The way of the Shinobi is glorious…
FromSoftware’s exceptional formula of trial and tribulation is translated seamlessly into the newly crafted world of the shinobi. With Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware reinvigorates their established template of intricate difficulty and methodical gameplay into an innovative aura of defensive strategy that feels wholesomely new, yet pleasantly familiar. Encompassing a surprisingly cohesive and comprehensible narrative, a slew of diverse locales to intricately explore, a reconstructed combat system with a heavier emphasis on defense, a notable reliance on memorizing attack patterns, and arguably the most rewarding and satisfying boss encounters of the Soulsborne genre, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an impeccable near-masterpiece that is an absolute mechanical marvel. Its combat system retains the same methodical and strategic nature of the entries that came before it, resulting in the unprecedented level of gratification the genre is renowned for. Through the introduction and welcomed emphasis on stealth combat, Sekiro is also one of the most versatile and flexible FromSoftware experiences to date, exuding a novel sense of player freedom for the genre. Additionally, its idiosyncratic resurrection mechanic, innovative posture system, and brilliant inclusion of mini bosses add an exceptional layer of depth and satisfaction to its immaculate pacing, constructing a cohesive experience that is consistently engaging and rewarding. Sekiro’s rewarding deliverance is surprisingly greater the contemporary staples of the established genre. It continuously rewards the player in a multitude of internal and external functions, through the internal gratification of overcoming challenging encounters to the external sense of satisfaction upon receiving valuable items through robust exploration. It lacks the nuance and atmospheric glory of Bloodborne and the dynamically visceral combat of Team Ninja’s Nioh. Sekrio is also plagued with numerous performance issues that painfully impede the intended experience. It may falter in certain aspects when compared to FromSoftware’s current repertoire but Sekiro manages to pave a dignified path of individuality that proudly stands on its own merits and accomplishments. How FromSoftware manages to craft masterful constructs of difficulty and keep them leveled in a grounded sense of fairness is beyond me, with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice being the newest success in their illustrious legacy.
As with the established norm of the fostered genre, Sekiro’s combat is extraordinarily methodical and meticulous, attaining the invigorative notion of understanding and strategy that lends to its overall rewarding nature. Sekiro is a combat experience that implores you to truly understand your enemy – learning how to use their patterns and move sets to your advantage – in order to reign victorious over the enthralling challenge. The exceptional depth and sense of methodical speed in Sekiro is a notable improvement over FromSoftware’s previous efforts, with a bevy of new systems, gameplay mechanics, and nuanced combat styles thrown into the mix to create a wholesomely novel combat experience. For starters, Sekiro incorporates two gauges that need to be consistently managed – a vitality gauge and a posture gauge. Vitality is your standard gauge of health in which death ensues upon its depletion. The posture system is a novel implementation that further cements Sekiro’s emphasis on strong defensive combat. Differing from the traditional stamina bars of yesteryear, one’s posture gauge is a measure of defense that begins to increase when taking posture damage. If too much posture damage is received and the gauge is filled completely, then their posture is broken and are left susceptible to a myriad of devastating attacks and/or deathblows, which result in immediate execution. Posture damage is generally received when blocking incoming attacks, creating a nuanced dynamic and strategy when determining the appropriate windows for guarding. The posture gauge also depletes at a slower rate when at low vitality, reaffirming the importance of managing the two gauges in an avoidance of impending doom. In an expected level of fairness, all enemies adhere to the same rules as the player, having their own set of vitality and posture gauges. Well-timed blocks – coined as deflects – deal greater posture damage, resulting in the enemy’s posture gauge being filled quicker. While this defensive art is strongly emphasized and recommended, lowering the enemy’s vitality through offensive attack is also beneficial as their posture gauge depletes notably slower when at low vitality, making it easier to fill the gauge and perform glorious deathblows. The reliance on guarding and deflection make each encounter feel like an epic battle of attrition; an illustrious sword dance of auditory and visual cadence that captures the harmonious essence of enthralling shinobi battles. Enemies can also perform perilous attacks which cannot be blocked or deflected – instead, these visceral attacks need be countered by performing a specific evasive move. All perilous attacks are signaled with the same Kanji symbol and the player must observe the enemy’s behaviour, stance, and other visual clues to determine which type of attack will be performed, creating a reactionary dynamic that kept me consistently engaged and catered to an established risk and reward mentality. Countering perilous attacks deal a substantial amount of posture damage and leave the enemy temporarily vulnerable to follow-up attacks, establishing the system’s integral placement for conditional success. Sekiro’s measure of progression and success is determined through the refinement of established technicality and skill, rather than the acquisition of new gear.
