FromSoftware has continually raised the bar for video games over the years. Their brand of challenging yet satisfying gameplay mixed with ingenious level design has resonated with many a game. While it seems as though the Souls series is infamously known for its difficulty, to the point that it even gets used to this day as a descriptor for other hard games, it’s ultimately the outstanding quality of the series that has stood the test of time and earned the developers a cult level of reverence.
When Bloodborne eventually came along it became one of my favourite games of this generation and I believed at the time that it may be the peak of what FromSoftware can do because it was just that damn good. Then I played Sekiro and I realised that I didn’t even know what they were truly capable of because Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice might just be one of the best games I have ever played.
Sekiro takes place in a feudal era of Japan where the land of Ashina is taken over by Lord Isshin Ashina and his army led by Genichiro Ashina. Years later, Ashina is on the brink of destruction and in a ditch effort to save the lands Genichiro kidnaps Kuro, a young lord with a bloodline capable of granting people immortality. You play as Wolf, who is later known as Sekiro (One-armed Wolf), a Shinobi serving under the kidnapped young lord. Your sole purpose in life is to protect Kuro at all costs.
Wolf eventually faces off against Genichiro but suffers defeat at his hands and ends up losing his arm. His severed limb is later replaced with a prosthetic arm and he sets out to rescue his master.
Coming from the Souls series, the story of Sekiro is much more straightforward than what I’m used to. It’s a nice change of pace in all honesty and playing as an already defined character allowed me to get attached to the protagonist in ways I couldn’t before. That said, there is still quite a bit of mystery to uncover and you’ll come across numerous NPCs who flesh the world out even more. There’s a really deep layer of lore for you to dig through, so for those of you worrying it might’ve been dumbed down, there’s still a lot going on underneath the surface of Sekiro and it’s honestly one of the best parts of the game.
While Sekiro is mechanically a wildly different game to the Souls (Borne) franchise, it still inherits a lot of their core fundamentals when it comes to its world and level design. From the moment you end the tutorial, you’re able to freely explore the land of Ashina. Though it’s not an open-world in the way you would expect it to be when you hear that term as there is still a linear path to your destination, the world is huge and sprawling with lots of interconnecting and deviating paths. You can see where you need to end up right from the start, but it’s a long and treacherous path to get there.
I loved and adored how well the world and its levels were put together. The sense of wonder and exploration, that feeling of pure excitement when you discover a hidden path or new area is just second to none. I felt this way with Souls, I felt this way with Bloodborne and I cannot believe that FromSoftware managed to recapture that feeling yet again. There was this one moment that just made everything click in my mind, and made me realise that this game is something else.
I was knocked off a cliff into the river down below. I would never have really thought to explore here but nonetheless I needed to find a way back up. Eventually I saw a bamboo thicket up ahead, I decided to head in there and I found a little cave leading back up, but on the other side of where I was knocked off. There’s nothing there really besides some trees and a little shrine, illuminated by nothing other than the moonlight and the embers of a burning village down below.
I decided to loot whatever item was obviously in there, but a shinobi descended from the heavens, who I also think only has one arm and kicked me in the face, resulting in an instant death. I don’t know what happened. I don’t how it happened, but all I know is, I didn’t care about anything else besides defeating this one guy. That’s pretty much how my entire playthrough of Sekiro went. I know there’s a sort of main objective, but I’m just constantly discovering something new and without fail it gets my blood pumping and I get completely consumed by it.
I could not, and still cannot get my mind off about areas I might’ve missed and obvious locations that were previously inaccessible that I needed to find a way to access. It’s an incredible feeling that just made me so happy.
The sense of exploration is only further enhanced by the grappling hook system. With Sekiro’s new prosthetic arm comes the ability to use a grappling hook to access higher and often normally inaccessible parts of the terrain. The sense of verticality that comes with this greatly adds to the feeling of freedom when traversing the world.
This is great because FromSoftware’s levels reveal new paths in such an organic way that giving the player more space and movement options within the world means you’ll have a greater sense of agency and it’s an honestly empowering feeling as it allows you to not only tackle exploration in interesting ways but also how you approach enemies as well.
While Sekiro is an action game at heart, it also has stealth heavily intertwined within its DNA. Stealth also plays heavily into traversal as a hostile situation can be tackled in various ways. It’s here that Sekiro’s Tenchu heritage shines through. Maybe you’ll grapple onto rooftops and rain sweet death upon your enemies from above or decide to take a sneakier route through a thick patch of grass, approaching an unaware enemy like a deadly snake.
It’s honestly up to you how you want to play, and of course if you feel like being gung-ho you can just go in and fight everyone head-on. Stealth however is a limited option at the end of the day and you’ll most likely end up engaging the enemy. Not that it ever felt like an issue however, largely due to how exhilarating and downright amazing combat is.
