I am not a fan of the “Souls” genre. As a dad who has to find enough time to play on a regular basis, it’s challenging to play something that you know will take you dozens of hours to finish because of the limited time you have. The soulsborne games are examples of these “oh they’re good but will take up too much of my time” games because you’ll literally spend maybe half the time “getting good” at the game due to their steep difficulty curve. While Nioh and Bloodborne were personal favorites, I wasn’t really looking forward to another agonizing experience. Enter Sekiro.

I’ve gotten to play Sekiro multiple times before launch, thanks to some demos that we got the opportunity to test during gaming events over the past year. Up until recently, I was honestly still a bit skeptical about it. It was tough, arguably the hardest game to date as many would say, but fast forward to March 2019 and after playing the game for this review, I’d have to say that Sekiro was worth every death and could possibly even be a very early contender for Game of the Year. There, I said it. It’s a very good game and let me tell how and why in our review of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

It’s actually hard to review something like Sekiro. On one hand, it completely alienates gamers who are just in it for the experience and the story due to its VERY steep learning curve, something that FromSoftware is notorious for. If you don’t plan to “git gud” during the course of the game, stop at minute one and return the game because you’re not getting anywhere. Even the most basic enemy can kill you in a couple of hits if you’re not careful and you can’t grind until level 99 like in most RPG’s to overpower the opponent. Skill is the name of the game and as mentioned, if this is not your cup of tea, then there’s no shame on looking away. Sekiro, and soulsborne games in general, demand a certain level of skill, dedication, and focus that not everyone can afford, and while I was not part of that hardcore group prior to today, Sekiro has made me appreciate and has converted me into a believer, which may be the same case for you.

First off, this is probably the prettiest looking FromSoftware game to date. Enough of those dark and musty dungeons and castle cellars. Sekiro is set in Japan during the time of the Sengoku period, where the landscape has been ravaged by war. Even so, the environments are lush, the backgrounds are beautiful, and even the design of the bosses are really well done. If anything, Sekiro could REALLY use a photo mode and I’m surprised that there isn’t one in the game at the moment of writing. Your main character, better known as “wolf”, looks absolutely fierce and it’s a real injustice that there is currently no mode that can take advantage of capturing the action that the game can provide.

Second, the game is really smooth and fast paced. I personally hated the Dark Souls trilogy simply because the controls were slow and clunky AF and with the game being as hard as it is, controls are simply the last thing you should think of. Sekiro has managed to “fix”
this big time and what you’ll be playing here is a very responsive and upbeat game that really speaks to what wolf can do as a Shinobi. If you know me, I hate games with really bad controls because it takes so much of the experience away from the game. That’s not the case with Sekiro and while it’ll take a while to master what you can do, the intuitive and responsive controls will be something that you won’t have to worry about. You’ll slash when you have to and jump when you want to, too bad for those who blame controls after dying, sorry bud you can’t be doing that here anymore.

One more thing about Sekiro that really surprised me is the added depth in gameplay that a few tweaks can bring. As you may have seen from various sources, parts of Sekiro can be accomplished via stealth and while it is quite impossible to finish the whole game using stealth, it definitely helps along the way. As with soulsborne games, health is one of your greatest assets and the more of it you conserve before facing a boss, the better your chances will be. Stealth comes into play because you can easily kill enemies scattered around with a single strike, giving you less to worry about. You can hang on ledges, hide between tall grass, and use the rest of the environment to your advantage and while you cannot instantly kill bosses and mini bosses in a single hit, taking out one life counter from them can prove to be the difference between restarting the whole encounter and actually finishing it.

Wolf also has a grappling tool that he can utilize to traverse the world. This adds another layer not seen in previous soulsborne games and that’s the layer of verticality. If you need to take a break from the hectic action or are being mobbed by multiple enemies, simply grapple onto a tree or a nearby roof and reset the encounter. These brief breaks in the game allow you to take control of the situation, making Sekiro a much more thoughtful and strategic game than you’d normally give it credit for. Also, coming back to that point, did you know that since Sekiro is a purely single player game (no online / multiplayer mode), you can pause the game in between and during encounters to figure out your next move? It’s a small but welcome addition to this game that I’m sure you’ll appreciate.

The main concept you’ll have to master in Sekiro is what’s called “Posture” and the more you can fill up and break the enemy’s posture meter, the more you are likely to win to battle and implement a Shinobi Execution. Every time you land a hit, every time you parry, you’ll be able to fill up their posture meter and as it goes for the enemy, it’s the same as well for you. Some enemies will need more than one deathblow to finish off, indicated by red orbs on their lifebar, and since breaking their posture will allow you to get a deathblow in, then you realize just how important this mechanic works in the game.

