The long-awaited game originally teased as Shadows Die Twice has been given a final title. The game's full name is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. "Sekiro" is not the main character's name, instead standing as a statement of intent, translating to "One-Armed Wolf". While fans of Dark Souls and Bloodborne should be excited for more of FromSoftware's hardcore action, there's a bit more in Sekiro than that.
Sekiro takes place in the latter half of Japan's Sengoku Era, with FromSoftware creating an exaggerated world based on Japanese history and mythology. You play a warrior known only as The Shinobi, a servant of the Young Lord. A samurai called The Rival kidnaps the Young Lord and leaves the Shinobi for dead and missing his arm. That arm is replaced with a shinobi prosthetic, a wonder of magic and technology that gives you new abilities.
The arm was previously teased with the first "Shadows Die Twice" image, and it shifts and changes to offer new abilities. It can turn into an axe to cleave enemy shields in half and an iron fan shield to block heavy attacks. The arm can throw out firecrackers, either to distract enemies, or simply light them (and your sword) on fire. There are shurikens to stun enemies and help you close gaps. Finally, one core use of the arm is the built-in grappling hook.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a pretty vertical game, with the grappling hook acting as an instant point-to-point movement ability. You can leap onto tree branches and roofs to get a better look at the battlefield. The stages of Sekiro have been built with the grappling hook in mind, with huge drops and rises. The Shinobi is more mobile than his predecessors, as you can jump and grapple around for space and advantage. It doesn't look like you take fall damage either.
One surprise is that alongside the grappling hook, Sekiro has some stealth action. It's not a pure stealth title, as sword fighting against enemies and bosses is still a core focus. That said, Sekiro has stealth elements like hiding behind cover or in tall grass. There are ledge/corner kills and rooftop assassinations. The idea isn't to get through the game in stealth though; it's there to provide you battlefield information or to make encounters a bit easier by thinning the pack. You're a ninja, so you can find out things like enemy weaknesses by overhearing conversations between your foes.
"The level of difficulty for this game cannot be described as low," explained FromSoftware Marketing and Promotion's Yasuhiro Kitao, as translated by Sekiro Producer Robert Conkey. "But one of the concepts are new mechanics that provide different options. There are strategies that you can take that make something that's really punishing, in certain circumstances, slightly easier. [FromSoftware] provides more options than they've ever provided before, in terms of interesting ways to take down enemies. Even if you're not a god of these types of games, it's not like you have zero options."
The stealth does remind me of an older FromSoftware title, Tenchu. Acquire developed the original games in the series, but FromSoftware partnered with Activision—the publisher of Sekiro—to make the later games in the Tenchu series. I was told that Tenchu was part of the inspiration for the game and the fact that Activision is publishing Sekiro at all.
"[FromSoftware] really wanted to make a game with a Japanese setting," said Kitao (via Conkey). "They put out Tenchu games in the past. When they were gathering references, that was definitely one of the things that they referenced. I wouldn't say it was the sole source of inspiration. As they were working on it and developing it, it became something completely different. It's definitely fair to say there's inspiration, but it stands on its own."
The core here is still pitched combat with a focus on sword fighting. FromSoftware wanted to get convey the feeling of clashing swords to players.
"One of the key concepts of combat is posture," said Conkey. "Both characters in combat have their own posture. As you're fighting—taking hits or getting perfectly blocked—you lose posture. Whoever loses posture first becomes stunned and extremely vulnerable. It's the struggle between both sides."
If you break your opponent's posture, you can pull off what FromSoftware is calling the Shinobi Death Blow, doing a huge amount of damage. Blocks and parries favor good timing, with a mistimed block resonating with a dull clang, while a perfectly-timed block or parry creating a shower of bright orange sparks.
If you die, you can come back to life as the game's title suggests. FromSoftware isn't explaining how the mechanic works yet, but you can use the ability to gain advantage over your foes. In my demo, the Shinobi used the ability to reset the encounter and get in an extra stealth attack while the enemy's back was turned.
There are still huge boss battles too. In the demo I saw, The Shinobi fought against the Chained Ogre, a giant lumbering beast that tried to crush him, and the Corrupted Monk, a floating figure with a massive spear. There was also a huge snake encircling the castle that was the Shinobi's target location; in a giant ravine, the Shinobi has to hide behind walls and in tall reeds to prevent the snake from seeing him. FromSoftware wants to provide a number of these huge cat-and-mouse style sequences in the game.
One surprising facet of Sekiro is the use of color. FromSoftware is playing around with the whole palette here. Sure, there's the drab grey and muck of some battlefields, but the fight against the Corrupted Monk was on a bridge with pink sakura blowing around. (The demo player actually jumped off the bridge accidentally while dodging the Monk's spear.) The developer wants to capture the nature and art of old school Japan in Sekiro.
Regardless, the game looks absolutely amazing and stands as one of the early highlights of the show. Dark Souls and Demon's Souls were unique experiences from the developer, but I find the further afield they go, the more I enjoy the games. Bloodborne was a faster and more aggressive experience than the Souls games, and Sekiro feels even faster. The addition of stealth elements and the grappling hook is also pretty damn intriguing, even if FromSoftware isn't totally making a new stealth action game like Tenchu.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is coming to PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in Early 2019.