By Mike O’Brien | ★★★★✰
Disclaimer: Activision provided Quench with a PS4 copy of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice for review purposes.
Stick to this game and there’s a condescending line you’ll hear ad nauseum:
‘Hesitation is defeat’.
Grating, but true. Sekiro may be a new souls-borne-kiro-like (what are we calling these now?), but try to play it like Dark Souls and you will fail. In Sekiro, you are Wolf, a Shinobi warrior who plays neither fair nor nice. Though rife with graceful swordplay, Sekiro is a guerrilla experience. It’s a game about using everything at your disposal to flip overwhelming odds into overwhelming pressure of your own. Sekiro is its own beast, and whilst taming it can be a maddening exercise in emotional self-harm, you emerge with a sense of capability that few other games truly afford.
Sekiro sees one-armed shinobi, Wolf, navigate the mythically reimagined landscapes of Sengoku period Japan to protect his young master, Kuro, and eliminate the intoxicating scourge of immortality. More so than in previous From titles, the plot is much more central to the game, with greater emphasis on dialogue and cutscenes, perhaps at its own peril. Sekiro sits somewhere uncomfortably between Dark Souls’ cryptic piecemeal exposition, through item descriptions and such, and a game with a fully-fledged narrative focus. It lingers on characters and relationships which aren’t explored or developed enough to cultivate much emotional investment. Sekiro seems to want you to care about its characters, but outside of throwaway conversations triggered by offering sake to certain NPCs, little is done to expand their identity beyond their mission, and the stale English voice acting exacerbates this robotic feel. It hardly gets in the way, but the main plot is merely serviceable as a backdrop to justify the action, and that’s about it.
Once again, the world is the most compelling character in Sekiro. From mountains teeming with hostile wildlife to castle towns scorching under siege, From’s take on Japan is a solid offering and a joy to explore. It’s evocative in ways both charming and jarring; moonlit floral fields set a sombre tone for battle, and on a visceral level, human foes erupt into a crimson cascade of screams from mouths agape and eyes recoiled. Moreover, it’s a world obsessed with the inevitability of decay, propelled into conflict by madmen and the pursuit of immortality. Unearthing its beauty and depravity alike, and lavishing in the trademark details scattered in the aftermath – that’s the real journey, as opposed to Wolf’s own.
There’s much talk about Sekiro being the hardest From Software game yet, and whilst this is a reasonable claim, it’s a consequence of it being the most refined if anything. From Software games have always been difficult and with no shortage of ‘cheese’ either, but dishonourably dispatching enemies feels more like a conscious element of game design here rather than an illegitimate exploitation of janky game mechanics. Much of the Souls trilogy has opponents who are easily outwitted by raising a shield and running around in circles to fish out a backstab. It works, but it lacks elegance, and you do feel cheap in that it feels more like combating the game itself rather than an actual foe. Sekiro’s thralls feel a bit more like people. This is partly because many of them are people this time, rather than bumbling hollows and clockwork suits of armour, but it’s also a result of Sekiro’s radical combat design.
Sekiro is all about facing the heat head-on. For the majority of attacks, your best bet is to deflect by perfectly timing the block button. Parrying flurries of attacks is a big ask for any player, especially Souls players with years of muscle memory to recondition, but with an open mind and a confident approach, mastering the fundamentals is a joy. Not every attack can be parried, mind you: you’ll need to jump over sweeps, counter or sidestep thrust attacks, dodge away from grabs, and so on. By introducing attacks with specific counters, Sekiro becomes a more deliberate game than its spiritual predecessors. You cannot approach any two fights the same way; every enemy demands a different strategy, often requiring a creative and adaptive mindset to triumph. It’s tougher, and Wolf is more fragile than the Chosen Undead, but the ability to resurrect once after death affords a little breathing room to make grave mistakes.
Instead of waiting for openings, Wolf must create them himself by constantly applying pressure. This pressure comes in the form of vitality and posture damage. Vitality is a standard health meter – hit an enemy when they aren’t blocking, or with an unblockable attack, and they lose vitality. Posture, however, is a stamina-esque meter which slowly builds up the more you hit an opponent or deflect their attacks. Once it fills up, they’re wide open for a deathblow, which empties their vitality. The lower your vitality, the slower you regain posture, which adds another dimension to Sekiro’s combat. For instance, some enemies are enormous foes with iron defence, making raw vitality damage difficult to inflict, but their size causes them to regain posture slowly. For these enemies, it’s wiser to overwhelm their posture with constant, unrelenting pressure to get a quick deathblow. Other enemies, like enemy shinobi, will gain their posture back immediately with strong evasive techniques – for these foes, it’s better to dart in for quick strikes to weaken their vitality and hamstring their posture regeneration.
Wolf must maintain his posture too, which makes duels an unyielding skirmish to overwhelm the enemy. The variety of options and posture management makes fights both more compelling in a gameplay sense and more elegant in a visual sense. There’s an organic pace to these clashes, where exhilarating exchanges can result in both Wolf and his opponent leaping backwards, swords locked towards one another as they collect themselves in anticipation of the next move. The fact these moments occur in gameplay rather than a set-piece or cutscene is absolutely phenomenal.