The prosthetic tool adds an additional layer of complexity and variation to gameplay, utilizing Shinobi equipment that compliment both combat and exploration. Whether it be the deadly ranged Shuriken – a Shinobi staple, the Flame Vent which expels a beguiling wave of fire, or a loaded axe that deals heavy damage at a slow pace, each prosthetic tool is dynamically unique and compliments a profound level of technical diversity. Their use is relatively situational and some tools are notably more efficient than others, but their diverse nature melds seamlessly with the established gameplay structure of robust intricacy and player flexibility. The tool never overshadows the entrenched conventions of skill mastery and mechanical technicality. Additionally, the prosthetic can be used as a grappling hook to propel yourself towards key points of interest and enemies, creating a dynamic sense of control and accessibility for traversal and exploration. Given the shinobi intrinsic DNA of Sekiro, an emphasis on stealth combat was to be expected. Luckily, the level design has been sculpted from the ground up to support the winding paths and vertical landscapes for stealthy exploration and executions. A vast amount of tall grass and grappling points can be utilized to avoid enemy detection, and the ability to hug against a wall or hang off a ledge provides the necessary opportunity to deliver deathblows undetected. FromSoftware’s improved game design offers a welcomed selection of different playstyles, providing an unparalleled sense of player freedom and preferential design. All viable forms of combat can be further enhanced through unlocking respective combat arts and techniques, elevating its mechanical prowess into an elegant form of art. From offensive combat arts that deal significant posture and vitality damage to ninjutsu techniques that affix enhanced attributes to stealth deathblows, unlocking new gameplay facets constructs a rewarding sense of progression that unravels each layer of Sekiro’s hidden complexity and ingenuity. Just keep in mind that you will lose a good chunk of your experience, which is used to unlock new combat arts and techniques, when you die. And you will die, a lot.
Boss encounters have always been an enthralling staple in the Soulsborne genre, evoking an invigorating adrenaline rush that is equally punishing as it is rewarding. Sekiro’s masterful encounters are arguably the most captivating and gratifying pieces of mechanical design in the genre. These battles of attrition will undoubtedly test your patience and require a profound level of strategic understanding to overcome. Move sets and attack patterns need to be memorized and specific enemy attacks must be reciprocated with the correct action, crafting the aforementioned reactionary combat experience. Sekiro’s bosses are relentless, aggressive, and exceptionally well designed, with each warrior and monstrosity being telegraphed in an intricately brilliant manner. Defeating the nefarious obstacles of Sekiro emitted a surprising level of gratification – a euphoric sensation of relief and solace that transcended the meteoric heights of the established repertoire. In accordance with its subtitle, majority of Sekiro’s bosses require the execution of two deathblows to successfully defeat them, augmenting its pervasive structure of unrelenting challenge. Boss enemies range from the typical human warrior to fantastical creatures of mythic proportion, with each set piece and encounter encapsulating a perpetuating aroma of awe and wonder. To even the odds, you also have the ability to resurrect upon death; however, you are only able to use this resurrective power in multiple succession if you perform deathblows in between. In short, you can resurrect yourself during a boss fight but are not able to perform the action again until you land a deathblow. Additionally, mini bosses are sprinkled in between the impeccably crafted boss fights, encountering and overcoming obstacles of resilient challenge at a higher frequency. As with their larger counterparts, mini bosses encompass an authentic stature of difficulty and typically require multiple deathblows to defeat. Because of this notable increase in “boss” encounters, the euphoric sensation of satisfaction, elation, and fulfillment is emanated at a frequent measure – a rate in which the established repertoire could never replicate. Affirming an impressive layer of player freedom, you can weave across the intricate landscapes to reach advantageous positions and perform stealthy deathblows on mini bosses, completely negating half of the arduous battle. Bosses and their mini counterparts are deliberately placed within an area of convenience, thankfully reducing downtime between each attempt and alleviating further frustration. Defeating mini bosses will typically reward you with prayer beads, which can be exchanged for a permanent increase in vitality and posture. Slaying formidable bosses reward you with their memory, providing a permanent increase to your overall attack power. Other valuable rewards are discovered through exploring the expansive planes of 16th century Japan. From items used to further expand and upgrade your prosthetic tool to esoteric texts that unlock new skill trees, the winding paths of Sekiro’s brilliant level design offer tantalizing rewards through discovery and defeating optional boss-type enemies. Additionally, you will unlock new abilities that will allow you to reach unattainable areas of previously explored areas in true Metroidvania fashion. The entwining landscapes of Sekiro can explored in a myriad of branching paths, catering to the established genre’s non-linear foundation. From hidden shortcuts, conditional locations, and optional encounters, Sekiro is filled to the brim with enchanting discoveries that continuously satisfy an infectious itch of curiosity and wonder. While I adored its intricate structure and labyrinth design, I found it far more laborious to navigate, unintentionally missing key items and encounters due to its non-linear sense of direction. Sekiro consistently bestows one rewarding element after another, creating an addictive gameplay loop of euphoric gratification that repetitiously pulls you in. The penalty of death is noticeably less severe than the established norm, with the resurrection ability already alleviating a strong portion of the genre’s renowned frustration. You only lose half of your experience and sen (currency) upon death, with nothing left to recover at the location of your death upon return. There is also a random occurrence of Unseen Aid, which prevents the loss of experience and sen entirely; this is only hindered through Rot Essence, which can be received through death and greatly reduces the chance for Unseen Aid. Since your level of vitality, posture, and strength are not directly correlated or enhanced with experience or sen, the impact of their loss seldom left a devastating impression. Sekiro’s invigorating sense of challenge and punishment doesn’t stem from the established conventions of failure but the intricacy and technicality of its brilliant combat encounters.
