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August 2020

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Activision
Developer: From Software
Release Date: March 22, 2019

About Andreas Salmen

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PS4 Review - 'Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice'

by Andreas Salmen on March 25, 2019 @ 2:30 a.m. PDT

Set in the late 1500s Sengoku Japan, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an action-adventure game with RPG elements where players experience a brutal period of constant life and death conflict as they come face-to-face with larger-than-life foes in a dark and twisted world.

Buy Sekiro: Shadows Dies Twice

From Software has created some masterfully challenging experiences, coining the "Souls-like" sub-genre in the process. Sekiro: Shadows Dies Twice is an evolution of the formula and is also the product of interesting circumstances. For one thing, Activision is the publisher, even though the company isn't known for catering to the hardcore gamer demographic. The Sengoku-era setting stems from the project's roots as a new game in the Tenchu franchise. Ultimately, Sekiro comes together nicely and delivers a heartbreaking, tough-as-nails experience that we'll be talking about for a while.

I'll try to not reference Dark Souls and Tenchu too much in this review, as Sekiro is very much its own game and experience. Due to the game's roots, there will be some unavoidable comparisons. I'll also refrain from going into detail on the story beyond the known synopsis, but there's one thing I can spoil: You will die a ridiculous number of times, more than in any Souls game.

Unlike From Software's previous offerings, Sekiro is a story-driven experience that takes players through a mostly linear storyline with multiple endings on a semi-open world map. We control a shinobi called the Wolf, who promised to look after his protégé, Lord Kuro. Kuro is the heir of a special bloodline, and he is kidnapped early in the tale. The first order of business is to venture out and rescue him, and we slay all enemies who are trying to prevent us from doing that.

Sekiro may be hard to play and master, but it does try to accommodate and ease you in wherever it can. Compared to From Software's previous outings, this title includes a fair share of dialogue (including a voiced and named protagonist) and cut scenes that make it easy to follow along. Generally, the game does a good job of telling us what and where things are happening and who's involved. This isn't always the case, given From Software's track record of obscuring the story in items and environmental clues. Those are still present here, but they're more drawn out and easier to piece together for a change.

At first glance, Sekiro is similarly welcoming in the gameplay department. We start with a tutorial in a segmented area, where we learn the controls and how to traverse the environment. This ends in a fight that we inevitably lose. As a result, we don't just lose our honor and Lord Kuro, but we also lose our left arm. Luckily for us, we're rescued by a carver of Buddha statues who happens to own and fit us with a contraption that poses as a prosthetic for our lost limb. With the newly fitted apparatus, we're prepared to venture out and open a few veins with our katana in search of our kidnapped lord.

It's not a surprise that everyone will die a lot in Sekiro. Much like the Souls titles, death is an intricate system that has its own repercussions. When we die, we have the option to immediately resurrect and continue the fight in the hopes of seeing another day. We have two tokens that control whether we can resurrect at all; one is refilled by resting at a sculptor's idol (checkpoints similar to Souls' bonfires), and the other one refills as we kill enemies. If we use one, the other becomes unavailable, so we usually have the option to resurrect exactly once.

If we fully die, there are several repercussions. We lose half of our money and experience points upon death, and there's no option to recover them. There is up to a 30% chance to receive "unseen aid," which prevents the loss from happening, but that percentage decreases with every resurrection. The indirect consequence of dying is more sinister. As we die and resurrect, we spread a disease called Dragonrot, which befalls NPCs and makes them unavailable. There's eventually a cure we can use to heal everyone affected, but that isn't available often and should be used wisely. It should be noted that it doesn't matter if we resurrect instantly or not; a full death, no matter how it occurs, incurs all penalties, so an instant resurrection on the battlefield should always be used.

We begin our journey from one distinct area, but progress in Sekiro is not exactly linear. The game opens up quickly, and while our overall goal is the same, we always have multiple routes until we decide to work toward a certain ending. As we push through temples and castles on mountaintops or lush valleys, we discover hidden areas, locked doors and other deviations from the main path that turn out to either be helpful shortcuts, hidden secrets or new areas altogether.

