There was a period of time when a games review wasn’t a games review unless a certain aspect of a game was referred to as ‘The Dark Souls of’ something or other. You know, ‘The jumping section of Destiny’s raids are like the Dark Souls of platforming’ or ‘The flying levels in Spyro Reignited are like the Dark Souls of dragon navigation’. You get the idea, and readers of the reviews were rightly tired of seeing this analogy overused.
But then games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice come along, and there’s only so many ways to describe the difficulty in the game. It is that difficult that the analogy needs to be used. So, here it goes:
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the Dark Souls of Dark Souls games.
Of course, we need to talk about the whole Soulsborne sub-genre considering that Sekiro is a FromSoftware game; the team that made these hardcore action-RPGs what they are today. Sekiro is their latest offering and whilst there are a lot of similarities that can be drawn, there is also plenty to help this feel more unique than Bloodborne did in comparison to the Souls series.
One of the biggest changes is in the storytelling mechanics. Dark Souls was undoubtedly full of lore, but it was not presented in an explicit manner. Instead, players would happen upon story nuggets and could choose to pay attention or ignore them altogether, getting back to dying quicker, at least in my case. In Sekiro, there are fully-fledged cutscenes involving characters and NPCs to move the story along.
The tutorial – yes there is a tutorial in Sekiro but even then, don’t expect it to be a cakewalk – introduces us to the Ashina clan, who are on the brink of ultimate defeat. In a last-ditch attempt to survive, clan leader Genichiro kidnaps the Divine Heir, and puts you in charge of defending him at all costs. But to keep him safe, you quickly realise he needs to be moved away from the Ashina clan. In doing so, Genichiro confronts you and slices off your left arm.
Surviving that attack, you awaken in an abandoned temple, where an unknown Sculptor provides you with a prosthetic arm and gives you the name Sekiro: The one-armed wolf. From there, you must go off to find the Divine Heir once again.
Sekiro retains that hardcore gameplay that you either love or hate, but does so with a completely new and original way to fight your enemies. Previously, players would slash away before dodging when an enemy takes their turn to swipe back at you. In Sekiro, players will need to continue their onslaught of swishing away with their katana to reduce an enemy’s posture. Posture is your ability to take and defend hits; for an enemy it acts as their susceptibility to deathblows. Whittle away at their posture meter and an enemy will soon leave themselves vulnerable for that ever so precious killing blow.
There is still the more traditional health bar, and on the variety of mini-bosses and major bosses it is also essential to take chunks out of this. The health bar is tied directly to their posture recovery; the lower an enemy’s health, the slower they will recover posture.
It is a major shift from what has come before, forcing you to unlearn almost a decade worth of viable Soulsborne tactics that can be overwhelming at first.
Another new element is a much more stealth-oriented design. Whereas previously you had to run and avoid enemies to get past them, Sekiro has you stealthily picking enemies off one by one to thin their numbers before taking on a mini-boss or sneaking past them altogether. And with the addition of the grapple hook, this traversal through the land takes you up the vertical axis this time. Find yourself a high perch, wait for an unsuspecting enemy to walk beneath you and execute an instant deathblow from above on them. This will never get boring.
It isn’t all unknown territory though; some series staples are still present. Most importantly, the bonfires – now known as Sculptor’s Idols – that act as checkpoints and save spots make a return. These are also used to fast travel around the world which is useful to return to a place called the Dilapidated Temple.
Here you will meet NPCs that you have met on your travels after having since migrated to this safe area. At the Temple you can upgrade your Healing Gourd using Gourd Seeds – essentially the Estus Flask – improve your prosthetic arm with completely new armaments or add-ons for your existing attacks, and practice new moves on an invincible warrior named Hanbei the Undying. It is essential you learn the timings not just of your opponents attacks but also of your own in Sekiro, and Hanbei is the best place to do that. He quickly becomes a priceless commodity.
Of course, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice isn’t a complete carbon copy of Dark Souls, there are some notable differences. The Deathblows and posture bar are perhaps two of the biggest to the combat, but there are also other substantial differences that have a drastic impact on your approach to the game.
In the world of Sekiro, there is a disease going around called Dragonrot. Naturally, your character is immune to it, but fellow NPCs are not. The disease is somehow connected to you and your actions, more specifically, your number of deaths. The more deaths you suffer, the more the disease spreads across the denizens of Ashina.
Death penalties can be avoided though, with the use of Unseen Aid. Dying causes you to lose half your progress to the next skill point and half the money you currently hold – as well as an invisible counter ticking over until the next victim falls foul of the Dragonrot – but Unseen Aid prevents any loss and halts the progress of Dragonrot for that death. Dragonrot and Unseen Aid work hand-in-hand; the more Dragonrot essence you carry, the lower your Unseen Aid percentage activation is.
Another difference that doesn’t benefit Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the lack of customisation. Dark Souls had a robust character creation and class system, but in Sekiro this is removed altogether. It makes sense because this is a much more story focussed game, but there aren’t even any variations in the weapons you can use. You can upgrade your prosthetic arm and perform various attacks with it, depending on what tool you have equipped, but you keep the same sword in the other hand for the entire game.
But, for those wondering whether Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice would lose some of the elaborate boss designs From Software have become famous for, then worry not. There is still plenty of variation to fuel your nightmares once again.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice on Xbox One, PS4 and PC is another excellent hardcore action-RPG from the team that wrote the rulebook on the genre. With this game though, it feels like they ripped that rulebook up to produce a unique version of the masochistic sub-genre. Not everything works – such as the restricted feeling with character progression – but there is more than enough here for fans to be content with.
By now, everyone knows FromSoftware make hard games, and Sekiro is certainly no different. If anything, it may be even harder than those which have come before it. So, for newcomers it may not be the best ‘entry’ point to these types of games but if you have more than a passing interest in Soulsborne games, then Sekiro is definitely another one to add to this ever-growing list.