After the stunningly good Dark Souls series and the masterpiece that is Bloodborne, FromSoftware have made quite the name for themselves. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest game from FromSoftware – the one downside to the company is forcing me to type “from FromSoftware” – and it’s making some bold new changes. Where all of the aforementioned games had multiplayer and were deep RPGs with complex stats and weird faces, Sekiro opts instead for a character-driven single player experience. It tells the story of the lone wolf Sekiro, a shinobi who has sworn fealty to a Young Lord, and who has lost said lord. Well, not lost exactly. The Lord got kidnapped.
Bound by an iron oath to save the Young Lord, it is your job as Sekiro to hunt down those responsible for this and take your vengeance. Thankfully, given the difficulty of this task, the Young Lord has some of that magic blood that means you can come back to life on your quest. This makes you much harder to deal with than most shinobi. Impossible to deal with, in fact. This unending life comes with a nasty drawback, though. The more you die, the more those around you stagnate and become afflicted with Dragonrot, weakening them and potentially leading to their demise. What I’m saying is you can’t die too much or things will go horribly awry. On the plus side, it’s not like it can be that much harder than Bloodborne right? Right?
This is the most challenging FromSoftware game yet. In much the same way that going into Bloodborne as a Dark Souls veteran felt humiliating, going into this as a master of the Soulsborne makes you feel like a fool. The idea of playing Sekiro while completely new to FromSoftware’s unique styling is almost inconceivable. I’m sure it’s possible, but I don’t think it’ll be easy.
While elements of the combat reflect previous games, the tempo is completely different. You’re no longer restricted by a stamina bar and can literally spend fights running around in circles, while there is now a posture system which relies on your skill with a blade and your ability to read your opponent.
Attacking an opponent will lower their posture, but they can guard to lower yours in turn. The most effective way to battle is to time your blocks perfectly to deflect attacks and eventually open up enemies to lethal strikes. Even the bosses in the game will be dead after one of two of these lethal strikes. If you don’t master reading, dodging, jumping, and parrying, you’re going to struggle. The first few hours are going to test you no matter what your skill level is. Be prepared.
Along with this shift in combat is your Shinobi prosthetic. This tool serves as your secondary weapon in a fight, but acts as a grappling hook outside. You can jump too, which isn’t a big deal if you aren’t used to these games, but is huge deal if you are. The level of verticality and the way that secrets can now be hidden is incredible. It’s no longer enough to just check a corridor, you have to look down over cliffs, double check you can’t scale a mountain, keep an eye out for grapple points. It adds something I never realised I wanted from these games: proper exploration. Sure, the previous games had big expansive areas and a maze of routes and doors to unlock, but there were never hidden paths you could find by jumping off a cliff and grappling onto a tree root. It’s magnificent.
Then there’s stealth. Full ‘hang off a ledge and stab a dude’ stealth. It makes impossible fights feel much more achievable, so long as you can find the right approach. There’s just so many new layers to this game and it all blends together brilliantly. There is that element of frustration early on, but it comes because you aren’t using the systems together. Master them and you master the game. Then you get to feel like a badass… until you come up against a new enemy.
It’s the same cycle as with any Soulsborne game, but that initial sting of difficulty and change is so much harsher here. It’s very easy to believe that a large number of players are simply going to bounce off Sekiro upon reaching any of the bosses or mini-bosses, but if you persevere, it is so worth your time to commit to mastering it.
The game is amazing to look at, and running on PC at max settings it looks like a dream. There are colours here that it was thought FromSoftware had lost forever back in the great colour purge of 2007. The world shifts from icy canyons to lush forests and burning settlements constantly, and every one of them is beautiful to behold. The enemy design is magnificent as well, each of them requiring a different strategy to defeat, every boss challenging a new aspect of your skillset. You can see where certain optional enemies have been placed just to test you. It is a genuine joy to play, if you can push on that far.