Sekiro encourages exploration and obscures some paths pretty well. You may wander around an area for the millionth time before you discover that there's another area connected to it or a shortcut you never knew existed. Part of that is the verticality of the game, with some maps showcasing impressive height and scale that offers enough corners and angles that may not be directly obvious to explore but eventually leads you to hidden treasures or optional boss fights.

Speaking of boss fights, the main attraction of Sekiro is the combat. As a shinobi, we rely on our trusty samurai sword to slice open whoever stands in our way. There's no additional equipment we can use, and there's no armor to equip or weapons to find (except our prosthetic), which means that combat relies mainly on the same core mechanics we learned at the beginning of our journey: attack, block, dodge or jump. The beauty of Sekiro is that those basic moves are all we need to succeed — if we can master them.

Every enemy has two bars we need to focus on during combat. One is the health bar, and the other is posture. A fight is won when the enemy either runs out of health and dies or is executed with a shinobi death blow that breaks their posture. On top of that, bosses often require an additional shinobi execution finishing blow. We also have a posture bar, and we're also subject to devastating attacks if we don't keep both our health and posture in check.

Other games have conditioned us to chip away at an enemy's health, but the posture bar is often more vital in Sekiro. The posture bar slowly fills up when attacking an enemy or being attacked. It recovers when not under attack and even quicker when standing undisturbed in a blocking position. Posture builds up both for damage sustained and for regular blocks. Blocking at the correct time causes a deflection that damages the attacker's posture.

Health is not completely out of the picture. For one thing, health dictates how quickly the posture bar recovers. Healthy opponents shrug off posture damage fairly quickly without you having the chance of a death blow. The less health a character has, the slower the posture bar recovers. Therefore, it's still important to chip away at a foe's health to slow down recovery while attacking and deflecting constantly.

Sekiro has an insane learning curve, especially when you're coming from a Souls game, where evasion is the primary tactic. Dodging can still be beneficial in Sekiro, but the game punishes you for keeping your distance rather than staying in the heat of the battle. Fighting in Sekiro is a highly technical and precise procedure that requires learning the ins and outs of the techniques and the opponents. If we're not careful, even smaller, mundane enemies can be lethal. The carefully placed minibosses slowly introduce players to more complex attack patterns and unblockable attacks. The skill checks may seem harsh at the beginning but ensure that you understand and master a certain type of attack or deflect before moving on to tougher areas and bosses.

Before long, things start falling into place, and encounters seem easier (less excruciatingly difficult) — until you hit the noticeable difficulty spike in the latter half of the game. Combat evolves into a reactionary flow of studying and mastering an opponent. Every single mistake along the way often costs you greatly. It's not a game for everyone. It's hard, but it's fair, more so than many other tough experiences. Failure is guaranteed but never caused by anyone but the player, so it's a challenging but rewarding experience to defeat a boss for the first time.

Your prosthetic arm is the key to winning some of the tougher battles. We start out with a grappling hook to help us traverse the verticality of the maps, but it also helps to scout an area from the rooftops and plan your approach for the next encounter. As the game progresses, we'll find additional tools that attach to the prosthetic, granting us extra abilities. The game doesn't force those on you; many of the prosthetic upgrades are found while exploring, or you can purchase them from a merchant. Soon enough, we'll be able to use a flaming torch, gun powder as a distraction, a poisonous second blade, and have an ax and shuriken at our disposal. Enemies may react differently to these tools and their status effects, and you'll occasionally encounter a boss weakness that you can exploit with the prosthetic.

Stealth always provides the opportunity to take advantage of a situation and make difficult encounters more bearable. Sekiro offers minor stealth elements, and the grappling hook makes sure we stay out of sight. In many areas, we have the option to eavesdrop on enemies to gain new intel about what lies ahead. We can sneak up on enemies to administer a devastating death blow that instantly kills smaller enemies and takes off a full health bar for bosses.

