Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is game by FromSoftware, creators of famously difficult Bloodborne and Dark Souls series. You play as Sekiro, the “One-Armed Wolf”, a seasoned shinobi with a unique prosthetic arm. This “ninja prosthetic” is a tool unique to Sekiro, giving him a wide assortment of ninja tools and abilities on top of a myriad of sword play skills that you acquire throughout the game. However, as cool as that sounds, that is not the only thing that makes Sekiro, special. Sekiro, through plot revealed at the beginning of the game, can actually revive himself from death. On top of his very large assortment of abilities and attacks, you can even use death itself, to your advantage. Time your revival when your enemy is most vulnerable to get an turn the tables on your killers.
Let’s dive in.
Sekiro’s main combat controls and actions incorporate attack (with sword), block, deflect, dodge, jump, item usage, and the ninja prosthetic tool. The goal in any enemy engagement is to trigger a “Shinobi Deathblow”, where you actually execute your enemy. You can trigger deathblow animations on enemies by depleting their stamina completely with attacks, breaking an opponents’ posture with attacks or deflections, or attacking a vulnerable opponent who is unaware of Sekiro’s presence. Bosses and mini-bosses tend to have multiple phases, where it would take more than one deathblow to finish them off.
Deflections are triggered when you press “block” right before an attack lands. When you successfully parry an attack, you deal your opponent “posture damage” while your posture is unaffected. If pressed too early, you will either block the attack, suffering posture damage of your own, or simply take a hit to your own stamina. Both you and your enemies have posture meters that can be broken by blocking attacks or by having your attacks parried. Filling up an opponent’s posture meter is considered “breaking their posture” opening them up to a deathblow. However, if Sekiro has his posture broken, he simply recoils into a somewhat stunned state. It doesn’t necessary imply instant death for you as it does your enemies, but with the kind of attacks enemies have in this game, being that open may lead to your death, either way.
Enemies can attack you with basic block-able or parry-able attacks, thrust attacks, grabs or sweeps. A thrust attack can be parried or dodged, but should not be blocked or jumped over. Grabs and sweep attacks cannot be parried, blocked or sometimes dodged, but can be evaded with jumps. Thrusts, grabs, and sweeps will show a red “danger” indicator above Sekiro, signaling the player to quickly observe enemy movements to determine the best reaction. Parrying and dealing with these “danger” attacks is where the bulk of Sekiro’s combat lies. Just seeing the danger icon is not enough for determining the next split-second move. You need to learn how your opponent moves in order to survive devastating attacks.
You would think that you could simply jump over thrust attacks, but thrusting enemies will simply aim their attack upward to catch you. You would also think that you can escape anything with a well-timed dodge. However, I paid the price many times against sweep attacks that cover a lot of the immediate area due to its horizontal movement. I also fell victim to grab attacks when attempting to dodge them in either direction as some of the grab animations actually tracked and followed my on-the-ground movements, no matter how precise I thought I was with my timing. The enemies’ grab attacks simply and sharply homed in on me whenever I was on the ground, near the enemy.
Swordplay in Sekiro is not slow-paced by any stretch of the imagination. Getting accustomed to the game’s tempo is a must if you plan to proceed in this game at all. Mistakes in movement or decisions can and will lead to many deaths. Now, Sekiro does have the ability to revive himself at least once mid-battle. This can be a handy tool to use when regular enemies kill you and then turn their back to your corpse to walk away. A timely revival can give you the jump on enemies that gave up on your corpse, thinking that the fight is over. This will not affect bosses nearly as well, however, as they are experienced enough to keep your eyes on you at all times. You can still revive yourself and get back into the fight, but you will not have the jump on them as you would with regular baddies. Also, if you make the mistake of reviving right next to the game’s more powerful bosses, they will end you the second you pop your head up, rendering your revival laughably irrelevant.
Now, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game where you play as a ninja, and a pretty nimble one at that. Despite that, I found that the majority of the game seems to lean you more into engaging enemies in face to face attack deflection battles instead of hit-and-run tactics. You do have items and ninja prosthetic skills that can help disrupt opponent guard, giving you windows to attack. Even then, those won’t carry you through most of the game’s main boss battles. It is a fine and challenging combat engine, nevertheless, as swordfights move at a steady pace that punish you, many times severely, for poor timing or movement choices.
More into Gameplay
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is one part stealth and two parts swordplay combat. The game gives you plenty of opportunities for dealing with groups of enemies, one enemy at a time, if you time your movements and plan out your order of attacks properly. You can also freely rush in like a maniac if you choose, with your only punishment being having to deal with multiple enemies at once. Depending on your character’s skillset and the kind of enemies you are fighting, rushing in and alarming everyone will be a quick battle, one way or another. You will even have chances where you can stealth kill a boss in one-hit, reducing the fight’s phases by one, if you’re crafty enough. This, combined with Sekiro’s generous variety of attacks, opens up Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice into a nice little sandbox game. The game gives you some nice space to get creative.
It is also a very difficult and sometimes unforgiving game. Traversing various maps and dispatching low-tiered enemies goes at a nice pace. As you get a feel for Sekiro’s ever-growing abilities and move sets, you learn how to deal with enemies cleaner and more covertly as you play along. Entering new areas introduces new and unique enemies every time, making exploration fun and inviting. Although the game seems to steer you to travel through areas in a certain order, you can find yourself deeply exploring a new area that you’re better off saving for later. Now, the game is not one to punish you for wandering about, like in level-oriented RPG’s that thrash you for showing up in the wrong places “ahead of the script”.
