Platforms: Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 4
Release Date: March 22nd, 2019
Reviewed On: Xbox One X
Price: $59.99 USD
There’s no denying that FromSoftware has an established pedigree. Delivering both Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 to critical acclaim in 2015 and 2016 respectively, there’s a recognition that they understand lore, worldbuilding, difficult but satisfactory combat and more. It’s only natural that they’d want to keep that tradition even as they seek to evolve, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest in a line of their challenging titles. From the trailers, it appeared that Sekiro would be taking a much more narrative-driven approach in its story, abandoning the vague, mysterious plots that have come before. I’m here to report that is most definitely the case.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes place in Sengoku-era Japan, a time of intrigue, though this is obviously a fictionalized version of that period. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this story of ninjas, stealth, immortality and revenge. Here’s our Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review.
With a more focused story mode, there’s a newfound emphasis on extensive dialogue and conversations between different characters. You won’t have to go hunting through the lore and examine item descriptions to understand what’s going on (though there are some neat secrets tucked away).
You play as a ninja, or Shinobi, known only as Wolf. Taken in by the great Shinobi Owl and trained as a young boy, Wolf is in charge or protecting his master Kuro, a Divine Child blessed with immortality. What follows is a tale of revenge and lust for power, as Wolf has one hand removed in a duel with Genichiro from the Ashina clan, who is desperate to save his people and needs the power of immortality to do so.
As the game unfolds, we get to see (and fight) different factions who all have a different stake in the world but are all tied up in the quest for immortality, whether through blood or more unnatural measures. At one point, we even get to play through certain historical events in Wolf’s past, which was a nice touch. Overall, I think this approach works well and while it might not be the most interesting story FromSoftware has told, it’s a bold new step that was much-needed.
Let’s get something straight right way: this a challenging game and there is extremely difficult, challenging combat. It’s designed to test your reflexes and make you memorize countless unique, dangerous attacks. One of the most shocking changes is the lack of a stamina bar. You can run, sprint, clamber and jump without any fear of getting winded. Replacing the stamina system is something called Posture. Posture measures the amount of time you can keep on blocking enemy attacks. If your posture breaks, you’ll be staggered. If you break your enemies’ posture, they’ll be open for a killing Deathblow (though certain bosses and enemies may require more than one Deathblow). As a result, understanding how and when to parry enemy attacks is a difficult but neccessary part of the game.
Another really big change here is how your death is handled. Instead of dying, respawning and losing all your Sen (your money), you have a chance to resurrect. If you do resurrect and then die anyways however, then a deadly plague known as the Dragonrot begins to spread. Dragonrot affects any friendly or neutral NPCs throughout the world, halting quests and preventing learning more about them until it is cured.
As a ninja, you aren’t limited to the ground. Using a grappling hook tool on the Shinobi Prosthetic (Wolf’s new arm), you can zip around different points in the environment, clambering up building and rocky mountains alike. This change in level design based around elevation really works well and I always felt compelled to carefully explore, using stealth to sneak around or eliminate unknowing enemies.
It’s in this Shinobi Prosthetic that a great deal of the combat variety is found. Using different upgrades found in the wild, you can use tools such as a flame cannon, poisoned knife, collapsible spear and more. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages. Combined with the skill tree system, it really helps the fighting systems to stand out against prior FromSoftware titles, and everything feels satisfactory to use. In a way, this feels like a realization and evolution of Bloodborne‘s Trick Weapons, adapting on the fly to suit your needs.
This is a beautiful game, with varied environments that feature everything from peaceful waterfalls and treacherous mountain ranges, to proud castles and war-torn estates. I have to give special attention to the amazing fire and smoke, which roars with particle effects and billows in a way I haven’t seen very often. When you first come across an estate under siege, burning in the night, it’s legitimately stunning.
Enemy designs are much more restrained than past games, choosing to focus on enemy samurai, ninjas and the like. Still, there’s definitely exaggerated physical traits even among human enemies, as bosses often tower over Wolf.
Aside from that, it’s also worth mentioning that the game runs at an unlocked framerate on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. While unlocked framerates jumping around can sometimes be unpleasant, I never found it unpleasant and it was usually very smooth.
FromSoftware usually delivers a stellar soundtrack and Sekiro is no exception. The music is suitably epic while appropriate for the era, with authentic drums, flutes and more incorporated into calming main tracks. Each of the bosses has a fantastic theme, with audio cues incorporated that will help you to learn the cues for different attacks.
Outside of that, I found the sound design in Sekiro to be a step up as a whole. Sounds that show alerted enemies, as well as music that plays only if you’re being chased, help to give feedback for the player without breaking focus from a particular fight.
This is an incredible game. The world design and setting are immersive, the wonderful combat is simply stunning once mastered and the story’s surprisingly straightforward tone works well. With that said, I simply must provide a warning that this game is incredibly difficult, well beyond the levels of past FromSoftware games. The true final boss is easily one of the toughest boss fights I’ve ever been through, requiring insane concentration, practice and lightning-fast reflexes to get through, assuming luck is on your side.
Compounding this issue is the inability to just “level-grind” your way past bosses, like what was possible in Dark Souls or Bloodborne. Pure reaction and twitch reflexes are necessary. Other series veterans I’ve talked to have struggled with it as well, so you really should be braced for what’s coming.
With those words of warning out of the way, I’ll conclude by saying that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an excellent game and I truly enjoyed seeing the story of the One-Armed Wolf through. The combat feels phenomenal, the world pleasant to explore and challenge is immense.