By William Haderlie / April 10th, 2019
|Title||Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice|
|Release Date||March 21st, 2019|
|Platform||PlayStation 4 Pro|
|Age Rating||ESRB – M for Mature|
It cannot be understated that I am a massive fan of the Soulsborne series of games. It is perhaps unsurprising for those who have read my previous Dark Souls reviews. But it is worth bearing in mind, because this review is very much from the standpoint of someone who loves those games. In fact, Bloodborne is one of my favorite games of all time. Not only do I love those Souls-like mechanics, but I’ve been a huge fan of Lovecraft since the mid 80’s, when I first started reading his horror fiction. Another interest of mine is Japanese history and mythology, so I was very excited for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice ever since it was first announced. But before I dive head first into what this game is, and put a score on it, it’s constructive in this circumstance to start with what it isn’t.
You will notice in the genre section of the header I labeled Sekiro as “Action” and not Souls-like, Rogue-lite, or Action-RPG. What exactly this game’s genre is will perhaps be a matter of debate for some time. There are certainly elements of its Souls heritage within the game, but not really enough to even call it a Souls-like, in my opinion. And it’s definitely not Rogue-like or lite, or even enough RPG to be a sub-genre. In most ways this is like a cross between Tenchu or Ninja Gaiden (modern) and Bloodborne. Losing half of your XP and money per death is more Souls-like, but you don’t have any stats but Health/Posture and Attack Power. You also don’t have different sets of equipment, only different Prosthetic Tools that are situationally used. Experience is used to gain Skill Points, and those are used to only for investing in Skill Trees (until the extreme late game, but more on that later). The vertical movement and stealth will clue players into the fact that they are not playing a Souls game, but from the ground up there are a lot of differences.
It is important for prospective players to understand that you are only ever going to have a sword. The prosthetic tools are limited use and very situational, they will not kill anything but minor peon enemies (such as dogs). Soulsborne games have always allowed you a major variety in the way you play the game. In Sekiro you will have some options on the way you fight named bosses, but nothing major. If you are not interested in being a Ninja, this game is not for you. You cannot play as a Wizard or a Tank or any of the various builds you had in other FromSoftware games. Initially that can turn off many players, and may even cause them to not like the game, but that also works strongly in the game’s favor. By focusing on a specific style of fighting, Sekiro manages to fine tune that fighting style to a precision art. But to get that focused fighting style to click, you are going to need to break some Soulsborne habits.
Some fairly minor but rapidly obvious changes are the ability to really stealth (unlike the quasi-stealth of Soulsborne) and the use of the grappling hook to gain the high ground. Stealth kills will one shot kill any enemy that is not a Boss or a Mini-Boss. But with Mini-Bosses specifically you will often be able to stealth in and immediately deplete half of their health pool. Gaining the high ground to kill from above with your grappling hook is not the only major use for it, but the extra traversal options will make getting back to where you died much quicker than in Soulsborne games of the past. So make sure you are watching out for shortcuts and unlocking any doors back to Buddha statues that you find. Most importantly, new players and Souls veterans need to understand that Dodge is not the friend you may think it is. Sekiro looks like he has very little armor on, but he dodges like a heavily encumbered tank from the previous games. There are only a couple frames of invincibility. Not only that, many moves are specifically tracking to prevent you from dodging them at all. Other than a few specific boss fights (generally beasts or anything without a weapon), dodge is not your friend, deflect is.
When you are combating an Boss or Mini-Boss, you will be tempted to keep an eye on the amount of health they have left. That seems natural in most any game, but especially after being trained by Soulsborne. But that is not the case in this game, that is actually the last place you should be looking. The first place to watch is the enemy actions, because they do enough damage to where many moves can 1 shot kill you, and pretty much anything can kill you in 2 shots. The second place to look is the enemy’s (and your own) Posture Bars. That bar is far more important than the Health Bar. Lower health will cause enemy posture to go up quicker and take longer to fade away, but you cannot defeat them until you break their posture. At first it may seem that the Posture Bar is a way to “cheese” an enemy for a quick kill. But that is not the case, you cannot depend on wearing down an enemy by slowly whittling down their health. The bosses in this game, even the mini ones, are not balanced to that. You need to stay aggressive, you need to deflect with good timing, and you need to stay on top of them in every case but emergency heals. Even when you obtain the full 10 uses of the Healing Gourd (you only start with a single use), there is not enough healing in the game to wear down bosses. And many of the major bosses will have extremely dangerous moves that they will only use if you get far away or stop constantly forcing them to guard.
