Rumors swirled online upon Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice's original announcement back in December 2017. A typically From Software-style cryptic trailer revealed only a mechanical device of some sort and the tagline "Shadows Die Twice". Was this a sequel to Bloodborne? Could it be a new installment in From Software's dormant Tenchu franchise? Perhaps it was an entirely new IP altogether? Eventually, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice revealed itself as a new IP. On top of that, Souls head honcho Hidetaka Miyazaki would be returning to direct the game. Some months later, Sekiro lands whisper-quiet like a shinobi on our doorstep. Will it uphold the impossibly high standards set by its stablemates?
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes place in Japan during the Sengoku period. Through a classic From intro sequence, we first meet protagonist Wolf as a child. A gruff soldier named Owl adopts him in the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle. Over time, Wolf trains as a shinobi and eventually tasked with protecting the young Lord Kuro. Wolf's master is the "Divine Heir", and his blood contains mysterious properties which can bring the dead back to life. As the game begins, the Ashina clan kidnaps Kuro, wishing to use him for some unknown purpose. As Kuro's protector, Wolf must retrieve his charge by any means necessary. It's an unusual move to place an established character front and center in a From Software game, but it pays off. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice establishes a firm narrative context on who we are, what we want, and why we want it.
The whole "silent protagonist slowly discovering the world around them" schtick is just one of the many things Souls and Bloodborne veterans will need to unlearn if they want to enjoy Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to its fullest. Many visual and gameplay elements will appear familiar to seasoned Souls vets - regular checkpoints, NPCs with obtuse dialogue, large level design with plenty of paths to explore - but that's just one of Sekiro's many shinobi tricks. Like Bloodborne before it, Sekiro asks us to cast off our preconceived notions of what we think the game is going to be prior to entry. Everything from its combat to exploration and storytelling is different in initially subtle but eventually obvious ways. Sekiro evokes the Souls series before it while carving out an innovative niche of its own.
There are three core pillars at the heart of Sekiro: combat, stealth, and exploration. Each of these pillars complements the others, and neglecting one of them will likely lead to roadblocks for players. Exploration works in a similar way to From Software's other titles. Sculptor's Idols litter the land of Asina. These are checkpoints which restore health and healing item uses when Wolf rests at them. The core loop essentially consists of moving from checkpoint to checkpoint, dispatching or sneaking past enemies along the way.
Sekiro instantly feels freer and fresher than its sister titles thanks to two major exploration innovations: jumping and the grappling hook. From Software games have always had a dizzying sense of verticality, but Sekiro truly opens up its expansive environments for traversal. Wolf can leap onto rooftops, grapple his way across crevices, and drop down ledges to sneak past unaware enemies. It's entirely possible to move through whole areas without battling a single enemy thanks to these two simple yet effective mechanics. Most significantly, fall damage is practically nonexistent, and players won't die if they fall off cliffs. These two mechanics are heavily emphasized when finding secret areas and new pathways, so the verticality is front and center in Sekiro.
That verticality is an undeniable boon in Sekiro's combat too, shining when Wolf faces off against a single enemy. The combat engine feels designed around one-to-one encounters rather than the unruly mobs of Bloodborne. Sekiro contains very few RPG elements. Wolf has a sword, and the only way to play the game without a sword is to turn it off and go play something else. This tighter weapon focus has allowed From Software to design combat entirely around the blade's capabilities.
Ultimately, this focus gets you an intense fighting system emphasizing closeness and aggression. Each enemy has two principal resource bars: health and posture. Eventually, your goal is to whittle down the health (or "vitality") of your enemy. To achieve this, you must gradually wear down the posture bar by attacking and parrying. Once you deplete the posture bar, you'll open up your enemy for a Deathblow attack, a super-powerful thrust which resembles the visceral attacks of Bloodborne.
This combat system is, to put it bluntly, not messing around. You will very likely die several times during the opening hours of Sekiro. Enemies will relentlessly punish mistakes; Wolf has his own posture bar too, and your enemies are trying to deplete yours just as you are theirs. Sekiro's difficulty makes its troughs low and its triumphs high. The first few times you die against one of the many powerful "miniboss" enemies, you'll curse the game and wonder how it can ever be possible to win.
