Although many player’s first exposure to the works of Japanese developer FromSoftware was likely piloting mechs in the ARMORED CORE series, horror aficionados will better know them as the creators of 2015’s PS4 exclusive BLOODBORNE, a Victorian action RPG that took notable cues from H.P. LOVECRAFT and CASTLEVANIA. Now, instead of doubling down with a sequel to those series, they’re taking us back to 16th century Japan in their latest, SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE. Despite being decidedly less horrific overall, SEKIRO features plenty of unsettling environments and hair-raising yokai that make it an easy recommendation to returning fans and newcomers alike.
Players assume the role of Wolf, an orphan raised and trained by a roaming shinobi known as Owl. Serving as the bodyguard to Kuro, the Ashina clan’s divine heir, Wolf is imbued with Kuro’s ‘dragon heritage’ blood resulting in the nifty ability to return from the dead – though limited to a sole use, hence the game’s title. After having his arm cut off by Genichiro, the grandson of one of the clan’s warlords, we awaken in a Buddhist temple greeted by a mysterious sculptor. An ex-shinobi himself, the artist gifts Wolf a prosthetic arm that allows for increased mobility and a variety of crucial abilities.
Functioning much like a grappling hook, the shinobi prosthetic makes zipping around SEKIRO’s environments feel substantially different than the slower, more deliberate gameplay of DARK SOULS or BLOODBORNE. That pace isn’t entirely missing here, however, as combat is still an intense exchange of attacks, parries and blocking that requires patience and split-second timing to truly master. This sense of immense challenge to overcome isn’t lost in SEKIRO, where the almost rhythm-based flow of combat is even more meticulous and frenetic. Enemies do their best to block all incoming attacks, though this slowly drains their posture and sense of balance. Once one of these stats is depleted, a finishing blow can be done, with bosses typically requiring more than just one of these to best.
This difficulty was the subject of numerous articles around the time of the game’s release, with some writers arguing for the implementation of difficulty options in hopes of increasing accessibility. While it’s a topic that warrants discussion, this is hardly the place to do so – though in this reviewer’s experience, nothing is insurmountable if you’re willing to study enemy paths and behaviour, similar to fighting games or old-school platformers. SEKIRO is a game that rewards its players for exactly the amount of effort they’re willing to put in, and not an ounce more. It’s part of what makes FromSoft’s work so fascinating, and why their recent titles have been praised by players looking to be humbled by each game’s toughest bosses.
As with DARK SOULS and BLOODBORNE, the enemy design found in SEKIRO is easily one of the game’s highlights, with baddies ranging from the average foot soldier to a ghostly, kaiju-sized serpent. Though some players may have felt overwhelmed by enemies found in the early sections of FromSoft’s previous work, the game does a stellar job of making you feel confident in your abilities before quickly pulling that rug out from under your proverbial feet.
With each downed foe, players will get more familiar with shinobi life, gradually upgrading their prosthetic arm and gathering seeds to increase the usage of the healing gourd (think health potions). Returning to previously explored areas is the clearest affirmation of this gradual betterment, as even the toughest basic enemy will seem a walk in the park by the story’s end.
In terms of plot, SEKIRO is FromSoft’s most straightforward game yet. Both BLOODBORNE and the SOULS games had some incredibly detailed lore, however, it was mainly done through environmental storytelling or information portrayed to players through the game’s menus. That’s not to say that the worldbuilding here is any less impressive, though it’s a welcome change for the developer. There’s also the option to play the game with entirely English audio for the first time, but it’s hard to recommend in place of the original Japanese.
Spooky enough to please BLOODBORNE’s devotees and fresh enough to bring in new blood, SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE is a triumph. With vibrant environments, fearsome adversaries and possibly the best gameplay in a FromSoft game, it’s another stellar achievement from a developer that only continue to sharpen their blades.
SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.