From Software may just make the most polarizing games of today. Players either love or hate the extreme difficulty that goes hand in hand with any of their souls-like titles. Going into Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you'd be forgiven for thinking that your journeys in Dark Souls and Bloodborne would leave you well equipped to step into the world of Sengoku. You'd be forgiven for assuming that countless hours of deeply ingrained muscle memory will translate to success in Sekiro. You'd be forgiven for expecting more of the same methodical combat and over-arching structure. You'd be forgiven for all of these things, but you sure as shit will not be forgiven for thinking that sticking to strategies that have worked in the past will lead to you being a master shinobi. You forgot one basic thing that rings true of all From titles. Forgiveness is for the weak and nothing comes easy when Hidetaka Miyazaki is involved.
I'm a glutton for punishment when it comes to difficult games. So much so that I even have a tattoo that reads "Si Vis Pacem Parra Bellum". I have no problem with throwing myself at the same boss for three solid hours, with each attempt offering a little more insight into their attack patterns and abilities. What starts as a complete trouncing, will eventually turn into a deadly ballet dance of clashing blades. Every move is measured, every step is significant and a moment of distraction more often than not will lead to a swift demise. The intense feeling of satisfaction when eventually beating one of the big bosses in any From Software game is second to none. No other games manage to inflict equal levels of pure red-hot rage and immense satisfaction so perfectly. At this stage, it's a relatively well-trodden formula, but one that has been refined upon to such high levels of fine-tuning.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice sees players step into the Jika-tabi (shinobi shoes!) of a warrior, known only as "Wolf" on a mission to rescue his master and exact revenge on a terrifying cast of beasts and menacingly proficient sword masters. We take control of Wolf in Japan during the late 1500s. He's on the doorstep of death, with most of his recent memories missing. Story in Dark Souls and Bloodborne was never delivered traditionally and often felt ancillary to the main experience. Instead, it was up to players to explore the world and read item descriptions to piece together information about the worlds and their inhabitants. Sekiro is a major departure in that regard as there are several story cutscenes and interactions throughout that drive the narrative forward. For those wanting to dig deeper, there are still NPCs and items which will shed light on extra details about the castle and those who stand in your way. It's a welcome change and one that will help introduce new players to the harsh, unforgiving world. On a side note, I played with the Japanese voice actors and highly recommend it. It adds a great level of authenticity to the game and features strong performances throughout. I found the English voice acting to be a touch hokey and out of place.
The core twist is the new resurrection mechanic that allows you to come back from death with an extra chance at finishing your enemy. I feared that it would take away from the challenge I'd come to love in a From title and would rob victories of their satisfaction. I'm happy to report that Sekiro is the most challenging game the developers have ever made. Sekiro represents a drastic change to the formula we've all become so intimate with. Combat is an entirely different beast and is arguably the best I've encountered in a From Software title. Sekiro demands that you change your playstyle and will challenge even the most hardcore of souls-like fans to forget core combat practices and everything that came before. Sekiro defies your expectations at every turn, but in doing so, creates a harsh world that is every bit as dangerous and engrossing as those which came before.
Once again, there are no waypoint markers or maps to assist you on your perilous journey. Instead, you'll have to pay close attention to conversations with characters and their hints at where to go next. For some, this may create a helpless feeling and hinder the game's sense of progression. These games are anything but typical when it comes to their presentation and style. While most games will essentially hold your hand the whole way, Sekiro vaguely waves in a given direction and says "doesn't that look interesting". For some, this will be a turn-off, but those folk would be missing out on some of the finest gaming experiences of this generation. Wandering through a previously visited area for the twentieth time, only to discover a small hidden path leading to a unique encounter or item filled me with an intense rush of satisfaction time and time again.
Dark Souls bonfires have been replaced with Sculptors Idols, and while they bear different names, they largely function the same. What's really different this time is how death is handled. When you die and have run out of resurrections, you lose half of your unspent experience and currency, with no way of recovering it. Another side effect of death and resurrection is the Dragonrot. This disease will spread further the more you die and will infect NPCs, blocking some of them from offering you quests. The only way to clear this is with the use of an extremely limited item, so you'll want to be very careful of using it. Keeping the Dragonrot at bay is also beneficial in that players will receive 'unseen aid'. This starts at 30%, meaning roughly one in three deaths will not see your XP or currency halved. The more Dragonrot there is however, the lower your chances of receiving unseen aid. It can be soul crushing to lose thousands of XP in a matter of seconds, but the punishment only further adds to the appeal of the game and provides some high stakes to the most seemingly simple encounters.
It's hard to mention Sekiro without thinking of Nioh. Both games share several similarities in setting and style, but Sekiro has something Nioh was missing. It has the magic touch ever present throughout From's souls-like games. It features From's trademark inter-connected labyrinthine areas, ripe with secrets, hidden pathways and murderous packs of enemies. Where Nioh took inspiration from the Souls series for its combat, Sekiro reinvents the wheel.
Sekiro says goodbye to the stamina meter, thus allowing players to sprint, attack and dodge as much as they like. Combat instead focuses on the Posture system for both the player and the enemies they will encounter. The main goal in combat is to break your opponent's posture, thus leaving them open to a devastating Deathblow. This greatly changes the flow of combat by forcing players to stay incredibly aggressive. Give your opponent too much breathing room, and their posture will quickly recover, leading to a drawn-out battle where you're more likely to slip up and die in seconds. Button mashers should turn back now. I had to force myself to slow down and think about every input I made on the controller, no matter how minuscule. From a small step to the left to a perfectly timed dodge, combat feels like an intense game of rock, paper, swords as you pay careful attention to every move an enemy makes, thus telegraphing whether you will need to counter, dodge or jump. Timing is everything in Sekiro. To perform a successful counter, you need to tap block at the perfect time to throw your opponent off and drop their posture meter or leave them open to a quick attack. Blocking too soon or too late will either affect your health or posture meter negatively.
From the first teaser, I was convinced we would be getting a new Tenchu. While I was a tad disappointed to find out I was wrong, the spectacular use of stealth mechanics adds a welcome layer of strategy to how you approach any given scenario. Will you sneak through the tall grass to take out the shielded enemies first, making the grunts that much easier to handle, or will you go in swords blazing for a stunning display of risky bladed combat. If you play your cards right, some bosses can even be weakened significantly with a well planned stealth opening gambit. Further assisting players is a range of items that do anything from allowing you to attack spectre type enemies to buffing your attack power, while forgoing half of your health and posture. The usual array of poison antidotes and the like all make an appearance too so players familiar with From Software games should be right at home.
Nothing could have prepared me for just how incredible Sekiro is. Having sunk over fifty hours into my first play-through, I'm sure I still missed a bunch of secrets and hidden bosses. There's something I can't quite put my finger on in From games. The constant need to learn patterns and areas to streamline each run further leads to a strange familiarity with the world, to a point where I repeatedly find myself selecting the starting Sculptors Idol and making my way through already traveled areas in hopes of discovering a new hidden-path. It begins to feel akin to going on a walk around your neighbourhood. You start to learn where every devious enemy is, much like when you cross the road because that one neighbour has a pesky rottweiler that always looks hungry for blood. After hours of travel, it turns into a borderline otherworldly meditative experience. It starts to feel familiar, and you slip into a comfortable pattern. Each run becomes smoother than the last as button presses become almost ingrained mechanical responses. You forge a feeling of familiarity with the game as you become more proficient with its numerous systems. Encounters that saw you die multiple times in the early hours become mere speed bumps as you cleave through foes with the deadly precision of a master shinobi.
At this stage, I've practically been gushing about how amazing Sekiro is. Playing on the OG PlayStation 4 however, It's not all sunshine and butterflies, as the game does suffer from semi-frequent frame rate dips when rushing through an area or facing a large group of foes. The games camera can also at times put itself in some strange places, especially if you're locked on to a particularly agile opponent. The game definitely needs further patches to alleviate these issues as it can be incredibly detrimental when frames drop in the middle of a boss battle, thus throwing your fine-tuned timing out the proverbial window. I have to admit I was also disappointed in the complete lack of character customisation both in terms of looks and the usual armor pickups prevalent in past games. Sekiro instead sticks players with the one main sword and there are no options for the characters outfit, so you'll stay in the same duds throughout the journey. Thankfully the Shinobi Tool features some awesome options for players to find throughout the world. From a poisoned sword to a giant umbrella shield, deft use of these tools is required if you have your sight set on victory. Figuring out the right tool for the job can change the tide of battle with the most difficult of opponents.
I've gone this far without mentioning any specific boss battles and I do so for a reason. It's best to go in completely blind as some of the bosses, in true From fashion are absolutely incredible. Sekiro may just surpass some of my favourite boss battles from the past and even now that I'm finished, I'm still thinking back over my favourites. You may be tempted to use guides or look up strategies online, but I can't state strongly enough just how much this diminishes the fist-pumping joy experienced after beating a boss you've spent hours analyzing and adapting to. The sense of discovery never fades, even as the credits roll and the story comes to a conclusion. Speaking of conclusions, in the late game Sekiro presents players with a very important choice that will change the ending significantly. This moment is the only one I'd possibly recommend you look up before deciding as it has a drastic effect on the outcome of your game.
I strongly suspect that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will be involved in many a game of the year discussion and is quite possibly one of my favourite games of this generation. Having finished my first playthrough, I'm now ready to start a NG+ run and can't wait to see if From have any other secrets up their sleeves for me. Sekiro feels like the perfect lovechild of Blood Borne, Dark Souls, Ninja Gaiden, Onimusha and Tenchu. If like me the mere mention of any of these games elicits strong feelings and emotions, you're going to absolutely love every minute. While it's definitely not for everyone, those with a penchant for punishment peppered with moments of joyous elation are in for one hell of a ride. I can't recommend Sekiro highly enough and am confident in stating it now represents the jewel in the already dazzling From Software crown.