Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

The finest cut is the one that comes at the right time.

I feel that reviews should be to the point. I have not slept well for days. As an adult man with a family and a full time job, I counted myself lucky that I actually, legitimately, fell ill in the middle of last week, which afforded some extra hours with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Reviewing games as a freelancer is a lot of late nights. And Sekiro laughs.

Don't look down either. | John Learned, From Software/Activision

Sekiro is a video game that does not care for pity, though it gets easier to play over time. Sekiro is a video game that delights the player with robust, stuffed worlds to explore and strategize, and then forces them to forget all of that to conquer singular, terrible enemies. It pushes and pulls, attacks and releases. It is not connected to the loose cosmology of games in developer FromSoftware’s celebrated oeuvre, but echoes old game design and a nihilistic view of the world. You can analyze it all you want, and probably implant whatever larger meaning you feel you can staple onto it, just like other FromSoft games. Sekiro will laugh.

You can say that Sekiro is good insomuch that it is an often overwhelming challenge. Right out of the gate, and after a very brief tutorial, your ninja –the Wolf—is heaped with a smorgasbord of mechanical operations to hide, climb, murder, and survive when shit turns sideways. He is fragile, and healing in those early hours is incredibly precious, making the first actual areas of the game with weighty combat (the Ashina Outskirts) the actual tutorial. Sekiro wants the player to learn to swim from the deep end of a lake. If you are the type of player that enjoys sussing out the absolute basement of combat depth, Sekiro is very good, then. Even in the deep weeds of the mid- and endgame, there are normal, respawning foes that will bleed your resources and chunks of your own inner happiness and self-worth. This is a compliment. The fighting absolutely sings.

In that respect, Sekiro is basically a big game hunting simulation. As the Wolf grows in strength by adding lengths to his health meter and the occasional point to his attack muscle, he can go area-by-area rooting out those difficult normal mobs and named enemies. Nearly all of them fight differently than the rest, and just about all of them offer worthwhile rewards. Yes, then, Sekiro is good if you want to fight, and fight a lot, with enemies that will test your mettle. It takes on all comers, like a single-player fighting game that just happens to have a huge world tour mode, until you run out of enemies to beat.

You could also say Sekiro is good insomuch that it is a fast, almost featherweight stealth death machine, especially in the game’s early hours. The Wolf’s abilities to hug walls, hang from ledges, and blend in to foliage present copious opportunities to either kill everything or slip away without bothering. A grappling hook mechanic provides easy access to rooftops and tree limbs, making it the preferred mode of travel, grabbing useful vantage points or escaping from imminent threats.

There are several paths in most environments that will lead you back to the ultimate goal, so attentive play in stealth is more rewarding than simply finding the most efficient way of killing everyone in a room. As I said in my review-in-progress from a few days ago, it’s fluid and fast. Wolf can hide, kill, and take off running within heart beats, and if planning the perfect silent killing spree is your thing, you will find Sekiro’s liquid speed thrilling and satisfying. There’s nothing like learning enemy placement and routes and then dismantling them with surgical precision. Sekiro gives you nearly all of the tools to do this effectively from the opening cutscene, and adds more as the game opens up.

Of course, this is a FromSoftware game, a studio that has become one of the standards for exploration-based adventures over the past decade. So, yes, Sekiro also has tons of locations to explore, items to collect, and plot threads to speculate about. Though bright and sunny from the start, there is a mood here that only becomes more dense over time. Unlike the studio’s Souls games, the plot is rather overt. Without spoiling anything, a defined main character like the Wolf offers more opportunity for conventional storytelling than many longtime FromSoft fans may expect, but that’s not criticism. Motivations of allies and nemeses are always in question, and are often never expressed outright, meaning players that enjoy the treasure hunts of both locations and stories will have much to excavate.

