Ever have one of those days where you’re soaring on cloud 9? You’re on top of the world, nothing can go wrong…you feel like a champ?
If you ever need a surefire method of reminding you of your humbling place on this mortal coil, pick up a controller and dive into the brutal and unforgiving world of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
The latest title from the creators of the critically acclaimed Dark Souls franchise & Bloodborne, Sekiro expertly combines elements that are both familiar, yet strikingly different from previous iterations of Dark Souls inspired titles.
Let’s start with some of those unique elements…
A Sense Of Connection
From Software titles typically take place in more desolate and isolated worlds, with a nameless protagonist leading the charge against whatever evil forces are at work. Sekiro does a lot more to put you in an actual plot. You have motivations, you have a history, you have personal connections and friendships (such as they are). This has a real grounding effect, immediately drawing you into the broader narrative. You definitely don’t have all the answers, but it does a lot more to make sense of the world you’re in than previous From Software games. This resulted, at least for me, in a more active engagement with the game from the start.
I felt like the first few hours of most Dark Souls games were easy to walk away from, and not just because I’d be rage quitting after dying to the same boss battle 10 times in a row. It needed more time to make you care about the journey you were on. Sekiro establishes this investment right out of the gate, which is awesome.
Gotta Go Fast!
Once you start playing, you quickly realize another key difference: Sekiro is fast. Seriously. If you compare the general movement of the protagonist with your usual speed in Dark Souls, or even Bloodborne, it’s like night and day. As a skilled shinobi, you have the ability to wall-jump, step-dodge, sprint, use a grappling hook to swing to distant branches and rooftops, and more.
If you’re anything like me, this speed gives you a false sense of security. It’s as if Sekiro put on a mask, attempting to fool you that it’s your run of the mill dash-and-slash samurai action game, and in a Scooby Doo-like reveal, you discover it was really Dark Souls all along.
It probably would’ve gotten away with it too…if it wasn’t for that meddling difficulty! (More on that soon.)
Bring Me To Life (Over and Over and Over…)
Then there’s the resurrection mechanic. As an individual with the ability to resurrect yourself (you’ll find out why when you play), there are opportunities for you to come back from the dead after getting squashed on the pavement by a boss. This seems like an odd mechanic from the company that helped you hone your controller-chucking techniques. However, the execution of it is actually ingenious.
First, you need to understand the penalties of death in Sekiro – while you don’t lose all of your “currency”, as you would in other titles, you instead lose half of your held sen (money), as well as half of the experience you’ve earned towards your next skill point, which helps you do more awesome ninja-like things. It’s certainly still punishing, and annoying…so avoiding death is a good protip.
There is a minor safety net against this, which is called Unseen Aid. It’s the percentage chance that following your death, you will retain all your money and gained XP. A spiritual mulligan, so to speak.
Now, if you opt to take advantage of the resurrection option, you’ll promptly return to battle with half your health, and things continue as before. Spoiler alert: you’ll probably just die again, really fast.
If you use this resurrection option a few times, however, a strange thing happens. You find yourself in possession of a cryptic little statue. It details a life, somewhere in the world, that you’ve essentially just ruined by relying too heavily on your resurrection mechanic. Nice.
This statue permanently decreases the chance for you to receive the spiritual mulligan, AKA “Unseen Aid”, that I mentioned earlier.
It’s a fascinating mechanic. Truly. I found myself debating whether to just “Take the L” and submit to my death, or lean on the resurrection for a chance to overcome a particularly challenging encounter.
Some would argue that the shinobi prosthetic, your multi-tool of a replacement arm, possesses some unique gameplay opportunities, but I got some serious Bloodborne weapon-shifting vibes off that thing. Even the sound effect seemed almost identical.
Life is Suffering
One thing that can’t be forgotten is, of course, the difficulty level. From Software has established itself as the experts of crafting “Git Gud” gameplay: presenting players with extremely challenging boss encounters, motivating them to memorize the sequence of attacks and counter appropriately. Sekiro continues this tradition. Enemies have different attack patterns, which can be blocked or deflected with varying effectiveness. Standard mobs can prove to be the end of you if you’re not cautious, and as always, the smaller the boss, the harder the difficulty. (I don’t make the rules, it’s just true.)
In Dark Souls, a major mechanic is your ability to collect souls as currency and use them to purchase upgrades for yourself. It was a way to grow stronger that you could utilize if you found a segment that was a bit easier to farm.
Sekiro has no such system. Instead, the progression and development is tied into a diverse skill tree system. These skill trees highlight different methods of play – from being a sneaky ninja through and through, to mastering the art of the sword and slicing through your enemies like a hot knife through butter.
Increasing your health is tied to collecting Prayer Beads – with each set of 4 unlocking a new level of vitality and strength. Because these prayer beads are held by certain mobs/bosses, your health increases are more tightly controlled than in Dark Souls titles, where you could grind out souls to increase your health, or strength, or whatever stat you wanted to, little by little.
The inability to essentially “grind” your way out of a tough boss fight has granted Sekiro a level of difficulty that has ascended to memehood. While the debate rages on among From Software devotees whether or not Sekiro actually earns the top spot when it comes to difficulty, you can’t toss a ceramic shard without hitting someone who likely had to buy a new controller after spending a few hours with the game.
A Welcome Challenge
That being said, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve noted on a few occasions that Bloodborne is easily one of my favorite games of the modern era. The aesthetic, the gameplay, the music…it all drew me in for a captivating experience that left me glued to my PS4 for weeks on end. One of my proudest gaming achievements to date is my Platinum trophy from Bloodborne, a sensation that I’m sure Sekiro will provide, should I muster the courage to take on such a challenge.
With that being said, in case it wasn’t already abundantly clear: Sekiro is hard. If you are unfamiliar with From Software titles previously, or don’t think of Dark Souls or Bloodborne as your idea of a good time, don’t be lured in by Sekiro’s samurai aesthetic. It will not compensate for the frustration you will experience.
For those of you that enjoy From Software games and have been ogling this latest title from a distance: buy it. It’s everything you’ve come to expect from the talented developers at From Software, taken to a new level.