Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice exists as a fundamentally different beast than what many players might expect from the developers who brought them Dark Souls and Bloodborne. FromSoftware manages to infuse the stealth-action game with a lot of the same trimmings and style as their previous action-RPGs, but take Sekiro in an almost entirely different direction. Diverging from their incredibly successful formula to try something new represented a substantial risk. However, Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team pulled off the impossible and created an experience that will surely stick with players for years to come - provided they can adapt to Sekiro's punishing gameplay mechanics.
Sekiro tells the story of an honorable (or perhaps dishonorable, depending on your choices) shinobi, a ninja in service to a young boy named Lord Kuro. Of course, a FromSoftware game these days needs an element of the mystic and Lord Kuro also happens to be the Divine Heir, someone blessed with blood that prevents him from ever dying. Of course, that blood makes him the target of every power-hungry figure who yearns for immortality. The lands of Ashina in feudal Japan find themselves overrun with hostile forces and Lord Kuro captured shortly after the game begins. Our titular hero, Sekiro, must use all of his cunning and swordsmanship to rescue his master and follow the Iron Code of the shinobi. In his quest to secure Lord Kuro and follow the boy's orders, Sekiro contends with far more than human adversaries. Ghosts, gods, demons, and creatures straight out of Japanese folklore rise to stop him and spread chaos throughout the land.
Learning how to deal with all of these threats, both mundane and supernatural, as just one man armed with a sword and a handful of shinobi tools would be quite the challenge under a Dark Souls-like system of death. You will die. That's an inescapable fact about Sekiro. However, Lord Kuro gave his loyal shinobi the gift of his blood, bestowing the ability to resurrect from the point of death to give another chance at emerging victorious from battle.
And what battles you will have to endure and survive. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice focuses on the back and forth of clashing swords. You won't be able to dodge roll around most attacks or play it safe. Instead the highly lethal combat encourages players to stand toe to toe with adversaries, timing blocks and counters to overcome enemies in a way that would feel right at home in the life or death struggles that play such an important role in Akira Kurosawa's films. In this way, combat becomes more of a dance, blades singing through the air as they strike against flesh and steel. Players who can pick up on the pattern of attacks, the pacing of the dance, will find that Sekiro takes on an almost rhythm game-like feel.
Sekiro rewards players for timing blocks and dodges right by turning them into deflections or counters, moves that help open enemies up for attacks. This makes the ability to time moves properly incredibly important. It also often means that running around and avoiding attacks while waiting for an opening is just not enough to make much progress. In fact, most of the boss encounters early on are specifically designed to crush that approach to combat out of players. Clever use of shinobi tools, knowing when to disengage, and recognizing when the time has come to stand your ground and fight head-on all prove integral to standing in triumph over foes. Always remember that Sekiro was built with more verticality in mind than Dark Souls or Bloodborne, so keep an eye out for grappling locations, especially in boss fights. They could open the door for a quick escape or a devastating counterattack.
Of course, mastering the basic combat only prepares players for the unexpected challenges that are to come. The world of Sekiro is one where a human with a sharp mind and skilled with a blade can fight on equal terms with gods and demons. The mechanics introduced in the early game apply when fighting colossal beasts and otherworldly threats, though adapting to those animations and rhythms can prove to be a true challenge. Contending with magic and restless undead might seem to put Sekiro on uneven footing, but as players progress, they can use skill points to unlock new combos and techniques to help them compete against even immortal adversaries.
Beyond combat, Sekiro has much to offer in terms of narrative. For the past several games, FromSoftware has told stories heavy on lore and world-building without much of a focus on the main protagonist outside of the role they fill within that detailed world. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes a different approach, opting to have a named protagonist with clearly articulated wants and desires, and supporting characters who all relate to him. This, more than anything else, helps Sekiro to feel more grounded than any of Hidetaka Miyazaki's other projects over the last several years. The grounded experience is further reinforced by the fact that the setting is one in which humans not only survive but thrive. Some of the most interesting enemies and encounters aren't big in scope, just two highly competent humans fighting one another in a life or death struggle. Since the narrative frames those human struggles in a more intimate and personal way, the player gets pulled into that fight, too. It simply feels more "real."
