Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game that broke my heart multiple times yet I had no desire to leave it. Like an abusive relationship that I refused to give up, I was beaten down and broken in both mind and spirit. The purpose, however, of the relentless abuse wasn’t caused by a drunken stupor or some twisted sense of superiority. Sekiro was training me to overcome its ever-challenging gauntlet of punishing enemies, be they small or large, and that has made me a more confident gamer.
Sekiro’s premise is a simple one. Enter Wolf, a shinobi tasked by his guardian with protecting the life of a young lord whose dragon blood is said to grant eternal life. After a relentless battle, Wolf finds himself beaten down and left to die. Not unlike in the original Dark Souls, he’s awakened and sprung into action by a message sent from above ground and that’s where the aforementioned relationship begins. Sekiro does something different from other From Software games in its first few beats by providing an actual tutorial. It’s not like a parent that holds a child’s hand but rather a teacher who provides the tools and allows the student to have a go. Despite being swordless at first, through this form of pedagogy, I learned the importance of stealth and how to confidently move about undetected. After a short while, the master and his Wolf are reunited and my sword is returned. It’s from here where the Sekiro begins its challenges as it introduces its combat basics. I won’t spoil the rest for those who may have not picked up the game yet but the tale grows ever more intriguing from here on out.
Set in a re-imagined 16th century Japan, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a gorgeous world to explore. It’s quite often that I found myself stopping to admire the view of majestic pagodas overlapping distant mountains whilst traversing over perfectly tiled rooftops with my trusty grappling hook. Despite the danger of certain death lurking around every corner, it’s an inviting world; one that called to my primal sense of exploration. Trying different paths is rewarding not just because of the beauty of the surroundings but also because of the promise of treasure. Like with other From titles, trekking away from the beaten path in Sekiro will yield more items. The difference here is that almost everything collected is useful in a more straightforward sense (no more dung pie). This gliding about overhead and sneaking around in the shadows is also what sets Sekiro apart from past From titles. No longer do repeated deaths become further dragged on by the drudgery of respawning enemies; they can be dodged and avoided via the true way of the ninja. It’s a powerful ability that is akin to what other open-world games, like Insomniac’s Spider-Man, which aim to make the player feel like a superhero. The only difference here is that choosing to fight should be done methodically, which is also where Sekiro’s true strength lies.
Clashing swords with enemies is nothing like any other Soulsborne game to date. Sekiro forgoes any weapon options in favor of a single blade which functions as both a weapon and a shield. Tapping the R1 button repeatedly on the PS4 leads to a string of attacks while holding down L1 guards. By timing the L1 press just as an enemy’s blow lands will result in a deflect, a vital move to get to grips with as early on as possible. Sekiro also does away with the iconic Soulsborne stamina bar and replaces it with the Posture gauge, which all enemies and Wolf himself have. Guarding attacks results in the Posture meter filling up which then in turn places helpless foes in a deathblow state once completely full. It’s an elegant yet straightforward system that requires a great deal of patience and perseverance to get to grips with. It’s for this reason that From Software has also chosen to include Hanbei the Undying, an NPC that serves as a training dummy for all the moves and techniques that Wolf unlocks at his disposal. Beyond these basic aspects of combat, some enemies, especially mini-bosses and bosses, have special Perilous attacks at their disposal which cannot be guarded: a throw, which needs to be dodged, a thrust attack, which either can be deflected, dodged or countered with a special technique called Mikiri, and finally a sweep, which should be jumped – yes, there’s jumping in this From game! These unblockable moves are all telegraphed via a red kanji symbol and a sound effect, making combat a pulse-racing experience. It all ties together neatly when factoring in Wolf’s shinobi prosthetic arm. This mechanical arm can be fitted with all kinds of tools scattered around the world, from a flame vent that spews out fire to an iron umbrella that serves as a shield. There’re a lot of tools to play around with to suit all kinds of playstyles and it’s through them that most combat experimentation takes place. Want to smoke bomb your way through enemy attacks and strike from behind? There’s the Mist Raven tool. Prefer some distance? There’s a spear tool for that. While it’s fun to play around with these nifty gadgets, combat in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice boils down to mastering the sword which is a trial in and of itself.
It wouldn’t be a From review without some talk of the difficulty, and Sekiro has it in spades. It’s no secret that a lot of initially enthusiastic gamers have turned sour from the experience, debating endlessly for an Easy mode. It’s understandable as the game is quite unforgiving when it comes to combat mistakes and demanding in its playstyle expectations. Dodging isn’t as powerful as it used to be. Being comfortable with standing directly face-to-face with one’s foe is the order of the day and that’s a hard pill to swallow even for yours truly who will pick up the biggest sword he can find in any game, even Bloodborne. However, there’s something about Sekiro that is compelling me to carry on; something that is driving me to want to come out of its death gauntlet a stronger and more durable gamer. Do I get it? Can I do the dance of death of a true shinobi? No, I don’t. The rhythm just hasn’t completely clicked with me yet. But I’m inching ever closer to becoming a true master of the blade. It might take me longer than most but that’s my way of the ninja.
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