A defeated shinobi sits in a well. No companions. No sword. No hope. An unknown figure drops an item down to them, an item that gives them hope as they pick themselves up to fight another day.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice opens on a familiar note for a From Software game, and one that harkens back to the first Dark Souls game, which truly brought From Software into the mainstream gaming consciousness.
Since its release Sekiro has garnered a reputation for being punishingly difficult even for, or maybe particularly for seasoned From Software fans. This issue in essence revolves around the difference in combat that From Software introduces in this game; the emphasis on parrying. In Demon Souls and Dark Souls you can block and roll your way to victory, in Bloodborne you dodge and parry when you can to go in for the kill, but in Sekiro you stand your ground and parry until your opponent’s posture breaks, leaving you with an opening. That is the basic design and combat flows, with variation, around this core combat component.
I have played Demon Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne. I have only completed Demon Souls, and as such I view myself as an experienced player, but not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I have the strong tendency to play these games offline for fear that an invading player will decimate me. My enjoyment tends to come more from the exploration of these immersive worlds rather than the PvP elements, a view I am aware is akin to sacrilege in certain circles. Out of all of these games Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the game that I have found most accessible.
The first thing to be said about this game is that it is beautiful. It is set in a fictional 15th century Japan and brings all of the known From Software artistic style to From Software’s home country, stepping away from the pseudo-european settings of previous games. Your character runs and glides through the air, climbing pagodas and cliffs, with a range and freedom of movement that has not been seen in the games the company has produced so far. Your character can run and jump and climb, and this is augmented with a grappling hook that allows you to take to the rooftops and approach the game from a different angle. This freedom of movement makes the game all the more fun to explore than the previous glued to the ground games that From Software has made.
This freedom of movement also results in a new way to approach enemies that again was never a formally implemented system in other games; stealth. I love a good stealth game, and Sekiro has an effective stealth system that works fluidly with the combat mechanics. You can get through most combat situations by stealthily killing targets before they see you, and most bosses can have their first health bar wiped out by a stealth attack. Sometimes stealth can feel a bit like cheesing the game, but combat is challenging enough that occasionally running away and hiding becomes a vital part of surviving the game. You are, after all, a shinobi; a ninja. You attack quickly and quietly and slip back into the shadows before you can be caught.
The game is a challenge and is filled with mini-bosses that are designed as skill checks to keep your abilities honed, but it is not the impossible game that it has been portrayed as by many individuals who have played it. The checkpoints are far more frequent In Sekiro when compared to previous From Software games, so lost progress is rarely significant, and losing money and experience rarely feels like the anxiety inducing panic it can be in other From Software games. This worry over death is further reduced by the fact that you cannot recover lost money and experience. When it is gone it is gone. The feeling of finality removes the stress of the second run to recover lost items that is present in all previous From Software games. The Dragonrot mechanic counterbalances the reduction of these death penalties. The more times you die in Sekiro the more the NPC’s you interact with suffer with an affliction called Dragonrot. This affliction prevents NPC stories from progressing further, so if you want to follow those stories you need to keep those deaths down. If however you are less interested in the world building then it means you can focus on the gameplay with minimal death consequences, which allows you to bounce back into combat quickly after death.
This reduction in death penalties means that I can sit down with the game for a about an hour and beat a boss with minimal backtracking from the 1-5 deaths it takes to find the best technique to beat them. This game structure is perfect for gaming in your spare time when you have a busy life, whilst still feeling like you are making significant game progress.
The combat is fast, and unforgiving, but deceptively simple. You time your blocks with the enemy attacks and strike back in the openings you make. There are several kinds of unblockable attack you must dodge or counter to avoid, and you can then punish the enemy with the opening you have created. Every fight fits this pattern, with different emphasis put on different aspects of the combat system, without fully breaking away. Coming from Dark Souls, where a visibly heavy attack must be dodged and not blocked for fear of having your block broken, it takes some getting used to. You are able to block and parry the moveset of creatures twice your size, and once you adapt to this you feel incredibly powerful in combat, despite the vulnerability of your flimsy life gauge.
If you enjoy a From Software games it is likely you will enjoy this game, but you will have to adapt how you fight (Remember parry, don’t roll). If you find From Software paced too slowly, then this game may be what you are looking for. I love this game and it fits my gameplay style perfectly. I will always recommend this game, but with the following caveat. The game does require a base level of skill in relation to timing. As many reviews have highlighted, if you don’t adapt to the combat you will not have a good time. If you are familiar with modern gaming you probably have all the skills you need to enjoy this game, but it does not go easy on you if you if you do not meet that base requirement. However if you do, then there is not a From Software game I can recommend more to someone who has not played one before, or someone who is looking for something fresh from the makers of the Soulsborne games.