Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019)
FromSoftware | Reviewed on PS4
This review contains spoilers.
Sekiro Diaries: The year is 1500…ish. Location: Japan. Let’s just say I’ve died a lot more than twice. Died countless times against some old bag, who by all rights, should be no match for me, a skilled shinobi. I’ve nearly been eaten by a giant snake. My gut has seen the end of a shinobi hunter’s spear more times than I am publicly willing to admit. I’ve been knocked off a cliff by an overgrown chicken. Please send help.
Shadows die a lot more than twice
When I started Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I was utterly convinced in the first 5 to 10 hours of the game that I was going to drop it. The combat felt like a monumental struggle. Everything was so fast, and felt dependent on your ability to react just as fast – which is decidedly not one of my strong suits. I had a hard time building up the nerve to stand toe-to-toe with my enemies and concentrate on deflecting their strikes. I was trying to dodge through swings, get some attacks in, and back out. Like I have since Demon’s Souls. The problem, I later discovered, was that I was trying to approach the game like a Souls title – focusing on dodging, and well-timed counterattacks. Sekiro does not take kindly to that playstyle.
If anyone has ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, I felt a lot like Aang trying to get his head around earthbending – instead of approaching the game head on, I was trying to find a different approach, a workaround. Maybe my dodges were mistimed, or maybe I could bait certain attacks that I knew I could punish. I had to change my mindset. In the end, I had to learn that Sekiro was a particularly stubborn rock that I would simply have to face head-on. Enter my teacher: Lady Butterfly.
I had been tackling the Hirata Estates section for a couple hours, bumbling my way through, feeling more and more like the game just wasn’t for me. I had finally, after countless deaths, beaten the mini-bosses Shinobi Hunter, and Juzou the Drunkard and discovered the final boss: Lady Butterfly. The first time I walked into the arena, she killed me in seconds. I tried again. Similar results. Based on the damage she was doing, and number of health-restoring gourds I had access to at that point, I realized that this was a boss that was probably not meant to be fought as the first of the game. However, I (arbitrarily) decided that this was my personal turning point – either I would dig my heels in and beat this boss, learn her patterns, and master the art of deflecting, or I would quit. Three days later, Lady Butterfly was dead, I was screaming in triumph, and most importantly, I felt like I finally had a grip on what Sekiro was asking of me. New-found confidence abound, I returned to the Ashina Outskirts area, intent on pushing forward. And promptly got killed by the Chained Ogre about 10 times. Easy come, easy go.
A rock and a hard place
The learning curve for Sekiro is less of a curve, and more of a 90 degree angle, but once you begin to get comfortable with the deflection system, there is nothing more satisfying. My Souls/Bloodborne style of play wasn’t completely useless – you still benefit from watching and memorizing enemy attack patterns, however, the huge emphasis on deflection (or parrying) makes dodging a shaky practice. Staying in an enemies face, deflecting their blows, and following up with your own is really the approach the game wants you to take. But that’s not all folks. Most enemies also have so-called ‘perilous’ attacks – unblockable, and to be avoided. A red kanji symbol will flash on-screen when one of these moves is incoming, either a sweep, thrust, or grab. You have a split second to recognize which, and either jump or deflect accordingly. Compared to the vast array of options and approaches to play that Dark Souls and Bloodborne allowed players, this may feel narrow or restrictive by comparison. However, I think it works. The new ‘Posture’ system encourages hammering away at the blocks of your foes, and parrying their strikes – just be prepared for those unblockables. When deflecting and attacking consistently, their posture meter will continue to creep up, until it’s maxed out – this then allows you to move in for the final deathblow. Some enemies and bosses will recover posture faster than others. Whittling away their health will cause their posture recovery to slow, making it beneficial to stay aggressive. As your confidence with deflections increases, you may even be able to bring down a boss without damaging their health bar at all.
The array of skills (some useful, some not) available to purchase with XP points, and Prosthetic tools are there to help with these formidable foes. For example, the shuriken tool allows you to damage vitality and posture from afar, or knock airborne enemies to the ground. My personal favourite, the firecrackers, allow you to temporarily stun enemies, creating windows for attacks or desperately needed healing. The Divine Abduction and Mist Raven tools I found harder to put to use, and ignored them for most of the game. Some of the tools feel situationally useful at best (like the poison blade, Sabimaru for instance) but most of them were fun to at least try. For instance, I had never used any of the umbrella prosthetics, but the Lilac version proved to be invaluable when I encountered a certain apparition-type mini-boss. Also, Terror is the worst status effect FromSoft has ever implemented. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.
