Late to the Party: Sekiro Shadows Die Twice

If beating Dark Souls or plat'ing Bloodborne wasn't crushing enough of my spirit, Round 3 began with me taking on FromSoftware's latest action RPG, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. In reality, it was probably the FOMO I was getting from seeing my peers beat the game and find the fun in engaging with its community, but I can also never truly pass on a Feudal Japan setting.

When I first played Sekiro, I expected a similar experience to From's earlier games. I expected vast exploration, a grindy area or two, and of course, to die a lot. This is all true of Sekiro, but instead of taking on Souls' slower, cumbersome pace or the aggressive momentum of Bloodborne, this one wedges itself somewhere in-between. Dodge rolling and shield scumming is a thing of the past, as now it's down to you making well-timed deflects with your sword. This builds up an enemy's posture, an alternative to the health bar whereby getting in enough parries leads to an opening, allowing a final killing blow. It becomes less about dealing damage, and focuses more on staying in rhythm with your foes' attacks. By having these swords clash in the way they do, it creates a feeling of authenticity for the game's Sengoku period setting, and takes notes from influential Japanese cinema like Harakiri, Samurai Assassin, and the works of Akira Kurosawa.
Sekiro follows the story of Wolf, a shinobi warrior and bodyguard to a young boy gifted with immortality. The plot is presented in a minimal format, with information surrounding events, characters and locations delivered in bite-sized chunks, and the rest is left to your interpretation. This is nothing new for FromSoftware, and it helps maintain an aura of mystery that persists from the opening cutscene to the time the credits roll. It's strengthened through the game's creature design, which dips into Japanese folklore and classical art. Despite being set in a real historical setting, there are still many elements of fantasy. Here's an article by critic Ewan Wilson who details how the game draws from these myths and legends.

Many traditional 'soulslike' hallmarks return from previous games, such as bonfires (now called Sculptor's Idols) - allowing you to recover health and increase stats - and enemies that respawn frequently. The latter was a feature that was exploited in the past to grind experience points and level up quickly, but Sekiro dials up that 'git gud' mentality by granting the strongest rewards only through defeating bosses. This means you can't 'get good' from farming XP in an area, but by dedication and perseverance against the toughest foes.

You can still become stronger from gaining experience points in the traditional way, however. Passive improvements such as increased loot and ammo drops are on offer, otherwise special moves - dubbed 'Combat Arts' - can be unlocked to use in fights. These abilities aren't straight-up buffs to your player character, but more akin to sidegrades. FromSoftware took a 'Design by Subtraction' approach to Sekiro and stripped the game down from featuring the build diversity of Souls into a naked experience. At the end of the day, you're a guy with a sword.
Wolf's greatest weapon is a prosthetic arm. This allows him to fit a variety of different equipment to use at his disposal, ranging from a flame vent that spits fire to loaded shurikens that attack enemies from afar. My favourite is an iron umbrella which acts as a shield of sorts. Deploying this not only feels empowering as you approach a foe - knowing they can do very little to counter it - but it also trivialises some tougher areas of the game. These tools cost ammunition to prevent over-usage, but they're magnificently entertaining.

The prosthetic arm also contains a grappling hook, allowing Wolf to propel himself up onto any ledge he can reach like a medieval Spider-Man. With this emphasis on traversal, the vertical world design is more important here than ever before in a FromSoftware game. It calls back to one of my favourite moments from Dark Souls. You'd descend a murky, underground sewage system called The Depths, but upon reaching the end you'd learn there was another area below that. Sekiro does something similar, with many areas having you traverse upwards or downwards far enough that all sense of scale becomes immeasurable, whether it's climbing up the peak of Mt. Kongo or plunging to the dark corners of Mibu Village.
To break up the pacing of moving between each location, there are many mini-bosses scattered about for you to tackle. Although weaker than the Big Bads, a spar with one of these lads plays out a little differently. You can navigate around ledges, obstacles and even buildings to fight these opponents, opening up different combat opportunities. They're also sometimes accompanied by reinforcements, adding an extra layer of difficulty to the battle, as well as feeling more 'natural' within the context of the world itself.

Is a fight too hard for you? Sekiro's best mechanic is also its biggest departure from its predecessors; a one-time resurrection Wolf can use during a battle. Gone are the days where "You Died" was an absolute. Being guaranteed a second chance encourages more risk-taking, you're safe knowing that messing up an attack doesn't mean game over, while being on your last life only raises the stakes even higher. 
I was never a fan of FromSoftware titles until about a year ago. In the past twelve months, I've beaten Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and now Sekiro. Fans will go in knowing what kind of experience to expect. The brutal difficulty of the series is practically a meme. Is it really harder? Yes, and no. I think it's the hardest to adjust to, as you're forced to unlearn everything Souls has taught you at this point. Once you discover the correct rhythm of Sekiro's combat - something that doesn't take too long - it could even be considered an easier game. It's less about perfecting character builds and more about executing a perfect string of parries and combos. This is the most interesting FromSoftware game to date, and it feels wonderful to play.
Reviewed on: PC

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