The game feels familiar, with it’s infamous difficulty and similar mechanics like enemies respawning when you heal up, losing currency when you die, and so on. At the same time, it feels and plays totally different, employing and rewarding a much more aggressive playstyle unlike other games in the genre. Throughout the game, you’ll notice that there is a tendency to be more heavily reliant on parrying than actually dodging attacks due to the posture mechanic. If you run circles around your opponent giving them time to breathe, then their posture meter goes back to zero, thus you’ll need to be strategic about it and keep the pressure up while maintaining good distance to chip in a few hits to keep their meter from dropping. Easier said than done, especially when the opponent suddenly uses an unblockable attack or “Perilous attacks” as the game calls it. These come in the form of either a sweeping attack, a thrust, or a grab. Grabs are downright unblockable / unparryable, so you’ll have to get out of the way. Thrusts can be sidestepped, and sweeps must be avoided with a jump. Learning when to do what, whether to block / parry / get out of the way will be key in pushing past the tougher enemies in the game…

Unless you love dying, and in Sekiro you’ll definitely be doing that a lot. Don’t you just hate it when you’re literally a slash away from killing the boss you’ve been having trouble with for the past hour or so? Well, you can resurrect yourself once, hence the phrase “Die twice”, and depending on the situation you’re caught in, you can use this resurrection mechanic to catch enemies unaware or simply run away if the odds are stacked against you. You can also choose to not resurrect at all, and just accept your fate, which is also fine, but beware of the consequences of dying as this mechanic called Dragonrot will start to take its effect the more times you die. Simply put, there is a passive “buff” called unseen aid which procs at a certain percentage allowing you to keep the currency you’ve collected when you die. Die enough times and this percentage drops until it hits the lowest point, lowering the chance of the buff to take effect. It’s not a game breaking mechanic, but its definitely something to strive for as you’ll be needing all the currency you get for that ever important upgrade.

As you progress in the game, you will be armed (pun intended) with a prosthetic arm that can be used a number of different ways depending on the upgrade you choose for it. Enemies with shields? Use the axe upgrade to break those defense barriers in half. Enemy weak to fire? Shoot flames in their face with the flamethrower upgrade to leave them vulnerable while flinching. Each upgrade is definitely useful and the enemies in the world are varied enough that you’ll be switching between one upgrade to the other during fights. While your prosthetic arm is upgradable, your main weapon is not. Your Katana will be with you throughout the game and it is also in this aspect where you’ll need focus to get good. No changing into axes or spears or what have you, the game focuses on you improving your mechanical skills more than improving your equipment to beat the challenges ahead. You can’t grind for currency to increase your attributes since there is none of that here, instead it’s really just a pure battle between you and the enemy and all that stands in between will be how good you are, and with the game spanning anywhere from a good 30-60 hour playthrough, you’ve got a lot of time to practice.

While you cannot upgrade your stats, you can cash in currency for skill points, which allows you to unlock a multitude of passive and active skills that will definitely serve you well in your journey. Again, none of these upgrades are game breaking and it really still focuses on your fighting skill more than anything.

In the end, I think everyone including their ancestors have gotten Dragonrot due to the number of times I’ve died during my playthrough. I’ll admit to being frustrated for majority of the time but as someone who takes pride in playing games, git gud was the only way to go. I’ve given it a chance and I think you should too, because if a dad can do it and you can’t, well then all I can tell is git gud.

Pros:

  • Silky smooth and responsive controls
  • Boss battles are amazing and creative
  • Feeling of satisfaction after beating a boss is next to none
  • The game is tough, but not unfair

Cons:

  • Lack of multiplayer may be a turn off to some hardcore fans of the genre

Final Verdict: 9/10

Overall, Sekiro has been a wonderful experience. I’ve died more times that I could count but the feeling of satisfaction after killing that boss is surreal and is an acknowledgement that you are getting better at the game. It’s something veteran soulsborne gamers will appreciate but is also a departure from old habits and tactics that requires the player to master a new set of skills and approach to the game and I think this is where Sekiro really shines. The bosses in the game are spectacular and there are a couple of very interesting and creative fights that is just a testament to the genius of Hidetaka Miyazaki. It may be too early to say but Sekiro could be a strong GOTY candidate for 2019.

*Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was reviewed on a PS4 Pro via a review code provided by the publisher.