You katana is your most important weapon, and deflecting an enemy’s attack is your best way to build up their Posture Bar. However, you will have some secondary tools that will augment your standard attacks and help you either do special types of damage, or offer you get out of jail cards. Your Prosthetic Tool arm starts out with very few options, with just the ability to fire Shurikens and to grapple. But as you find new items around the world (or purchase them), the Sculptor will be able to fit all new Tools to increase your secondary options. You will also eventually gain the ability to upgrade those tools in the chart you see above. Enemies will drop crafting materials, and you will use those materials and a cash investment to unlock new versions of those tools. But because the types of damage are so specific and have so many options to them, you can use any version of that tool that you have available. For instance, you may not want to use the Lapus Axe if you are not fighting an Illusory Enemy, you may want to use the Fire Axe instead on a Red Eye enemy, or the Spring Loaded Axe on the Armored Warrior (those are hints, by the way, feel free to use them). So every upgrade in the Prosthetic Tool Upgrade menu is quite useful depending on the circumstance, but I would strongly suggest you shoot for the Golden Fan first (towards the bottom), as it will allow you to farm materials from enemies easier.
That may sound a lot like RPG mechanics, and if those were your main weapon you were upgrading I might agree. But where this game further goes afield from the Souls formula is the Skill Trees. Sekiro has five different Skill Trees, but he initially only has access to one. You gain access to Prosthetic Arts as soon as the Sculptor builds your third Prosthetic Tool (ideally this should be early in the Hirata Estate). Ashina Arts is gained by a doing a quick quest for the Tengu NPC, and the Monk Arts scroll is found by looking in a very out of the way location where there are a lot of monks (trying to avoid spoilers while offering some general hints). The fifth skill tree you are unlikely to see until very late in the game, it’s only unlocked after you’ve completed one of the Skill Trees to the end. Some people have expressed discontent that there is no Respec option for your skills (like in Soulsborne games), but that is actually unnecessary in this game. You actually do need every Skill, they are all useful depending on the situation. It took some farming, but I was able to easily complete every single skill tree in my first playthrough.
The Combat Arts you gain through the Skill Tree will often seem underwhelming. But they are quite situational, much like the Prosthetic Tools. In general Combat Arts that are multi-hit are for locking down small enemies, wide area ones are for taking on groups of small enemies, and powerful single or double shots are for bosses. But you can still experiment and make use of them how you see fit. You will always need to play like a Ninja, but there is room for experimentation within that. Ninjitsu are very rare skills that you won’t find until you are rather far in the game. They are only used during deathblows and they typically cost a lot of Spirit Emblems to use. Since the maximum number of Spirit Emblems you can carry at once is 20, making wise use of them between Prosthetic Tools, Combat Arts, and Ninjitsu becomes a very important aspect from the mid to late game. You can generally gain enough when you are making your way through an area full of small trash mobs, but always make sure you have maximum Spirit Emblems when you know you are about to face a Boss or Mini-Boss.
Mini-Bosses serve a very interesting function in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Their most obvious function is that by defeating them they will drop a Prayer Bead most of the time, and a very special use item the rest of the time. When you have gathered 4 Prayer Beads, you can form them into a Prayer Necklace, which will increase your overall Health and Posture. There are a few Prayer Beads that can be found in very hidden locations around the world, but most of the 40 total are from mini-bosses. The (around 40) Mini-Bosses also help teach you techniques and moves that the major Bosses will make use of later. If you are not learning how to use Prosthetic Tools and how to dodge grabs, Mikiri Counter thrusts, and Jump Interrupt horizontal swings, then you are doing it wrong and you will end up dying a lot to the major bosses. Thankfully with each major Boss you defeat, you will be able to meditate on that memory at any Buddha statue to increase your total attack power. If you find the 3 pieces of the Heavenly Mask, however, you will also eventually gain the ability to trade in 5 Skill Points to also increase your attack power. This is quite unnecessary until you have filled out all the Skill Trees, but it’s important for the NG+-NG+7 lifestyle. Once you have the 40 Prayer Beads, you cannot raise your Health/Posture any more past that, but Attack Power can go clear up to 99 (even though you will typically have around 10-15 maximum your first time through).
The game definitely gets more difficult each time you go through the story, up to NG+7. Also like other Soulsborne games, there are multiple endings that you can reach by the events you see and the choices you make. Interestingly, I found it much easier to get the secret endings in this game. Perhaps that is because I’m a Souls veteran and know what to look for. But it also had to do with the NPCs being much more clear with their wants and intentions, and out of the way locations being more clearly marked (especially with grapple points). But in every case the story was much more present in the game, there is still plenty of world lore and item descriptions that are interesting. But the story is much more up front and the characters have more understandable motivations and personality than in recent FromSoftware games. Sekiro gets his power of resurrection from his Master, instead of some nebulous world event. And you will be interacting with all the major players in the current Civil War.