Set in 16th century, late Sengoku period Japan, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice tells a notably structured narrative, differentiating itself from the minimalist and ambiguous stature of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. With a stronger emphasis on cinematic quality and NPC interaction, Sekiro’s central tale of loyalty is surprisingly straightforward and notably compelling. While it’s not exceptionally well written or particularly novel, its coherent structure lends tangible weight and deliberation to every action and reaction. There are traces of evocative environmental storytelling, however it doesn’t solely rely on this facet to drive the narrative forward, with each layer of exposition complimenting the other. Further cementing a resounding sense of player agency and purpose, key narrative moments drastically change based on the player’s decision, which not only result in different endings but also completely different boss fights, elevating Sekiro’s pristine value in longevity and replayability. Another differentiating factor from the developer’s iconic foundation is Sekiro’s single-player stature. The ability to pause provides a notable layer of strategic assessment and contemplation, a foreign element of breathability for the established repertoire. This unfortunately results in the absence of cooperative play and PvP, an undeniably disappointing trade off that feels questionably fruitless. While its environments lack the nuance and enigmatic wonder of the HP Lovecraft inspired Bloodborne, Sekiro’s level of atmospheric diversity and vibrance outshines the established norm. From the brisk snowfall of the dilapidated mountains to the lavish colours of meditative temples and realms of divinity, Sekiro boasts a remarkably vibrant colour palette of exceptional variation that transcends the natural flow of player curiosity and discovery. Sekiro also provides the option to select either Japanese or English audio, which can be changed at any point throughout the journey, further catering to a preferential semblance of choice and flexibility. As with FromSoftware’s previous efforts, Sekiro’s level of graphical detail is extremely underwhelming and leaves much to be desired. From dull character models to painfully egregious textures, Sekiro lacks the satisfactory amount of visual delight that has become an unspoken expectation of the current generation. On top of its poorly rendered graphical presentation, Sekiro is also plagued with notable performance issues. On the PlayStation 4 Pro, I recurrently encountered significant frame drops, with the frame rate dropping below 20fps on a multitude of occasions.
While Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice falls short of being FromSoftware’s crowned magnum opus – an honor bestowed upon Bloodborne – it stands tall amongst the sea of competition as a masterclass in technical and euphoric game design. As one of the most captivating gameplay experiences to grace the medium, Sekiro continuously rewards the player in a copious amount of intrinsic and extrinsic displays and in rapid succession. A gratifying sense of euphoric relief and wonder is released at each passing moment of exhilaration. From the punishing yet invigorating boss fights, the abundance of challenging mini bosses, and valuable rewards that satiate a profound level of curiosity, Sekiro is a satisfying experience of unparalleled proportion. Its relentlessly difficult stature is equalized by an exultant sense of accomplishment that triumphs any level of frustration. I had to take a 2 month break from Sekiro as a particular boss encounter was causing me an insurmountable level of grief. However, my eventual reign of victory ensued an incomparable level of relief and empowerment that fully encapsulates the immaculate foundation of Sekiro’s genius. It will test your patience and undoubtedly crush your soul, but will simultaneously reward you for your efforts and eventual success. Additionally, its nuanced combat systems provide a captivating layer of player flexibility and intricate depth that transcend Sekiro into FromSoftware’s most rewarding and accessible title to date. It does suffer from an aged graphical engine and notable performance issues, but its cohesive narrative, exceptional combat, novel systems, and rewarding gameplay loop culminate into a remarkable ensemble that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences of the generation.