The only combat issues I can complain about are on the more technical side – namely, the dropped inputs. The amount of times I pressed X to jump, or R1 to attack after a successful deflect and my version of Wolf simply stood there was infuriating. Your button presses occasionally seem to just disappear, and when you’re in the middle of a boss fight, this can be more than annoying. Getting caught by an unblockable attack (when you’ve pressed jump, or dodge!) can be the difference between making it through an encounter or dying. No one will ever be able to convince me that dropped inputs are not present in this game. Sekiro also has some framerate issues (on base PS4 anyway) and I experienced several game crashes. Hopefully these will be addressed in a future patch.
The environmental and level design in Sekiro is well and truly stunning. FromSoft are known for their imaginative and well-thought out design, but with the additional freedom of movement that Sekiro affords – with the new jump button and grappling tool – it seems all the more amazing. While playing through the various environments, from misty forests, to a clustered castle-town, you can tell that each rock, tree, and ledge has been meticulously placed with stealth gameplay in mind. Every time you recognize that you can take out one enemy without another seeing you, simply because of a convenient section of low-lying terrain, it feels intentional. I loved that you could approach each section as its own little puzzle – for instance, I could try to sneak around and first take out that gong-banging shithead that would otherwise alert everyone to my presence. Next, the gunmen. The others can be dealt with last. Then it’s just me and the mini-boss. Victory is (mostly) assured. If all else fails, and you’re spotted, you can always cue up your Benny Hill theme and leg it. Enemies will forget about you once you’re hidden, or out of the immediate vicinity.
Stumbling across a group of enemies, only to find a side path that allows for a more advantageous approach is just one of the ways exploration is rewarded. In Sekiro, exploration always feels worth it, whether you find a key item, a new NPC or (unfortunately) an ill-timed mini-boss encounter. I found myself obsessively combing through each area. Music has never been an especially integral part of any FromSoft game, but in Sekiro, each area and boss has its own musical accompaniment – and it is exceptional. There are so many stand-out pieces – the Divine Dragon boss music being a favourite for me – that make the soundtrack feel just as well put together as the environments. Sekiro also has the trademark part normal, part supernatural formula of most FromSoft games. There are a variety of normal, human enemies, as well as an array of much wilder creatures. There are the strange, almost squid-like beings of the Fountainhead Palace, and the malformed residents of Mibu Village. Monkeys with swords. Some enemies seem completely normal – like a nice, cross-legged monk at Senpou Temple, that – oh, oh no, that man has a centipede growing out of him. Every different environment (whether ethereal or grounded) and enemy within feels like part of a cohesive, focused vision. And what a vision it is – especially when it comes to Sekiro’s bosses.
I’m fairly comfortable stating that the bosses from Sekiro are my favourite bosses in any FromSoft game I’ve played. They are spectacularly designed, and the perfect balance between challenging and fun – most anyway. The only boss I legitimately disliked, and will only fight again if absolutely necessary, was the Demon of Hatred – which is technically optional. Even the more puzzle oriented, gimmicky bosses like the Folding Screen Monkeys were a welcome change of pace. The pressure that bosses in this game can exert, like Genichiro (fastest bow in the east), or the Guardian Ape, (with his powerful attacks, and genuinely disturbing second phase) is both intense and exhilarating. Wanting to stay aggressive, but knowing that a missed deflect, or perilous attack catching you off-guard could be your doom is a tight line that you constantly have to navigate. With the new Resurrection mechanic (functioning as a single get-out-of-death-free card) you also have some leeway when you make a misstep in combat. While this definitely doesn’t make the game feel any easier, in some of the more grueling 3-phase fights it becomes a welcome mechanic to fall back on.
