Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the most recent of the Soulsborne games from developer From Software. Though, this should come as no surprise as they are literally the guys who put both the “souls” and “borne” into the genre name.
Unlike most of the other From Software games, Sekiro actually has a protagonist, and a story that is easy-ish to follow… for the most part. You play as Wolf, a shinobi (read: ninja) who has been tasked with rescuing Kuro, the divine heir of the Hirata, after failing to protect him sometime prior to the events of the game.
Of course, it’s a From Software game, so a good deal of the story happens off-screen, in item descriptions, or has to be inferred from several cryptic interactions with a handful of NPC’s scattered across the game.
I have to say, I was pretty skeptical of this game for a while. I’d heard that it was somehow harder than Dark Souls and Bloodborne while simultaneously somehow easier than both—though this was depending on who you asked.
Well, after having beaten Bloodborne, I was intrigued by the premise of something harder. This is mostly because I thought Bloodborne was pretty freaking hard. Though, I won’t say it’s the hardest game I’ve ever played.
I won’t say that because I’ve actually played through Sekiro now, and it will likely hold that title until Eldin Ring pries it from Sekiro’s cold prosthetic hand. In fact, I’m just going to get this disclaimer out here:
**THIS GAME IS HARD **
Relentlessly so. And if you decide to set this one down and walk away…
With that said, however, I would like to talk about some of the aspects of this game that were worth the headache I got from banging my head against the wall that is Sekiro.
A Deadly Dance
Hands down the best part of Sekiro is the swordplay.
I will attribute this to two gameplay mechanics: posture and deflect.
Posture is basically how grounded your enemy’s stance is. The lower their posture gauge, the more stable their stance. This means that, conversely, the higher the gauge, the less stable it is. If you are able to break an enemy’s posture, you can perform a deathblow, which will kill most normal enemies.
Posture is an interesting mechanic because it does not replace enemy health bars, but it is informed by them. The higher an enemy’s health, the easier it is for them to recover their posture. However, once you’ve knocked a good portion of their health away, it becomes much harder for the enemy to recover.
You inflict posture damage on an enemy every time you attack. If the enemy blocks the attack, they still take posture damage, even if you don’t touch their health. Unfortunately, if the enemy has full health, you’ll have to keep attacking so that the posture bar doesn’t drain completely.
Breaking an enemy’s posture is, in most cases, the easiest way to kill them. Which is why we need to talk about that other mechanic…
Deflecting is just blocking at a precise time. If you can time your block properly, you will deflect the enemy’s attack and deal a greater amount of damage to their posture. If you mistime, this you’ll still block the attack, but then you’ll take posture damage instead….
Did I not mention that? That you also have a posture gauge? Well you do, and it can break and when it does…
Anyway, learning to deflect your enemy’s attacks is paramount if you want to “get good” at Sekiro. Most regular enemies — and every single boss — will mess you up if you try and pull some Bloodborne-style dodging.
Anyway… combining the posture mechanic with the ability to deflect makes the game’s combat both infuriatingly difficult and oddly satisfying.
I’ve often heard Sekiro’s combat compared to a rhythm game, which is fairly accurate except that if you fail you’ll get a sword to the face instead of losing the dance-off (or whatever it is rhythm games are doing these days).
On top of the posture and deflect mechanics, there are a few other other elements of combat that get thrown in on occasion to spice things up, like:
- Thrust attacks: which can only be deflected or countered by a move you can buy
- Grabs: Which can only be avoided by moving out of the way
- Sweeps: Which can only be jumped over
These “perilous attacks,” as they are called, break up the fights in interesting ways. But boy howdy are they hard to get used to. I think I didn’t really start understanding how to deal with them until about three-fourths of the way through the game.
All that being said, the fights in Sekiro, while absurdly hard, are fair. Even if I was dying to a boss for the one-thousandth time, I would still nod and say “Yeah, that was my bad. Shouldn’t have tried to deflect that.”
A Much Needed Hand
While the Dark Souls games had more than a few RPG elements, and Bloodborne streamlined those elements to a certain extent, Sekiro almost entirely eschews the idea of stats and obtaining mountains of weapons to use.
In Sekiro, you only have one weapon: “Kusabimaru,” the sword you start with. You don’t get any other primary weapons. You can get upgraded moves and passive abilities through esoteric texts, but those don’t really change up the game in any meaningful way.
What brings a diversity of style to Sekiro is the Shinobi Prosthetic. It is a prosthetic arm that can be augmented by finding items throughout the world.
At first, these augments might seem less-than-useful, but if you experiment with them, you’ll find that most serve a purpose. And that purpose is to help you defeat enemies in a much more expeditious manner.
I’m not going to list out the ways in which all the tools can be used, but I’ll give a couple of examples to give you an idea of what is possible.
- Shuriken can be used on airborne opponents to deal increased posture damage, and knock them out of the sky. (Also, they kill dogs in one hit)
- Firecrackers can be used to scare animal opponents and interrupt enemy attacks.
- The loaded axe can cleave enemy shields in half, and deal massive posture damage to shielded foes.
While this is just a few tools, and only a couple of their uses, there are at least ten different prosthetic tools and each has at least three versions that you can eventually unlock. This plethora of available tools means that you have some agency in how you would like to approach fights despite the lack of primary weapon types.
Down the Rabbit Hole
For the first half of the game, Sekiro stays pretty grounded. Sure, there are a couple of weird things, like a giant snake or this one guy who shoots lightning at you, but for the most part things stay fairly normal.
Once you get to a certain point, however, the game starts to get weirder.
When you start fighting monkeys with guns you might think “That’s weird, but not like the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” Then you run into some ghosts and guys who live in walls, and immortal monks with giant centipedes living in their bodies, and you’re like “All right, so this is a From Software game.
When you start running into fish people playing flutes, giant carp with human teeth, and fish-wolf hybrids, you’ll start to realize that…
What started as a thrilling adventure through feudal Japan turned into a nightmarish one.
This is usually something that pisses me off in games. I hate being forced into a stealth section of a non-stealth game. I hate having to run through a horror section in an action game (Ravenholm is the exception, but we don’t go there). And I hate when a game that starts off at least somewhat grounded in reality starts introducing supernatural elements until they take over the whole game…
Sekiro is an exception.
Well, I grumbled about it a bit when I first played through the game, but upon reflection, it made sense if you view the story as a whole. Which, with a Soulsborne game, is really the only way to view the story.
Overall, Sekiro is a magnificent game. The graphics are great and the animation is top notch. The gameplay is smooth, the combat is rewarding—if you can get into it—and while it has all the trappings of a From Software game, it manages to set itself apart in the best possible ways.
I like that they chose to make the game a little more accessible story-wise, what with it having an actual protagonist and a narrative structure that runs throughout. However, Sekiro may have alienated more people than it included with its sheer difficulty—and I can say that as someone who died an incalculable number of times to the game’s many, seemingly insurmountable, bosses.
Overall I’m giving Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice a noble 8.5/10.
Now, If you’ll excuse me, I have to go and finish my second playthrough of this game… because it’s not a From Software game if you don’t miss at least half of the game because of the obtuse way they handle NPC’s and side quests.
Also… I’m a glutton for punishment.