STAFF REVIEW of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (Xbox One)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Box art FromSoftware is best known for their catalogue of incredibly challenging and difficult games, namely Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series. They’ve actually become synonymous with challenging gameplay and has resulted in a ton of knock-offs, all trying to capture that special Souls-borne magic that FromSoftware has perfected over the years, but no one else has quite succeed with the same quality or cult following.

While most assumed that another entry into the Dark Souls series would be what was next for FromSoftware, many were excited once Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was unveiled. It is their newest game, not part of their most popular franchises and it's published by Activision. Sekiro has FromSoftware written all over its game mechanics and gameplay style, including their signature brutal difficulty that will challenge you from the first enemy to its final boss, should you make it that far.

More than just a Shinobi skin on top of a Dark Souls, Sekiro takes place in the 1500’s within Japan, even allowing you the option to have a Japanese voice over. Sekiro, also known as the “one-armed wolf”, is bound to protect his young Lord. After an invasion from a rival clan and kidnapping his Lord, Sekiro faces off against a brutal foe, losing one of his arms in the process. Awakening in a mysterious and unknown land, Sekiro must not only save his lord, but extract his revenge. He will stop at nothing to save his Lord and regain honor; even death won’t stop him.

With Hidetaka Miyazaki directing, who also headed the Souls-borne titles, there was much anticipation for Sekiro. And while the gameplay may look drastically different from what we’ve come to expect, it all feels familiar, both mechanically and within its core design. Just like previous titles of theirs, Sekiro is a third person action game that focuses on combat.

First warning, and one that you must know, you’re going to die, A LOT, and while that frustrated me greatly in the Souls series, it felt much more balanced with Sekiro. FromSoftware are masters at balance. Yes, you’re going to die more times than you can count, but it’s generally due to your lack of skill, not cheap or unfair deaths for the most part. You’ll need to adapt, though most importantly, you'll need to learn from your mistakes.

While I do wish it wasn’t so difficult at times, it wouldn’t be the same experience if it was easier. You’re taught the basics early on, with the difficulty curve never spiking too crazy until you hit your first boss. Even then, it’s teaching you how to read combat cues from your enemies, and by about my twelfth attempt on the first boss, I was finally able to take him down.

Much like their previous games, the world of Sekiro is absolutely beautiful and interconnected in ways you’ll only uncover as you defeat bosses, opening up side paths and hidden areas. The biggest design change though has to be how much verticality the world has now, which suits the Japanese setting quite well. You’re not simply restricted to being on foot, as you’re able to use your prosthetic arm as a grappling hook of sorts, but more on that shortly.

Most impressive is how varied and challenging the bosses and minibosses of Sekiro are. The first miniboss is essentially just a tutorial for some of the mechanics, teaching you how to execute and fill the posture bar. You see, combat isn’t done in the traditional sense when it comes to the bosses of Sekiro, as you don’t simply whittle down a health bar slice by slice. Sekiro, and the game's enemies, have a posture bar that needs to be filled before they can be executed. While simple grunts won’t give you much hassle, it’s the bosses that use this mechanic instead of a standard health bar, as they have a certain amount of health bubbles, which indicates how many executions it takes to finally defeat them. To pull of an execution you’ll need to completely fill their posture bar by attacking, deflecting and parrying. Once full, they are open up to an execution move, and once all their health bubbles are empty, they’ll finally be dead (for the most part, but I’ll let you figure out what that means).

Bosses are very unique and varied, each teaching you something new along the way. My only issue with them is that they completely gate progress at some point. Yeah, obviously you can’t run straight to the final boss, but people that have problems with the difficulty will eventually become stuck and possibly give up. You’re going to need a lot of persistence and determination if you’re going to see the credits roll.

Combat is incredibly fluid, visceral and bloody. Executions are just that, and Sekiro has no problem thrusting his katana through his enemies, impaling them in brutal fashion. You’re going to see a lot of blood, be it theirs or yours. Combat is substantially more close quarters based than what I was used to from the Souls games. Here you’re generally going to want to be up close and personal rather than gaining a lot of distance.

