Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

April 4, 2019
Also on: PC, Xbox One
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Also on:
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Hidetaka Miyazaki, my old friend. You’ve done it again, haven’t you? With Demon’s Souls you introduced yourself to the world, outside of FromSoftware’s Armoured Core series. With Dark Souls you demonstrated true genius. Bloodborne took that formula, changed the era and sped everything up, encouraging attack and less defence. Each was a challenge; for most a beast too many to usurp. The marketeers had their day with the ‘You Died’ schtick. In the end though you weren’t quite satisfied, were you? No. You had to once more up the bar and ward off more and more gamers from treading too deep, too far. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice centres around the one-armed wolf (sekiro, in English), a shinobi with a baffling past and the power of the Dragon’s Heritage. His journey is the hardest yet. Traversal requires combative skills perhaps beyond compare, with little to no help from others. Patience, technique, skill and mastery are all required here. To progress even through one section, one area, one boss. It’s entirely wonderful and at once horrific. If you ever think you’re out, something just pulls you back in. The pull of the game greater than any hardness it throws at you. Hidetaka Miyazaki, my old friend — welcome back.

The game is absolutely, mind-blowingly, rock hard. Yet, totally fair. Everything which happens does so for a reason — a good one — that can be observed, reviewed, managed and surpassed. It’s difficult to look beyond this as I write, and for anyone who plays the game, at least at the start. There are no difficulty sliders as there were in Dark Souls. I mean, that didn’t actually have them but if you were struggling you had various modes of recourse. You could grind, gather souls and spend them on upgrading your character, your weapons, your armour or perhaps something else. Here? Not a chance. It’s not an RPG to start with, so you are who you are, with no statistics to talk of, aside from the fact you have a health bar, posture and a katana. You can collect prayer beads to enhance posture or vitality, but these are finite. Gained experience provides skill points and various branches of a skill tree can be unlocked during the game’s course. This experience is lost at death, your final death, at least. You’re limited in what you can do to get out of any particular problem, then. The most obvious and simplistic course of action is, as many will tell you, to get good.

Shinobi... I did like that game when I was younger

Getting good is something anyone can do here, given a long enough timeline. This timeline is shorter if you’re more skillful, lucky, observant or memory-endowed. As you move around the gorgeous Sengoku-period environment, you’ll have various enemies to tackle, avoid, or something in between. The most basic enemies can pretty much be taken down by button-mashing, as long as they’re alone, that is. When you add multiples into play, that won’t cut it. As you find stronger, or better prepared, or more heavily armoured opposition you’ll also find that elegance, skill and patience brings just reward. It might be that you look to approach isolated enemies via stealthy crouched walks, or via the long grass. You might run in, destroy and run out. You might choose to grapple up, jump down and slash, then move back away, vertically, once more. Verticality of the environment is a significant addition to From’s canon, and makes your approach here very different to what you might have had in mind. You can literally hide up high on occasion, if you can get there. It also means the glorious environments, which double back on themselves at times, have a third axis that you can really play with, rather than just being a three-dimensional game you play in only two dimensions.

What you’re always trying to do is expel all vitality from an opponent, something which is made exponentially easier by battling them into remission of their posture. Each enemy has good posture before battle. By hitting them in the right way, often enough, you can literally make them wobble and lose their control, defence, stance. An opening presents itself and you can apply the deathblow. Each enemy needs a deathblow to take them down. Mini-bosses and bosses need more. Whilst the first can often be achieved by way of stealth, the second is a proper fight. This is where patience and skill come in. You will have a variety of combat moves you can make, depending on exactly what you have chosen to spend skill points on, and could be a katana attack skill or something else. You might have had a prosthetic attachment fitted to your arm and this can allow something else in your armoury to be used, for example an axe blow or flame-throwing. To make use of anything though requires you to know how to attack, when to attack, and what to attack with. All of it needs to be done well, of course. A fight can take tens of attempts. One particular early-game boss I tackled initially seemed impossible. I then worked a couple of tricks and got somewhere, but not far. After a few more attempts I got close. I then had a series of further attempts and finally made it. The genius is that each bit of progress made sense, based on trial and error and learning from what I’ve done. So I wanted to continue, and win, rather than walk away in disgust, asking for an easy difficulty level. The game is rock hard, but beatable by anyone willing to put in the graft and work to get the extreme reward.

Mind that...thing's stick please.

It does however sadden me that there is no multiplayer — no way to help others, or get help yourself. The mechanic was an outstanding one in Dark Souls, which enabled people to play the game in their own way based on what they needed. For me, spending time helping others on a boss run got me extra souls to build my experience and showed me what was coming if I was yet to beat that particular enemy. Getting help from others meant I could get past things more quickly, more easily, and in some cases in any way at all given my paucity of success. It was a brilliant way to help people who perhaps felt they were at breaking point, that it was taking too long to progress, or just like to help and be helped. This is going to be a subjective point as to whether this for you is a problem. But to the population as a whole there will be only a small amount who persist with Sekiro due to the challenge, and that group will become smaller still without something like this. It’s a game, a creative endeavour and sure, it's not possible to say this is wrong, but it is saddening.

The game is as good to look at as you'd hope at this stage of the generation, with lovely art, super animation and a surprising amount of sheen to the experience, given it's a FromSoftware product. There are performance issues at times though, albeit limited on the PS4 Pro we used. Depending on your hardware, you may well encounter more problems, but these will be patched and improved over time. History tells us something will however remain. There's replay value aplenty in New Game Plus and beyond, with plenty to see and do that you might have missed or left as it was totally optional first time around. Even if you only play the once you could have tens of hours of fun here, dependent on just how good you are.

This looks like a deathblow.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
is an example of a brilliant game, for the few. It can provide glory and wonder to those who are patient, persistent or just damned skillful. Many will drop out early, and at various times along the way. In life though they say the sweet is better for having tasted the sour and that may well be a metaphor for Miyazaki's games. If you’re willing to feel the pain and take the hits, but keep coming back for more, then what you get out of Sekiro is magnified exponentially. If you aren’t willing, it will all too soon feel like a horrible chore and be swept aside for something more immediate but ultimately, less fulfilling.

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Sekiro is a fascinating, engaging and downright outstanding game which puts too many people off too early to warrant a must-play tag.
Luciano Howard

I've been gaming for 35+ years on the Commodore VIC-20 to the PlayStation 5 and pretty much everything in-between. I enjoy all kinds of games but if I had to pick a couple in particular, I'd say I adore Mario and love Dark Souls. I can talk about either an awful lot should you want to!