If I had to sum up FromSoftware and Activision’s new game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, in one word, it’d be “immersive”. From story presentation to gameplay to the general world around you, you constantly feel like you’re actually a part of this game. Whether you’re a veteran SoulsBorne player or a complete newcomer to this genre, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice draws you in and challenges you to try things you haven’t before. The learning curve might be high, but the rewards are just as impressive!
Thankfully Activision provided me with a copy of the game, so I can go into detail about what these learning curves are, where veteran and newcomers to the series might run into problems and hopefully give you some insight on whether or not this is the game for you.
Full disclosure: I love a good story. In fact, whether or not a game has a good story is one of my biggest factors in deciding whether or not to play it. That’s why when I first played Dark Souls in 2012, I didn’t like it. Coming off of in-your-face, story-heavy games like Assassins Creed II and the Final Fantasy series, Dark Souls seemed lacking. It wasn’t until years later when someone explained the subtleties in FromSoftware’s storytelling that I actually started to really appreciate these games and the world they created. Why do I bring this up? Because Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game that both present me and uneducated 2012 me would love.
The fact that this game has cut scenes, dialogue choices and genuine character interactions places the game’s story front and center. You feel like you are actually creating the story with every step you take, rather than digging up a story that already occurred. Things are more explicitly presented here and you’ll rarely be wondering ‘what do I have to do next’. Though at the same time, this is a FromSoftware game, so don’t expect any massive story drops. There’s still puzzle pieces to put together, but because you are given a more direct narrative, even casual players will be enticed to uncover it.
Though don’t simply think of it as a story divided into ‘world discoverables’ and ‘cut scenes’ as even the cut scenes, dialogue options and character interactions are treated as new playgrounds to hide story details. Body language and inflection are just some of the new tools at FromSoftware’s disposal, which is honestly why I encourage you to play this game on its default language: Japanese. If you want a different spoken language, you’ll have to go into the setting to change it; but playing this in Japanese – yes there are subtitles – just adds another layer of feeling a part of this game’s story and time. You might not be able to make this character whoever you want, but the way FromSoftware crafts every interaction around you will still make it feel like your story. You are going to become attached to characters, and in the end, you’re going to want revenge just as much as the Wolf does.
Gameplay & Combat:
When it comes to gameplay and combat in Sekiro, movement is swift and the entire world feels like your playground. Controls are easy to get used to, but mastering them will take practice; and thankfully, you have built in ways to practice. I’m not referring to tutorial screens or anything like that, but rather an NPC who hangs out around the Hub world area. This un-killable samurai should probably be your first stop once you get into the game proper as he’ll help you practice your skills – and believe me, you’ll need it. In this regard, I’d actually say newcomers have it easier as veteran Soulsborne players will need some time unlearning their previous ‘dodge roll/ invincibility frame’ muscle memory.
Rather than a simple Dodge/ Block button, Sekiro has three; and different situations call for different types of defense. This is where we come back to the phrase “immersive” as sword fights actually feel reel. Whereas some lesser enemies might make you think you can phone-it-in, you’ll need to be ever present in each of your fights. Different attacks call for different types of responses: a sweep requires you to jump, a grapple requires you to side-step, etc. You’ll need to keep an eye on your opponent to see which move they’re winding up for; but at the same time, you’ll need to keep an eye on your ‘Posture’ gauge as well. If you’re a veteran, think of this as your ‘stamina’ bar. Sure most attacks can simply be blocked, but each block will push your posture towards its breaking point. Basically, every fight – whether grunt or boss – plays out like a dance. It ultimately comes down to learning which dance your opponent is requesting. You need to realize when you should lead and when you should respond.
And it’s important to learn these tricks while you can because this game has no shortage of enemies – in all shapes and sizes. Walking narrow ledges? BOOM! Drop down enemies who stab you in the neck. High mountain peaks for a bird’s eye view? BOOM! Giant Rooster attacks. Beautiful hot springs? BOOM! Samurai Baboons! (Not even kidding about that last one) It’s very easy to get overrun, and those are just basic level enemies. Each level doesn’t only have a boss but mid-bosses and an assortment of mini-bosses to make sure you’re mastering these skills. Though whereas some might think this game is a basic ‘rock, paper, scissor, stab’ in terms of combat, your prosthetic arm, skills and passive abilities give you a multitude of personalization and new approaches.
