Yes, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a relatively old game by now. It was released a couple of years ago and I wasn’t actually planning to write up a review for it, especially since I thought whatever needs to be said about it has already been said. But, after playing the game extensively for the past couple of months (I’ve clocked in more than a hundred hours and went through several full playthroughs to get all of the endings), I feel I have something to add about FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Anyway, Sekiro follows in the vein of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Bloodborne as in it’s supposed to be brutally hard. Then again, as all of these games are made by FromSoftware, that’s to be expected and that’s part of what makes it special. Especially early on, it seems like everything, even normal enemies feel extremely difficult and you will die. A lot. However, FromSoftware made that part of Sekiro’s gameplay gimmick as you can resurrect immediately after perishing as long as you have some resurrection power available. This does alleviate some of the difficulty, albeit just a little bit.
As this was my first FromSoftware game, I did initially think Sekiro’s combat was almost too difficult as getting swarmed usually means a death sentence. However, there are a lot of ways to thin out the herd as, if you’re sneaky enough, can stealth kill a lot of enemies if you remain patient, figure out their locations as well as their movement patterns and look for hiding spots. This does lead to one of the things I really love about Sekiro that no one really talks about: level design.
The areas are usually laid out in a way so you can maneuver around enemies without being detected and allow you to perform stealth kills to many of them before you reach a point wherein you have to duel with the scragglers. Sometimes, the game will throw you a curve ball by tucking a hidden enemy in some outrageous location. But, once you play through the level several times and figure out where everyone is, taking most of them out silently is totally possible.
While the placement of enemies and hiding spots are normally logical, sometimes traversing the variety of lands found in Ashina, the game’s locale, can be frustrating. You get the ability early on to grapple onto specific ledges and branches, making it possible to get real high. These grapple points are typically easily visible but there are some instances when they can be hard to spot. This happens when they’re supposed to lead to hidden paths or shortcuts but there were more than just a few times when they were simply too difficult to spot.
Combat is Sekiro is also rather enjoyable but can be terribly frustrating when starting out. Like I said before, even regular enemies can outright kill you if you’re not careful and this is definitely true during the early stages. This also means bosses and the minibosses you encounter can be incredibly tough when you first fight them as they can wipe out your life bar with just a few good hits. They might seem impossible the first time you face off against them but you have to treat them like old-school video game bosses as you can’t use brute force to beat them. You have to play against them several times, figure out their patterns and use the right counter at the right time. This does feel rather counterintuitive by today’s gameplay standards but it does work.
In fact, you can say the same thing for all of the enemies in Sekiro. While each enemy type has their own set of attacks, you’ll be able to figure out when to block, strike, dodge and counter each and every one of them as long as you keep on fighting them over and over again. After fighting them often, even the most infuriating of normal enemies can feel like pushovers. I still would die to bosses once in a while but, instead of trying to fight the same boss for an hour or two, it would just take me a few retries now.
I will say combat is one of the strongest elements in Sekiro as, even though I would encounter the same enemies, I don’t really get tired of fighting them. That’s because you can’t simply mash the attack button to win as this will lead you open. You have to be smart when you attack as defense is equally as important here. Basically, in order to defeat an enemy, you either wipe out their life meter or fill up their “posture” gauge. The latter can be done by successfully parrying an attack as they strike or wailing at them at the right moment. Also, enemies can do unblockable attacks and each of those has a specific counter move. So you have to keep on your toes at all times.
I guess this is the basic idea for the entire “git gud” mantra as the only way to really get through Sekiro is to level up your skills and reaction time. However, after playing Sekiro extensively, I can say the “git gud” saying is kind of a misnomer. I didn’t actually “git gud” but rather, I knew what to look for. I knew this particular enemy would do a thrust attack most of the time so I was always ready for it. I knew this enemy would do a quick multi-hitting attack so I got used to the rhythm of parrying this flurry of strikes. I certainly got really good at Sekiro’s combat but I don’t necessarily think this’ll transfer to different games, though.
Sekiro definitely has a really good presentation. The graphics are extremely good and there is a whole lot of detail in the areas as well as the characters. I also love how the game comes with both English and Japanese voice acting. They both sound really good and it’s more of a preference because one doesn’t outshine the other. Sound design is also mostly excellent. There’s a clear distinct sound whenever you block a strike or your perfectly deflect a hit. The music cues of when you’re detected or in combat is also well done as it feels just right.
Unfortunately, Sekiro definitely has some glaring flaws. The biggest one is the story, or rather, how you go through the story. While there is a general storyline of you trying to rescue your master and escape Ashina, there are some weird elements that seem to come out of nowhere. I’m fine with the story having mystical elements and fanciful characters but they’re not introduced in an understandable manner. Maybe I just wasn’t reading all the text or getting the nuance during the dialog sequences but it took me a while to figure out how some characters, especially the ones introduced in the middle of the story, worked their way into the tale.
Unfortunately, as much as I’ve praised the combat, there are a couple of things that stops it from being truly excellent. And they are the camera and the lock-on feature. The game does do a fairly good job at keeping track of all the action in wide open spaces. In areas with close quarters or uneven levels, however, things tend to get messy. If you’re back is close to the wall, the camera tends to zoom in super close and it’s very difficult to see the enemy you’re confronting. This does make it difficult to properly deflect attacks as you can’t seen when they’re coming clearly. On uneven areas, it becomes difficult to gauge your distance from an enemy, making some of your strikes whiff when they look like they would connect normally.
The lock-on feature is also something that could’ve been handled better. You can only lock onto enemies who are in your field of view. This also means you can lose the lock on if the enemy gets directly behind you or if you’re view of them is obstructed by something. Because of this, enemies who can jump over you will break the lock-on and enemies, especially bosses, who walk behind pillars will all of a sudden be invisible from your lock on system. And you can’t simply click on the lock-on button to reacquire your target because it’s also the center camera button. So, if you press it too quickly and the game doesn’t recognize the desired target enemy, the camera will snap back to the original position, even if you’re trying to turn around!
Fortunately, these are aspects of Sekiro’s gameplay you can adjust to after playing for some time. The good things heavily outweighs the bad stuff. I guess the only real thing to worry about if you’re going to like Sekiro or not is its reputation of being hard. I say it’s hard but fair. If you put in the time and effort to “git gud”, Sekiro becomes challenging but not really difficult. There is a steep learning curve, to be sure. But, if you’re willing to climb that steep curve, your reward will be a really great gaming experience.
Have you played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below!