Full disclosure, Praythendie and I are huge FromSoftware fans, particularly of the Hidetaka Miyazaki era. We’ve both put hundreds of hours into the Soulsborne games (though Pray probably has 3 times the in-game experience). And for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice I’ve got just north of 20 hours in the game and Pray has nearly 30 or more. Now, with all the exposition out of the way, let’s jump into our early-ish, preliminary reports for Sekiro.
Upon Sekiro ’s release I was excited for something to finally scratch my Soulsbourne itch. I intentionally avoided trailers and gameplay videos pre-release as to not spoil any aspects of the game or general mechanics. My immediate impression was shock; I had so much mobility I wasn’t used to. As I approached my very first objective the game informed me how to sneak and my entire perception of the game flipped upside down. This would not be just another Soulsbourne game.
As I’ve made my way through the various stages of the game I’ve been pleasantly surprised with a beautiful and heart-wrenching story. It has me fully engaged and excited not only for my next challenge, which is what has defined FromSoftware games for me in the past, but also for what piece of the puzzle I’ll discover next. I’ve been able to come at every mission a different a different way. Swinging my sword and cutting through the enemy tide or being an assassin stalking through the shadows and methodically picking off my unsuspecting prey. This game has been full of wonderful surprises and I can’t wait to continue my journey forward.
I love good stealth. I love high-mobility movement complimented by beautiful and deliberate level design. I love steep skill curves and the idea of mastery. I love weird fiction, ominous NPCs, and boundless lore. I love sadistically difficult games that make you earn progress through repetitive suffering and/or meticulous exploration and observation. And I absolutely loathe torturously fighting the same boss for over an hour only to beat them while throwing a tantrum and playing like a complete maniac... And all of those things coalesce into Sekiro ’s core gameplay loop.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice introduces stealth to the FromSoftware formula and does so in a fulfilling, thoughtful manner. It’s got most everything needed for decent stealth: a sneak button, foliage in which to hide, awesome stealth kill animations, perceptive enemies, and consistency. It’s bizarre clearing out an entire area’s worth of enemies without entering combat, but the level design still leads players into classic ‘getting baited into a trap’ and ‘losing patience and/or getting greedy’ situations that bring a strong sense of familiarity to the new mechanics.
The level design caters to the new mobility afforded by the Shinobi prosthetic’s grappling hook as well. Tree branches off the sides of cliffs and pagodas have joined the ranks of hidden alleys and cleverly placed ledges from the Soulsbourne games. FromSoftware has never had more options when deciding where to hide an annoying ranged enemy or intriguing lore item. This newfound verticality and mobile capacity scales to Sekiro ’s beautiful environment. Of course the different regions are interconnected; maintaining forward momentum always ends up bringing you back somewhere you recognize, creating incredible geographical epiphanies— a Miyazaki staple.
The grappling hook mechanic is pretty easy to get a feel for, which is nice, because it comes in handy as you run away from the combat which is not. No, in all fairness, Sekiro is very forgiving with the types of enemies it throws at you as you learn the combat system. It’s simple in concept; attack, dodge, deflect (or parry), almost just as the Soulsbourne games taught us. However, Sekiro decreases the effectiveness of dodging and adds the concept of posture which replaces (and is more complex than) stamina. Posture is something you and every enemy in the game has and managing it against tough enemies necessitates a more aggressive and precise play-style than previous FromSoftware games. These new aspects of combat and the dozens of skills you can unlock require practice and allow for endless improvement and extreme satisfaction when you feel you’re mastering a new technique or enemy.
However, while these new mechanics pave the way for myriad intriguing encounters and a fresh experience for FromSoftware rookies and veterans alike, they are also responsible for some of the most aggravating boss (and mini-boss) fights to date. I often find myself doing poorly on boss fights until I play carelessly— which is so backwards for a FromSoftware game that I still don’t know how I feel about it. This unusual pattern is due to the aggressive nature of Sekiro’s combat system. My brain defaults to incessant dodging and only fitting in attacks when possible, which often fails in Sekiro. But when I rush headfirst into a tough fight, trying to destroy my opponent out of sheer aggression, I am much more successful. Only when I forget the torturous discipline of my Dark Souls days do I discover a different rhythm; a more ferocious, reactive only when necessary, rhythm. This creates a visceral combat experience that, in many ways, feels more immediate and intuitive once you let yourself go. The frustration comes from the unexplained triumphs along the way while you figure it out and the unnecessary suffering as you try to hold onto old habits— and really, it’s so truly infuriating.
I can’t wait to say some more after I’ve (hopefully) gotten much closer to mastering this awesome and awful combat system 30 more hours down the line.