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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4)

Following the final game of the Souls series, many people were excited to hear about the next project of From Software. With such big shoes to fill, does Sekiro live up to the hype, or fall flat?

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4)

Introduction

Back in 2012, I played Dark Souls for the first time. Despite the game essentially boiling down to me bashing my face against the brick wall that is the games difficulty curve, I still found the experience to be like no other. Cut to nearly seven years later, and the Dark Souls series has, most likely, finished, and From Software has moved on to their next project, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

A lot of questions surfaced in the wake of the release to the game. How much will it be like Dark Souls and Bloodborne? Will it still have the same spirit-crushing difficult of the previous From Soft games?

One thing I can confirm for a fact is that the game lives up to the legacy of director Hidetaka Miyazaki past games, both in spirit and in quality. Many of the mechanics and concepts of the Souls games are present, alongside some new twists to make the game stand on its own.

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice | Official Launch Trailer


Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam for $59.99

Story

Sekiro takes place near the end Sengoku Era in the land of Ashina 20 years after a coup from the Ashina clan leader Isshin. In current times the clan is near the brink of collapse after being surrounded by enemies and Isshin growing old, with his grandson Genichiro taking over.

The player takes the reigns of Wolf, a shinobi orphaned during the coup who was adopted by the master shinobi Owl. After being trained in the ways of the ninja by Owl, Wolf is assigned as the bodyguard for the young lord Kuro, who bears the responsibility of being the Divine Heir.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Welcome to the land of Ashina
The game starts with Wolf stuck in a well, seemingly having no memory of what has happened in the last three years or so. He receives a note from a mysterious stranger telling him he still has a duty to perform. waking up from his stupor, Wolf goes to save his young master, who is being held in Ashina castle.

Wolf manages to find Kuro, but before they can escape they are confronted by Genichiro. Wolf attempts to fight him off, but is ultimately defeated and has his arm cut off. As Kuro is taken back to the castle and Wolf is left for dead.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Kuro, the Divine Heir
Fortunately for Wolf, a strange old buddha sculptor saves him and gives him a new prosthetic arm called, fittingly enough, the Shinobi Prosthetic. From here Wolf sets out to rescue his master and take revenge on Genichiro.

The overall story is a bit more direct than other Souls games, with what you supposed to be doing being and your ultimate goal is a bit more clear. The main story, in general, seems to have had a bit more care put into it, though there are some things that you may need to take a bit of a double take on to understand.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Meet your grumpy savior
This latter issue mainly comes from the somewhat piecemeal nature of how you get information on the world in the game. A lot of the exposition on the world is gained through item descriptions, much like past games.

For the most part, it is pretty easy to follow, but near the end, there are some things that almost seem to come out of nowhere. In particular, there is a moment with a boss that seems to come almost completely out of left field. While this example is still a bit of an outlier, the placement of it seems a bit odd.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Wolf may not be the most complicated character, but he grows on you
Wolf is significantly different from past player characters in that he is actually a character. He is fairly soft-spoken and incredibly loyal to the Divine Heir, and as the game continues it becomes clear he cares for him more than just being his bodyguard. What the player gets to choose is whether he begins to learn his own path, or whether he sticks to the codes passed down to him from his father.

Other characters include Kuro, the Divine Heir and Wolf’s master, the Sculptor, who upgrades Wolf’s arm, and Emma, a doctor who aids Wolf along with his journey. For the most part, most of your interactions outside of fights will be with these characters, and as such you develop a certain connection to them.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Some side characters act as important vendors
Side characters exist as well but due to the nature of how sidequest go in this game, you can very easily wind up failing their questlines. While some characters are pretty neat, there is no one who I would compare to the like of Solair from Dark Souls or Eileen from Bloodborne.

The game also has multiple ending, being the standard good, bad, and weird ending. In addition to this, there is a “true” ending, that most players will most likely not get on their first playthrough blind. This is kind of a double-edged sword, as while it provides an incentive to keep playing, the difficulty of the game may discourage players from wanting to go through it again.

Gameplay

Probably the obvious thing to cover first is just how much like Dark Souls and/or Bloodborne this game is like. In a lot of ways, it is similar to these games, with the main difference being that the RPG elements have been toned down in favor of a more skill based combat oriented system.

The core gameplay concept still remains the same. Fight through increasingly difficult enemies in semi-open zones, reaching new checkpoints until you face the next boss. It is a tried and true formula, being difficult enough to be a challenge, while just stopping short of making you want to quit the game.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Grapple around the land of Ashina
Certain items and mechanics are so similar to those of past games they may as well be reskinned versions of them. Idols take the place of bonfires, pellets take that of life gems, and the healing gourd may as well just be an Estus flask. The mechanics are familiar but manage to have some twist and not to clash with some of the new ideas.

