Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review: An Incredible Combat Experience

by David Sanchez March 26, 2019 @ 6:08 am

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. What a time to be alive! And now you’re dead. Damn. From Software may have taken a step back from the Souls series, but the Japanese studio certainly isn’t taking a break from creating completely invigorating, brutally challenging action games. Sekiro is more of what fans of the Souls games have come to expect in terms of difficulty, but a new chapter in From Software’s famed RPG franchise this is not. This game is tough, yes, but it’s also experimental. It’s both old school and modern. And above all else, it’s captivating as hell.

Streamlined but Not Simplistic

You play as an orphaned protagonist who some call “Sekiro,” “Wolf,” or simply “Shinobi.” Your character’s past is shrouded in mystery, and you learn early on that you must save your master who’s been taken by a powerful, imposing force.

As is From Software’s MO, the story is minimalist, with bits and pieces revealed to you through flashback encounters and ghosts of the past whose dialogue you can listen to should you come across these translucent NPC manifestations. Aside from learning more about the player character, you also learn about the world whenever you collect a new item, happen upon an old document, or eavesdrop on some baddies from a distance.

The presence of a main character who you don’t get to shape yourself is something vastly different when compared to From Software’s projects from the past decade. And while the world is shrouded in mystery, the fact that the game takes place in 16th century Japan — though mostly original in terms of lore and story — makes the game feel a bit more streamlined in terms of narrative. Yes, there’s a tad bit of open-for-interpretation world-building, but this is a game where the plot is primarily static: You are playing to learn the fate of your character.

Discovery on a Monumental Scale

The story in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice lives in the background, while the action takes center stage. Combat is lovingly crafted and gives you a sense of pride once you learn its intricacies, a feat that takes several hours of play. Case in point: I was about eight hours into the game before I felt I had really learned how to play. Not mastered, — just learned how to play.

While the only Souls game I ever played previously was Demon’s Souls many years ago, there’s one thing about that game that’s persistent throughout — and this is something every dedicated Dark Souls player will tell you, too: You are always learning. From the beginning when you first get your butt handed to you by a big bad to the last few moments of an endgame encounter, you are always, always learning. This was true in old school NES classics, maddening PS2 turn-based RPGs, and every single Souls game.

The moment you become complacent, forget to adapt, refuse to learn in Sekiro, you will fail. Early on, after I defeated my third mini-boss, I jovially proceeded to the next area, thinking I had time to finally breath. Nope. I got jumped by one of those troll dudes who wear the mushroom hats. Tough little buggers, those!

Speaking of mini-bosses, I’m still having a hard time differentiating them from major bosses. I know I took on a badass demon dude on a diabolical horse. Was he a boss? What about the Blazing Bull? Hell, I thought the Chained Ogre was the game’s first real boss, but it turns out he was a mini-boss! The only reason I know that is because I did Twitter and Wiki searches after the fact.

By the way, if you’re going to Google or YouTube something, do so with caution and, I beseech you, as sparingly as possible. This is the type of game you gain more from by making discoveries on your own. Progression is mildly linear, but there are branching paths to explore. I spent three hours playing through a completely optional area. I don’t regret doing so, because it was one of the most memorable areas of the game, but I didn’t know it was optional until I read a few sentences about it in a Reddit post.

From there, I read one mini-boss guide and watched one mini-boss how-to video. That’s all I needed to do to know that I never wanted to do it again, because both of those guides showed me things that I was bound to discover for myself anyway. When a boss is giving you an especially hard time, you need to try something new. You need to use every move, every ability, every item, and every attack at your disposal until you find something that works for you.

You may use on-screen prompts to perform a parry, or you may sit back and wait for the enemy’s attack animation to wind down before you strike. How you progress is entirely up to you, and learning what works and what doesn’t helps create an experience that varies from player to player. That giant samurai dude that’s chilling with his long-range weapon-wielding buddies? I’m pretty sure you defeated him differently than I did, and that’ the beauty of Sekiro and the sense of discovery if encourages. Eventually, you’ll put the pieces together, and when you do, it’ll be glorious.

