In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a one-armed wolf stalks the branches and rooftops of a Sengoku period Japan-inspired landscape. The name alone of FromSoftware and Activision’s upcoming multiplatform stealth-action title holds layers of reveals to unpack. The word “Sekiro,” FromSoftware marketing manager Yasuhiro Kitao explained at an E3 press demo, is an original term derived from Japanese characters for “one-armed person” and “wolf.” This coinage is a reference to the game’s player character, referred to simply as the shinobi, whose arm is severed by his rival and replaced with a versatile prosthetic. The subtitle, “Shadows Die Twice,” speaks to another of the game’s key systems: resurrection. When the shinobi dies under certain circumstances, he can rise again, regain the element of surprise and reengage the enemy.
Surprise, according to Activision producer Robert Conkey, is an important factor in Sekiro, more so than it has been in other core titles in the FromSoftware catalogue. Games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne allow for the occasional sneak or plunging attack, but Sekiro codifies that gameplay style with what Conkey calls “light stealth mechanics.” Rather than methodically peeling enemies away from groups to fight one-on-one, as would often be the best strategy in a Souls game, Sekiro seems to encourage the kinds of stealth executions players might expect from something like Splinter Cell or Shadow of Mordor.
For example, before approaching courtyards where a powerful samurai general or an angry chained ogre stood in waiting, the demonstrator for the demo session would perform a series of death-from-above and ledge-hang kills to thin out the numbers of smaller foot soldiers and matchlock riflemen surrounding the main battle.
What makes most of these types of stealth maneuvers possible is a gameplay emphasis on verticality. The largest departure in this game from the recent Souls games From has produced is the ability to jump. The shinobi’s prosthetic arm also includes a grappling hook that allows him to latch onto buildings and ledges to reel himself up to higher vantage points, or to swing from rooftop to rooftop, covering wide distances.
To show off both the aerial mobility and the stealth mechanics of the game, the demo included a brief platforming section in which the shinobi navigated along a cliffside while avoiding the gaze of a colossal, milky-white serpent. Conkey made a point at this stage of the demo to hint that there would be a number of extended hide and seek sections like this in the final product. “There are some really intense cat and mouse sequences that you have with these larger-than-life enemies,” Conkey said.
Beyond traversal and stealth, the game’s mobility options shape the way the shinobi conducts combat. Despite the inclusion of a new array of sneaking options, Kitao and Conkey insisted that the main focus of the game is still action. Against certain types of enemies, the maneuverability the prosthetic arm’s grappling hook affords will be critical, but as circumstances change, so too will strategies. Much of the variability of Sekiro’s combat will come from the different available arm tools. Like an expanded version of the trick weapons from Bloodborne, the shinobi prosthetic will be able to transform to adapt to various battle conditions. In addition to housing the metal fan shield and blinding firecrackers displayed in the trailer and promotional photos for the game, the shinobi’s arm will be able to transform into things like a heavy-hitting, shield-breaking axe, or a shuriken dispenser that can be deployed to stagger opponents and close gaps. Some types of enemies will have specific, learnable weaknesses that can be exploited by attentive players.
The core of the combat experience, however, will be centered on swords. According to Kitao, the initial vision of FromSoftware president Hidetaka Miyazaki for the fights in this game was “the clashing of swords.” Swordplay, as the game’s central system, is where Dark Souls similarities shine through most clearly. Fights are fast-paced, but calculated, factoring in a new system the developers have dubbed Posture. With the Posture system, performing certain actions like perfectly timed blocks and parries will build progress toward opportunities for high-damage finishing moves for both the player and the enemies they face.
At the end of the demo, the presenter arrived at a boss battle against an opponent called the Corrupted Monk, a large humanoid woman in flowing robes with a long spear-like weapon. While the encounter seemed unfinished, it appeared very much in keeping with the pacing of a Dark Souls boss, right down to an abrupt and unceremonious end. After a few (mostly unsuccessful) parry attempts, the presenter started jumping in a wide circle to avoid the Monk’s attacks. Unfortunately, a slight miscalculation led the presenter to leap off the vibrantly colored bridge and into the misty expanse of a canyon. After a quick chuckle, the demo picked back up just outside the boss chamber for the presenter to give it a second try. Kitao confirmed that the final game will have some type of checkpoint system, but that it won’t work like Souls’ bonfires or Bloodborne’s lanterns.
One other area in which Sekiro departs from From’s Souls games is story. What was shown in the demo indicates that the playable character has a more defined purpose than is typical for From of late. The shinobi is a servant of a young lord who is being targeted for undisclosed reasons. When the shinobi’s rival comes and takes the young lord, leaving the shinobi short an arm, the shinobi’s motivations become clear. His journey is to retrieve his kidnapped master and to seek retribution.
A From game set in a fictionalized, centuries-past Japan is bound to invite comparisons with 2017’s Team Ninja-developed Nioh (for which a sequel was announced at Sony’s E3 briefing), but Sekiro appears to have a style all its own, albeit one that borrows liberally from From’s previous franchises including Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and perhaps most notably Tenchu, which Kitao acknowledges was a primary source of inspiration. The world is beautiful and suitably dark, and the combination of quick traversal and tactical stealth with sharply honed Dark Souls-level combat mechanics makes for a package that sounds like it will be hard to resist. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is scheduled to release on PS4, Xbox One and Steam in early 2019.