This Shadow Died A Thousand Times: Shadows Die Twice Review
Games have the ability to make us laugh, cry, and cheer out of excitement. They can also teach us painstaking lessons through trial and error. From Software’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice does just that by making it quite clear that it is not just another Soulsborne game.
With more than enough experience playing Dark Souls, Bloodborne and games inspired by the subgenre, I felt confident walking into Sekiro. However, within the first few hours, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice breaks broke me down and rebuilt me.
From Software brought a lot of the base foundation from their previous games but took a hard right when it came to how Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice actually plays. Whereas Dark Souls and Bloodborne are slow and methodical, Sekiro is fast and places an emphasis on stealth combat.
Welcome To Ashina
As a refreshing change of pace, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice tells a story not based on uncovering lore and backstory through items or other means. No, Sekiro tells a story through character interactions and features a protagonist with his own dialogue and agenda.
Sekiro places you in the shoes of Wolf, a shinobi tasked with protecting Kuro, the Divine Hier. Placed during a fictional Feudal-era Japan setting, Kuro is kidnapped by a power-hungry warlord seeking his imbued “Dragon Heritage” power. Sekiro opens up with Wolf, who was given the Dragon Heritage power by his master, tracking down Kuro only to be cut down— both figuratively and literally. Wolf is saved from the brink of death by the Sculptor who gifts Wolf a prosthetic arm. Wolf sets out to free his master and take down the forces that lay beyond the horizon.
As you take your first few steps into the land of Ashina, you will notice how different the setting looks and feels in comparison to From Software’s prior work. The world of Sekiro is more bright and vibrant than the paths you take in the Dark Souls series. Ashina is mainly comprised of warm fall hues. With the exception of a late-game area, Sekiro is much brighter and a tad more welcoming when it comes to the visuals.
Rather than Gothic-inspired buildings and streets, Ashina has plenty of Japanese architecture to find and scale. Once again, Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team of developers build a world with interconnected levels that seamlessly transition from one subsection to another. You’ll discover areas high and low with different biomes and threats. Playing on a base PlayStation 4, each locale looks astonishing and there were no frame rate dips even when a lot was happening on screen.
Enemies themselves feel more grounded. Instead of facing off against pure nightmare fuel, Sekiro features enemies and bosses that fit within the setting and the world laid out. That’s not to say Sekiro does not occasionally bring in the supernatural or undead into the fold. Each of the enemies has their own pattern to learn and weaknesses.
The Shinobi Way
Mob enemies can be tricky. Find yourself surrounded and expect a brutal beatdown. Sekiro encourages and teaches you to practise stealth and the act of picking one enemy off after another. This approach can sometimes be hit or miss. In many occassions, enemies will be alerted right away when one of their allies are taken out. Other times, it's as if they are blind and unaware of their surroundings.
As Wolf, you also have the agility of a ninja. Being able to dodge, jump and grapple out of the way not only makes Sekiro play faster but brings verticality to the genre. Wolf’s new prosthetic is an upgradeable arm. Not only can he swing to rooftops for airborne assassinations, but it can be fitted for additional weaponry. These tools go a long way during boss battles and can be a true lifesaver in many scenarios.
The biggest change in formula is the incorporation of the “Posture System”. Instead of a traditional stamina meter, the posture system tracks the threshold before you can attempt a “deathblow” attack—which acts as a finisher. This is a two-way street. Each enemy has a posture meter and to succeed, you must attack and parry in order to fill the posture meter over time. Parrying an enemies attack took a while to get used to. The timing is so demanding and takes a lot of practise. Though you are forced to learn how to parry effectively as half the combat mechanics hinge on parrying. Health affects the posture meter as well. The more damage you or the enemy takes, the longer you have to wait for the meter to empty.
The Posture System is part of the reason why Sekiro is so difficult. Soulsborne games have handled the same for the past decade. It would stand to reason that Sekiro would follow suit, but that is not the case. The first few hours, I could get by sticking to the Dark Souls playstyle. It was not until coming across the third major boss that the game said “No!”—full stop. Taking the lessons I had learned thus far, I had to learn to play Sekiro the way the game wanted me to. Instead of assuming that I had played previous From Software games, Sekiro treats all players as blank slates. Rather than block, dodge, and roll, Sekiro demands you deflect attacks while getting a swing in every so often.
In Sekiro you are thrown through the gauntlet of mini-bosses and boss fights. Each one of them is difficult, even when compared to the From Software standard. A large number of boss fights are quite fair and take less time than others. However, there a few that tiptoe the line into utter insanity. A few bosses can drain your health in a mere two hits while having three separate phases to go through. Thankfully, each boss usually have a distinct weakness you can exploit or a pattern you can follow. Whether or not you’re able to learn it quickly is relative to how long you may be stuck on a particular boss. Death is almost inevitable, and it comes often.
I Can Do This All Day
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has a very interesting death mechanic. Relative to the game's name, being beaten and watching the death screen appear does not mean your run is over. By way of the Dragon Heritage power you possess, Wolf is able to resurrect himself and get right back into the fight.
This ability comes with grave repercussions. In contrast to the Hollowing effect in Dark Souls, an ailment known as Dragon Rot will begin to affect the NPC of Ashina the more you die. A hidden Dragon Rot meter slowly builds each time you resurrect. Once filled, a randomly selected NPC will come down with a severe cough and will be unable to talk, gating off the advancement of side missions. Only after purchasing and collecting rare Dragon Blood Droplets may you cure your allies for the time being.
This interesting mechanic not only serves a purpose for the plot but makes you rethink your entire strategy. Each time you die, you can resurrect where you are or restart your run by respawning at an Idol. Restarting a run will help save NPCs, but the sacrifice will cost your half your currency and XP upon each death.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a gruelling adventure. Though at times your patience with an enemy may wear thin, patience pays off. Succeeding in delivering that final deathblow is an extremely gratifying experience.
From Software’s departure from settings filled with doom and gloom offers a refreshing take that is an evolution of the Soulsborne genre. Sekiro does enough to feel familiar and very different all at the same time. Sekiro tells a strong and cohesive narrative throughout, yet leaves enough breadcrumbs lying around for players that what to explore the deeper subtext and story of Ashina.
Verdict: Strongly Recommended
Available: March 22nd
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC