Update (3/25): This review has now been completed with late-game impressions and a final score.
This is a review in progress, based on 25-plus hours of gameplay on PS4. Check back for a graded review in the coming days.
The temptation exists for any critic reviewing any action game to compare that game to Dark Souls. Since Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the first major title developed by FromSoftware following the completion of Dark Souls III in 2017, the urge to fall into the “[blank] is the Dark Souls of [blank]” trap could have been overwhelming. Fortunately, Sekiro is far more than a Japan-set Soulsborne offshoot. Featuring masterful combat mechanics unlike anything the studio, or any studio, has produced before, Sekiro establishes a strong identity while honoring the quality of its FromSoftware pedigree.
“Sekiro,” a term that roughly translates to “one-armed wolf,” is the moniker granted to the game’s shinobi protagonist after his arm is severed and replaced with a multifunctional prosthetic. Unlike Dark Souls III’s Ashen One or Bloodborne’s Hunter, Sekiro is a pre-set, fully voice-acted character. While he is a less-than-vociferous, duty-bound stoic, Sekiro’s established personality makes him something more than a character-creator-generated cypher, and the story and NPC interactions are clearer for it, though the proceedings are not without an overarching sense of mystery.
Through the earlier section of the game, Sekiro’s driving goal is to reclaim his kidnapped master, Kuro, the Divine Heir whose blood holds the resurrective power of the Dragon’s Heritage. In the process, he is also seeking revenge against Kuro’s captor, who took off the shinobi’s arm and left him for dead. At a certain juncture, this quest for vengeance and redemption evolves into a larger objective, and exploration of a variety of locales, from red-leafed mountain paths to bottomless dungeon pits, becomes key to progressing the story.
Level design and art direction for each location I’ve come across so far have been stellar, combining the natural beauty of Japan’s mountain and forest biomes with Sengoku-era castle architecture.
Scattered throughout these locales are occasional bosses, and much more frequent but often equally daunting mid-bosses. The two categories of boss encounters are divided by the rewards they grant when overcome. Mid-bosses drop Prayer Beads, which can be used in sets of four to create Prayer Bead Necklaces that increase Vitality and Posture stats. Main bosses grant Memories, which can be confronted to increase Sekiro’s attack damage. One small quibble with the game so far is that boss design isn’t as creative or as varied as it could be. Three out of four of the main bosses and many of the dozen-plus mid-bosses I’ve encountered thus far have been variations of “person with sword or spear.”
However, each of the bosses and mid-bosses has challenged me to carefully consider my options to determine the best strategy. Marketing for Sekiro asks players to learn to “kill ingeniously,” and that direction is apt.
Combat is built around a system called Posture, in which Sekiro and his opponents have two separate health meters. The first, Vitality, is similar to health in other games. If an opponent runs out of Vitality, that opponent will die (usually). Posture is arguably the more important of the two survivability gauges. Attacking an enemy or deflecting their blows will damage their Posture, and fully breaking Posture leaves the target open for a Deathblow. If left alone, an enemy will regain Posture, with remaining Vitality determining how quickly Posture regenerates.
Some enemies are easier to block, while others call for dodging. Still others require liberal use of timed deflection to whittle away Posture. Many require judicious usage of all three skill sets, along with additional options afforded by unlockable, upgradeable Combat Art attacks and Prosthetic Tools. Prosthetic weapons range from shurikens to flamethrowers to firecrackers, and each freely swappable attachment is suited for a particular type of enemy encounter. On top of all that, Sekiro can resurrect himself a set number of times before dying for good, which allows him to fight for longer stretches without being sent back to a checkpoint, or to strategically re-engage unaware enemies. The variety of these mechanics creates combat that is challenging in its intricacy while remaining tightly focused and fair.
Finishing a minutes-long trade of attacks and deflections, chipping at both the opponent’s Vitality and Posture to deliver a Posture break Deathblow, grants a level of hard-earned satisfaction that few games can match. One pivotal boss fight left me shaking with adrenaline for a solid half-hour, reminiscent of battles with notorious FromSoftware bosses like Artorias or Ebrietas.
Complementary to his combat prowess is Sekiro’s ability to traverse the environment and assassinate targets silently. It never serves as a replacement for combat, but grappling to elevated positions to stealthily stalk along rooftops and eliminate enemies on the periphery allows Sekiro to set up favorable scenarios in which he can get the drop on more powerful foes and start battles on his terms.
For now, Sekiro occupies my thoughts in a rare way. As I sit at my desk at work, away from my PS4, I find my mind drifting to the high places and fierce combatants of the lands surrounding Ashina Castle. If the game maintains this pace throughout, it will be a worthy addition to the catalogue of FromSoftware and director Hidetaka Miyazaki.
Update (3/25): Review updates and late-game impressions below
I’ve now seen most of what Sekiro has to offer (some bosses will need to wait for New Game+), and I’m still overcome by its variety of combat options, its overall uniqueness, and its relentless difficulty. Traversing the game’s environments and battling its intriguing variety of regular enemies and mid-bosses is incredible, but past a certain point, the main bosses do have a tendency to bring the momentum to a screeching halt.
It seems disingenuous to fault a FromSoftware game for being too hard, and that’s not really the case here, though the challenge is extreme. My problem with many of the boss fights isn’t that they’re too difficult, but that they’re too difficult for too long. Learning and mastering a tough enemy’s patterns is exhilarating, but executing on those unforgiving patterns for 10 solid minutes can become a slog, particularly on attempt number 35. Just about every boss encounter in Sekiro could be greatly improved if it were about one third shorter. Even so, the satisfaction of delivering the real, final Deathblow on a boss after a quarter dozen fake out “deaths” is an incomparable feeling.
Sekiro is undoubtedly one of the best games I’ve played this year, but it may also be one of the most demanding games I’ve played in my lifetime. I’m looking forward to sweeping up the last few challenges it has to offer, but likely at a more leisurely pace. It’s a game that certainly won’t be for everyone, but for those with an excess of patience and manual dexterity, Sekiro is a trial that should not be missed
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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice