Way before your first samurai sword fight in Sekiro, the first thing you’ll notice is how incredibly polished the graphics are. FromSoftware proved with the Soulsborne franchise that they can excel with their depictions of gothic architecture and gruesome monsters, but Sekiro delivers something beyond this: artful beauty.
Sekiro’s world is dominated by traditional Japanese architecture. Clusters of small villages full of looming arches and the pastel shades of wildflowers, but it’s all been tainted by war and conflict. Though these closed-off habitations made up a large part of the environment we got to play in, we did get a taste of the larger areas of the world, vast expanses unprotected by fortified walls. These short glimpses at a variety of stages and the set pieces they harboured seemed only to be the tip of the iceberg of the environments the game will throw at players, and its undeniable that we’re excited to see more.
To help you traverse these environments, Sekiro gives you a grappling hook. This prosthetic allows you to swing freely from trees to rooftops, providing countless opportunities to move around each area in almost any direction that pleases you. It’s an exciting feature, fun to mess around with and intuitive to use. There are hundreds of hidden nooks and cranny’s and fully exploring every area rewards your curiosity.
The game’s colour palette is striking. As you explore you will be met with deep reds, ghostly greys and leafy greens. Immersion is amplified by the rocks crumbling beneath your feet as you tread mountainous trails, wood splintering as it’s caught in the midst of clashing swords, and trees swinging as you pull yourself upwards. These are small touches, but they leave a powerful and lasting impression.
It’s a gorgeous world, but don’t let that fool you. The softness of the environments around you can make you forget about the brutal nature of this game. You’ll soon be reminded of that fact when you come face to face with the game’s enemies, samurai warriors and their mutated, intimidating superiors.
Combat is somewhat similar to the Souls system, but instead of lining up a combination of attacks or perfectly timing a parry, taking down enemies is achieved by deflecting sword blows. The aim is to knock your opponent off balance and deliver a final death strike.
With the perfect fluidity of the Katana sword it would be easy to fall into the trap of mashing R1 but, just like with Bloodborne, trigger happy players are quickly punished. Timing is crucial and deflecting attacks is a life or death matter. Wind up animations paired with sound design hint at the perfect time to go on the offense and turn the tide on your opponent.
When you engage in battle a yellow posture bar will appear above your opponent’s health bar as well as your own. It’s important to work your tactics around this bar, keeping your distance when it’s low and harassing your enemy when it’s high to drastically shorten the length of the fight. Fail to maintain your own posture bar and you’ll be left open, vulnerable, and in danger of death.
It’s enjoyable to think as you experience every encounter, rather than just mashing buttons and hoping for the best. Incredible detail has been added to the fighting mechanics, with some fighting styles and battles almost feeling choreographed, despite the fact that you are performing them yourself in real time.
With deafening roars and their looming statures, the bigger adversaries in the game are menacing to look at and terrifying to engage. Larger enemies often require a different approach to smaller ones and you will need to land two or more death blows to successfully take them down. Of course, stronger enemies also have stronger attacks, some of which are deadly and can wipe out all of your health in one ruthless slash.
Though most areas give you the chance to apply ninja stealth to your approach, some places have it as the sole option. In these areas utilising the long grass for cover and eavesdropping on unsuspecting enemies to learn key information allows you to plan your approach accordingly. Making use of the grappling hook is also a key dynamic when it comes to stealth as perfectly planned routes over rooftops can leave you undetected and free from conflict.
There are hints peppered around the world that Sekiro shares DNA with the Souls games and Bloodborne. Idols act as checkpoints in the world, and sitting beside them activates them as a fast travel location, as well as allowing you to upgrade certain items and replenish your health. Idols are few and far between (at least in the beta) which encourages you to consider each fight and your current health before you rush in madly swinging your katana.
Although Serkio is clearly still heavily influenced by Bloodborne and Dark Souls, the game feels like a new and exciting direction for the FromSoftware team. As yet, the story and lore are not entirely clear, but the enjoyable dance of combat and stunning graphics make for a very promising first impression. With the game out in just a few weeks on 22nd March, we can’t wait to play more.