Developer: From Software
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: March 22nd, 2019
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, Xbox One, Play Station 4
Copy purchased

After spending the better part of the last decade iterating on the formula starting with Demon Souls, developer From Software has switched gears to deliver Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. You play a shinobi known as Wolf whilst travelling the land in service of your master, cutting down any foe that stands in your path. Many of the RPG elements seen in previous From Software games have been removed for a greater focus on action. The result is a game where players fight seemingly insurmountable foes. However, through mastering the game’s systems and their opponent’s attack patterns, glorious duels between two seasoned warriors are achieved; creating epic confrontations that allow the player to feel as skilled with a sword as Wolf.

First off, let’s deal with the most contentious aspect of Sekiro: the difficulty. The game is tough. For the first ten hours of the game I struggled when it came to fighting bosses, or dealing with groups of enemies. Sekiro is a game that demands both your patience and ability to observe. A large part of the game is watching how enemies attack, so as to properly counter each of their blows. You’re able to jump, parry, sidestep, dash, and perform counter attacks. Determining when each is needed and recognizing what your opponent is telegraphing is a core aspect of the experience. There is a lot of trial and error, but it is incredibly satisfying when you’re able to read every attack and tear through your opponent like the shinobi Sekiro wants you to be.

With that in mind, bosses are instrumental in making Sekiro great. Standard enemies lack variety, and are largely either samurai, or shinobi. However, the bosses feature a much greater array of differences in both their presentation and attack patterns. This punctuates the entire experience with memorable encounters.

The bosses also provide a reward that will permanently improve Wolf. Main bosses increase his attacking power, while side bosses provide prayer beads which can be used to improve vitality. What I liked best about this is how Wolf’s strength is intrinsically linked to the player’s own improving skill level. Both the player and Wolf improve together which is the sort of bond that can only exist in an interactive medium, and makes each victory in Sekiro compelling.

That’s not to say everything is perfect in the realm of combat as there is next to no momentum behind any attack. Wolf and all of the enemies are able to change direction with unnatural speed. This appears to have been done to put a greater emphasis on parrying. You can’t simply run away from all of your problems, instead you’ll need to face them head on. This can lead to some incredibly frustrating moments when you sidestep out of the way of an attack, only to have your opponent make a sharp turn at the last half second to score a fatal blow.

The final thing to mention in from the combat side of the game, is the side arms. Throughout the game you’ll collect and upgrade a variety of tools that you can use alongside your sword. While these don’t drastically change your combative abilities they can help to provide an edge when fighting certain enemies. For example, if you’re dealing with an enemy who has an annoying shield you can cut the shield in half with a heavy strike from the axe. Or perhaps you’re fighting an aggressive animal, so using fire will help to frighten the creature providing an opportunity to land a few strikes. Thinking about which tool is the best for your current situation adds an additional layer to each encounter, and prevents the game from becoming entirely focused on parrying.

Let’s next speak to the level design. While enemy encounters don’t provide a tremendous amount of variety, the stage which they’re set on does. The level design through the entirety of Sekiro is superb. Each area provides multiple routes to travel, which makes getting around a lot more interesting than simply following a straight path. In addition, having multiple routes means that players will have several avenues for stealth killing the bulk of standard enemies. While it a far cry from the intense duels with bosses, observing the design of each area and effectively navigating the space becomes its own challenge.

The use of vertical space is a big part of how well the levels are designed. Wolf is equipped with a grappling hook, which can be used to jettison him to out of reach areas. While this could have remained a simple gimmick, the level design being built around the utilization of the grapple hook helps to make it a fun and meaningful mechanic throughout the entirety of the game.

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The other area that Sekiro excels in is how it makes navigation part of the gameplay. All of the areas are connected in multiple spots, which makes understanding the world as an interconnected space integral to navigating it. Some of my favourite moments of exploration emerged upon realizing that I’d found my way to an area I’d observed off in the distance several hours earlier.

This is complemented by how Sekiro also allows for non-linear exploration. The opening hours of the game are quite restrictive, funneling players down a critical path with very little deviation. Eventually things open up allowing for player choice in where to go. Being able to choose where and when you’d like to go somewhere makes each new area visited feel like your own discovery.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game that very much appeals to my sensibilities. While the combat took a bit to click, once it did every encounter with a new boss became a memorable duel between equally matched opponents. This in combination with the sense of progression, a variety of tactics from the side arms, design of the individual areas and world, and the non-linear exploration all made for a thoroughly enjoyable game. There are moments where the game can feel unfair, and the difficulty will be off-putting to some, but for those who are willing to tough it out there is an immensely rewarding experience to be had.

Thank you to Tristan my editor from viewport for help with the editing on this one.