The mini-bosses (distinguished by needing 2 deathblows in order to kill) are also generally designed quite well – they appear frequently, and will be your main source of challenge while traversing each area. Some, like the Snake Eyes, Seven-Spears, and Ministry “Shadows” can be more challenging than others. Collecting the special Prayer Bead item that most of them drop will allow you to increase your vitality and posture, once you have enough to string into a necklace. More importantly, these necklaces come with lore descriptions. Remember, ABC – Always Be Chasing lore. It is worth mentioning in this section, that despite my generally positive feelings towards the mini-bosses, there are several models that are reused multiple times throughout the game. The Ashina Elite, Drunkard, and Headless mini-bosses are seen 2, 3, even 5 times per playthrough. With some already lacking enemy variety, this feels especially lazy. Seeing mini-bosses like O’Rin of the Water, and how exceptional her design is, I can’t help but wish every single one was given the same attention.
There’s lore for that
Finally, we get to what can be the most compelling, or least compelling element of a FromSoft game, depending on your personal preference – the story. I genuinely enjoyed the narrative in this game. There is a much more straightforward element to Sekiro – you are presented with the basics: Your lord, whom you have dedicated your service to, has been taken by the Ashina clan, and it’s your job to get him back. Eventually, this turns into a quest to sever the so-called Dragon’s Heritage – the source of Lord Kuro’s (and your own) immortality. Many characters in the game would use Kuro’s power for their own. Everyone has an agenda, and it’s up to you find a path that feels right. The bond between Kuro and Wolf is endearing, and most of the NPC’s (Anayama, Kotaro, Fujioka, and Isshin being my favourites) are interesting at the very least. I love the way that concepts of family and loyalty are explored so subtly – most characters in the game are not blood relatives. There are many (like Genichiro, or Wolf) that are adopted, or presented as student/mentor, like Emma and Dogen, or Takeru and Tomoe. However, the narrative of Sekiro is deceptively simple – there is still the trademark FromSoft lore present, to scrape together and attempt to make meaning of. Like an obtuse patchwork quilt.
This is one of my favourite aspects of FromSoft games honestly – the speculation. The item descriptions, dialogue, NPC quests, and certain environmental details are often hiding a story. For instance, is the Sakura Droplet that you get from defeating Lady Butterfly (“when an immortal oath fails to establish”) formed because she attempted to force Kuro to enter into an oath with her or Owl? Her illusion techniques are unparalleled, and Kuro is disoriented when we find him – was she attempting to coerce him into doing something? Probably not even close, but I wonder about these kinds of things. Are the smaller, more humanoid dragons that you fight before the Divine Dragon sapping its vitality in order to keep it in Fountainhead? The nobles in this area inflict the “Enfeeblement” status with their flutes – is that what these enemies are doing to the Divine Dragon? For so long that their bodies have ‘stagnated?’ Again, probably not. I’ll keep hunting for that sweet, sweet lore though. I want to know more about Tomoe and Takeru. I also need to know who Lord Sakuza is. The Dragonspring Pilgrimage? Miyazaki, please.
A new cycle
I’m really glad I didn’t give in and drop Sekiro, as I would have missed out on a game that I have come to love (check out my road to the Platinum trophy here). There are so many incredible moments in this title – from the first time you see the colossal White Serpent in the canyon beyond the Ashina Outskirts, to a Nightjar ninja raining hell down upon you from an unambiguous kite as you attempt to traverse the castle rooftops. And then, even better, are the moments you create for yourself. Finally beating that boss you’ve been stuck on for hours, discovering a hidden secret (the kite at Senpou Temple, anyone?) or making a connection to a piece of lore that you’d discovered earlier. Sorry Robert’s dad. The combat in this game is hard to master, and uncompromising in a lot of ways, but I truly think it suits the style that Sekiro adopted. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Though some of the mini-bosses are recycled too many times (I mean, at least re-skin them) the bosses are tremendously impressive and, in my opinion, some of the best that FromSoft has ever designed. The inspired environments, and music that elevates the entire experience are a welcome addition. The freedom of movement and stealth elements that Sekiro employs felt fresh and liberating after years of the careful, languid pace of the Dark Souls series. Overall, despite some technical issues and minor gripes, this may actually be my favourite FromSoftware game to date. They took some risks, and it’s definitely paid off.
Sekiro Diaries, V2: It’s New Game Plus. I’ve killed the giant serpent. I no longer harbor a secret hatred for the elderly, now that I’ve downed Lady Butterfly on my first try – in fact, I barely took damage at all. Seven-Spears is no match for me. I’ve mastered the art of deflection. Mostly. Until I fight one of those dual-wielding monkeys in the poison valley, and feel bad about myself again.