What would you get if you took the DNA of the Soulsborne series and mixed it with Tenchu’s? Well, you get Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and fans will have some sense of familiarity here but for the most part this is something very unique and special.
Set during a more fantasised version of the Sengoku Period of Japan, you assume the role of Wolf; a shinobi tasked with protecting the Divine Heir. After his Lord and arm are taken from him, Wolf wakes up, now equipped with a Shinobi Prosthetic, must venture out to get his Lord back. Narrative is a bit more of a focus here and while it is good to have a more obvious story, it’s not quite the focus you’d expect it to be. With the new setting and title, as you’d assume there is a new kind of gameplay with a much larger focus on mobility and stealth. While the world has that same Soulsborne design, with interlinking paths and shortcuts to find which tie the world’s areas together nicely. The familiar bonfire mechanic also returns in the form of Sculptor’s Idols, allowing you to rest and reset enemies, fast travel or upgrade yourself.
Unlike the Soulsborne games though, Sekiro doesn’t have the same methods of upgrading yourself like before. There isn’t a levelling system that allows you to build into specific stats so you can make a character focused around a certain style of play. While you can learn different passive effects, blocks, moves and Combat Arts to help you it isn’t like Soulsborne where you’d focus on one thing, instead the system is focused around making Wolf more well-rounded. Increasing health is done by collecting Prayer Beads from mini-bosses, while upgrading damage is done by recalling memories of battles with main bosses. The amount of uses made available to you from you healing gourd can also be increased by collecting gourd seeds. Hitting the cap for these upgrades is a lot easier though, stopping you from ever getting to outrageous levels of damage or health.
That’s just the start of the new mechanics Sekiro has so it can mix up the formula. Stealth is actually a viable and promoted option. Managing to sneak up on enemies successfully allows you to perform a Deathblow, taking their entire health bar down instantly. Tougher enemies will require multiple Deathblows but getting the drop on them gives you a chance to get a head start in a fight rather than hopping straight in. Thanks to the new grappling hook there is much more mobility to compliment the stealth and fact that Wolf is a shinobi. Jumping, grabbing and shimming across ledges are amongst some of the new things you can do to get around.
When stealth isn’t an option though you’ve got to rely on more direct methods of dispatching enemies. Wolf always has his katana on hand to get rid of enemies as well as the various combat arts you’ve learned to expand his attack and defence. Stamina doesn’t exist in Sekiro so you can dodge and sprint as much as you want but Posture exists instead with some of the effects that Stamina had in the Soulsborne series. Blocking attacks repeatedly or taking damage for either Wolf or the enemy will gradually decrease their posture until eventually leaving them open to a Deathblow. Sekiro has an element of mastery to it in learning how to Parry, perfectly timing a block so you avoid any damage to yourself and posture, while damaging the enemy’s posture. Tougher enemies require multiple Deathblows to take down.
To aid you in taking down your foes, multiple tools and upgrade materials for them are scattered around the world that can be attached to Wolf’s Shinobi Prosthetic. These tools can rage from poison blades or shurikens to simple firecrackers. Each has their own unique uses and can allow for different styles of play or make fighting certain foes a bit easier.
With infinite stamina, no weapon durability and a couple of other changes and new mechanics like how death is handled, Sekiro feels both easier and harder that the Soulsborne games. Minimal room for error and the fact you can’t build around beefy armour or just go and summon a friend to help you (thanks to Sekiro being a single player only game) makes Sekiro a game much more dependant on individual skill rather than offering chances to gank a boss or use a cheesy build when things get too challenging. At the very least I wish there was some visual customisation for Wolf, I would like to have seen what could’ve been done with outfits for him. On the other hand it’s easier thanks to infinite stamina, enhanced mobility and the extra chances you get from the Resurrection mechanic. While there is a cost to coming back from the dead in the form of Dragon Rot, a disease that affects those that Wolf has interacted with, it doesn’t feel like much of a threat due to the ability to undo its effects. All it really takes from you is the ability to receive Unseen Aid, a mysterious force that stops the loss of experience and money upon death.
The lack of real punishment for death is one thing I didn’t really like about Sekiro and it’s a shame that there aren’t any huge consequences to death, especially since checkpoints are much more common.
The combat is extremely satisfying though and while death isn’t as punishing, mistakes during fights are punished more than ever. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes with increasingly complex attack patterns as the game goes on. A red kanji flashes before some of their big moves so you have a moment to react and avoid being face-down, dead in the mud. The back and forth nature of parrying and the posture system mixed in with Wolf’s mobility and prosthetic attachments means every decision has to be a calculated one. With some amazing environments rooted in the time the game is set and tense music that perfectly captures the tone of each moment, from crouching amongst some bushes to a fast duel against a samurai, Sekiro is a welcome change in environment and soundtrack from the gothic, medieval looks and orchestral soundtracks of Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
A copy of the game was provided for this review by the developer/publisher