Posted on 07 Jun 2019 by L Coulsen

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

The Defence

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Action, Adventure
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: No
Release date: 21 Mar 2019

The Prosecution

Minimum
Recommended
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 2100
AMD FX 6300
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 760 2GB
AMD Radeon HD 7950
RAM: 4 GB
HDD: 25 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i5 2500K
AMD Ryzen 5 1400
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970
AMD Radeon RX 570
RAM: 8 GB
HDD: 25 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Ahh yes, Sekiro, the Soulslike that even the creators have told us isn’t a Soulslike. But people keep trying to play it like one, and are then annoyed that the game plays how it was programmed, rather than how they think it should work. With that out of the way, okay, let’s take a look at Sekiro, shall we?

The Trial

First things first, yes, this game is difficult. Extremely challenging, in fact. But to go so far as to claim the game is unfair, is in itself unfair. Let’s refer back to the statement made above. Sekiro is not a Soulslike, though it does share some of the genre’s features. And not just in that it’s made by the people at From. The basic structure is similar enough to feel familiar, but the actual gameplay loop is markedly different. Defeating opponents still relies, greatly, on learning enemy attack patterns, strengths and weaknesses. But where the Soulsbornes would allow you to brute force your way through, via improving stats through grinding. Sekiro demands, the only way to succeed, is to, well, git gud. Learn the game’s mechanics, familiarise yourself with the enemies patterns, and beat them at their own game. You may, indeed will, find many encounters to beyond your skill level. Too hard for you, but that’s just it, they are only too hard for you. But will experience, you will improve, you will persevere and you will succeed.

At its core however, Sekiro is a stealth game. You are a ninja, bound to follow a strict code which demands absolute loyalty to your Lord, but places subservience to your Father above even that. His true family lost in some distant war, protagonist Wolf was found by the great Owl, who took him as his own son and groomed him for his current position as bodyguard of the divine heir. That’s a whole lot of words to mean you were adopted and trained for years to be a silent, blade in the dark. Wait in the shadows, in the woods, anywhere you can remain undetected, until the moment comes to strike. Then move fast, without hesitation, deal a single, killing blow, and disappear once more. Apart from boss fights, but hey, not everyone is going to play by the same rules. However, they do play by clearly defined rules. It’s only down to you, the player, to learn them.

The Wolf is not static, though. See, stat upgrades are tied to defeating the game’s various bosses. Either by reminiscing on the hard fought battle to increase your combat prowess, or by finding prayer beads, combining four to make bracelets which increase your defence These are usually found a single bead at a time after a boss fight, but in some rare cases finding them hidden away in little nooks and crannies around the kingdom of Ashina. So it is actually possible to improve Wolf’s innate capabilities to make the various boss fights easier, yes. As many of the bosses and much of the world map is available pretty much from the very beginning, but all the stat boosts in the world (barring, say, buffing your strength to fifty with a trainer or something) will only do so much. You’ll still need to get to grips with the game’s mechanics to actually progress.

It’s also worth noting, doing direct damage to enemies is only part of the story, quite a small part at that. Reducing enemy HP is, of course, required to, y’know, kill them. But for the boss fights, it’s far more important to be able to perform a death blow. Regular enemies can be stabbed in the face until they die, yes, but bosses actually require a death blow (sometimes two or even three) to ultimately defeat them. The first of these, in many cases, can be taken by a stealth attack, but further health bars require concerted effort.

Hush now, can you hear the cockslapping?

To this end, Sekiro requires you to stay on the offensive, overwhelming your opponent with a flurry of precise, perfectly timed thrusts and parries. Not brute force, no, pinpoint accuracy. Both attacking and deflecting reduce an enemy’s posture. Once this is broken, regardless of how much health remains, they are open to the above mentioned death blow. Chipping away at their health alone will not break posture, though it will reduce the rate at which it replenishes. So it’s a very tight balancing act of knowing when to strike, and when to step back and let your opponent wear themselves down.

To assist in this, you can spend skill points to expand your roster of combat skills such as new moves and some innate abilities to make things like sneaking easier. Your footsteps are softer so enemies won’t hear you sneaking up on them, for example. To this end, you can grind out weaker enemies to earn EXP (as in, it’s actually called EXP) that works on a tiered system. Each finished tier grants you a skill point, and our boy Wolf can spend those to improve is roster of combat options.

