Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an enormous game, and instead of making you all wait for weeks to see how the game plays, I’m releasing this impressions review which covers what I’ve seen so far. I’m about 25 hours in at the moment, and to avoid spoilers myself, I’m not sure how far from the end I am. This review will focus on how Sekiro plays, and won’t touch on story or boss spoilers.
Sekiro has a very passive story. After the initial opening sequence, there aren’t a lot of cutscenes, and most of the dialog between characters is optional. Sekiro, like other FromSoftware games before it, has a large amount of lore to discover, and although it’s too early to tell myself, but it seems to be much deeper and more complicated the more you look. Sekiro won’t bother players who aren’t interested in this narrative by keeping you to a straightforward story, unless you want to go to the effort and dig deeper yourself. There will still be cutscenes during important moments throughout the game, but these are far less frequent than many gamers are used to if not familiar with FromSoftware’s storytelling style.
Sekiro;s combat is absolutely superb. You can tell that just like previous games, the developers wanted combat to give you a great sense of control and power, despite the difficulty of the game. In combat, you can block, deflect, jump, dodge, attack with your sword, and make use of Shinobi gadgets. It sounds like there are a lot of options at your disposal, but it all feels like second-nature once you become familiar with the game. Sekiro won’t hand-hold for the player. Even the early tutorial section is difficult. The player will need to contend with multiple enemies, including a miniboss, even though they are new at the game, and don’t even have a healing item yet. Even the regular enemies are able to take off a third of your health in a single hit, so less experienced players are likely to struggle to get to understand the game, but this is part of what makes Sekiro so satisfying to play. Every action has consequence; attacks are fast and don’t leave you open for long, but the same can be said for the enemy. Leaving yourself open or not blocking even a single attack can put you on the back foot, but it makes the success all that much more rewarding.
Sekiro’s combat revolves around the ‘posture meter’. Both the player and each enemy has one of these guages, and when broken, the character will be knocked off balance, leaving them open to be attacked freely. When the enemy’s posture has been broken, you are able to perform a deathblow attack, which will instantly kill the enemy that you are facing. Some stronger enemies may have multiple health bars, and will require more than one deathblow, which gives real gravity to these battles, and makes them stand out. Whilst playing, I couldn’t help but feel that the posture meter is an incredible piece of game design. In most encounters, you’ll be focusing on breaking the enemies posture instead of taking out their health. This is because the enemies are competent fighters in their own, and they will defend themselves when attacked, and often attack back in force. Each time you hit an enemy, whether they deflect it or not, you will do posture damage, and when you deflect enemy attacks, this also knocks them off balance, further damaging their posture. The end result is that battles feel epic. Enemies will attack aggressively, defend your blows, and the back and forth that results looks and feels incredible.
This is in contrast to FromSoftware’s well known Dark Souls series. As the foes in Dark Souls are often monsters, undead, and more animal in nature, these creatures don’t often fight smart, and their behavior doesn’t feel out of place. They won’t block, although they do occasionally dodge, they are often hulking in size and as such, have heavy attacks that leave them vulnerable at the end so that the player can land a few hits of their own. Dark Souls combat is fun, there’s no doubting that. You need to size up your opponent, learn their attacks, find their openings and strike, Sekiro builds on this design, which all of the Dark Souls elements returning with some new twists along the way.
Sekiro’s combat is reliable and understandable. In Dark Souls, there are gigantic enemies that do huge overhead swings that look like they would leave craters on the earth which they hit, and yet I am dumbfounded to see that some Dark Souls veterans are parrying these attacks like nothing. For many players, it is almost impossible to determine what is safe to block or parry. In Sekiro, every single attack can be blocked and deflected unless a warning sign appears above Wolf’s head. These unblockable attacks come in 3 forms:
- Stabbing attacks, which can be deflected
- Sweeping attacks which can be jumped, and
- Grabs which can be dodged.
Thanks to this, you know with absolute certainty that you can block or deflect that enormous wind up hit that the enemy in front of you is about to do, but when that warning symbol comes up, you know that you need to take evasive action, but you’ll need to study the enemy in order to determine exactly what action to take.
If you are struggling with the basics of combat, after the tutorial section, there is an NPC that offers to train you, teaching the basics of dodging, deflecting, and more. These training sessions are optional, and can be repeated as many times as necessary. I found this to be a very welcome addition, as in a game as punishing as Sekiro, you rarely want to risk learning new skills against real enemies, and some of the techniques you get really do feel risky until you understand how they are executed.
FromSoftware are masters of level design. In all of the games, the maps are huge, and have clever ways to link different areas together, as well as lots of hidden goodies for players to discover. Sekiro has added a proper jump to the mix, and it allows for the levels to have an entirely new dimension of freedom, providing new options for the player to sneak up on enemies, and many more devious ways for maps to expand, and for goodies to be hidden. The jump is not the only new move that will be handy for making the most of Sekiro’s beautifully detailed environments, you can wall jump for extra height, grab onto ledges, and most importantly, use a grappling hook to traverse the map quickly, and in ways that would otherwise not be possible. Sekiro has an incredible amount of freedom in store for the player when traversing the world, and I’m sure I’ll be finding many more of these secrets as I continue to play.
There are many qualities that make stealth great, and depending on the game, and the experience, there are many ways that games can get stealth right. In Sekiro, Stealth is on the more basic side. Enemies won’t try to ambush you when discovered, nor will they attempt to flank you when you escape their sight. The enemies have 3 levels of alertness:
- White, meaning that the enemy isn’t aware of you at all
- Yellow, which means that the enemy is suspicious of you, and will approach to investigate the disturbance, and
- Red, which means the enemy is actively engaging you.
