Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the new Shinobi game by From Software, the diabolical minds behind the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne, and in that vein Sekiro is too, as hard as nails. It’s combat can be brutal and unforgiving, and that’s just normal enemies. Boss fights are another level of stress. Sekiro relies on stealth to even the playing field and a rather handy revive mechanic.
So on paper Sekiro sounds great for the Soulsborne fans like myself, but does the game hold up to From’s high standards?
As anyone who has played the Dark Souls series knows, From Soft games are hard. It’s a running meme in the community now that you simply have to ‘get gud scrub’. The thing is, getting ‘gud’ on a hard game is usually a chore, but somehow From Soft makes this challenge fun. The feeling of progression and overcoming a tough encounter drives you for the 50 hour ride that is Sekiro.
As you set off on your mission, you are actually treated to a tutorial, something unheard of in the Soulsborne series. That level of hand holding soon goes out the window though when you get into the combat.
Sekiro’s aim in combat is to recreate the clashing of swords and the incredible skill of the Shinobi. The tense sword play is not about slashing until you deal enough damage that the enemy dies, Sekiro focuses on posture. As you attack and the opposition defends, they build up posture, when you fill the posture bar up you get a kick ass kill animation. Your reward for slowly draining their energy is a Brutal one hit kill. Sekiro rewards offence, unlike its predecessors, you really want to be on the front foot here and apply pressure. I know what you’re thinking right now, ‘It wouldn’t be From Soft though if you can just mash’, and yes you are correct. You too have a posture bar that fills when you block. To counter this you can do a parry. If you press L1 at the last second you will deflect the attack and do posture damage to them. Parry is as important in Sekiro as your health is. When you master the parry, you master the game. Nearly every combat situation and boss fight will come down to you reading the patterns of their attacks and perfectly parrying it.
Sekiro really emphasises the sound of swords clashing, and uses the sound to build tension. Combat in Sekiro is the best and most interactive in any of the Soulsborne games. It makes the challenge fun and rewarding. It’s easily one of the best parts of Sekiro, and is a true game changer in the Soulsborne series. Though Bloodborne changed the combat compared to Dark Souls, Sekiro changes it tenfold.
So with your new found skills in combat, you also rely on stealth. Not every battle can be overcome with brute force alone. Stealth will allow you to knock off a few enemies first and make your attack easier. With the use of a grappling hook, the map takes on some incredible verticality too. You can approach from the ground using trees and bushes as cover, or grapple onto branches, rooftops and more to attack from above. Tenchu relied on verticality and stealth to tackle missions, and you can see the Tenchu legacy here. As a huge fan of Tenchu growing up, Sekiro is the closest I have got to a new Tenchu game.
Where Tenchu relied more on stealth, Sekiro’s focus is on combat, but the two are similar. Anyone who enjoyed Tenchu will more then likely enjoy Sekiro’s setting and use of stealth.
So we have covered the combat system and stealth, but what about bosses? After all From Soft games are renowned for incredible boss fights. Sekiro is a little different then the Soulsborne games in this respect. Sekiro features around 10 main bosses, a lot lower than the average Souls game, but Sekiro makes up for this with a plethora of mini bosses. Each level can range from 1 to 5 mini bosses before the main boss. And my god, these enemies are tough. The first mini boss you will see is a rather large and angry Ogre that will kick your arse pretty easy.
The ogre is a really tough test, but it can be made easy using one of Sekiro’s ingenious mechanics, eavesdropping. Listening to two guards near the orge reveals he is afraid of fire. So now how do we get fire? Well that’s simple, we travel back in time. I know right, for a From game this is new territory. A full fledged story. As you travel back in time 3 years, you are faced with a new setting and new enemies to overcome. By exploring the whole area though you will find an axe and a flame vent, the same flame vent you need to beat the ogre. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling figuring out what each of the Shinobi arm attachments is used for.
Sekiro doesn’t rely on the usual Soulsborne RPG mechanic of building your stats up how you’d like. Sekiro’s only customisation comes in the form of skills and your 3 attached Shinobi attachments. You can’t simply grind kills for health at the start of the game. You have to kill mini bosses for prayer beads, when you have 4 you get a boost to your health. Sekiro really forces you to learn the game and not just cheese it. To emphasise this further, there is no Multiplayer either. That means, no help on bosses from other players.
Sekiro really is the definitive ‘get gud’ game.
The true test of your skills comes in the form of main bosses, and my god they can be hard. The last few bosses took me 3 or 4 hours each to beat. You have to learn every attack, every little tell that will let you know which attack they are going to use and how to counter said attacks. It adds up to an incredible feeling though when you do beat the boss. I died that many times to the last boss that I did his first 2 phases without getting hit when I finally killed him.
I could ramble on all day about how amazing Sekiro feels to play but we must move on with the review.
Sound, voice & music
I played Sekiro with both the Japanese and English voicing and both were fantastic. The English voice acting was done perfectly to set the tone of Sekiro without breaking the immersion of being in 16th century Japan and speaking English. As for sound effects, From Soft have always nailed this aspect and Sekiro is no different. From the clanging of two swords crossing blades, to the pop and bang of fire cracker and the whizz of kunai as they fly through the air. It all sound excellent and nothing I heard was immersion breaking at all.
Music fades in and out in Sekiro and is only really every prominent in fights. The music kicks in and builds up the tension as you take on mobs of enemies. The music does an excellent job here of building the tension, even though the combat doesn’t really need the help. This is a From Soft game after all and the slightest miss play could end up with you dying to a wolf.
Growing up playing Mega Man really helped me when it came to Dark Souls and now Sekiro. Dying repeatedly until you found the bosses weakness on Mega Man lends itself to Sekiro too. You have all these Shinobi attachments, just like Mega Man. There are load of different bosses that are weak to different things, Lady Butterfly can be interrupted with a shuriken. The Boar can be stunned with firecrackers and the Corrupted Monk can be taken down fast with stealth just like how Wood Man in Mega Man 2 got massacred by the Metal Blade.
This feeling of working out how to kill bosses and figuring out their attacks to help with this is one of my favourite parts of a From Soft game. The last boss in the game has four phases and after the 4 hours it took me to beat him, I could do the first two without getting hit. I knew all his move set and when to parry, jump or even run. I felt like a god until he went to phase 3 and left me looking at another death screen, but it never ruined the experience. These games are supposed to be hard. When you beat a From Soft game you can use that as a badge of honour among your friends and the community. Calling for an easy mode is just a joke and ruins the whole point of the game.
Overall Sekiro is an absolute masterpiece. It’s brutal, hard and holds your hand more than the rest of the series, but it then also has bosses that make Dark Souls 2 look like Rugrats Search for Reptar. Its combat is the best From has made to date and I would love for Sekiro to have a run of games.
I still wait for a true Tenchu game, but Sekiro is the closest we are going to get to that this decade. I know it’s not Tenchu at its core, but we have to make due and Sekiro is one hell of a way to make due.
Stealth feels incredible