When you’re not in the thick of a tense duel, you’re exploring open environments where even the weaker enemies can kill you for one fatal error. If boss duels are the proving grounds for fundamentals, the overworld is a sandbox for experimenting with the various options Wolf has to tip the scales. Throwable ash clouds, ceramic plates, and an Inspector Gadget-esque prosthetic arm are just a handful of the tools available to confuse and lure opponents. Stealth is a big part of Sekiro, too. It’s functionally similar to Uncharted in that silently dispatching every enemy isn’t the intention, but the element of surprise helps even the odds by thinning the crowd or drawing first blood on a difficult opponent. Surveying the environment and choosing your targets carefully is essential for success, as enemies have different roles. Leap onto an archer without scouring the surroundings first and you may find that you missed the crone behind him, who’s now banging away at her pan as loud as possible to alert your presence.
What completes this is Wolf’s expert mobility: armed with a grappling hook and a springy jump, Wolf is able to manoeuvre the environment tactically and approach enemies from various angles, leaping on foes from above or striking from ledges for an instant deathblow akin to Assassin’s Creed. When it works, it’s great – swinging from grapple point to grapple point is the closest you’ll get to feeling like a ninja version of Spider-Man, and landing on someone sword-first from a hundred feet is satisfying, especially when it significantly weakens a troublesome foe. That said, the movement and traversal is debatably the low-point of the gameplay. It’s not bad, but it lacks the fluidity of other games with similar systems. Navigating ledges feels stiff and the grapple feels inconsistent, which is irritating considering that a fall means instant death in many circumstances. It doesn’t help that the platforming-heavy sections of the game are crawling with projectile-based enemies – the game once spawned me from a fall on a platform that I had never been on, only to be immediately shot and killed from behind.
Sekiro has some of the best combat in the business, but it could use some improvements. Discerning whether an enemy attack can be interrupted seems entirely down to trial and error; there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it other than some attacks can and some can’t, which is an issue in a game entirely about precisely maximising and creating openings. Sekiro’s greatest folly though, and a long-term adversary of From Software, is the camera. The lock-on is maddeningly fragile, particularly when it comes to boss fights. It disengages whenever the Wolf reaches close proximity with a wall, and in a game with so many claustrophobic scuffles, this is an absolute mare. The same goes for enemies who weave in and out of its range or leap over you. Breaking lock-on is reasonable at times, such as burrowing attacks which force the player to observe their surroundings and locate their enemy, but breaking in the middle of a fight – or worse yet, when an attack is imminent – is plain unfair. To make matters worse, some objects are rendered transparent when too close to the camera, meaning that in tight spaces, obstacles that prevent your movement are invisible.
In a game that demands such attention to enemy movement, where determining whether an attack is a thrust or a sweep is the split-second difference between life and death, overall visibility could be better. For one, the kanji – the red warning text which flashes above Wolf’s head to signify a perilous attack – can obscure enemy movements whilst locked on. This could be fixed by having the kanji appear over the offending enemy instead; for enemies out of Wolf’s line of sight, the audio cue – or perhaps a controller rumble for the hard of hearing – would be an appropriate signifier. Furthermore, Wolf himself is between the camera and the opponent. Since Wolf’s own movements are less important to observe (after all, we know what he’s doing because we’re directing him), I feel an over-the-shoulder perspective whilst locked on – something like God of War or For Honor – would go a long way, particularly in more frantic situations which require consecutive parries. In general, Sekiro – and any From game for that matter – would enormously benefit from an adaptive camera, at least for boss fights. For a game so spatially diverse, it can’t expect a single perspective to work in every situation.
Outside of the occasional camera hiccup and a few dodgy elements, Sekiro is not an unfair game, but it is too punitive in areas where it shouldn’t be. The base gameplay doesn’t need to be any easier – that’s a topic for another day – but given how much Sekiro wants you to explore its varied approaches to combat, it does little to encourage that mechanically. A variety of combat arts – special moves, basically – are available to Wolf, but only one can be equipped at a time. As it stands, switching to a different one requires the player to pause the game and navigate several menus. Why not add a selection wheel so players can use different techniques on the fly?
Further ailing this is the senselessly finite nature of some items. Spirit emblems – the ammunition for your prosthetic tools – should replenish at idols in addition to earning them from slain foes (checkpoints). Divine confetti, an item which is necessary to defeat several minibosses in the game, also ought to replenish at idols once found. You can farm gold for these items by killing the same enemies over and over again, but what’s the point? Farming gold just to keep playing the game is not difficult, it’s tedious. It makes throwing yourself in for the hundredth round a reluctant endeavour in a game about dying repeatedly. Dragonrot, a cancerous infestation which affects more NPCs the more Wolf dies, is a great concept – but it freezes quest progress, and it can only be treated with a rare item that most will be reluctant to use. For a game with such cryptic quest progress as is, Dragonrot feels less like a compelling penalty and more like an obstacle with no tangible impact other than shutting off parts of the game.
Sekiro is a fundamentally incredible game in many ways. Robotic dialogue, subpar visibility, and a handful of stubborn design choices aside, it is a gorgeous and haunting experience that remains perilous until the bitter end. Mastering shinobi tactics is an excruciating journey in the best possible way. It’s gruelling, it’s guerrilla, and most importantly, it forces you to embody not only the strategy of a shinobi, but the mindset too. It forces you to discipline your mind into composure when fear is the natural instinct. You awaken from it a more focused individual, one with the peace of mind required to face any adversary, and one who understands that hesitation is defeat.