If the enemy is able to see you, the alert icon above their head will fill at a rate dependent on how visible you are, and if the icon fills, the enemy moves to the next alertness level. If you happen to drop right in front of an enemy, they are going to skip the yellow phase altogether, and go right to red, and engage you, for example.
Sekiro’s enemies are able to hear sounds, but most sounds seem to fall-off after a very short distance, so in a lot of cases enemies can be just around the corner from you and won’t hear a peep, allowing you to finish combat and then take them out from stealth.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can run from combat, then grapple out of danger and wait for things to cool down. Once the enemies can no longer see you, they’ll start staring where they saw you last, and if they are able to do so, will approach your last-known destination, and flounder around for around 20 seconds. If they weren’t able to find you, they return to whatever it was that they were doing before you came along, which allows you to have fun with the game. You can explore, find interesting ways to take out your opponents, and if you accidentally get seen and don’t want to fight the enemies, you don’t need to wait around for a few minutes whilst things cool down, allowing you to get back into the action.
Depending on what players want out of their stealth game, this might be a bit of an immersion killer, as many players really like to feel as though they’re outwitting an intelligent force. Sekiro instead focuses on allowing the player to skulk through a heavily armed base and eliminate enemies one by one.
Enemies can be approached from behind, jumped on, taken from ledges, and from around corners. Although I’ve found that these special takedowns are unnecessary, finding clever ways to take down enemies using the non-standard methods is very rewarding and a lot of fun.
Set in Feudal Japan, you’ll be fighting a lot of infantrymen carrying swords, spears, and other primitive weaponry. FromSoft have taken some liberties, leaning into Japanese lore as you’ll find some supernatural elements sprinkled throughout too. Most of the enemies and minibosses will be roughly the same size as the player, making duels feel particularly fair, but there are also some enemies that tower over the player, and with their large size comes an equal share of danger. Despite most of the enemies being regular humans, FromSoft has done a great job of ensuring there is a lot of enemy variety. Without spoiling the different types, there are at least 5 different factions of enemies that have multiple enemy types, and their own combat styles.
Being in Japan, you’ll spend a lot of time running on and through large castles, as well as smaller Japanese towns serene wilderness with beautiful mountainscapes in the backdrop. There is a great amount of variety in the locales, and everything feels authentic and wildly detailed.
In Sekiro, there is no character creation. You control Wolf, and there are no stats to customise, nor level up individually like you can in Dark Souls. You are able to increase your health and posture by defeating strong enemies to gain prayer beads, but these strong enemies don’t respawn, preventing you from farming the resource. After defeating a major boss, you will gain a memory, that once reflected upon, will increase Wolf’s damage output. But As with the prayer beads, bosses don’t respawn, so you can’t get multiples of these either.
Throughout the game, you will unlock ability trees that provide you with both passive bonuses and active skills that can be used. In order to unlock these skills, you will need to kill enemies to earn skill points in the same way that Dark Souls provides souls for kills. The skills that are unlocked provide you with freedom to choose an active skill to use during combat, and the passive skills can permanently improve your character, but not in the same way that leveling up your character does in Dark Souls. There is a passive skill that will lower your presence, making it more difficult for enemies to detect you, for example.
The player also has Shinobi tools. These are specialised items that, if used well, can turn the tide of battle against your enemies. You may have 3 equipped at a time, and can pause the game at any time to swap them out. These gadgets can be upgraded using in-game currency called Sen, and rare upgrade components. In most cases, these upgrades augment the gadgets, giving them extra properties or expand their effectiveness, as opposed to making them do more damage outright.
Both Skills and gadget upgrades can be upgraded early to a degree if the player wants to grind enemies over and over, but the benefits to doing so aren’t going to be as noticeable as over-leveling a character in Dark Souls.
Sekiro has a save point system very similar to the SoulsBorne games. Now called Sculptors Idols, these bonfire equivalents placed around the maps in convenient locations, often very close to bossfight rooms, which is a welcome change that reduces the repetitive run from savepoint to difficult boss. Not only that, but Sculptors Idols can be interacted with in Sekiro without resetting the enemies, unlike in Souls games. You are able to clear out an area, go back to the Idol to level up skills or fast travel to equip a new Shinobi tool, and then return straight back to where you were without having to clean out the enemies again. You won’t regain your healing item charges or restore your health just by sitting at the idol, though. In order to regain these resources, you’ll need to rest, which also resets the enemies, so it doesn’t make the game too much easier with that change alone.
When dying in Sekiro, Wolf has the ability to resurrect once per rest at an idol. Once the resurrect has been used, it can also be recharged by killing a large amount of enemies, allowing the player to keep on playing if they are confident enough. This resurrection ability is a great way to give players confidence to explore areas, without having to worry too much about a cheap death. Because you only get this one resurrection, again, it doesn’t make Sekiro too easy, but it does provide a welcome lifeline in a pinch.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an incredible game. Each individual component is fun on its own, and FromSoftware have done an incredible job of combining each of these individual elements together to create a game that is both fun to play, and equally challenging. Thanks to some of the quality of life and player friendly changes, such as respawn locations close to boss rooms and the resurrection mechanic, there has never been a better time to introduce yourself to these types of challenging games. I know that we’re only early in 2019, but I feel like it’s going to be tough to top Sekiro for game of the year.