Neither method of writing is necessarily better or worse qualitatively, but each style will have its fans and detractors. I personally liked both styles of storytelling, so it was pretty much a wash for me whether the change in style was a good thing. While the events take place in a fairly small area of the world, there is actually quite a bit of diversity in environments starting around the mid point of the game. Overall the graphics and the artistic direction of Sekiro hit me in the right spot. It was strongly reminiscent of that period of Japanese history, but it also had just enough fantastical thrown in to make it compelling and surprising. You could certainly turn the corner to find some headless monster that you needed to defeat before it killed you with Terror. But you could also turn the corner to find autumn leaves falling in a beautiful forest. I was also impressed with the Japanese voice acting (the default option, and much preferred due to setting) and music. Of course, you would hope that a Japanese company would get those cultural aspects correct. But making compelling music that sounded both very Japanese, but still effective and memorable to a foreign ear, is no small feat.
The last thing I really have to talk about is the difficulty of the game. Of course, there has been a steady stream of complaints about how difficult the game is. Unfortunately those people are also co-opting in the accessibility argument in with the difficulty one. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is actually the most easily accessible game in recent FromSoftware history. What makes it accessible is that there are UI options and sound options and captioning options and voice options and especially complete button mapping. That being said, this is also probably the most difficult game in FromSoftware’s catalog. Soulsborne games are not really difficult, they just require you to pay attention and learn enemy patterns. But you can actually just farm up Souls to power level past enemies, or you can summon friends or even NPCs to help you with bosses that you are struggling on. You cannot power level your way through Sekiro, and you can never summon in friends. There are certain Mini-Bosses that you can get NPC help for, but that is very few and far between. The game teaches you how to play and how to win, but if you are unwilling or unable to learn, then this is not the game for you. I would frankly enjoy the game less if it was made easier, so I’m glad that the developers stuck to their guns and made their vision. The game is extremely finely balanced, and it may be a while (or never) that some players may find out just how tight that balance is.
But one thing to understand is that the game is already on Easy Mode. If you want a bit more difficult of an experience, make your way past the first Headless mini-boss (at the very beginning of the game near the Chained Ogre) and you will find a Demon Bell to ring that will increase the difficulty and drop rate. Also after NG+ you can turn in Kuro’s Charm to make the game even harder than that. Is this game for everyone? Definitely not. But that also makes it even better for those who it really is for, because they didn’t focus group it out of existence. As surprising as it is Activision seemed to have been very hands off. There are some nice quality of life improvements like better menu descriptions of skills and a training partner that has both a story reason for being there and a very real benefit to helping practice your moves. But even with the difficulty I really didn’t die that much until the last optional boss (Demon of Hatred) and the last story boss (Sword Saint, real name removed to avoid spoiler). Those two bosses killed me off more than every other boss in the game combined. But they were also training. After defeating those two I was able to go through over half of NG+ before I died my first time. I can do that on Souls games as well now, but it took me far longer to get to that point. Once you practice, this game truly rewards you for that time spent, and you feel like an extreme bad ass ninja.
I have no complaints about this game. There is perhaps room for improvement in a sequel, but this is a masterpiece. It’s extremely unlikely that there will be a game to come out this year that will unseat this game for my game of the year. Of course, as a Soulsborne fan, that was a likely outcome. But even I was surprised at how well this turned out. Honestly it is pushing on Bloodborne to take my favorite FromSoftware game. But time will tell, I do still have 2 more endings to go before I have the Platinum trophy. For my first time through, exploring absolutely everything and defeating every single boss and mini-boss available, it took me just over 60 hours. Of course, the game can be finished in much less time than that if you know exactly where you are going and you don’t take the time to farm all the materials for every Prosthetic Tool upgrade (except two which will require NG+ to get more Lapus Lazuli). Either way that is a whole lot of game for the $59.99 asking price. I would have easily payed double for the game. But if difficult games are not for you, or if you are totally turned off by being a ninja, then this may not even be a game for you no matter the price. The game is punishing, but for those with the courage to put in the time and effort, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will reward you for it.
Review Copy Was Self Purchased
ActionActivisionBloodborneDark SoulsFromSoftwarePlayStation 4 proPSNSekiro:Shadows Die TwiceSoulslike