Let’s get this right out of the way: I am a goddamn sadist. You only need to look at my previous articles here on Couch Bandits to know I have an affinity for hard games. But challenge is just one factor of what put From Software on top of the industry with Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne, and the Dark Souls trilogy. Anyone can hack together an impossible game, but these action role-playing games stood out for one reason, providing a sensation most other games avoid:
Conventional wisdom dictates death, and failure states in general, should be avoided in video games, but the so-called “Soulsborne” games proved not only could death be a core part of the experience, but lend to a tremendous sense of accomplishment not found anywhere else. Until now, with the company’s latest offering, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Despite appearing outwardly similar, this stealth-action ninja game has a twofold challenge all its own: live up to the pedigree of its precursors and deliver its own uniquely rewarding experience.
Does this latest From Software adventure get two calloused thumbs up or die twice by the sword?
Taking place in a fictionalized version of Japan during the Sengoku Era, players assume the role of the titular Sekiro, a shinobi tasked with protecting a young ward coveted by warring clans. His journey covers a wide swath of Japan, both realistic and stylized, that serves as an absorbing backdrop for the challenge that lies within.
Sekiro falls in line with the philosophy of Soulsborne, where the challenge comes less from player dexterity, and more from learning and understanding a central set of rules. Failure leads to severe consequences, and the lack of hand-holding coupled with auto-saving creates a feedback loop that revels in failure while rewarding success.
Combat serves this to a bloody, unforgiving tee. While enemies have health bars, more important is their Posture, represented by a yellow meter on the top of the screen. Draining Posture is required to land the literal Deathblow, and because it recovers, waiting back is not an option. Aggression and timing are key to success, with a reliance on careful dodges, split-second parries and expertly timed jumps. Failing even one move often leads to death…the first time, anyway.
Players can resurrect upon death as a get-out-of-jail-free card, but not without consequences. Death normally results in losing half your sen (currency) and experience for Skill Points, needed for unlocking techniques and passive buffs. But a mechanic called Unseen Aid prevents this from happening. Dying too much, however, infects other characters and lowers the chance of Unseen Aid, meaning the game actively gets harder the more you die.
And it’s already harder than Soulsborne. But also easier.
One of the most common criticisms of past From Software games has been their obtuse nature; for as rewarding as they can be once it all clicks, getting there has been a point of contention for most players. Sekiro, for its demanding combat, makes several concessions to ensure no one gets left dead in the water from the start.
Thanks to a dedicated jump button, infinite sprinting, and a grappling hook, getting around the exquisite level design takes minimal effort, and the Sculptor’s Idols that serves as checkpoints are almost hilariously abundant. Banging your head against a wall or not knowing how a certain technique works is much more difficult, and all the better for it. The opening hours are just explicit enough so as to be understood (at least conceptually). But veterans need not worry; later on, Sekiro is more than happy to let you miss crucial items and face enemies seemingly impossible on your first dozen or so attempts.
For as deftly as Sekiro walks a fine line between satisfaction and sadism, it trips up when sticking the landing sometimes. Despite running at an uncapped framerate, the Xbox One X version played for review suffered from numerous technical problems, including framerate drops, minor input lag, and at least one hard crash. Playing on a PC, then, is preferable, but even with a powerful rig, stealth can be inconsistent. Enemy AI goes back and forth from being easily exploitable to sentient robots, not helped by slightly fiddly controls when navigating ledges and using the grappling hook. Failing due to player incompetence is one thing, but given how demanding Sekiro is, such performance problems can be punishing for the wrong reasons.
Despite these hitches, the core experience remains addictive and rewarding throughout the whole experience. Without wishing to spoil, expect to play the game more than once to see everything Sekiro has to offer, especially for players with a penchant for getting all the Trophies and Achievements. And even with these rewards, a second playthrough is justified all on its own.
When From Software released the original Dark Souls in 2011, it was a studio at its absolute peak. Dark Souls felt transformative, unrelenting, and like an apotheosis of games as a medium. In a way, Sekiro evokes the same sentiment. While perhaps not reaching the creative peak of the Souls series in its prime, it’s a worthy continuation of its lineage. The white-knuckle action can be exhausting, even for veterans, and won’t appeal to everyone, but the mountain is well worth climbing.
Well beyond a shadow of a doubt, at least.