Though it’s worth noting, calling them more powerful is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a balancing act. Attacks that do more damage are slower, for example, so your personal play style will be far more significant in which skills you choose and utilise. My personal favourite is the Ichimonji strike, because it does heavy posture damage, whilst restoring your own. It also staggers most enemies when it hits, and can be done twice in rapid succession after you level it up a bit. Though I seem to be quite in the minority on that one, which I think demonstrates my point perfectly.

There is one more factor to consider. In previous From games, when your character was slain, you lose all of your experience points. Souls, Blood Echoes, whatever you want to call them. Upon death they are all dumped, wholesale, but they can also be recovered by reaching the point where they were lost or defeating an enemy in that area. Sekiro, meanwhile, is both more and less punishing. Your loss is now permanent, but the above mentioned tier system means that your loss is far less significant. You now lose half of the EXP accumulated in your current tier, which sounds a little more complicated than it truly is.

Eh, you get used to it.

See, each skill point has its own progress bar. So let’s say you have a total of 3700 EXP, and let’s say each skill point costs 1000. It doesn’t, it actually increases the amount required with each point earned, but let’s keep it simple. So, you have three skill points, and 700 EXP into your fourth. Should you fall in battle, you will lose only half of the 700, putting you down to 350, or 3350 in total. The second death would take half of the 350, and so on. However, should you be left with 0 EXP, you will not lose anything more. Those three bars you already filled will not be taken from you. So, like I said, more and less punishing. You also lose half of your money, but that’s so easy to come by I honestly didn’t even notice I had it to begin with.

I honestly prefer the total loss method, because you are also capable of getting it all back in one go. But taking a death when you’re just shy of gaining your next skill point can be extremely frustrating, especially later in the game, when the requirements are into the tens of thousands. Then again, outside of boss fights, most deaths will invariably be caused by your own carelessness, so it kind of equals out. If you’re running into a boss fight with that much spare EXP floating about, you’re kind of asking for trouble, and you should know full well just how risky it can be.

Anyway: There’s also a new mechanic introduced, whereby Wolf can instantly come back to life and continue on. Initially only once, but later by a total of three. However, apart from the first respawn, which is refilled by resting, the following two are filled by slaying enemies, and thus aren’t available at all times. Also, only one respawn per battle is allowed, though performing a death blow on a boss counts as starting a new fight, so you can theoretically respawn all three time during one ‘battle’. You really shouldn’t be relying on that, though. That’s a surefire way to get in way over your head.

The whole respawning thing is actually a major part of the plot. Branching out into four possible endings, all of them are related to Wolf’s seeming immortality in some way. Without going into too much detail, the divine heir, a young boy called Kuro, is completely immune to harm, and his blood allows some people to continue living even after a fatal blow. Which might sound like a contradiction, after all, if he can’t be hurt, how can he bleed? Well, that’s part of the story, so suffice it to say only that it is explained.

If it bleeds, we can kill it.

This immortality is what spurs on our main villain, Genichiro. His desire is to be granted immortality so he can better defend the realm. To do that, he keeps trying to abduct Kuro and hold him to ransom. It’s quite tragic when you actually think about it, going full on Oda Nobunaga and becoming a the demon his country needs. Or, at least, that’s how he sees it. It’s easy to write him off as power mad, which he kind of is, but his intentions do come from a genuinely noble place Doing the dark things that need to be done and all that. Doesn’t make stabbing him in his big, stupid face any less satisfying. Speaking of, the first time you fight him is when the game really challenges you to play it the way it was made. And the final fight is like a greatest hits of all of the game’s mechanics. It makes him both the most and least challenging boss in the entire game. Once everything clicks, you’ll steamroll right over him. Feels good man.

Of course, combat being such a large part of the game, animations are a major part of making everything feel and look right. To this end, Sekiro is a damned fine looking game. As far as overall visual quality, it really doesn’t break any ground, it’s about par for the course. But the way everything moves is damned impressive. Animations are tight and crisp, fast, but not so fast you can’t see what’s happening. It makes every strike feel both rapid, but impressively meaty, and it makes successful parrying feel like the world is moving in slow motion.

