America - Front
America - Back
By Rex Hindrichs 23rd Apr 2019 | 5,324 views
The "Soulslike has become a genre unto itself. Deliberate, atmospheric, and tough as nails – but also motivating you to keep trying and get better until you conquer its many challenges. This formula has proven both addictive and influential, but you can only make the same game so many times before it starts to get stale. With the Dark Souls trilogy concluded, it was time to spice up that formula with new additions, subtractions, and balances. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice capitalizes on this opportunity to merge FromSoftware’s past, present, and future to beautiful effect.
You play as Wolf, a shinobi serving his lord in a reimagined Sengoku period Japan. War has ravaged the country and those with power fight to hold on to and acquire more of it. When the Divine Heir is kidnapped by another clan, defending him costs you an arm and nearly your life. A mysterious stranger gives you shelter and the tools you’ll need to get back on your feet and take the fight to the enemy. Now you must fulfill your duty to rescue your lord and vanquish the threats that plague him by any means necessary.
Right from the start, several changes differentiate this title from its predecessors. Instead of a mute and customizable protagonist, Sekiro has his own voice and character design. You won’t be able to change his attire or his primary weapon, but this focus allows the developer to, well, "develop" his character as well as deepen the combat system around said weapon. Some will miss the online elements of the Souls series, but in its place returns the oft taken for granted pause menu to catch your breath mid-action. Altogether the game has a tighter scope that enables a more precise balance and polish to its design.
To complete his mission, the One Armed Wolf has fang and claw at his disposal; his trusty katana and a newly gifted and versatile prosthetic limb. Your sword, Kusabimaru, is your main method of attack throughout the game. Slashes, thrusts, and unlockable special moves whittle down your enemies’ health until you can finish them off with vicious deathblows. Your new arm opens up a world of possibilities through the tools it can be fitted with. A grappling hook to reach new heights, an axe to break down shields, shuriken and firecrackers to interrupt and stun enemies, flames, poison, and more make you more powerful than you ever were as just flesh and blood.
Speaking of blood, your lord’s immortal Dragon Heritage and your closeness to him have given you the ability to resurrect after death for another chance at victory. This power comes at a cost, however; using it too many times inflicts Dragon Rot on those around you, making them sick and less helpful until you can cure them. Generally though, this resurrection is one of the quality of life enhancements the game offers you, along with others like a more generous fast travel and more forgiving experience system. You’ll welcome all the help you can get, because the combat can be among the toughest in the genre.
Souls veterans will need to unlearn many of their favorite tactics to succeed in Sekiro. Dodging and blocking are considerably less effective here. Parries (aka deflections) and posture are the name of the game. The lower an enemy’s health gets, the faster their posture meter fills. When it tops out, they open themselves up to fight-ending deathblows, though the numerous bosses of the world will require more than one. Certain attacks and counters (like deflections) inflict more posture damage to end the battle quicker. Without a stamina meter to worry about, aggressive play is encouraged.
Getting up close and personal may be key to victory, but it also brings you nearer to danger. Your enemies have more ways than ever to kill you. In addition to the standard fare, unblockable sweeps, thrusts, and grabs each require different counters to overcome. These moves are telegraphed by flashing red kanji, but discerning which type is coming and how you should respond can be difficult and requires good reflexes or preparation. Your reduced defenses combined with their increased offenses force you to master your opponent like never before. Every enemy has a weakness and finding it can satisfyingly turn a seemingly impossible challenge into an achievable one.
Shinobi are not bound to the same code of honor as other warriors. If you feel outnumbered or outmatched, play dirty. Stealth is a valuable tool to get the upper hand on your foes. Unaware mooks can be ambushed with a single killing blow and bosses can have as much as half their health depleted before the fight has even begun. Sekiro reportedly began life as a Tenchu game and it shows; some of the animations feel ripped straight out of those games and it makes me all kinds of nostalgic. My heart yearns for a new entry in that series, but this is quite the consolation.
Sekiro is much more Action than RPG. Getting stronger is more reflective of the trials you have overcome than the stats you have ground up. Major bosses will occasionally grant memories that increase your attack power while optional, minor bosses drop prayer beads that raise your health pool. More importantly, each boss teaches or ingrains different mechanics and strategies that you may have never touched in a lesser game. In the end, the greatest gains you will notice are your own skills as a player.
Another change of pace is the more traditional storytelling. With an established, voiced protagonist, cutscenes are more prominent and substantial, though by no means the main focus. Many will welcome the less cryptic narrative and greater sense of direction to latch on to, but sleuths can still scrutinize item descriptions and environmental clues to decipher the lore of this fantastical world. The choices you make can affect parts of the story including enemies you face and the ending you see. The beefed up story is an interesting development for FromSoftware and I'm curious to see if it continues in future titles.
With so many Soulslikes employing medieval European settings, exploring feudal Japan as only Miyazaki and company can portray it is a welcome vacation. Your journey will take you through serene wilderness, grand castles, bleak warzones, frigid passes, haunting caverns, ethereal temples, and more beautiful sights. The level design is as winding and interwoven as ever with an added verticality to navigate with your grappling hook. Your foes are equally varied from armor clad samurai to furious beasts to undead abominations oozing dark energy. Japanese mythology is full of fascinating creatures and if we ever get a follow up I hope they lean into it further.
On a technical level, Sekiro is decent. It may not push the envelope in fidelity or production values, but what it offers runs well - at least on PC. You should get better performance than you’re used to for AAA titles on your hardware. The experience isn’t perfect, though. Bugs were noticeable at launch (including booting the game), but they’ve become more scarce with subsequent patches. Inside combat the AI can impress in its preparation for your tactics, but outside it can feel lacking and dated.
Die, die, die again. Curse your enemy, curse the game, think of quitting, then pick the sticks back up and keep trying, getting a little stronger and wiser with each attempt. Persevere and eventually you will conquer monumental challenges, having earned every bit of your satisfaction. Such is the player’s journey in any good Soulslike and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a shining example. It demonstrates how the genre can have a long and bright future if it is willing to try new things, adapt, and grow. Are you?