If you simply mash the buttons, your enemy will deflect and parry your attacks and simply kill you. Combat is all about being tactful with your attacks and defense, knowing when you should be aggressive and when to wait for a deflect, raising their posture bar. When you get into the flow of combat and perform well, it’s a beautiful sight to behold. You need to constantly be watching the enemies’ movements, looking for an opening so you can attack, learning their patterns. Even grunt enemies can kill you in swarms, so pick and choose your battles carefully.

This is where stealth comes in; you are a Shinobi after all. While stealth isn’t what Sekiro’s gameplay revolves around, it does play a large part of it should you want to play it that way. Sneak up behind an enemy and you’ll be able to execute them right away without any combat required, providing no one else witnessed it. You are able to hide in tall grass and bushes to make your approach. Personally, I always opted for the stealth approach if it was viable, and if I became overwhelmed, I quickly ran or grapple hooked my way out of there to safety.

There’s even a way to distract and lure enemies, somewhat, and will play a large part of your strategy if you end up playing the way I did, always looking for those ‘free’ kills. If you’re able to sneak up on the bosses, you can even begin that fight by executing one of their life bubbles away instantly, so stealth is worthwhile to become proficient with.

I found defense was ultimately more important than offence, even more so when it came to boss fights. Being able to deflect, parry and dodge is going to win you more fights than any other strategy. More importantly, doing so is how you quickly fill up the enemy posture bar, so it becomes imperative, as you’re unable to execute until that is full.

Once you start earning upgrades for your prosthetic arm, that’s when gameplay opens up a lot more and it becomes much more interesting. When you start your adventure, your arm is only able to help you traverse, though eventually you’ll earn upgrades that will aid you in combat. The upgrades you gain are generally meant for very specific circumstances.

For example, once you get the ability to use your axe, it’s meant to destroy enemies with wooden shields so you can actually start attacking them. It’s how you use these abilities that will make a world of difference. Also, you need to have a certain item to use certain abilities. Although these are scattered throughout the world, it’s how they’ve balanced simply relying on using the most powerful abilities over and over to make things too easy. It’s an interesting way to balance the gameplay, yet it works beautifully and seems quite purposeful.

What surprised me was that you don’t actually upgrade your weapon or armor at all, so you simply need to rely on your combat skills and hope you become better. Sure, you could grind enemies for experience (kind of like souls) and then spend that on new abilities, giving you more options, but that will take quite some time to do. What didn’t surprise me though was the essential copy of bonfires, where you can choose to rest and refill your items, though at the expense of resetting all the enemies, save for bosses.

When you die, you will lose a large portion of your XP and money. Not only that, die repeatedly and you’ll succumb to what is called dragon rot. While you don’t directly get harmed by this consequence, the collateral damage affects the NPC’s of the world. You might not be able to interact with certain ones or maybe they won’t help you, if your Dragon rot is too high. Yes, there are ways to cure it, but it’s something to always be aware of.

When you fall in battle (when, not if), you’ll be given the option to resurrect, essentially putting you right back into the battle that killed you. This is very handy when it comes to boss fights where you know you could kill them if you could just get another attack or two in. Die again and you’ll be forced to restart at your last shrine checkpoint (bonfire). Use the resurrection and you won’t have access to it again until you kill a handful of more enemies, so there are pro’s and con’s to deciding when to give it one more try.

The artistic design and Japanese aesthetic of Sekiro’s world is absolutely stunning. For reference I played the game on the Xbox One X. More than once I caught myself simply standing on top of a building, taking in the beauty of the world. Even more impressive is knowing that the whole world is interconnected and open once you unlock all of the gateways. Audio is just as top notch, as the voice acting is fantastic and believable (I played in English, though I’m sure Japanese is just as well) and the audio score fits the mood and setting perfectly.

Going in to this review I wasn’t sure if Sekiro was going to be simply a ninja re-skin of Dark Souls, but there’s more than enough that’s different, and improved, that it stands on its own within the genre, even if it’s from the same developers. Like every other FromSoftware title, the difficulty is either going to be what drives you to become better, or make you shy away. I believe that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is going to be on many Game of the Year lists for 2019, and for good reason.

Overall: 9.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 9.5 / 10


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