REVIEW – I missed action games for a while now. The good old days, when you did not have to think about a massive sheet of attributes and loot. Where all you had was just your wits one or two weapons, and maybe an upgrade to your health. Luckily this year there seems to be a resurgence for action games just like that in 2019. First with Crackdown 3, then Devil May Cry 5, and now finally From Software decided to distil their formula even more from Bloodborne. While even Bloodborne had a few attributes to put skill points into, and you gained levels which meant you could deal more damage here in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, there are no more shortcuts to victory by over levelling.
In the land of Ashina a war is brewing, and only Sekiro, the one-armed Shinobi can stop the chaos. He will need to find The Divine Heir and put a stop to this eternal madness.
The Spice… I Mean The Blood Must Flow
The story of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is relatively straightforward compared to From Software’s previous titles. You play as Wolf – aka Sekiro, an orphan boy due to the rebellion in Ashina, who was raised by legendary shinobi Owl. He follows the Iron Code of the Shinobi, and he must protect his master Lord Kuro who is The Divine Heir. Sadly this does not go as planned, as Lord Genichiro is able to initially overcome Sekiro, and he also losses an arm in the process. Only to wake up and get fitted with a prosthetic arm, which has a few tricks in it.
It is a relatively simple story, with not that many twists or turns, and a lot of things are spelt out by the developers. The occasional revelations do happen, but I think the players will appreciate the story and most importantly the lore around Buddha plus Japanese history. The game is best played with Japanese audio, as the English voice acting is quite monotonous and it does not mesh well with the overall tone of the game. There is a whole cast of supporting characters, and villains, and while initially the game feels grounded in realism, the story starts to escalate to more weirder concepts and more mythological creatures. There is a lot less mystery though, and for those who are expecting to go on long puzzles as to what could happen, or if something happened is real is out of the question. No mysteries like Dark Souls or no ambiguity compared to Bloodborne. The entire story is in your face, which is newcomer friendly, but for some of the hardcore fans of From Software might be a disappointment.
Overall the story is fun and reminded me a lot of old animes such as Ninja Scroll, or Sword of the Stranger. A highly stylized story with a few clichéd bits, but a fun story nevertheless.
The main meat of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the combat itself, which while does not have an attribute point system it does have a minimalistic levelling system. However, rather than enhancing your attack power with those skill points you unlock actual skills from different skill trees. The skill trees themselves can be earned through rewards, or in one case can even be bought from certain merchants. You also learn passive skills, plus certain skills need to be equipped to be used and these are called Combat Arts. So unlike in Bloodborne or in the Dark Souls series, if you got stuck you could just over level, and grind till you got enough to beat the boss. In Sekiro the only thing you gain is a couple of skills and no shortcuts to bosses. There is a resurrection mechanic, where if you die once you can resurrect, and continue the fight, and with certain luck, if you fight good enough you can resurrect more than once. However, this has storyline repercussions if you do it too much, and can lock you out of certain quests.
There is only one main weapon in the game, your trusty sword. The player can also collect or in some cases buy different prosthetics throughout the game world. All of these prosthetics need „fuel” to run which in this case is called Spirit Emblems. The prosthetic themselves are all useful in different scenarios, but it never overshadows the sword or the parrying system. The grappling hook is used mainly for traversal and some special situation against enemies, but it is not direct damage dealing item.
The combat in Sekiro: Shadows Die twice is a mixture of stealth, group management, and tense 1vs1 battles. The first part is Stealth which works for most of the times and is insanely satisfying. Unlike most games where the rules are broken in favour of the NPCs, here in Sekiro you are free to stealth kill or reduce health pool for most bosses. The game does not cheat in this regards, and there are always two or three ways to do a stealth run. It does not break its internal logic, but it does have some weird stunts. For instances, the archers and snipers will instantly see you, and if any enemy spots you, a lot of times there are like magnets. They will stick to you, and even enemies from halfway across the map will know where you are hiding. This breaks the gameplay a bit on stealth part and feels a bit cheap.
When it comes to going up against multiple enemies, in the beginning, out in the open – not a good idea. The game will punish the player severely, as rushing ahead and attacking blindly will lead to deaths. Even near endgame without the proper skills, and prosthetics, there can be enemy groups that make life difficult.
Ultimately this game shines when it comes to tense 1vs1 battles against weak enemies, mini-bosses, and bosses. It almost feels like a fighting game, where you have to do the right moves in order to progress with the enemy. Blocks, parries, and reading the enemy is one of the most important things, and the player has to learn the patterns, because as mentioned previously there is no way to brute force yourself. The bosses themselves will hit hard, and while initially, you go up against normal human enemies, by the middle and end of the game the mystical thing pop-up. So for those people who initially thought the enemy variety is generic, I can assure them that it does get better later on. Oh and I also have to say in this game a lot of bosses have unexpected surprises and special phases. So never let your guard down!
A Shining Blade In The Night
The graphics and art design for Sekiro is great, and the environments are varied. In this regard, it does feel like a Ninja Gaiden game. You go from simple valleys to temples, and haunting forest all in one game, plus a few mystical places. It is miles ahead in terms of environmental design compared to the recent Devil May Cry 5. All rendered beautifully, and looks great on PS4PRO, with HDR and 4K. The UI is minimalistic, and luckily the game lets you pause the switch items around. The enemy animation is superb, and all of them are highly detailed. As parrying is a system in this game, the visual cues, as orange sparks, and indicators fly everywhere when deflecting or parrying.
It makes the game stand out more and makes it easier for newcomers to read this graphic styles, rather than in the old Bloodborne and Dark Souls series where you had to look at enemy posture, but there was barely an indication. The only problem with the graphics I encountered is that some of the textures in the environment look a bit dated, and at times murky. The sound design, however, is flawless. Every sword hit, deflection, and parry has the depth to it and makes the fights all that tenser. It feels like watching Samurai Jack, and every feedback is exhilarating. The music for the boss fights is great, and I noticed that while this is not a horror style like Bloodborne, some of those boss battle themes are slightly edging toward a more horroristic vibe.
Prepare To Resurrect!
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice does have its issues, and it is not a perfect game. Bosses and enemies still have the From Software signature tracking attack. The stealth as mentioned previously while working most of the time is a bit half baked. Yet I can not stop going back for more, as this is one of 2019 this generation’s best action game ever. The bosses besides the usual tracking bit (which is a small thing), never feel cheap, and in fact, the loading screens spell out what to do against certain bosses, or even give descriptions to items.
It is the most accessible From Software game in terms of lore and story but at the same time the most difficult game from them. There are barely any shortcuts, and the player needs to learn and grow from the encounters. You will not die, but your blood pressure will skyrocket, and you will feel bliss once you get through a tough boss… only to encounter a mini-boss the next corner and get wrecked.
+ Combat is simple yet elegant
+ Music and sound design is superb
+ Lots of bosses, and great encounters
– While graphics look great, there are still murky textures
– Signature From Tracking attack still in 2019
– The story is just average, lacks mystery compared to old From Software titles
Publisher: From Software
Developer: Ubisoft Massive Entertainment
Release date: March 22, 2019