Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an Electrifying Masterpiece

This review contains little to no spoilers for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has quite a reputation to uphold. From Software, the game’s developer, is responsible for the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne, which are some of my favorite games I’ve ever played and some of the most influential video games of the last decade. So does Sekiro live up to these impossible expectations? Does it provide the tense action thrills that so many Soulsborne fans have been desperately craving since the conclusion of the Dark Souls trilogy two years ago?

Yep.

Even if much of Sekiro feels familiar, it isn’t a Souls game. There’s no stamina meter, no corpse-running, no traditional level-ups, and there’s significantly fewer RPG elements. Rather than allowing the player to create their own character and customize their weapon and armor choices, the player character’s weapons and outfit are singular and predetermined. The player also has the ability to jump and use a grappling hook, allowing for much faster and wider range of movement options than ever before. The ability to resurrect after death is now available, although this does not come without limit or consequence. There’s even a light stealth system, something that was never present in Dark Souls.

The true changes to the Souls formula, however, are best exemplified through the combat. There are only two relevant bars in Sekiro: the health bar, which is self-explanatory, and the posture bar, which is an entirely new addition. Every time you hit an unguarded enemy, their health will decrease and their posture meter will fill up. Every time you properly deflect an attack from an enemy, their posture meter will fill up while yours will remain untarnished. For standard enemies, depleting their health will be enough to down them, but for the game’s bosses and minibosses, you will need to entirely fill up their posture meter to take them down. This opens them up for a deathblow, although some opponents will have two or even three health bars, so the fight may continue on after that.

While you can still dodge to avoid attacks like in From’s previous titles, the deflect ability is at the core of Sekiro’s combat. Hitting the deflect button just before an enemy’s blow lands will result in them taking significant posture damage, and the key to taking down the game’s bosses lies in mastering their attack patterns and honing your deflect skills to perfection. This is less a game about avoiding your opponent’s attacks then it is about rising to meet them, meaning that each encounter plays out like a rhythmic dance that relentlessly electrifies and engages you.

My favorite aspect about Sekiro’s combat is how it incentivizes you to play aggressively and stay in the fight. It’s not easy to shrug off many of the lessons that the Souls games taught me, and the hardest thing for me to learn was to embrace the danger. While “Embrace the Danger” may sound like a bad tagline for an 80s action movie, and while it still makes for a better tagline than “Shadows Die Twice”, it boils down to going against my instincts of fleeing from the threat. Many of my hundreds of deaths (thousands of deaths if we’re being honest here) occurred because I dodged away from the enemy after I was hit by them. Unfortunately, dodging after immediately being hit resulted in me being hit again, and in a game where bosses can easily annihilate your health bar in two strikes, it often meant death.

Once I learned to stand my ground and remain close to my foes, my success rate went up exponentially. The optimal way to play Sekiro is to attack unrelentingly and respond to your opponent’s strikes with well-timed deflects. It’s remarkable how quickly you can break some bosses’ posture meters if you slash at them as much as possible and consistently block their attacks. Not all attacks can be blocked or deflected, however. Thrust attacks can be avoided by dodging to the side, but they can also be dodged into to deal significant posture damage as you step on the enemy’s blade to halt their attack. This is known as a mikiri counter, and while it puts you at great risk and requires precise timing, it’s actually quite a forgiving mechanic once you get over the initial fear of performing it. The same goes for the jump kick counter, which you can perform if you jump over an enemy’s sweep attack and then jump again to bounce off of their head Mario style.

More interesting new wrinkles and options have been added to the action as well. “Sekiro” translates to “one-armed wolf”, which is appropriate given that your character loses his left arm in the opening of the game. Luckily, he’s soon equipped with a prosthetic arm that can house a variety of deadly attachments, such as shuriken, a shield-smashing axe, firecrackers, and more. Each enemy will be vulnerable to a different prosthetic attachment, but there’s a lot of freedom to experiment with these weapons in creative ways (they even have their own upgradable skill tree). They are never required to defeat an enemy, which is ultimately a positive, as they consume Spirit Emblems upon usage, which are plentiful but finite resource.

Similar to the prosthetic attachments, the stealth mechanics can be used to the player’s advantage, but stealth is never outright required to overcome an enemy, even if it can be of great use. I think this is the right approach to stealth in a game like this, as face-to-face duels make up the core of this game’s experience, and a more elaborate stealth system may have intruded upon this. It’s perhaps a tad too easy to abuse the stealth system, as the player’s high mobility allows for easy escapes to reestablish stealth, but as I stated, it’s never a requirement, so this is a minor issue at most.

In term so aesthetics, Sekiro’s graphics are certainly strong, but it is the art direction that shines here, often literally. From Software’s art department has never shirked on supplying detailed textures and models for their games, and Sekiro is no exception. Given that the game is set in 15th century Japan, From Software studied actual 15th century blueprints of Japanese architecture to ensure the in-game locales were authentic. Sekiro’s settings are more than just authentic, however; they are colorful, sprawling, breathtaking, and entirely distinct from one another. I stopped many times during my playthrough just to take in the scenery and pop a quick screenshot of a gorgeous vista, and a single picture would allow me to instantly identify what area I was looking at. That’s a testament to the variety and design of these levels.

The setting of Sekiro may not be as harrowing as Bloodborne’s city of Yharnam or mysterious as Dark Souls’ ruined Lordran, but it deserves much praise nonetheless, and it does certain things better than both of those game worlds. It should be noted that the level design in this game is excellent, with well-placed enemies, new levels of verticality, and lots of shortcuts, but I expect nothing less from From Software; it’s the world design that I find particularly impressive. Sekiro’s land of Ashina follows Dark Souls’ setting most closely in the sense that the world is physically interconnected; while you do have the ability to warp between checkpoints from the beginning—something that Dark Souls lacked—the world itself feels real, tangible, and logical. Sekiro’s areas aren’t just different levels in a video game that have been sloppily cobbled together (I’m looking at you, Dark Souls 2). They are coherent locations representing a believable geography, and it provides a true sense of immersion as you explore the war-ravaged region of Ashina.

Sekiro is not very linear; it doesn’t force you down a single path towards the game’s conclusion, but rather allows for an impressive amount of choices for the player to make in terms of exploration. I didn’t notice this as much until I began my second playthrough, but I was shocked by how many areas of the game are available to the player so early on. There are many different paths to travel upon, and each one leads to something exciting and valuable. This is another way in which Sekiro’s world design follows in the footsteps of Dark Souls, but I mentioned that it did something better than the worlds of both Dark Souls and Bloodborne. I’m not saying it does everything better or that it is better in general than its spiritual predecessors, but Sekiro adds one feature that I particularly enjoyed: an evolving and malleable game world.

As the story progresses, certain areas in the game will be populated with new, tougher enemies. This serves both gameplay and story purposes, as it provides a more even difficulty curve, keeps the combat fresh, and pushes the story and its characters forward. Other changes besides the appearance of new enemies occur as well, but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory in this review. Overall, I really enjoyed this feature, as it raises the stakes of the narrative and helps to elucidate the motives of several of the characters; it’s a great way of merging the storytelling with the gameplay.

In terms of storytelling, however, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed with Sekiro’s story. The story isn’t bad by any means, but it certainly lacks the mesmerizing melancholy of Dark Souls or the gripping terror of Bloodborne. Both of those games’ narratives are purposefully indirect and esoteric, but Sekiro takes a much more straightforward approach to storytelling. This is not an inherent problem, as a story can succeed regardless of how much information it presents to its audience, but Sekiro’s narrative feels fine, and only fine. I came away satisfied, but I wasn’t deeply affected like I had been by From Software’s previous titles.

I should clarify that at the time of writing this review, I have only beaten the game once. If there’s anything I’ve learned from playing the Soulsborne series, it’s that it’s impossible to absorb, understand, and appreciate the stories of these games after you’ve beaten them for the first time. This appears to be less of the case for Sekiro, as it is much more forthcoming with its dialogue and verbal exposition, but these are only my initial impressions of the game. Sekiro has only been out a week and a half, after all, and opinions do change over time. There’s certainly a lot of intriguing aspects of the lore, but some of the character work falls flat in my opinion. Several moments that should have been very emotional simply don’t prompt enough reactions from the characters for those emotions to translate to the player, although there are still some impactful moments and character arcs.

The game’s protagonist, Wolf, is given very little to work with and doesn’t always feel like a fully formed character. Most of his dialogue involves him repeating back what someone said to him in a flat, emotionless tone. Given that From Software chose to create the character of Wolf rather than put the character creation tools in the players’ hands as with their previous games, it’s definitely a missed opportunity. Wolf didn’t have to be an incredibly complex person with an extremely detailed backstory (we do get some of his backstory, at least), but he feels largely like a blank slate. I can see why his character being a vessel for the player is a solid design choice, as it allows for the players to project themselves into his shoes and make his accomplishments their own, but it feels like From Software left Wolf in some strange twilit middle ground, providing the skeleton of a character but failing to apply significant flesh to those bones.

Flesh metaphors aside, let’s talk about my favorite things about these kinds of games: the bosses. And oh, boy, they do not disappoint. With the exception of two rather gimmicky battles, every boss fight is excellent or better. They almost universally provide that adrenaline-spiking, fist-pumping quality to them. If you think I’m exaggerating, I literally pumped my fist in victory after defeating most of the bosses in the game, and I think that speaks for itself. Sekiro’s minibosses also provide difficult yet rewarding encounters, but there are a few cases of the minibosses being reused one too many times. Despite this, most of these enemies could easily be mistaken for true bosses, and their quality is generally very high. Although the boss battles demand a lot of the player—Sekiro is undoubtedly a very challenging game—they never veer into unfair territory, and I think this is largely due to the fantastic animation.

It’s easy to take the animation of a game like this granted; if the animation wasn’t superb, it would be painfully noticeable. Not only are the movements of the characters fluid, believable, and pretty to look at, they are also incredibly functional. Every vital piece of information is conveyed flawlessly, simultaneously demonstrating what the enemy is doing and how you must react. As I discussed earlier, I often defaulted to my gut instinct of dodging away from the enemies, but what helped me overcome this bad habit was simply watching my opponents’ animations intently. Sekiro’s combat is very fast, but there is always a brief window of time to analyze before acting. Learning to take that split second and observe before reacting is crucial. It creates a combat experience that is just as much about timing and muscle memory as it is about reacting intelligently to the game’s stimuli, and it always rewards the player’s intelligence.

I’ve seen some concern expressed about the replayability of Sekiro, as there are far fewer unique builds and playstyles than those found in Dark Souls. While I definitely understand this point of view, I myself am not concerned. After I completed the game, all I could think about was starting it from the beginning again. Yes, I wanted to experience the several different endings, the branching story paths, and the fresh boss fights that come along with these, but there was a true singular reason why I felt compelled to come back: the game is magnetic. It has that unspeakable appeal that From Software has become so adept at imbuing into their games, and I’m thrilled to say that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice lives up to the high bar that has been set by its predecessors. My first, nearly 42-hour playthrough of the game is not the end of this journey. As I’m typing this right now, I’m eager to dive back into the land of Ashina, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. If you like these kinds of challenging but deeply satisfying games, or even if you don’t, I strongly advise you to do the same.

One last note: my boss ranking articles about Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 were a lot of fun to write, so rest assured that Sekiro will eventually be getting a similar treatment…

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