This focus on efficiency over bleeding edge graphics means that Sekiro runs like a dream as well. Its system reqs are shockingly low for a game that looks as good as it does, but it’s clearly an amazingly well optimised game. I had absolutely zero performance hiccups, not even a single one, no matter what was happening. A rock solid 60fps at all times, even on post 1080p resolutions. Which is a darn good thing, given how important timing is. Though, truth be told, this is probably one of the most forgiving games, as far as deflecting is concerned, that I’ve ever played.

The thing that really sells the weight of combat is the sound design. Every slice swishes like it’s cutting through the air itself, deflections sound like two steel girders smashing together, hits that land sound extremely wet and meaty. But that’s not the extent of the superb soundtrack. Featuring multiple language options, every single actor gives an above average performance, with many being genuinely great. Wolf, in particular, sounds just about perfect no matter which language track you choose, and Genichiro just begs you to stab him in his big, stupid face with every syllable.

The Verdict

Look, if it’s not obvious, I frikkin’ love this game. If you’re still going into it expecting a Soulslike, you’re going to have a bad time. But if you actually take the time to learn how it plays, approach it like what it is, Tenchu in all but name, you’re in for a superbly crafted stealth/action romp. Stress on the stealth. It’s challenging, but not hard. In fact, it really is one of the most forgiving, challenging games ever made. You just have to play it the way it’s made, not the way you think it was made. And hey, if you really want to face a true challenge, just go round to New Game+ a few times, grab the charm from Lord Kuro and ring the Demon Bell. Then you will know what a campaign of terror really looks like.

Case Review

  • Combat: Speed and efficiency are key, attack when the time is right and defend when you need to, and you’ll the perfect blade in no time.

  • Performance: It’s an exaggeration to say this would run fine on a toaster, but a washing machine would do it just fine.

  • Replayability: Multiple endings and several New Game+ levels encourage you to come back time after time.

  • Stealth: Wolf is silent, but also fast. None of this spending a week creeping up on someone for them to turn round at the last second.

  • Visuals: They do look very nice, but are kinda’ average for a modern game.

  • EXP Loss: It’s a pretty minor irritation, but losing half your EXP does get a bit tedious sometimes.

4.5 Score: 4.5/5
A superb stealth/action romp through a fantastical ancient Japan.

Evidence

  • Controls: Fully customisable for keyboard and mouse. Mostly customisable for the controller, only movement is locked, but it’s still perfectly feasible to get the setup just how you want it.
  • Game: You can tweak quite a lot, from individual sound options to the way the HUD works. Ample options to set things up to your liking. Default sound balance is a little effects and music heavy, but not insufferably so.
  • Graphics: Light, but not lacking. With the game being as well optomised as it is, there isn’t much need to change things, but there are enough options to keep things comprehensive enough, all the same.

Appeal

4.5 Score: 4.5/5

From Software have taken their hard as nails style and adapted it to a speedy, stealthy, timing based combat system where the only way to progress is to be better. You have to observe, learn, and die fifteen times to get the timing for deflecting a boss’ attack down. What sets Sekiro apart from the Soulsborne games the most is its relatively broad world – sure you’re funnelled towards the next boss but you might grapple up a wall or find an underground passage, maybe you’ll swim up the river to bypass an encounter or leap from rooftop to rooftop, dropping on unsuspecting enemies when the chance presents itself.

If I have one complaint it’s that the deflect system can be cheapened by simply spamming the button. The game tells you not to do this saying it lowers the chance of a deflect happening but this is a lie. Against bosses your best bet is still skill based dodging and deflection but against regular mooks you can just often get away with just hammering the block button like James Dean. Enemies come in a few basic varieties, nothing to the extent of Bloodborne’s variety, but that’s fine – though featuring immortal monstrosities and fantastical beasts, Sekiro is a little more grounded towards historical Japan so guys with spears and swords will make up the bulk of your kills.

Sekiro is bloody fantastic. It’s not perfect; there are a couple of bosses who are way, way too hard to deal with at the time you encounter them (Lady Butterfly early game is a good example) and others that are laughably easy (looking at you Corrupted Monk and Divine Dragon). Sometimes you’ll lose a whole chunk of EXP to a death and become frustrated but sometimes you’ll feel like an actual ninja by pulling off a clutch Mikiri Counter and breaking a tough opponent’s posture easily. If you enjoy a challenge and don’t mind putting in some effort to learn, you can’t really go wrong with Sekiro.

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