You might not be able to choose a class or weapon like past SoulsBorne games, but you can acquire numerous prosthetics that can aid you in everything from offense and defense to even traversal. Enemy’s defense is too great? Try fireworks to startle them or an axe to shatter it. Enemy’s too fast? Try the loaded spear to pull them close or the raven feather to vanish through their attacks. Add in the multitude of skills you can improve upon, your prosthetic upgrades as well as the fact that skills and prosthetics can be used in combination, and you have a plethora of options to define your ideal playstyle – or whatever is needed for that moment.
Thankfully, unlike past SoulsBorne games, there’s actually a ‘Pause’ button so you can be methodical in your battles and think of which combination/ items might best aid you. This is especially helpful in later battles when you start encountering Apparition-Type enemies that induce ‘Terror’ status effects and become much more approachable if you have certain consumable items to use. And speaking of being methodical, feel free to use your deaths/ resurrection purposefully as well. In the past, I pointed out how sometimes you can wait for an enemy to turn their back and then resurrect to get a sneak attack on them. Though as I’ve recently learned, there is no shame in running. There were a couple of times in particular that I knew I had nothing to counter this opponent and my best bet was to fall back, level up a skill or try to find a new prosthetic that better served this situation.
World & Graphics:
Well if you’ve read any of my other articles about Sekiro – trailer breakdowns, storytelling, interviews or demo – there’s nothing new I can really say about this game graphically. Whether in snowy fortresses, wooded mountain monasteries or war-torn battlefields, the game world is as beautiful as it is diverse. Then again, FromSoftware has always been known for making beautiful interconnected worlds, so there’s no real surprise here. Each location feels distinct while also being (for the most part) interconnected so you can seamlessly move from one area to the next as you explore in whatever order you see fit. The game music only adds to this further as each track is simultaneously serene while also haunting.
It’s also important to note that the added verticality of this game makes the world so much more impressive since there’s so many more places that can be reached. From every angle, from every vista, you will find yourself trying to take in every sight. And seeing as there’s so many more nooks and crannies to explore and see, that also means that the developers got even more creative with how and where to hide items/ passage ways. If you’re wondering how to get to the next area, sometimes you need to look up as much as you do around.
Sekiro was tested on both PS4 and XBox One X, and whereas I found no problems with the PS4 version, it seems there are a few moments where frame rate/ pacing drops with the XBox – usually in highly detailed areas like the burning Hirata Estates. It’s never anything major and certainly doesn’t detract from the overall experience – nor cause unintended deaths – ; but we’ll still say the PS4 has the advantage in terms of gameplay.
Sekiro is a strictly single player game. So what does that mean? Well for starters, that means you won’t see a bunch of messages/ blood stains when danger is ahead since this isn’t a shared world. Though considering how this game’s added verticality allows you to approach a situation/ area from almost any angle, notes/ bloodstains wouldn’t really be that helpful since the path you take towards an encounter might not be the same as someone else’s.
The bigger drawback to this being a purely single player game is – obviously – that there is no PvP, which might be jarring for some veteran SoulsBorne players. The combat system is really fluid here and would lend itself well to PvP sword matches. In fact, the elegance of battles – along with everyone basically having access to the same skills/ items – could have made this an incredibly fun PvP experience. That being said though, remember the whole ‘dedicated pause button’ thing? Well, that is only made possible because there is no PvP in this game. In this way, the shortcomings of this game aren’t necessarily failings, but rather a question of what do you prefer? Whether or not these factors make or break the game is completely up to you; but personally, I’m fine with it!
Purely single-player games seem to be getting rarer and rarer nowadays, and overall Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the single player game I’ve been needing for a while now. It certainly isn’t the game I unwind to; but if I want to think about/ experience a great story in a realistic yet fantastical world, this is my new go to!
Joe primarily covers video games news (i.e.: Pokemon, Spyro & Destiny) as well as the occasional ‘Theory Thursday’ pieces. Before writing for FanFest, Joe was the Creator & Editor of TheInsightfulPanda.com. He is also an illustrator and is currently working on Season 3 of his not-for-profit, fan-art crossover series PokéRangers on Instagram.