I’ve been a From Software junkie for quite a while now. My initial foray into the brutal Souls games was Dark Souls, and my initial reaction was that I hated it. It was too hard, too repetitive, and my character was too weak. I threw myself against the Black Knight in Undead Burg several dozen times before I said SCREW THIS, and tossed the game into a corner, and went back to playing everything else.
About a year later, my life changed. I became a Dad.
When my oldest son was born, he did not like to sleep alone. He wanted to lay on someone at all times, and feel their warmth and heartbeat. For an exhausted Mom, who needed to get some sleep herself, this was a problem, so I needed to step in and help. I figured I could play some video games while he was snoozing on me, but it had to be something that was challenging enough to keep my attention, and long enough to take a while to beat. When I popped Dark Souls back into my 360, I had all the time in the world to throw myself against the same enemies again and again, and my son slept peacefully on me. Ever since then, I’ve played every From Software release, and loved every single one of them.
Sekiro – Shadows Die Twice might be their crowning achievement.
Please note – this review is all based on a review copy that Activision provided of the game.
The game is stunning graphically. I’ve never really been one for From’s aesthetic of faces, and a great deal of their set pieces look a little muddy at times (hello Blighttown), but holy christ is this game gorgeous. The Wolf’s design shows so much character, from the small scar on his face he got in childhood to the meticulously crafted prosthetic, having the designers focus on a single protagonist instead of the huge variety of options in From’s other games really shines.
The set pieces also benefit from this attention to detail, as the Japanese architecture and armor all looks lived in and painstakingly crafted. The first boss fight, with its field of white flowers both evokes Snake and Boss’s final battle as well as shows off just how high the bar is set from the beginning. I also love how the path of destruction the Wolf is on shows up in his character as well, with smears of blood across his face and clothing until a rest at a buddha resets his appearance.
I could go on and on about how the game looks, but here’s a few pictures that really show how beautiful it is:
Controls wise, this is easily the best game From has released. When I first played Dark Souls – I found the shoulder button attack and block to be awkward. Once I got used to those, the face buttons became much more tactical and I saw that it was actually much more flexible, and allowed for my thumbs to keep my head on a swivel while leagues of undead attacked me. Sekiro ups that promise with a spiderman-esque grappling hook, the incredibly satisfying parry system, and a jump button that is so damn satisfying to use.
The parrying and the posture systems are a game of timing – one of From’s trademarks with previous parries and backstabs – but also one of aggression. No longer can you sit back and chug a healing potion and wade back into the fight when you feel up to it. Now you have to press your attack – keep the enemy on his heels, and still parry any attempts he has to regain the upper hand. The subtle red dot that appears when a deathblow – an instant kill move you unlock when an enemy’s health and posture are low – is addictive. I really appreciate this evolution from the Souls to Bloodborne to now Sekiro’s combat – as this incentivizes you to keep hacking at your enemy, looking for that one opening in their defense to strike – much like many of the legendary samurai and ninja strikes of history
One last point about the combat, is that the boss battles are where the game takes a great pair of systems, and makes them a pulse pounding hand to hand combat treat. The first mini-boss I came across destroyed me 10+ times before I realized I had to attack him, and press my attack to get anywhere. Finding out the wait and see tactic that has served me through all of From’s other titles was the wrong way to play took many tries to get right, but now I feel far more empowered, and I take such pride in getting through an area unscathed.
The combat gets a great deal of the credit for controls, but I might appreciate the jumping and grappling mechanic just as much. Maybe more when my health is low. No fat-rolling knights here – Wolf is a nimble and athletic shinobi, and it’s incredibly satisfying to fly though an area on the rooftops, drop down on unsuspecting victims, and then grapple back up out of the way. The level designs also reinforce my delight in this mechanic at every opportunity – from discovering the Mob to finding out you can grapple the larger enemies – what I thought would be a quirky inclusion like weapon breaking in BoTW, ended up being one of the most enjoyable aspects.
Finally, the story itself is mysterious, while also not being as incomprehensible as most of From’s other titles. You play as Wolf, a shinobi dedicated to protecting his Master. You fail at this task, and your Master is abducted. You must get him back. There are threads of other mysteries permeating the plot, but the basic task is one of restoring your honor, and the freedom of your master. Simple enough, but also laced with enough of a revenge motif, and an interesting explanation as to why the Wolf is so unkillable, that it’s still got me hooked 30+ hours in. I think I’ll be playing this for a long while to 100% everything.
I can’t say enough good about Sekiro – Shadows Die Twice. The negatives are the same that usually crop up with any From title – frustration, a steep learning curve, and the need to really dedicated some time to the game to complete it. I will say that curve is much lower from a plot standpoint here – but the combat feels so much different it might turn off souls veterans immediately.
I think this game is near perfect, and I can’t stop playing it. Run out and pick this up, immediately.
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