|System: PS4, Xbox One, PC|
|Release: March 22, 2019|
|Players: 1 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood and Gore, Violence|
by Benjamin Maltbie
FromSoftware has essentially invented a game genre, often called Soulsborne, inspired by its titles Dark Souls and Bloodborne. But even if you don't accept this classification, then people have to accept that it has, at the very least, cultivated a sense of expectations for its own games and the others that seek to benefit from the term’s popularity. FromSoftware’s latest, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, is a game that takes those expectations, fulfills them in most ways, then subverts them in others with a reworked formula that takes all the familiar ingredients, changes their proportions, and tops the whole recipe off with some unexpected garnish. Players experiences in this space will have to unlearn some of their behaviors in order to be successful in Sekiro, and the subsequent experience is as delicious as it is sinister.
In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, players inhabit the role of Wolf, a shinobi beholden to his child master. His memory is suffering, and the narrative unravels in an interesting way as a result. Players duck into his memories for some legs of the adventure while, at their leisure, moving forward in the primary plot. Early on, in what is essentially the tutorial section, Wolf is defeated and wakes up with a mechanical prosthetic affixed to the place where his arm, which was cut off by an enigmatic and powerful foe, once was. It is here that we learn two important things. One is that, Wolf can revive himself. The other is that his prosthetic can be upgraded and will play an essential role in combat.
Wolf's resurrection is also where Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice begins to align more closely with the dark and ominous aesthetic of the Dark Souls series. When he revives, it is at the expense of others. Revive enough times, and nearby NPCs will be afflicted with something called Dragonrot that sickens them and makes it hard to complete their questlines. It also lessens the likelihood that “Unseen Aid” will occur, which sucks because Unseen Aid is, at its best, approximately a one out of three chance that Wolf will retain lost currency after dying. Dragonrot can be cured, but there’s a limit. This means using the cure becomes a strategic choice. Later, illusion magic and headless beasts that are easier to handle with the right items will also further underscore the dark themes and resource management aspects of this game.
Combat is fast, even when you attempt to keep your distance so that you can better gauge your opponent's abilities. This game has a jump button that plays a role in fights, and sprinting is a tool that doesn’t deplete Wolf’s endurance. These are both departures from Soulsborne traditions, and they are vital changes.
Poise is also more important than it ever has been and it’s a stat that doesn’t merely apply to the protagonist. Monitoring the enemy’s poise is at least half of the battle. As health depletes, poise depletes faster. When poise is gone, players can then initiate a death blow to obliterate a portion of an enemy’s health. Often, one death blow is enough to kill someone, but the game’s tougher enemies require multiple death blows.
This focus on poise is part of what quickens Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice's pace, because backing off gives your opponent an opportunity to rebuild their poise. Managing their health and poise is the key to victory, so long as you keep an eye on your own meters in the meantime. Oh, and keep your block up, because, unlike most games, guarding recharges your poise faster than dropping it.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice doesn’t leave you stranded when it comes to mastering its mechanics. This is important, because mastery of this game isn’t about deciphering key builds or routes through it. There is a training dummy, of sorts, in the form of an NPC who can’t die; he simply resurrects as a function of the game’s narrative. I’ve sparred bloodily with him for countless hours, mastering various techniques. Parrying is key, but so are other reactions that are denoted by a red kanji that appears above Wolf’s head. Sometimes, players will have to jump over a lunging attack. Other times, they will need to step onto a spear as it thrusts in their direction, opening the enemy up to a counter. Because this red kanji often means you are about to die or near death, knowing how and when to react will often be what determines whether or not you survive.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is full of mini-bosses that are often presented unceremoniously, but can be just as challenging as proper bosses. In some ways, they are even more enjoyable. These generals, beasts, or otherwise atypical creatures frequently reside in enemy camps. Consequently, there are a variety of routes one can take to dispatch them. Here is where stealth kills feel the most fulfilling, which is appropriate given this developer worked on Tenchu. Players can sneak around an area, brutally murder the underlings, deal with onlookers, then, if lucky, stealthily apply a deathblow to the unsuspecting big bad. It’s a necessary approach at times, because if you, like me, depend on luck to get through some fights, than this freebie goes a long way.
Another fight, against a putrid, lumbering foe called Juuzou the Drunkard features a helpful NPC standing on the outskirts of the battle arena. You can elect to have him join you from the start, but the nearby enemies will make quick work of him. If you can get rid of them first, then you will get more mileage against Juuzou with this person's assistance.
Other times, the best strategy is just to withdraw entirely. There is often something else you can do along one of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice's other narrative paths. A particularly irksome battle against a Chained Ogre teaches players this lesson early on. Eavesdropping on nearby enemies reveals that the creature, whose eyes are red, isn’t a huge fan of fire. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything that was fire-y or flame adjacent, so I gave up after a few tries. Dipping into a mission within Wolf’s memories led me to uncover a camp of baddies circled around something called a flame barrel. They were talking about how cool it was, so I killed them, took it, and turned it into a nice prosthetic upgrade.
A fight against Lady Butterfly also benefits from retreating to gather useful items. Repeatedly, you might find that butting your head against the wall isn’t the best strategy. Go do something else, even if it’s just to unwind, so you can come back at a fight with a fresh head.
Of course, butting your head against the wall will sometimes be the only option. When victory comes from this method, it will feel incredibly fulfilling, which is part of what makes these sorts of games an absolute treat. Early on, the potential for frustration will be apparent, but so will the potential for fun. The game’s systems are so clearly enjoyable that you might even find that you love the game before you’re actually having fun. The promise is on the horizon from the get go.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a worthy entry into FromSoftware’s repertoire. It’s different, to be sure, and players won’t find any of the interesting multiplayer options present in the developer's other games. That isn’t a detractor at all. Instead, there’s a pure experience to behold, unimpeded by optimized builds, distracting player invasions, and the ability to ask for help from cooperative partners. It’s a game that asks you to succeed on your own and creates an intimate, engaging experience as a result. Oh, and you can pause the game to use items or take a breather this time around, because really, the game doesn’t need to be any more difficult than it already is. It has already found the perfect balance of risk and reward.