I went into Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice with caution. I’d played previous FromSoftware games, so I felt confident that, while I’d definitely die a lot, the game wouldn’t really be any harder than its predecessors. This one was a stealth game to boot, so it’d probably feel completely different, and it certainly wouldn’t almost break me. How horribly naive I was.
Sekiro is simultaneously very similar to previous FromSoft games and very different at the same time. You explore interconnected areas, rest at specific places that allow you to spend your experience and refill your health, and fight tough bosses. Structurally, it’s very much the same. But the gameplay is completely different.
Cut From The Best Cloth
I think it can be best described as the most successful instance of samurai sword fights that gaming has likely ever seen. Think Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but much, much harder and less ridiculous. Everything in Sekiro has a life bar, but you won’t be focusing on that. Instead, you need to focus on breaking an enemy’s posture. Once you break their stance, they leave themselves open to deathblows. You’ll find it easy to do this with the earliest regular enemies. You run at them, hit them until their posture breaks, and then kill them with a deathblow.
I thought I had an okayish grip on this at first, but shortly after the prologue ends you come face-to-face with the first miniboss. Sekiro doesn’t take long to reveal its true colors, as this miniboss totally obliterated me. Not only that, but most minibosses and bosses have multiple health bars, so just because you get a deathblow doesn’t mean you’ve won.
Thankfully, the game’s stealth systems work in tandem with miniboss encounters. These powerful foes are generally surrounded by weaker enemies, and you must use a combination of stealth and taking advantage of the way enemy AI works in order to sneak up on a miniboss, deathblow them, and be able to fight them one-on-one. They’re mostly very tough, though, so just because you get them alone with just one health bar doesn’t mean you’ll be victorious.
Shadows Die In Two Hits
One thing I learned very early on is that, regardless of if you’re fighting a boss or miniboss, these enemies can often kill you in just two hits. The logic behind this is that you’re supposed to learn how to deflect all enemy strikes. You can block many attacks, but if you correctly deflect attacks by tapping the block button just as the attack connects, you’ll take less posture damage while also doing posture damage to your foe. And that’s the mechanic that truly separates Sekiro from other games. You aren’t meant to chip away at your foe’s health bit-by-bit. You need to get in their face and not let up until you break their posture and get a deathblow in.
Naturally, this is easier said than done. Much like how your character, Sekiro, can die very quickly, he also has much less posture than tough enemies. You sometimes have to hammer them for minutes at a time in order to break their posture, while they can break yours very quickly if you’re not careful. You can heal your posture by backing off and holding block, but your enemy’s posture does the same. This makes the combat extremely risky and results in some of the tensest fights I’ve ever seen in any game.
Sekiro is surprisingly plot-heavy. It tells the story of a shinobi whose young lord, Kuro, gets abducted by the head of the Ashina clan, Genichiro Ashina. The game starts with Sekiro infiltrating the Ashina lands and rescuing Kuro, only to get caught by Genichiro and lose his arm in the scuffle. Upon awaking, Sekiro has been saved by a mysterious sculptor who fits him with a prosthetic arm to aid him in his quest to rescue Kuro from the clutches of the Ashina clan.
The Right Tools
This prosthetic arm plays a significant role in gameplay. Sekiro only gets one main weapon throughout the entire game, which is his sword. To compensate, he can find items throughout the game that the sculptor will turn into prosthetic tools. These tools are used as secondary weapons and have a variety of uses. The first you get is a shuriken tool, but you also get an axe, a spear, and even an umbrella that can deflect attacks. Each of these tools can be upgraded into stronger forms or ones that are more useful in different scenarios.
Naturally, you can’t just use the tools as much as you want. You can find and purchase items called spirit emblems that allow you to use the tools. However, you can only have a limited amount on you at any given time, starting with just 15. There are also a ton of other items you can find and purchase in the game world. These vary from consumables to key items. You can throw oil on enemies before lighting them on fire to do extra damage and use items that limit the buildup of the game’s status effects. You can also buy items from merchants, including bags to store the money enemies drop. Without these bags, you’ll lose half of your money to most deaths.
Skill Tree Of Life
While there are no other main weapons and no armor, Sekiro instead offers robust skill trees. These skills are either combat arts that can massively help you deal with enemy threats and latent effects, such as increasing how much you can heal or how many spirit emblems you can have on you at once. One skill lowers the posture damage you take, while others can increase how much you inflict. It definitely pays to invest accordingly in these. There are several skill trees as well. You generally get access to new ones by finding or being given esoteric texts that guide you in the way of that particular discipline.
You’ll need a lot of skill points to purchase these, of course. When you defeat a foe, they drop a certain amount of experience. It takes a specific amount of this experience to make a single skill point. Once you gain a skill point, it becomes banked permanently, but if you die before you earn your next one, your experience is halved – unless something called Unseen Aid kicks in. Unseen Aid starts with offering you a 30% chance of you not losing half of your experience, as well as half of your money. However, as you die, you accrue rot essence, which makes NPCs sick and reduces your unseen aid down to as low as 5% if you die enough. You can heal this with an easily acquired item, though, and I only felt the need to restore it twice during my playthrough.