Be the assassin hard enough to stab a snake. | John Learned, From Software/Activision

If you are very interested in one of these aspects and not the others, Sekiro is often not a good video game. Routinely, players may enjoy the wide open space to look around or maybe thin the enemy herd, but then be forced into a boss battle that could take hours to overcome. While it’s true that there is enough to explore in the world that leaving, finding something else to do, and coming back later after adding extra strength through health upgrades or skill tree progression is almost always viable, there are funnel points in the game where Sekiro tells you how tall you need to be to get on the ride. The dissonance between the different sides of the game’s personality can be so jarring at some points that I forgot entire traversal mechanics after difficult boss fights. You are going get into some difficult encounters, and you will need to learn how to deal with them or turn the game off. This point will definitely come. The fighting and the stealth exploration aren’t entirely disparate as they can seamlessly fold into each other. But they make for a staccato flow in Sekiro more so than even other FromSoft games.

Here’s an example: In the mid/late game, you are given a choice that radically alters the plot, leading to a very challenging boss fight. This is a point in the game where it’s logical that you could have explored just about everything out there the game will allow you to see. You are then immediately dropped into another difficult boss fight. These battles are certainly not insurmountable, but they are draining when taken back-to-back. Sekiro is game that’s all about stealth, until it’s not. It’s very likely that players will bounce off of this game because of it.

Sekiro is a brutally-focused single player experience. Gone is the safety net of asynchronous multiplayer support, like the ability to pull in extra players for boss fights and notes left around the battlefield warning you of upcoming obstacles. There is an elitism in video games that has become an unfortunate side effect of FromSoftware’s contribution to the medium. While there is a place for difficult games –and as a developer, FromSoft has made this place their home—Sekiro will become a lightning rod for a certain reductive "git gud" big boy-ism. Sekiro will likely schism the player base when it guides you from wide-open exploration areas into tubes of high-stakes combat again and again, ultimately telling you that, well, you actually have to get good at this to move on.

Sekiro will hurt you if you're not prepared. | John Learned, From Software/Activision

The tools are certainly there to help you through it, of course, making this whole affair less of an indictment on the game than it may sound. The trick is to come to terms with the many options and opportunities available to you and find ways to effectively use them. This means taking advantage of two of Sekiro’s more noteworthy mechanics: The prosthetic arm weapons and resurrection.

The prosthetic weapons are what diversify the combat against straightforward swordplay. Scattered throughout the game are subweapons that range from simple throwing shurikens, to a pocket flamethrower, to a feather that adds extra frames of invincibility to dashes. As forging materials are found, these can be enhanced for a wide arsenal of side weapons that compliment any play style as most are made to work seamlessly with Wolf’s normal sword attacks. They take practice and skill to be useful in combat, of course. As time goes on it felt as though I was spoiled for choice, leaving many of subweapons I collected and forged unused in my inventory.

Resurrection, on the other hand, gives you limited opportunities to come back from the dead, essentially acting as extra lives. Wolf can natively stock one every time he rests at one of the many idols scattered around the game, which also act as fast travel hubs. Two further resurrects can be obtained through completing certain challenges, but the game balances their use so that you can’t just keep throwing your body at an enemy to grind a victory. You can only resurrect once between idol rests until you either obtain a fair amount of deathblows in the open or perform one on a boss enemy. Combined, the added weapons and Lazarus-like comebacks don’t make up for the aid of a capable second player when the going gets tough, but if a player can practice with them for effective use, they are definitely enough to stumble over Sekiro’s finish line.

Nah, I totally forgot it. | John Learned, From Software/Activision

But that’s really the point of it all: Sekiro is a game of precision, of mastery. It starts off difficult, but will feel easier as you become better at the game and force yourself to employ every trick and tactic at your disposal. Boss fights are a test of will that will stymie players unwilling to put in that extra work, but action game savants will make it their playground. In fact, since most sub-bosses can be run past, good players (or mere mortals on repeated runs) may even find Sekiro on the short end as they can bum rush from one major boss battle to the next. Even amongst the larger catalog of titles that FromSoftware has released, this is a game that many will enjoy and most will not, but the work is always worth the trouble with such expertly-crafted levels and the thrill of seeing what is around the next corner.

Sekiro is a demanding and rewarding game. Harrowing to the point of emotional exhaustion, some players will bounce off after a few of the meaner boss encounters without the now-classic FromSoftware multiplayer. Brave individuals that persevere, though, will dig through a rich, textured game crammed with spectacular levels and enemy encounters.


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