Finding Victory in Agonizing Defeat

The combat mechanics seem simple on paper, but putting those mechanics to practice is a whole different story. You can deal small bits of damage to enemies with slash attacks, but the thing you want to keep an even closer eye on is their posture. Perfectly timed blocking, as well as dishing out your own attacks, will fill enemies’ posture meter. Once the meter is full, you can perform a special move that will either kill a smaller enemy or break off a big chunk of a boss’ health meter.

Just like your enemies have a posture meter, you also have the same meter, and it fills up exactly the same way. Absorb too many attacks from an enemy while blocking and you’ll begin to lose your balance, leaving you wide open and completely vulnerable to damage. It’s important that you know when to retreat to regain your composure. Don’t wait too long, though, because your enemies’ posture will build up again, as well.

You’ve got basic slash attacks, a block button, and counterattacks. You can sidestep enemy attacks, use a grappling hook to pull yourself into them, or leap upward and perform aerial maneuvers. Picking and choosing when to do what, however, will determine your success in every single battle. That’s right. Every. Single. Battle. Boss. Mini-boss. Grunt. Doesn’t matter. You need to know when to do what.

You’ll probably die your first time coming across a main enemy. And then the second time, and the third, and so on. Or maybe you won’t. Well, you’ll definitely die at least the first time — that much is a given. Trust me on this. Oh, you don’t believe me? That’s fine. It’s your funeral. (See what I did there? Because you’re going to die in this game a whole bunch of times, dude.)

Anyway, yeah, you’re going to die at first when encountering new enemies. The secret is to read those enemies’ attack patterns and animations. This will help you to more effectively block, dodge, and counter. Sometimes an icon will appear onscreen, and this will prompt you to side-step a grab, grapple an enemy with your hook, trap the enemy’s blade when he performs a thrust attack, and so on. Knowing how to react is key to your success and, on a much larger scale, your survival.

Several items can be collected during your travels, and these will come in handy during the bigger encounters. Health items, attack buffs, and defensive power-ups will give you an edge, albeit a very slight edge.

Your can equip different special abilities such as shuriken throws and bursts of fire that will aid you in battle. Some of these will even give you an advantage over specific enemies. Nothing is unlimited with the exception of your sword’s durability, though, so keep that in mind when you’re thinking of spamming an unlimited barrage of ninja stars at a boss from afar. That’s not going to work, so stop it!

When you see the same kinds of enemies, you’ll have an idea of how to approach them. Even then, that’s not a safe bet. I encountered two mini-bosses that looked identical to one another, but I still had to employ different tactics as their attack patterns were not the same. That’s the beauty of the combat in Sekiro: even when you think you’ve got it down, something surprising and unpredictable will occur to keep you engaged.

The controls in Sekiro are nearly perfect, but the camera could be problematic at times. Sometimes when being backed into a corner, the camera would close in too much, and I’d have a hard time seeing my character. This is detrimental in a game where the combat is so difficult to master. Other than that, there were a few times while scaling large buildings or mountains when the camera would go haywire, resulting in my character falling off the structure. At best, I was spotted by enemies (not good). At worst, I plummeted to my death (also not very good).

A Land That’s Both Grim and Beautiful

The world of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is almost magical in its grim nature. The snowfall you see throughout, the tree leaves that decorate the ground, and the architecture of the buildings all come together beautifully to create a 16th century landscape that you just can’t help but be mesmerized by. That signature From Software darkness is present throughout, creating a blend of both beauty and horror that’s become a staple of the developer’s games.

The music is also great, with Japanese themes that alert you to nearby danger and grand compositions that get you pumped when you engage in battle. The voice acting, which you can choose to listen to in either Japanese or English, is solid, as well.

In a lot of ways, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice reminds me of something I would’ve played on my PlayStation 2 back in 2005. That’s not to say the game feels old, but From Software really went for a more traditional gameplay experience here. That said, modern design sensibilities are ever-present, and you can literally see and feel the polish of a game that was developed in 2019. As has become the studio’s standard, you’re going to struggle in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but if you press onward, learn from your mistakes, and just try your damnedest, you will persevere.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a monumental effort that succeeds almost entirely across the board. Whether you’re a fan of From Software or not, if you can stomach an experience that greatly challenges you but also gives you that sense of pride and satisfaction when you finally do defeat that boss that makes you feel like a tiny speck, you’re in for one of the most rewarding experiences of the year.

Score: 8.5 out of 10

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