through at any one time, and they all have their place in battle. Upgrades offer tweaks that don't feel overpowered, like a spear that allows you to rush enemies or firecrackers that launch in a 360-degree radius instead of just out front.
The combat system is incredibly satisfying. It's a curated experience and a big step away from the Souls game, which allowed for a huge variety of builds between weapons, armor, and spells. I do think this might hurt the replay value, but it's not the same type of game. While some players are disappointed by the lack of different play styles, I'm excited to see From branch out into something new, and I think the end result of their experimentation is a success.
Masters of world building
The artists at From consistently deliver dangerous, dark worlds coated in grime and blood, punctuated by moments of absolute beauty. The Japanese mountains where Sekiro takes place are no exception.
I've explored a ramshackle village, dingy underground passages, the dense watchtowers of a massive castle, a gorgeous temple in the mountains, and dozens of other unique locales. I think the gothic splendor of Bloodborne's Yharnam remains my favorite of From's creations, but Sekiro's Japan is majestic. I think the world's design is even further enhanced by the way you're able to interact with it, thanks to the grappling hook. Soaring from roof to roof over Ashina Castle, or descending carefully into the depths of the Sunken Valley, the environment feels more like a playground than in From's past output.
I was surprised to gain the ability to dive underwater late in the game. It's only a crucial mechanic for one or two situations, but it felt amazing to dive into the huge lake by Fountainhead Palace and realize I could fully explore its depths (and swim frantically back to the surface when I discovered the Headless at the bottom).
There's a decent variety of enemy types throughout the game, though you will run across a few minibosses with similar designs and only slightly differing movesets. The soldiers and samurai of Ashina Castle, the monks of Senpou Temple, the cursed little weirdos in Mibu Village, the terrifying monkeys of the Sunken Valley, or the rifle-toting sharpshooters manning the Gun Fort—the enemy designs are creative and suited to their environments.
Sekiro offers some amazing boss fights that stand with the all time greats in From's catalog, both in design and difficulty. Human combatants like Genichiro Ashina or Great Shinobi Owl offer up incredibly tense duels. When you master their movesets it feels thoroughly satisfying to pull off a string of attacks and deflections. Monstrous bosses like the Guardian Ape or Blazing Bull lean on your mobility and prosthetic tools, sprinting around the arena and darting in for a quick strike, or using your tools to gain a momentary advantage.
I have to call out the Divine Dragon boss as one of my favorites, purely because it feels so otherwordly. It's not a difficult fight, but the sheer spectacle of the arena and the boss itself took my breath away.
Settling into Ashina
I've beaten the game once, but I'm not ready to leave Sekiro's world. I have a few more endings to see, prosthetic tools to upgrade, and skills to unlock.
I remain fascinated by Sekiro. I've barely started my NG+ playthrough and I find myself taking my time more than I did the first time through, not because I want to cautiously explore every nook and cranny, but because I want to take pictures of them. Sekiro has awakened the tourist in me. To put this into perspective, I've never been much of screenshot taker. I appreciate games with a photo mode, and I'll play around with it a little bit, but it never takes up much of my time.
Playing Sekiro, I've been taking screenshots every time I notice some beautiful scenery. I've been recording almost all of my boss fights and uploading them to Youtube. I'll find myself rewatching my own videos, reliving the glorious moment I conquered a boss that took me 20-30 attempts to master. This experience isn't leaving my head anytime soon.