Before Sekrio: Shadows Die Twice released to the public, almost two full years had passed since Dark Souls III’s last DLC expansion dropped, marking the end of Dark Souls for the foreseeable future. It’s a big step away from the franchise that brought FromSoftware into the limelight but simultaneously opens up avenues for new creativity and fresh ideas from Miyazaki himself. Sekiro marks the start of these new IP, an entirely separate beast from what came before, narratively, mechanically, and tonally. It’s a critical point for the Japanese developer, but they’ve once again displayed why they’re one of the best in the business.
The Souls games have always had a specific approach to storytelling. They’d typically open up with a cutscene, and most of what’s left is told through the environment and the characters that inhabit it. There’s a degree of ambiguity to From’s previous work, and while Sekiro retains some of it, a lot of it is thrown out the window in favor of a more direct approach. Most notably, Sekiro features a voiced protagonist, a greater focus on cutscenes, and a more immediately fleshed out world despite some aspects of it being clouded in mystery. It’s a refreshing change compared to what From normally opts for, and with four different endings, there’s no shortage of replay value if you want to see all of them.
Sekiro is set in Japan during the Sengoku Period, a time of strife and bloodshed across the country. You can see the effects the war has had wherever you go in Sekiro’s world, and the slew of characters you meet during your journeys will often refer to the state of the country and what’s happening to it. You play as a shinobi, fittingly named Sekiro, who simultaneously loses his left arm and the young lord he was tasked with protecting, Kuro, in the early moments of the game. Fitted with a deadly shinobi prosthetic and an undeniable thirst for revenge, Sekiro sets out to save Kuro and protect his royal bloodline. The plot goes far deeper than that, but revealing its surprises and changes in direction spoils what makes its simplicity enjoyable to begin with.
Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne follow a gameplay loop that FromSoftware had fine-tuned over the years, and Sekiro throws most of it out the window in favour of new mechanics and fresh ideas. The trademark difficulty that these games have become synonymous with is still present in full force, but the challenge is presented in new ways. At its core, Sekiro’s combat revolves around an intricate dance of offence and defence, knowing when it’s your turn to get aggressive while simultaneously being able to back off and turtle up when the circumstances demand it. The result is a deceptively deep system of back and forth that’s consistently challenging and testing the player in new ways, even towards the end of its roughly 20-hour story.
It’s because of this intricate and deep combat system that I believe Sekiro has some of the best boss fights that FromSoftware has ever designed. Most of the one versus one fights are far smaller in scale compared to some of the stuff you might find in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, but Sekiro isn’t built for those kinds of encounters. The vast majority of what’s here is challenging but fair, and overcoming the hurdles placed in front of me became some of the most gratifying moments I’ve experienced in a game. While the ability to resurrect oneself after death might sound like it undermines the difficulty, it keeps Sekiro from ever becoming frustratingly cheap with some of its enemies when you first fight them and provides a streamlined way to get the practice you’ll need to take down some of these foes.
Where Sekiro truly sets itself apart is through the shinobi prosthetic, which further deepens options in combat. Tools like the shuriken and flame-vent become paramount to taking out certain enemy types, and other options like the fire-crackers can give you a significant edge in boss fights. There are A LOT of prosthetic tools, more than I could’ve ever expected pre-release, but unfortunately, not all of them are useful. A majority of them are situational at best, and there’s a solid chance that some of them just won’t be used by most players. It’s a shame, too, since some of them toy with interesting ideas, but they don’t properly fit into the game. These prosthetics can all be upgraded with materials found within the world, which accompanies the new skill point-based levelling system nicely, creating a strong sense of player progression as Sekiro’s moveset continually evolves.
It’s indisputable that FromSoftware are masters of world and level design. Their worlds have an unparalleled sense of place and interconnectivity that further enhances the atmosphere that they strive for. I don’t think that From has designed a world as intertwined and linked as Sekiro’s is since the original Dark Souls. You can visit almost every area on the map from the initial hub zone with no loading screens. It’s laid out across a more horizontal plane as opposed to Dark Souls’s vertically stacked locales, and it makes for a more authentic and lived-in world. It’s littered with NPCs and traders who’ll share their stories with you, trade favours, and provide insight into the areas they inhabit. These small interactions are more meaningful than they initially seem due to a gameplay mechanic that I won’t spoil, but it’s one of Sekiro’s more interesting and unique elements.
It’s not so often now that we see games set in what could be considered Feudal Japan. There’s a refreshing amount of creativity and scenery present in Sekiro that further separates it from its contemporaries. There’s a staggeringly varied number of environments to traverse that have a distinct look and feel, whether it’s the overbearing structures of Ashina Castle or the more reserved and quaint architecture found in Senpou Temple. The same can be said for enemy design in the latter half of the game which is unmistakably influenced by Miyazaki’s artistry. The game also has an excellent level of polish and performance on both PS4 and PC, which is more important than you’d expect due to the speed of Sekiro’s combat.
I have spent A LOT of time playing FromSoftware games. Ever since I fell in love with Dark Souls, I’ve poured copious amounts of hours into each game without batting an eyelid, and Sekiro is no different in this regard. Much like Bloodborne, it’s refreshing to see the Japanese developer step out of their comfort zone and try something new, with the end result here being a resounding success. Its combination of deep combat, excellent boss fights, and enthralling level design has left its mark as my favourite game to come from Miyazaki and his team. If you like any of From’s previous work, you owe it to yourself to try Sekiro, and even if you don’t and want to give it a try, I can’t recommend it enough.