One such twist is how death works in Sekiro. One new thing adds to this was the resurrection mechanic. This system gives Wolf pip that, when he dies, can be spet to revive back at half health.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): The single worst enemy in the game
The pips fill up a certain amount from killing enemies and incentivize you to get back up and cause trouble again. The main downside is, after you die, the remaining pips lock until you kill another opponent. While this does somewhat balance it in general combat, it makes it unreliable for boss fights.

The way you are penalized for death is also a bit different. Instead of losing all your experience, you lose half of your current bar of experience and money when you die and return to the idol. There is a chance for this to be prevented by something called unseen aid, but this decreases the more you die and, like the resurrection, isn’t super reliable.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): THe only way to do it is to just fo it
As mentioned before, some of the older RPG mechanics in order to become a bit more action-oriented. Probably the most significant of these changes is that instead of a custom character whose style of combat you choose, you take the reigns of Wolf, who uses a mix of rapid attacks and timed parries to overwhelm enemies.

In addition, unlike the various statistics, such as faith, stamina, the only stats you upgrade are attack damage and vitality. The first of these is pretty much what it says on the tin, while the second covers both your health and your posture, which is similar to poise in the Souls games. The way you upgrade these are also fairly different as well.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): You can go in hot or use guerrilla tactics
Instead of using souls or echos, you use special items you get from defeating specific enemies. The attack is powered up with memories, which are collected after defeating bosses. Vitality is increased through the use of prayer beads, which can both be gained from defeating mini-bosses, (more on that later) or found throughout the world.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t gain anything from fighting regular enemies. In addition to items, standard enemies will drop experience and a currency called sen when killed. The latter of these is, as you would imagine, used to purchase consumable items for use in combat, as well as upgrades for the Shinobi Prosthetic.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4):Wolf can eavesdrop to learn valuable information
The experience is instead used to gain new attacks and abilities. Each bar of experience you gain can be used to unlock these, with the experience requirement getting higher for every bar spent. Some of these abilities are passive, such as more health being restored from the gourd, while others give you attacks for both your sword and prosthetic.

This system is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it means that the grind is pretty significantly reduced. The only way to get stronger is to beat bosses and progress.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Avoid grabs at all costs
But this also means that if you have a hard time with a certain area or boss, the only option for you is to get better at the game. While some people may say this is one of the core ideas of the Souls games, those games always gave you the option to power up and make things a bit more manageable.

As mentioned before, the combat of the game is focused on attacking enemies and then deflecting their returns. The three main differences are the removal of stamina management and the additions of the posture meter and the deathblow system. These changes make significantly increase the skill aspect of combat.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Mini bosses at the start can feel like an impassible wall
Wolf has unlimited stamina, which while on paper may not seem like to groundbreaking of alterations, this significantly changes the combat of the game. In the past, you would constantly have to keep an eye on your stamina bar, making sure to leave just enough to roll out of the way of the pain train. In Sekiro, it seems like this has been swapped with the posture meter.

Posture, in essence, has the same effects as poise from the previous games. being reduced when taking or blocking attacks. When poise is broken, the enemy staggers. There are, like before, two main changes to this.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Sneaking around and picking enemies off can be one of the best strategies
First off is that now you can physically see the posture of both yourself and your enemies in the form of a bar. In addition, the posture is tied to your health.  The more health you have, the quicker the posture recovers, and getting attacked with low health causes greater damage. As such, a general tactic is to lower your enemies health, and then overwhelm them until they stagger.

When the stagger happens, the enemy is susceptible to a death blow. As the name implies, this attack will completely drain the enemy health bar, regardless of how much they have left. This means that, with enough skill, you can take out enemies incredibly fast compared to past games.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Some enemies you have to break posture on
Of course, this doesn’t make it necessarily easy to do. The most efficient way to damage posture is to deflect attacks, but this requires very precise timing, having to hit the guard button at the moment of impact. This is especially difficult when dealing with enemies who throw out huge flurries of attacks, as they can also cause you posture damage and leave you open for huge damage.

This system will usually develop into one of two playstyles, from my own experience. Either you will go in hot, deflecting attacks and destroying posture, or you will use hit and run tactics to slowly whittle down health. This brings me to one of the main downsides of the combat system, being that it is very limited compared to those of past games.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Getting surrounded can be a quick ticket to death
Unlike Dark Souls or Bloodborne, you only really have one option of combat with some slight variations to it. While it is in itself a fairly deep system, it may feel somewhat scarce to people coming off from the massive arsenals of the aforementioned games. It also means that if you don’t enjoy the combat, you are pretty much out of luck.

