Progression is a common theme for Dark Souls developer FromSoftware. When the Souls franchise came to an end, From needed to find its own way to move forward from the series and formula that garnered its fame. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the developer’s first real attempt at something new and takes all previous From ideas in a fresh direction. However, simply comparing Sekiro to Dark Souls or Bloodborne does a disservice to what the hardcore developer has accomplished here. This new IP is not just ‘Soulsborne’ with a fresh coat of paint—Sekiro is something better than the foundation it is built on.
Set in an alternate history, 16th century Japan, players will find themselves greeted with many familiar concepts. From’s gorgeous art direction is better than ever in a fully realized world and environmental storytelling blankets the war-torn land. Bonfire-like mechanics, a pulled back third-person camera, familiar controls, and open-ended level design all make a return in this genre reboot, but still, something feels different. The game has no character creation screen or tutorial markings on the ground. The new predetermined main character also moves swift and fierce thanks to the game’s polished sprint feature. This focused direction taken by director Hidetaka Miyazaki stands opposed to the lumbering nature of his previous work.
Perhaps the most shocking decision made here is the choice to not just steer away from an obtuse vision while almost fully combating inaccessibility. Sekiro has a story that certainly offers forked paths, but also remains fully digestible throughout. Players will find themselves growing attached the one-armed-wolf they are given control of, and the distinct narrative backdrop elevates the painted world. Even the tutorials completely interrupt gameplay so that players are made aware of nearly every mechanic early on, further pushing against a franchise that was famous for being esoteric. The only relic of Souls’s past that remains are vaguely described items, though even those are easy enough to figure out. Dark Souls was a welcome take on game design for its time, but Sekiro strikes the better balance in player freedom to discover. Thankfully, Miyazaki’s trademarked love for challenge remains completely uncompromised.
Protagonist Sekiro and the hordes of aggressive enemies that challenge him look at past Souls-type games in the eyes and scoff at how comfortable the genre was for the past decade. Enemy and weapon designs hold the same uniqueness found in the past and still manage to terrify. Staying on one’s toes has never been more imperative than when facing a 10-foot-tall ogre with a baseball bat. Where playing things safe with patient, planned attacks would normally yield rewarding gameplay, this new take punishes those methods with great severity. Combat is now less of a puzzle and more of a shinobi-latent tango thanks to an emphasis on a world grounded in logical encounters. Sure, the game still features the occasional giant reptile or spirit to encounter, but, for the most part, the realistic take helps free Sekiro from the chains binding the genre for so long. One other change to the live and die repetition normally found in games is the ability—or, rather, option—to literally die twice. Death brings the choice to self-revive, promoting a risk-reward aspect to systems that were otherwise growing a bit tedious. Be careful though, as dying too much can spread the disease known as Dragonrot, which can inhibit NPCs indefinitely.
At its core, the game falls into the action/stealth genre more so than the RPG genre. The game has some skill trees to take advantage of, though these aid the feeling of power more so than unique player builds. Players can sling to rooftops with the useful grappling hook and decide whether or not to go into an attack stealthily. These varied combat options play well into From’s famously interconnected level design which now benefit from the extra verticality.
Those curious on the difficulty relative to past titles will find Sekiro perches itself somewhere in the middle of the past series. Combat is cut-throat and incredibly demanding during the first few hours of play. That said, even the most hopeless will find a moment where combat clicks into understanding. Generally, the romp through 16th century Japan is not as dire as one may be used to, even if the bosses can occasionally evoke more fear and desperation than ever before. New stealth-only sections also significantly help break up the pacing that killed momentum for some in the past.
A finer balance of accessibility can be found in the game, but that does not mean the game lacks a few issues that come with these new design choices. As mentioned earlier, tutorials and item descriptions plague Sekiro’s fluid combat. In general, the drawn-out explanations go a bit too far. Some items trigger a pop-up window that completely halt combat, regardless of player intention. Cutscenes are also one of the drawbacks of a more involved story, as players who have a tough time with a particular boss have to deal with a bit too much wasted time thanks to cutscenes that beg skipping. Another problem that has managed to creep its way in due to the nature of the perspective is the egregious camera. Sekiro is so fast paced that its camera cannot keep up with the action. Fairness is an essential factor to consider in a game like this, and the camera is a flaw that puts cracks in the gameplay’s fundamentals. Most third-person action games will suffer from camera issues, but Sekiro seems to stutter in this regard more than most.
These issues are blemishes on a title that is otherwise an evolution in every conceivable way. This does not mean previous From games are obsolete by any means, only that Sekiro is aiming for a completely different mountain to grapple. From is owed immense praise for creating a beautiful world brimming with life that still oppresses in every conceivable way without falling under the Dark Souls umbrella. Challenge, character, and the primal need to keep moving forward are still key features in FromSoftware’s design arsenal that has inspired for 10 years. Creators could learn from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’s uncompromising focus and freshness for years to come, even if its roots are planted in familiarity.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.