We haven't talked about how we actually progress in Sekiro. Bosses become tougher by the minute, so how does the game reflect that if there's no armor or weapon to equip? Sekiro doesn't have a regular leveling system that levels up your character as you go. We receive experience points, but half of them can be lost at any time when we die. Instead, you can accumulate XP and spend it on skill points. The points are directly invested in one of several skill trees that unlock new abilities: combat maneuvers, latent skills, and passive skills. One of the moves is the Mikiri Counter, which avoids thrust attacks. Just like in Dark Souls, we also have a flask (healing gourd) that we can use to heal ourselves a set number of times. Throughout our playthrough, we'll find seeds that enable us to upgrade the number of sips we can take from the flask. We may also search for crafting items, such as gunpowder or scrap metal, to upgrade the tools in our trusty prosthetic.

Progressions of our attack power and vitality are locked behind boss battles. Major bosses drop battle memories, which can be used to increase our attack, while smaller bosses often drop prayer beads, four of which provide a health upgrade. The problem is that even though we can freely move and explore the interconnected areas, we'll run into bosses of varying sizes in every direction. We can always choose our path, but it eliminates the option of leveling up a character if you get really stuck. If you hit a roadblock, it sometimes means you have to keep trying until you beat the boss. It's nice that progress is mostly skill-based, but it can be problematic if you can't push on. There are several items that can provide additional buffs for a boss fight, but apart from that and your prosthetics, it often boils down to the core combat mechanics and how well you can react to a boss.

The boss and miniboss variety in Sekiro is good.There aren't as many main bosses here as in a Souls game, but there's an emphasis on minibosses. As a result, it feels you're walking from one epic fight to another. There is always a boss roadblock to work toward, and the game keeps the frustration-success ratio fairly even.

With the vertical levels, the fast and smooth movements of your grappling hook, the integral stealth sections, and the superb combat system, Sekiro hits all of the necessary marks to be an adrenaline-filled experience from start to finish. It isn't perfect, and it has a few less-than-stellar moments, like enemy AI and camera controls.

Enemies always pose a challenge, but they're not very smart, which is probably a good thing given the game's difficulty. Opponents have a fixed non-negotiable field of view that is rather limited. That means stealth maneuvers are easy to pull off, but it also means that some enemies will stay put and ignore you. Once they are alerted to your presence, they don't necessarily act much smarter. Ranged enemies are happily shooting into solid walls and can track your whereabouts even when completely concealed. It's a mixed bag and is open to exploitation.

The camera can be equally frustrating when you have to fight in enclosed environments. The hitboxes are great, but the camera offers some frustrating moments when you get stuck on a piece of scenery and a sword plunges into your neck. The great move set allows you to shake free most of the time, but in the heat of battle, it's distracting and can cause some frustrating encounters.

Similarly frustrating is the lock system. We can lock onto enemies to track them and block attacks. The locking is performed manually and has to be set again when you die and are resurrected, which can fail if an enemy has moved and you lose track of them. There is nothing more frustrating than wasting your resurrection on an instant kill out of left field because the lock doesn't want to grab on. Otherwise, the controls don't feel especially great to begin with, but they become second nature at some point. Unlike Dark Souls, Sekiro has no online component, which means we can finally pause the game to get our inventory in order or take a breather in between confrontations. It's the small things.

The next bigger point is the performance of Sekiro. Testing the game on a PS4 Pro, it looks good enough, with a somewhat distinct From Software look that is difficult to describe. It looks somewhere between serviceable and downright beautiful, depending on the scenery and the enemies you're facing. Somewhere between drained colors and gritty, blood-soaked spectacle, it has its own sense of identity, even though the overall look and feel isn't as eye-catching as other titles. It certainly is From Software's best-looking title yet, even though it won't rival many other new releases. Sadly, the frame rate isn't consistent, and there are frequent noticeable drops in some areas that can potentially impact a game that is so insistent on frame-timed combat moves.

All things considered, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a true From Software title. I'd even go one step further to describe it as yet another title that successfully builds and expands upon From Software's unique brand. Unlike other titles, Sekiro is much more focused and restrained, and it offers the best and fairest combat I've seen in a long while. It's demanding, and tying progress to bosses isn't going to sit well with some, but it does what it sets out to do in more ways than one. It challenges, punishes, and brings a warm feeling of joy with every mastered encounter. It's not for everyone, and it isn't absolutely perfect, but Sekiro is the best game I've played in a very long time.

Score: 9.4/10

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