We are continually reminded throughout the game that dragons, gods, demons, and ghosts are all aberrations; creatures and creations that pervert the natural cycle of the world - or exist outside of it. That brings us to one of the more interesting elements of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice: Religion. Whereas Dark Souls had bonfires and Bloodborne had lanterns, Sekiro has carvings of Buddha. In fact, Buddha and Buddhist imagery appear numerous times throughout Sekiro and understanding Buddhist philosophy can deepen the understanding of the narrative. For example, a major part of the central conflict raging at the heart of most FromSoftware games has been that holding onto something that will inevitably be lost can only cause suffering; it cannot actually satisfy. In Dark Souls, that something is Gwyn's Age of Fire and the curse placed upon humanity to force them into continuing the cycle over and over again. In Sekiro, the human pursuit of immortality represents a complete abandonment of the natural cycle of death and reincarnation.
Sekiro's ability to die and resurrect is shown as useful but also something that spreads disease and suffering onto others. Those who have allowed themselves to become infested with immortal worms become undying and monstrous. The mission to create a god who could bestow eternal life sacrifices untold numbers of children to form one imperfect idol. In Buddhist terms, the dissatisfaction that these characters feel with their impending deaths are part of what is known as dukkha, the suffering and unsatisfying nature of a temporary existence. The way that they deal with that, however, is to wander far in search of an escape, a way to make their temporary state permanent rather than to pursue the eight-fold path and exit the cycle of reincarnation. Sekiro depicts the folly of such a wrong-headed approach to dealing with dukkha and the pain that can be inflicted on others by such an attempt.
What interests me the most about Sekiro's depiction of Buddhism comes down to how its included so boldly in the game itself. Not many games are willing to show anything more than a fictional religion for fear that it might alienate some of the consumer base. In Sekiro, however, players pray at Buddha statues to fast-travel, level up, and more. The imagery is carved into the environments. Characters talk about Buddha, too. In fact, one of the main characters can't seem to stop carving Buddhas. One of the most important items players collect over their time spent in Sekiro are Buddhist prayer beads. There are even several cutscenes depicting the earnest prayers of our protagonist. That's bold and fascinating. How often have you seen a Muslim in prayer in a video game? Or a Christian? I honestly don't know that I have ever seen a protagonist in a video game pray in relation to a religion that exists in the real world. Video games are art and religion seems to be one of those areas that video games haven't yet gone in-depth, so this could be a sign of things to come.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice stands apart from the Soulsborne games. The highly lethal approach to combat seems suited for the mechanics and message the developers were going for. Encounters with enemies feel fair, with tight controls responding well to the rhythm of battle; even normal enemies sometimes achieve the satisfying back-and-forth trading of blows often reserved for mini-bosses. The world doesn't stop surprising right up until the end, especially if you aren't familiar with Japanese folklore. The main complaint about Sekiro's gameplay would be the functional but shoddy stealth system. A sequel seems almost inevitable at this point and further refinements to sneaking and related abilities would go a long way toward making it feel more robust. Perhaps sneaking through an enemy city and avoiding the non-violent civilians?
Experiencing Sekiro's visuals feels like a treat for the eyes. The lighting and level design often lead to moments that feel cinematic and the day-night cycle that progresses as main story objectives are achieved lends each location a new experience when you begin backtracking looking for secrets (something you should definitely do). The music in Sekiro failed to live up to the standards of the visuals, but it doesn't actively detract from the game in any major way. It just doesn't stand out. However, the sound design almost completely makes up for the lackluster score. Blades clashing, otherworldly howls, the melancholy notes of ethereal instruments floating through the air, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice knows how to characterize its enemies and struggles by sound alone.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice should absolutely be on your gaming wishlist if you have any love for FromSoftware titles or action games in general. It doesn't get much better than this.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was reviewed on PC and is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
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