Early on, I found myself fighting a boss with a weakness to fire. What I didn’t know was that I was better off not facing him then, but instead going to a side-story area that I didn’t realize I had unlocked. There I would have acquired the tool I needed to make this very early boss easy to deal with. Instead, I fought him somewhat “cold turkey” leading to two hours of effort before beating him the hard way. I don’t knock this at all as it taught me to explore the open world more thoroughly than I had been doing.
The farther you progress in the game, the more treacherous the local baddies become, allowing you flex your newly acquired abilities and strength all the more. When it comes to boss fights, there are points in a boss or mini-boss battle you can be 1-hit KO’d or combo’d from full health to death. Getting away alive with damage can be a victory in itself, at times. On top of that, many of the bosses actually change up strategies and get more difficult in their 2nd, and sometimes 3rd, phases. That said, there’s something to be said for challenging game play. Each boss fight keeps you heavily engaged, making victories all the more satisfying.
Some battles are susceptible to a hit-and-run approach, where you keep your distance for most of the fight, only engaging the boss for a quick jab before escaping again. Other fights punish you for that approach as the boss’ more exaggerated attacks are designed to only activate when you’re at a distance. Those are the fights where Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice prefers that you dive into the game’s hectic and fast-paced sword combat, where pin-point timing is a must. If you have parrying and evading mastered, you will be able to handle the game’s most difficult enemies far faster than you would using a hit-and-run strategy. As such, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice leaves the freedom with you, have a much longer battle with hit-and-run tactics where losses are that much more painful, or get an even more advanced experience by staying in the enemy’s face at all times, leading to a faster fight.
There were times that, amidst my many deaths and accompanying cursing, I was actually impressed with the ways some of the bosses killed me. Sometimes it was a mix-up of previously established fight patterns. Other times, it came from the utter shock of never-before-used special attacks, which I must say, simply looked beautiful as they laid me to waste. Major and mini boss designs were unique and original, with the infrequent occurrence of cloned mini bosses here and there. I would spend hours on major boss fights, forcing myself to recognize patterns and movements that telegraphed specific attacks.
For all the frustration to then satisfaction from these fights, there was the one aspect that I found myself hating in these battles. The age-old gaming nemesis, the bad camera angle, makes its appearance in a good chunk of the game’s more notable and crucial boss battles, leading to death more often than not. These battles rely heavily on Sekiro’s ability to stay camera-locked on his opponent. Running into a corner or close to a screen edge had the danger of you losing sight of Sekiro, severing the crucial camera-lock on the boss, or both. A 10 to 15-minute effort on a major boss is immediately lost, inducing rage or causing one to speak in unknown tongues. As solid as the combat system is in this game, it’s a shame that it suffers from the kind of problem you would have in a Playstation (One) game.
This, at times, gave me a love-hate relationship with boss battles, where thankfully I loved more than hated. Taking that pitfall aside, boss battles were epic and exciting, with each battle finishing off quite stylishly.
Story and Presentation
From the very beginning, all the way to the end, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has well-executed visuals in both its scenery and action animations. The world is rustic and somewhat depressing in appearance, working well with the game’s dark undertones. However, at the same time, the scenery is vast and beautiful, especially when you gaze at an area from a high vantage. I found myself saying, “oh that’s a cool background” only to find out almost every time that I’m looking at actual explorable areas.
Characters in the game fit the scenery nicely, ranging anywhere from gritty bandits to decked-out samurai generals to even enormous creatures.
The audio is on point in the game as well, whether it’s trying to spook you out in the game’s darker areas or when you’re treated to up-tempo dangerous-sounding feudal music during battle. The varying boss battle music plays especially well, illustrating the importance and danger underlying each key battle. The music even shifts during key boss battles as you enter different phases, keeping up the tempo with the increasing difficulty in each fight. Even voice acting, both in English and in Japanese, is solid throughout the entire game.
As for combat, movement and fighting animations are pretty solid. The game is quite gory, reaching the pinnacle of brutality when Sekiro performs Shinobi Executions on key enemies, leading to what I would describe to be bloody ballet routines. Even given the higher level of timing necessary to parry the attacks of the game’s more advanced enemies, swordplay and clashes visually flow well without appearing too jerky. Overall, action and combat visuals flow gracefully throughout the entire game, with exception to the occasional “homing grab attack”.
Through sound and visuals, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice establishes its mood and atmosphere flawlessly.
Overall, even with its difficulty, the gameplay scales and progresses quite well. Bosses in the game, for the most part, are always hard. You can learn how to progress through new areas and enemies with a reasonable amount of trial and error until you reach the next major boss, where you’ll then spend some time learning that boss’ ins-and-outs. Throughout the entire experience, you are thrilled with an entertaining story line, excellent voice acting in both English and Japanese, and engaging and stunning visuals. The tools in Sekiro’s Shinobi Prosthetic are pretty cool and are quite varied, giving you numerous usage and attack mix-up options to try out. Even finishing the game allows you to revisit the entire experience, empowered with all of the abilities and strength that you gained up to that point, making the game into your own personal playground. Restarting the game will increase its difficulty and you have four different endings to unlock.
If you’re looking for a fun and action-packed challenge set in a beautifully-designed setting and delivered with a well-written story, then Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game you need to check out. Despite its difficulty, the game does a great job at making it worth it. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is available now for Xbox One, Playstation 4, and PC via Steam. Check it out for yourself here…
† Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice game code and some screenshots provided by Activision PR for review.