In contrast to this, the amount of mobility you have in Sekiro, in my opinion, vastly overwhelms that of the Souls series. Triangle jumping, grappling, hanging of edges and even swimming, all things that were impossible in Dark Souls. All of it gives you a real sense of freedom when moving about the world, though there are a couple of downsides.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Enemies will patrol the area
The biggest issues I ran across within the game came due to Wolf getting caught on level geometry and coming to a screeching halt when running. This, as well as getting caught in between two objects while hopping around can get you killed pretty fast. Generally, this was rare enough not to ruin the experience, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating.

The Shinobi Prosthetic also adds a decent amount to the gameplay. As you progress you pick up new tools, as well as upgrading the arm through the use of sen and upgrade materials you picked up. The usefulness of these tools tends to vary.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4: Most standard enemies can be insta-killed with proper skill
Some, like the shuriken launcher and the loaded ax, are great general purpose tools. On the other hand, some like the whistle finger and loaded umbrella seemed so specific in their uses that you never really wind up using them. The tools also require ammo called spirit emblems to use, and to be frank the cost of some of them compared to their effectiveness is a bit skewed.

Being that you play as a Shinobi, the fact that stealth is introduced to the game should be no surprise. It is fairly basic, focusing on hiding from enemies behind walls and in tall grass, either sneaking up behind them or luring you towards them for an instakill. There are even some mini-bosses you can do this with, making the fights significantly easier.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): High mobility allows for new level designs
There is also a decent amount of enemy variety in the game. You have your standard soldier mooks, but instead of just getting stronger reskinned versions later on you get to see new designs with their own unique attack patterns. There are also some weirder enemies that show up as you play, a particular highlight being the rifle-toting monkeys.

The game also has dedicated minibosses. who are significantly tougher than regular enemies, having two health bars that you need to take off. In addition, these will also drop rare items, such as health upgrade material and special consumables. A nice touch is that these will also have their own names, something usually reserved for the main bosses.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): From start to end you feel yourself get stronger
Speaking of which, one of the main attractions of a From Soft game is seeing what kind of new bosses they will come up with. There are definitely less in this game than in the others, but I would still be pretty confident in saying that they all stand out, both visually and in difficulty.

As with the mini-bosses, regular bosses will have multiple health bars, and the only way to put them down for good is to land deathblows on them. These fights are probably the biggest challenges you will face in the game, requiring precision timing and nerves of steel. Of course, as mentioned before, the way upgrades work in the game may make these fights a bit to much for some players.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Some of the best bosses in any Souls game
Overall, the gameplay has enough changes to it that someone who maybe wasn’t super into the slower, methodical pace of the Dark Souls games may find themselves enjoying Sekiro. But people coming over from the past series may find the smaller amount of customization and combat options a bit disappointing. Ultimately the experience will be different from player to player.

Graphics and Sound

Visually, Sekiro is amazing, being not only beautiful but likely being the smoothest a From Soft game has ever run on launch. The game takes full advantage of it’s setting, having a mixture of historical Japanese setting and ancient myths. It also has the signature weirdness of the From Soft games monster design, mixing both really disturbing and cool imagery

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review (PS4): Amazing visuals
Sound-wise, the game is also rock solid. Each area has its own track, which I personally enjoy more than the silence of the levels in Dark Souls. This includes both standard level music and combat music for each area. Most of the music takes clear inspirations from traditional eastern music. The only downside I would say there is is that it doesn’t have a track that particularly stands out, in my own opinion.

Voice acting is also good. oddly enough, the game actually defaults to the Japanese voice acting with English subtitles. Both dubs are fine, and ultimately it will come down to preference.

conclusions

Sekiro is a game that was always going to be compared to Dark Souls, but in many ways, it stands on its own as a great game. While it has the same kind of feeling to the way the world is built around you, it is in some ways more similar to a character action game like the Devil May Cry or Bayonetta games, focusing more on unlocking new ways to fight.

Ultimately this is a game that for some people may be a bit divisive. While more traditional Dark Souls players may not like some of the changes, it could be enough to draw in people who were a bit more on the fence about the From Soft games. For me, it’s a definite recommendation for anyone looking for a deep and challenging experience.

Pros Cons
+More combat and skill-focused then previous entries– Difficulty curve may scare some players off
+Interesting world and characters– Fewer options for combat style
+Strong art direction 
+Wide variety in movement options 
+Solid soundtrack 
9
Amazing

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