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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a third-person action title developed by From Software. Most well known for the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games, From Software has been delivering brutally tough and twisted adventures for quite some time. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is just as tough as the developer’s previous titles, but the feudal-era Japan setting gives it a distinct look and feel. Is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice a worthy addition to From Software’s lineage, or is this a stylish misstep?
The Rising Wolf
Sekiro is set in feudal-era Japan, years after a violent war has left the land damaged and broken. You play as the Wolf, a master shinobi with incredible stealth skill and lethality. The Wolf is sworn to protect a young boy of royal blood, and as the game starts, the Wolf is worse for wear. Bruised and beaten, the Wolf must infiltrate a nearby castle occupied by foes, regaining his strength as he fights for honor.
Like other games by From Software, a lot of the narrative of Sekiro is told via environmental storytelling. Apart from a handful of cutscenes and conversations, most of the story is inferred from eavesdropping and observing your surroundings. The story isn’t as obtuse or hard to understand as something like Dark Souls, but don’t expect things to be laid out simply. In both narrative and gameplay, Sekiro forces you to think. In many ways, Sekiro‘s world is grounded in reality; enemies are often disfigured or intimidating humans. You’ll still bump into the occasional ghoul or grotesque creature, but it’s a far more realistic game than you might expect, given From Software’s lineage of otherworldly settings.
The Art of the Blade
Apart from its fast pace and upgrade-heavy skill trees, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will feel pretty familiar for longtime fans of From Software. As you move through the world you’ll encounter a slew of enemies, all of whom are more dangerous than they appear. From sword-wielding samurai to nightmarish looking assassins and giants, enemies in Sekiro all pose a significant threat. You’re able to dispatch your enemies using a variety of sword attacks and gadgets, but a few mistakes can quickly lead to your death. The only way to heal is by using your Healing Gourd, a limited-use item that only replenished at safety points. More often than not, you’ll be ill equipped medically, so it’s not a bad idea to practice your blocking.
Fortunately, Sekiro has a decent speed to the gameplay, which opens up a lot of evasive opportunities. In addition to blocking and parrying enemy attacks, you’re also able to leap over them, sidestep and counterattack, or use a variety of quick items and tools. Getting hit in Sekiro is still very punishing, especially when it’s an enormous boss throwing the punches. Luckily, blocking is quite effective, and the parry window is somewhat forgiving. In other From Software games, the strategy would often boil down to defensive play while utilizing your safest and most reliable attacks. Sekiro encourages you to be aggressive and go toe-to-toe with even its largest enemies, and the game provides enough combat opportunities where you don’t feel incredibly outmatched. Whereas other From Software titles feel like constant punishment, Sekiro often affords the player a feeling of strength and skill.
The sword isn’t the only weapon that the Wolf can use; in fact, his inventory spreads far beyond the simple steel blade. An early event leaves him with just one arm, which is quickly replaced by an impressive prosthetic. Besides ensuring the Wolf can wield a blade, the prosthetic arm plays a big role in combat and traversal. It most commonly acts as a grappling hook, allowing you to quickly navigate the game’s vertical stage design. As you progress through the game you’ll find various upgrades for your arm, which provide unique offensive tools for combat. For example, early upgrades include a shuriken launcher, a quick blast of fire, and even some disruptive noisemakers. These prosthetic tools can also be upgraded by spending resources and gold, mostly earned by felling enemies and hidden item caches. Prosthetic tools can also completely change a battle, which makes them invaluable during tough boss fights.
The prosthetic arm isn’t the only way to upgrade the Wolf either, as Sekiro also contains a handful of skill trees with various active and passive abilities. Skills are purchased via points, which are earned by killing enemies. Some of these skills are a downright necessity, like the Mikiri Counter, a skill that lets you counter dangerous thrusts. Others are more situational, like the ability to use your prosthetic tools in mid-air. The most consistently helpful skills are the “latent skills”, which provide passive bonuses to ease the difficulty. For example, you can get a latent skill that gives you health upon execution, one that increases the efficacy of your healing gourd, and a handful of others. These make the game a bit easier as you progress, opening up combat options and making Wolf a bit more hearty in battle.
Shadows Die A Lot
Despite the many ways you can improve Wolf to become a better shinobi, gameplay still remains defiantly tough. While the standard enemies still present a challenge, they’re no where near as annoying as the foes you’d expect in a Dark Souls title. Enemy types are varied enough that you’ll have to quickly learn some patterns and attack signs, but it’s not too difficult. The same can’t be said for some of Sekiro‘s boss fights, which can be incredibly frustrating. I was able to topple most bosses in just a few attempts, but others took me dozens of tries.
Unfortunately, some of these more difficult bosses grew annoying quick, and I didn’t feel like I was actually learning much. Instead, I would die five times over to a super fast sword pattern or awkwardly long sweep attack, and then be forced to repeatedly die until figuring out a way to dodge them. While many of Sekiro‘s boss fights are exciting and inventive, a few too many are simply frustrating. There were a few times I turned the game off, as it grew from challenge to chore. After taking a break and returning, I was usually able to take down the offender.
The Vertical Element
In many ways, Sekiro feels familiar but also wholly fresh. Despite its trappings as a “souls-like”, Sekiro also separates itself from the pack due to its world design. The prosthetic arm really opens up the level design to much more vertical landscapes, including forests, mountains, rooftops, and more. The beginning of your adventure is fairly linear, as you work on obtaining a few very important tools.
As you begin to beefen up, a few routes open up, allowing you to branch off in various directions. You’re always led by the inviting blue glow of safety shrines, but as the game progresses, areas become more complex and interesting to explore. There are countless nooks and crannies to rummage around in, usually providing ample reward. Moreso than any other From Software game, Sekiro invites you to explore its world from top to bottom.
Should You Play Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice?
Let me be frank; Sekiro can be immensely frustrating at times due to its sharp difficulty curve. However, overcoming those challenges and frustrations feels really good, and progress feels like an achievement. For fans of From Software’s previous titles, Sekiro will please. There might be some dissonance among fans due to the upgrade-heavy nature of the gameplay, but I think it works wonderfully. Newcomers might find Sekiro to be a nice point to dive in, as it’s the most welcoming in terms of tutorialization and onboarding. Regardless, you should find Sekiro to be a white-knuckled action title, full of neat level design and beautiful scenery. It might make you want to throw your PlayStation or Xbox out the window in frustration (there’s no way you’re gonna throw your PC, let’s be honest), but Sekiro is rewarding all the same. If you’re a glutton for punishment and have a penchant for quick-paced sword fighting, you should definitely give Sekiro a whirl.
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