When FromSoftware releases a new game, you know two things: One, it will be very difficult, and two, you might break a controller or two. The studio behind Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne is back with a new game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and FromSoft has delivered yet another stupidly hard masterpiece that you either love or hate. I like a good challenge and I particularly like games that challenge me. Sekiro does that in spades, and makes for not only an amazing video game experience, but one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in years.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the story of a shinobi named Wolf, who is tasked by his master, Owl, with protecting a young lord, the Divine Heir Kuro. The shinobi is ambushed by a samurai who kidnaps Lord Kuro. The battle ends with Wolf having his arm cut off and being left for dead, but his drive to protect his lord — and with the help of a mysterious sculptor, the shinobi is brought back to life with an upgradable prosthetic arm to seek vengeance.
Thus begins Wolf’s journey across four regions on Sengoku period Japan as he wreaks havoc on the samurai’s co-conspirators and foot soldiers, leading up to some ridiculous boss battles and a story that twists and turns with just the right amount of torque to create a compelling journey, not only for Wolf, but for the player as well. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is probably FromSoftware’s best attempt at a long form narrative to go with their stunningly difficult combat, and it works. The story serves its purpose and isn’t bogged down in flashy CGI cut scenes and over-the-top exposition. At its core, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is still a story about fighting, and for that, FromSoft has never been better.
Combat is boiled down to attack, dodge, and deflect, with each combatant having a posture that can be broken for more damage. This is a game that forces you to learn the moves and above all to have patience. This isn’t Devil May Cry or God of War. This is not, in any way, a hack-n-slash affair. You block and dodge and strike when there’s an opening. Being too aggressive will get you killed. You whittle down an enemies life bar until you can pull off a deathblow. Even the bosses can be killed with deathblows, but just know that getting to that point is a long and arduous task.
The combat in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is like a dance, and it’s a dance where you have to learn the right steps to pull off. The land is populated with enemies and without the right form, patience, and preparation, even the lowliest of foot soldiers can end you. And if a foot soldier can drop you, you don’t stand a chance against the game’s many mini-bosses, some coming one after another. And if the mini-bosses are giving you fits, just wait until you get to a main boss. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is relentless in that manner. Get better with each and every battle, or die. And you will die. A lot.
You can be resurrected after you fall, but at a great cost of half your money and half your earned XP. Also, as you die, a plague called dragonrot begins to seep into the world, affecting the NPCs you meet along the way. So, yeah, you have to worry about that too. Your inability to stay alive affects everyone. No pressure, though.
The best thing about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is that it forces the player to get better. “Resting” at a save statue resets the world with enemies, so it is impossible to clear out an area. This drove me crazy at first, but as the game’s combat started making sense, I enjoyed that I could grind on these lesser foes to hone my skills and it made the mini-bosses much easier to deal with. I’ve spent entire gaming sessions just killing foes, gaining cash and XP, then going back to a statue to rest to reset my life bar, refill my health gourd, and reset the enemies, only to do it over and over. This also netted me the XP needed to earn skill points that I could then spend to buy new moves and skills.
After many hours of grinding, I came out a much better and stronger player. About seven hours in, and before even sniffing a main boss, and I was maxed out in skills (at the time) and was the best, strongest version of Wolf I could be. I still died a bunch of times against the mini-bosses, but I was able to defeat them eventually, and the thrill of winning made me pump my fist in the air. I was so into it. It’s rare that game can do this to me, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice does it over and over.
The upgradable prosthetic arm helps give Wolf and the player the tools needed to win the day. You can upgrade it to include a flamethrower and a grappling hook and more. FromSoft gives the player the tools needed to succeed, but how you use them is entirely up to you. Stealth and sneaking are both major parts of Wolf’s journey. Singling out one enemy for an easy stealth deathblow kill helps weed out the area and is a must for areas around the mini-bosses. Trust me, you do not want to have more on your plate during these epic battles. Wolf can hide in tall grass and run along rooftops unseen. Using the grappling hook gives the game verticality that is much needed, and gives players another weapon — stealth — in the fight to rescue Lord Kuro.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice looks as great as it plays, with the graphics popping off the screen. The framerate could be better, yes, but for this story and this type of game, the visuals compliment the gameplay. The voice acting is in Japanese, which helps sell the idea that this is 16th century Japan and gives the affair a classic Kurosawa-like feel. The characters that Wolf comes across on his quest are well-developed, and they are done so via minimal conversation and very little cutscenes. It’s a masterclass is storytelling where less is more, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice nails it.
Much can be said about the difficulty of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but that is definitely part of the draw. FromSoftware and publisher Activision have released a game that is as much of an experience as it is a time killer. Taking the time to learn and get better pays off as the game progresses, and while the difficulty never lets up, your skills do increase and by the end, you are a better player for it. That might be the best thing about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and why I consider it not only the best game I’ve played this year, but one of the best games I’ve ever played. I’m a better player today than I was when I first booted it up, and I can’t wait to play through it again and again, getting stronger, better, faster, and smarter. You can’t say that about a lot of games, but Sekiro hangs its hat on it. To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite movies, if it was easy, anyone could do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. This review is based off the PS4 version of the game and a code provided by Activision.