It’s worth noting that you can only increase your health and damage through items as well. Minibosses drop prayer beads, and bosses drop memories. Prayer beads can also be found throughout the areas, and you need four of them to make a necklace that increases your vitality and posture. Meanwhile, memories increase your attack power.
The combat, stealth, and movement in Sekiro are all top-notch. Sekiro can slash with his sword, deflect, block, and dash in any direction. He can also jump, wall jump, and swim. The controls are all very responsive and do a wonderful job of making you feel in control of the character. He can also enter a crouch mode for sneaking, which you’ll be doing a lot of. Sneaking up on an unaware enemy allows you to deathblow them, which kills regular enemies instantly. Using stealth is absolutely necessary much of the time, as fighting multiple enemies at once is not a good idea. You also have a grapple, which you can use to launch yourself onto tree branches, ledges, and rooftops. All of this absolutely makes you feel like a ninja, similar to games in the Tenchu series.
Another extremely interesting wrinkle is that Sekiro can resurrect multiple times. Whenever you die – and you’ll die a ton – you have the choice to stay dead or resurrect. You start with two resurrections. One refills at the game’s checkpoints, the sculptor’s idol, and the other you must refill by killing enemies with a deathblow. You can’t use one after another, though, so it’s important to resurrect strategically. After resurrecting, your other resurrections become locked and you need to kill more enemies or deathblow a boss in order to unlock them.
Sekiro has some of the toughest boss fights I’ve seen in my life. That first miniboss was a dire warning of things to come, as subsequent ones killed me constantly. A few of the bosses make famously hard Dark Souls fights seem tepid by comparison. They mostly don’t require multiple hours of practice, though. Mostly. I bested many with just an hour or so of practice, but two in particular absolutely beat me to death. One of these bosses can not only poison you if you’re not careful but also make it so your healing items don’t work. The final boss fight, in particular, is hands-down the hardest mandatory fight I’ve ever seen in a game. I think beating them took me at least 7 hours of practice. I never thought I’d be wishing a boss was only as difficult as Fume Knight.
While the boss fights can be incredible, they also represent most of my only real complaints about Sekiro. They’re super hard, sure, but that difficulty can feel arbitrary. Anything seems insanely hard when your enemy can kill you in a second. It’s extremely demoralizing to be doing perfectly against a foe, only to make a single mistake and see the death kanji taunting you onscreen. This is complicated by how the camera doesn’t like to play ball a lot of the time.
You can lock onto enemies, but when you’re in tight quarters the camera sometimes won’t let you see at all. I can’t count the number of times I died because I was too close to a wall and the camera just stopped showing me what was happening. It also doesn’t help that this has a tendency to break your lock-on, and you can only lock back on once you’re looking directly at your enemy. This all culminates in fighting a hectic battle, getting too close to a wall, not being able to see either your character or your enemy, the lock breaking, and you getting killed without recourse.
A Dash Of Salt
And while it works great most of the time, the dash function could also be better. It’s really easy to accidentally dash in the wrong direction or to dash forward when you don’t want to. I’ve died from this a ton of times. There’s a thrust counter you need to use against certain enemies, but it shares the same button mapping as the dash. If you mistime this counter, you’ll end up dashing straight into the enemy and taking the attack to the face.
Some of the boss battles also just weren’t particularly fun or interesting to me. Dealing with some petty tricks and ridiculous hitboxes don’t work well in tandem with the insane amount of damage enemies do. The grabs are also ridiculous, as the game loves to teleport you into them. There were certain bosses I fought where I definitely got out of the way of the enemy’s grab, only to get teleported into their grasp anyway. The bosses are hard enough on their own and really don’t need obnoxious things like this to make them harder.
That’s really the harshest thing I can say about Sekiro. Exploring levels and fighting regular enemies don’t actually feel that much harder than in Sekiro‘s predecessors. But when fighting bosses, I felt like I was playing a game’s expert setting. Do you know how some games let you pick a difficulty? The higher they go, the more damage enemies do. A lot of the bosses here kind of feel like they were designed on normal, but then the devs thought it needed to be harder, so they changed the difficulty to expert. You can overcome all of them, but besting each one can turn into an absolute slog of the highest order.
Sekiro is also a lovely game to look at. The areas all have excellent detail and the animations are fantastic. The effects look great and the lighting does a wonderful job of aiding in the Japanese Sengoku aesthetic. The game also comes packed with memorable, unique areas filled with color and character. Some of the faces can look a little doll-like during cutscenes, however.
There’s also a ton of content to be found in the game. Due to how long it took me to beat certain bosses and my complete refusal to use consumable items to help with them, I was about 48 hours in when I hit the end credits. And there were multiple optional bosses I still hadn’t beaten or even seen. On top of that, there are four different endings and the FromSoft standard of multiple new game pluses that get harder each time.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is basically an instant classic that offers exactly what fans have come to expect from the developer’s best work. It can be obnoxiously difficult, but the combat is a triumph, the exploration is fantastic, and the world succeeds in feeling like a place. It might have caused me a ton of anger, but this game is quite the achievement that people will be playing for years to come.