Sekiro demands that you think, act, and fight like a shinobi, and it won't accept anything less. Wolf can parry and deflect attacks with his sword, which deals massive posture damage if done at the right time. As such, each combat encounter becomes a dance. Instead of watching for openings, players can create them by deflecting dizzying sequences of blows. The combat in Sekiro is significantly more intense and pressuring than other From Software games, but it's hugely rewarding as a result.
That's not to say Sekiro doesn't have any interest in helping you out. One of the earliest NPCs is a rather chipper fellow by the name of Hanbei the Undying. Hanbei is effectively the game's tutorial and will teach players the ins and outs of combat in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. If you feel you're struggling with a particular aspect of the game's combat, you can go visit Hanbei to practice your skills as much as you want.
In characteristic From Software style, the first time you meet Hanbei he asks you to kill him. When you win the ensuing battle, Hanbei simply stands up again and laments the fact that he still can't die. He then suggests you should use this fact to practice your sword fighting; after all, as he says, "a warm body that can't die might prove useful to you". Sekiro is pretty adept at explaining its core concepts to players. There's an emphasis on tutorials and in-game explanations that makes sense given some of the game's more esoteric mechanics. There's also the fact that many players will feel the temptation to approach Sekiro like a Soulsborne game.
A lot of Sekiro feels like it wants to punish players who treat it like a Soulsborne title. Stealth is incredibly important, and Sekiro constantly creates opportunities to sneak past enemies or to disappear once Wolf breaks stealth. All across Ashina, you'll see tall grass, massive structures to hide behind, and grapple points from which Wolf can survey areas and plan methods of attack. A stealth Deathblow attack will immediately kill most enemies and will knock an entire health bar off minibosses.
Stealth deathblows will make short work of some minibosses. Others will lose sight of Wolf if he manages to escape. Again, this ties into Sekiro's desire to make players think like a shinobi. Why would you take on this massive armored enemy with a giant spear if you could simply sneak past them? Sekiro incentivizes players to kill these enemies by granting them increments towards health and posture upgrades for victory. It very rarely forces Wolf into direct combat. As such, perhaps it's better to think of Sekiro as a stealth game rather than an out-and-out action RPG.
Some vestiges of RPG gameplay still remain in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. There's a skill tree, although it's more along the lines of Far Cry 3. It's got a series of useful additions to Wolf's arsenal rather than a boring "add 3% damage to fire attacks"-type system. Early on, Wolf gains access to a prosthetic limb which he can augment with a series of different tools and trinkets. Each of these brings a new dimension to combat. The prosthetic has its own skill tree, but again it's more about adding functionality to the existing add-ons rather than simply incrementing damage or defense. Sekiro wants to make exploring its world and finding upgrades feel meaningful. It achieves this by stripping the RPG elements back and making each discovery impact Wolf's combat prowess in obvious, observable ways.
Those worrying that Sekiro has done away with Soulsborne's best characteristics needn't fret. There are bosses - proper bosses, that is, not simply ambient minibosses dotted throughout the game's world. These bosses have their own health bars and arenas and usually demand you fight them in open combat. You can still piece the narrative together through reading item descriptions, although Wolf can also learn a lot from talking to the NPCs around him.
Most of all, there's a sort of undefinable "feel" to a From Software game that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice absolutely nails. Maybe it's the withered beauty of the enemy design, at once horrifying and sympathetic. Maybe it's the organic way the game lets players discover the world around them. Or the little things like the game's font, the dialogue, or the incredible Yuka Kitamura soundtrack. It's true that Sekiro deviates massively from its predecessors' established formula in many ways. Even so, it still feels like a From Software game, with all the hallmarks of quality that brings.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not a game for the faint of heart. It has punishing combat that feels incredible when mastered. It is savage and brutal, killing players for their curiosity as often as it rewards them. It's a game of dizzying highs, quite literally; its world feels more vertiginous and realistic than any From Software game that has come before. The opening hours are incredibly unforgiving, but you'll break through the barrier. Once you do, you'll discover that Sekiro is one of the most rewarding games around. Rejoice, for From Software has done it again.
TechRaptor reviewed Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice on PlayStation 4 with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also on PC and Xbox One.
With pin-sharp combat, peerless world-building, and masterful movement mechanics, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice breathes brutal and savage new life into action gaming.(Review Policy)
- Incredible Movement
- Satisfyingly Brutal Combat
- Excellent World-Building
- Complementary Systems
- Peerless Encounter Design
- Extremely High Difficulty