Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review- Slaying Shinobi Style

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Posted April 5, 2019 by Thomas James Juretus in Video Games

Developer: From Software

Publisher: Activision

Release date: March 22, 2019

Available on : PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One

From Software is known for developing challenging games that take place in dark worlds filled with rich lore. Beginning in 2009 with Demons Souls, players have stepped into the shoes of nameless warriors fighting through worlds tinged by darkness and populated with all kinds of nasty critters. Gameplay was difficult but fair, and the developer continued that tradition through the three Dark Souls games and the 2015 title Bloodborne. Each game contained a fantasy world that was a dark mirror of our own medieval history and folklore. Story lines were obscure, with gameplay being the strongest draw. The games were always online as players could summon others to their games to aid them, as well as engage in PvP battles. The games inspired their own genre of Souls-like games, such as titles like Nioh and Ashen.

In 2015, From Software embarked on a new journey. While the game would retain the developer’s trademarked challenging gameplay, the RPG elements would be stripped out in favor of skill trees. Multiple classes of character would be reduced to one, and players would all play as the same character. The fantasy worlds like Boletaria, Lordran, and Yharnham would be left behind, replaced by the 16th century Sengoku period in feudal Japan. That’s not to say all fantasy elements were jettisoned, as there are still plenty of fanciful nasties to deal with, but the story became more grounded and more substantial than those of past games. It was here where the 2019 title Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was born.

So, does Sekiro continue the tradition of From Software’s games? That it does. While there are some concessions to make life a little easier (there are no more death runs to make to regain all of your possessions and skill points), there is still a system in place that delivers a sizable fine should you fall completely in battle (you’ll lose half of your experience points and half your money, plus a disease called dragonrot can begin to infect those you’ve come in contact with). The stamina bar has been excised in favor of a more combat heavy experience, but trying to hack and slash your way through a la Devil May Cry will get you dead more often than not. Patience and parrying are still key, with a new feature to help out.

That new feature is your prosthetic arm, a nifty artificial limb grafted on to you by the Sculptor after your character of Wolf loses his arm in battle. The prosthetic is outfitted with a grapple, making traversal a whole lot more vertical and versatile than in past From Software titles. Being able to grapple to higher points makes exploration a lot of fun, and it lets you find some out of the way areas. The grapple can also be used in combat, where with certain enemies you’ll get a prompt to launch yourself across the battlefield at them. It’s also a handy escape tool, should the tides of battle turn against you. I used it more than a few times to save myself from certain death and by some time, whether to regroup or use a healing item.

The prosthetic can also be modified by using certain tools you can find while exploring the game world. By taking these tools back to the Sculptor, your arm can be outfitted in various ways, including giving you a shuriken launcher (perfect for taking out dangerous animals), a flame burst to set your enemies on fire, a heavy axe to break shields, or one that launches fireworks. You can outfit up to three of these at a time, and having the proper ones equipped will aid you against the multiple bosses and mini bosses you’ll encounter. These tools can even eventually be modified further to be even more effective.

The prosthetic tools make a nice compliment to your handy katana Kusabimaru. The katana is the only weapon you’ll wield and it does not receive any upgrades. You can unlock skill trees, however (there are a total of four in the game) which allows you to unlock combat skills in addition to shinobi and passive skills. You can only equip one particular combat skill at a time, and learning which one is effective against your current enemy is key to survival and victory. Unlike past From Software games, Sekiro can be paused, even in the heat of battle. This allows you to halt things and change up your abilities to match your given situation. Since you can only equip up to five items in your quick use menu, pausing can also let you stop and use an item that might only be beneficial in a specific instance, allowing your quick access to be filled with commonly used aids.

The game gives you two helpful NPCs in addition to the Sculptor. Emma serves as the game’s doctor, and giving her gourd seeds helps you increase the amount of healing items you can carry. Hanbei the Undying will serve as a sparring partner, someone you can practice both offensive and defensive moves with without any fear of death. This training can pay off for when you encounter the myriad of enemies spread across the game world.

And like the Souls games and Bloodborne, those enemies come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Animals such as wolves and poison spitting giant geckos can be dealt with using your handy shuriken launcher, while common samurai soldiers will need to be parried to be able to successfully take them out. Larger brutes can be trickier. One thing in your favor is that Sekiro has a good stealth mechanic. Sneaking up and ramming your katana in their back or bringing death from above never really gets old.

Bosses and mini bosses get trickier yet, as they have two health bars to take down before you can deliver that final deathblow. Patience is key so you can learn their patterns and attacks. In some cases you can grapple up away from them to observe them from out of reach. But that’s not always possible, so prepare to die while learning. Some bosses can be quite large, and can pose a hefty challenge. Veterans may even find themselves tasked by these foes, and those who were used to calling in a co-op buddy (not possible here, as Sekiro is a purely solo experience) are going to struggle a bit more.

Death is handled a bit differently here than it was in the Souls games and Bloodborne. you’ll have an option upon dying to simply just die and respawn back at the last Sculptor’s Idol (the game’s version of bonfires and lanterns), or you can resurrect at half health to keep fighting. Knowing when to quit is key. If the fight isn’t going well, just accepting death may be your better option, despite it costing you. If you almost have them, getting that extra wind may be the key to victory. You do have to watch your resurrection, however. Resurrect and still die too much introduces dragonrot into the game, and the disease can limit the amount of divine help (aid you get upon death where no penalty is incurred) you have the chance of receiving. Fortunately, the idols are nicely spaced throughout the levels, so you’re never set back too far. As in earlier titles, resting at an idol will respawn all enemies, except for bosses and mini bosses. Once their down, they stay down. Of course, the trick is getting them to that point.

Story is also handled differently. Before the story often had to be unearthed, peeling back the layers to find the tale underneath. Sekiro tells a more straight forward story, at least for a From Software game. The game takes place in the 16th century Sengoku period in Japan. Warlord Isshin Ashina stages a bloody coup, leaving young Wolf to be orphaned on the battlefield. Wolf is adopted by Owl, and twenty years later the shinobi becomes guardian to the Divine Heir Kuro. Kuro is taken after a fierce battle between Wolf and Isshin’s grandson, Genichiro, in which Wolf loses his arm. Wolf is found by the Sculptor and given his prosthetic, and he now needs to search the Ashina castle and its surrounding environs to find his young charge. The story gives you a more personal stake in the game, instead of just being a nameless warrior fighting against the darkness. In this way, this may be the best story told in a From Software game.

Sekiro takes place through eleven distinct areas, and there are four endings you can strive for. How long it will take to achieve any ending will depend highly on your skill level and patience. Skilled players may see the end credits roll after 50 hours. Others may take in excess of 100 hours to see an ending. And others may not have the patience to continue dealing with the game’s difficulty. At 40 hours in I’m nowhere near the end, so I have a long, hard road ahead of me. I may have my skill trees fully unlocked before I see the end. Despite not having finished, I’ve seen a nice portion of the game that gives me enough confidence to review and score it.

And with that in mind, I feel confident enough to say Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is another winner from From Software. While not perfect (you will have some bad camera angles here and there and experience the occasional cheap death), Sekiro offers another challenging and satisfying game experience that fans of From Software have come to expect. It is a difficult game, to be sure, but there’s nothing more rewarding than finally besting that tough enemy and being able to progress further in. The game is tough but mostly fair, and doesn’t ramp up difficulty for the sake of being hard. Because of the difficulty, this will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for those willing to try (and die and die and die), Sekiro is a rewarding gem that is not to be missed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sharpen my katana. I have business to attend to…

9.5/10 stars


About the Author

Thomas James Juretus