Where Dark Souls emphasised defensive play and Bloodborne offensive, here the focus is on parrying and deflection. You can still dodge enemy attacks and you’re meant to find a balance between parrying and dodging, but mastering deflection is a necessity for succeeding in Sekiro and this is largely due to the Posture system. Whenever you attack the enemy or they block your attack, the enemy builds up posture, and once the Posture meter is full, they’re left vulnerable for a one-hit kill attack known as a Deathblow.
The catch here is that this applies to you as well, so getting hit and blocking isn’t always the best strategy. The Posture system forces you to keep on the offensive as the enemy’s meter slowly drops over time. It’s an extremely ballsy move seeing as how parrying is usually reserved as an advanced move in other games whereas here it’s an absolute core mechanic.
Much like in the modern Ninja Gaiden games, this allows for combat to be fast and aggressive as you’re mixing in split-second deflections with a flurry of attacks. When everything starts flowing it’s empowering in a way that few games have ever made me feel, and it becomes an addiction that never wears off. The only caveat is that it really does require a lot from the player in order to do well in this game because combat in Sekiro is as graceful as it is brutal.
It really cannot be overstated how hard Sekiro can be. It may seem unfair at times, but it really comes down to how well of a grasp you have on the gameplay mechanics. I really didn’t think I’d be able to do it at first, but it wasn’t until a particular boss that everything really started to click. The Lady Butterfly fight flipped everything I knew about combat up to that point on its head.
I was mostly approaching fights slowly, but this boss was incredibly fast and agile as she zipped around the battlefield. It’s almost necessary to keep attacking her, relentlessly. It was here that you learn that an enemy with lower health takes much longer to recover posture, so you have to always keep the heat the up as you chip away at her health. The more you push forward the better you start to get at parrying and the easier it becomes to read movements and attack patterns.
Sekiro wants you to face the challenge head-on because its systems are so nuanced and intuitive that it knows the more you embrace its mechanics the better you’ll eventually become and the gratification you get from overcoming a powerful foe is downright intoxicating. It wouldn’t be a FromSoftware game without some sort of penalty for dying and here Sekiro has two effects.
The first being that upon death you lose half of your money and experience. While not as harsh as the other From games, it can sting to see a big chunk of your cash just instantly disappear. The second effect is a little more complicated. Due to the bloodline of the lord that you serve, you’re able to resurrect after dying. In doing so, you spread a disease known as Dragon Rot into the world and NPCs will slowly start to contract it. This will even cause some of their questlines to halt.
It also lowers your Unseen Aid percentage, which is a sort of safety net that has chance to activate upon death that negates the penalty of losing half of your EXP and money. Incorporating gameplay mechanics into the world like this works wonders in getting you invested in the universe. It’s a smart move, albeit a bit pressurising as you’re essentially harming everyone around you by dying.
If you’re used to FromSoftware’s deep character creation and build variation, then you might be disappointed to find out that it’s all but gone here. That however is not to say there isn’t any progression at all as you have multiple skill trees now granting a plethora of new moves and abilities. Not only that, but your prosthetic arm can be fitted with shinobi tools that you can use in combat such as a shuriken and an axe. While it may come across as gimmicks, they are essential to combat and each one is different and useful in their own way and they can be upgraded too.
There’s always something to work towards when it comes to your character and new additions such as the ability to use your grappling hook in combat or doing a follow-up attack after using a shinobi tool can really change the way you approach combat.
When it comes to the visuals the art style of Sekiro really shines through. It manages to make this feudal era of Japan feel moody and mysterious. It’s not the most amazing looking game from a technical standpoint, but it’s distinct and brimming with personality. It also runs extremely well on a PS4 Pro and isn’t bogged down by the usual FromSoftware frame pacing issues. The musical compositions are also good, ranging from the melancholic boss themes to the intense heavy-hitters. This original soundtrack covers all the bases.
It’s just a shame that it’s hard to really soak in the music when you’re in the heat of battle. I also must mention that Sekiro has the best sword sound effects I have ever heard in any game, period. I swear I could feel the reverberation when two swords clash and it really adds to the intensity of each battle.
As I reach the end of this review, I realise that I haven’t really said anything negative about the game.
It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a single flaw, because things like a wonky camera at times can be an issue, but it feels so minor because when I look back at my time with Sekiro, it’s filled with nothing but blissful joy and happiness. Sekiro encompasses everything I love about video games. It gave me a wondrous world that I got utterly and hopelessly lost in, filled to the brim with things to discover and places to explore.
Add to that, extremely satisfying and challenging gameplay and you’re left with a recipe for success. There really is only one word I can use to describe this game: It’s a masterpiece.
FromSoftware yet again proves that they’re masters of their craft. Every aspect of this game is just so lovingly crafted that any flaw feels like a droplet in an ocean of brilliance. Sekiro is the full package with immensely satisfying combat and an intriguing world to explore and discover. This is probably one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Last Updated: March 28, 2019