Review – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

There aren’t many developers that I have full faith in. Developers who I don’t need to worry about if the product is going to be of good quality and something I’ll enjoy. FromSoftware has yet to fail me, but I will admit my faith was a bit shaken with the announcement that Activision was attached to the game in any capacity. Activision doesn’t exactly have the best track record with publishing, but luckily their involvement was limited. I’m happy to say that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is 100% a FromSoftware game. Be prepared to die… a lot.

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice you play as Sekiro, a shinobi bound to protect a young lord who is the descendant of an ancient bloodline. This ancient bloodline binds those with it a blessing, or perhaps a curse, of everlasting life. The Ashina clan wants this power, so they plan a surprise attack and manage to capture the young lord and severely hurt Sekiro. You’re now tasked with stopping the Ashina clan and rescuing the young lord. You will stop at nothing and as the lord’s shinobi, not even death will stop you.

The story of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is inspired by 1500’s Sengoku Japan, which is also referred to as the age of warring states. This plays as an important backdrop for Sekiro’s story and offers up additional lore which is something FromSoftware does well. However, Sekiro is a much more straight forward story experience than their other games. There is actually a fairly straight forward story line to follow, and while it isn’t all that bombastic, it’s nice to not have to cipher all the story out of lore items.

You must stop those who want to use the young lords bloodline for evil.

Don’t get me wrong, Sekiro‘s story may be more focused, but it’s certainly no UnchartedThere are plenty of plot lines, special endings, and story tidbits that are completely missable if you don’t explore, find special objects, or complete tasks in a certain order. In FromSoftware’s typical fashion, it will be impossible to complete all story lines and quests with a single playthrough. New Game + is a must, and as is tradition, NG+ and beyond will become harder and change a few things up with the enemies.

Like most FromSoftware games, gameplay is where Sekiro shines. While it still retains the same structural bones of the Souls/Borne games, it is very much its own beast. Being a shinobi, Sekiro’s main weapon is his katana, Kusabimaru. Unlike other FromSoftware games, you won’t be equipping different weapons or even upgrading it using some form of currency. This may seem limiting at first, and at times I do wish it had more weapon variety, but the combat with the katana is still invigorating. Combat in Sekiro is not focused on maximizing damage or upgrading elemental damage. Instead, there is a heavy focus on breaking your enemies posture. This is done by pressing the attack, performing perfect parries, and doing damage to your enemy. There are other aspects with your tools, but I’ll get into that later.

The learning curve was more about forgetting my muscle memory of the Souls games and understanding the new combat elements at work here. In most cases you’ll want to stand firm, exchange blows, and focus on perfect parrying, rather than rolling away and looking for open angles. Not to say the ‘ol dodge and pepper attack strategy won’t work here with a good amount of bosses, but eventually you’ll need to play by Sekiro’s rules. Breaking your opponents posture is your main focus. It doesn’t matter how much life your opponent has left, if you break their posture you can go in for a shinobi strike which will either kill or take an entire life bar away.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Prepare to get up close and personal with intense sword fights.

Some enemies will require you to do damage before being able to break their posture meter. The more damage you do, the longer it takes to recover their posture, and at lower life levels they won’t even be able to recover at all. These systems are how you take down your enemy, but they also apply to you. The posture system essentially replaces the stamina system in Dark Souls; if the your posture breaks, it leaves you wide open for a devastating attack. Refilling your health bar can help you regain your posture, but there are also items to consume that will slow the build up or decrease a chunk of it.

As I mentioned before, there is no currency to be used for upgrading your weapon or character stats. In fact, Sekiro does away with FromSoftware’s typical character building of increasing stats and upgrading weapons. The only way to increase total health and guard meter is by defeating bosses that will drop prayer beads. You’ll need to acquire four prayer beads to create a prayer necklace which will increase your total health and posture. Using this system forces you to get better, to learn boss moves, and adapt to the fights. No longer can you grind out souls to increase your stats to make a boss fight easier.

There may be no souls or stats to upgrade, but there is still experience points to gain. Experience is dolled out in the traditional sense by killing enemies, and once you acquire enough XP then you’ll be granted a skill point. You’ll lose half your XP upon death, but you won’t lose any skill points if you continue to die. Skill points are used to upgrade your skills and combat arts. This includes special moves that you can equip (you can only equip one at a time), or passive skills like improved stealth or increasing your total amount of Spirit Emblems you can carry.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Spend your skill points in the skill tree to unlock new moves and passive skills.

A similar system is used for upgrading you sword. Defeating main bosses grants you the memory of the fight, which can then be used to increase your total attack damage. Sekiro isn’t completely devoid of a currency grind since you’ll need quite a bit of Sen (money) to purchase upgrades for your prosthetic arm. Early on in the story, you’ll acquire a prosthetic arm which grants you the ability to use a grappling hook and ten different tools. The prosthetic tools are really the only variety you get with the combat. Some seem much more important than others, but all have their uses for each enemy.

For instance, the Loaded Axe will break wooden shields and do a large amount of posture damage. Shurikens are good for long range, baiting, and taking out enemies that are airborne. The Firecrackers stun enemies leaving them open for attacks and does extra posture damage to animals or creatures. These ended up being the main three tools I used throughout the entire game, but tools like the Mist Raven giving you the ability to vanish dodge an attack and appear behind an enemy may suit you better. You’ll need to use the Spirit Emblems to use your prosthetic tools. All tools besides the grappling hook will use Spirit Emblems, and some will even use more than one. All ten of the tools can be upgraded, which will increase their effectiveness or change the attack all together; you’ll need quite a bit of Sen and crafting materials to upgrade the tools.

Acquiring Sen is easy enough as you’ll collect some from slain enemies and pick up Sen pouches from around the environments. Collecting it is easy, holding onto it is another story, however. Each time you die you’ll lose half of your Sen. This means early on in the game you’ll likely be broke as a joke since you’ll die a lot in the beginning as you get use to the combat system. There is a method you can use to help retain some of your Sen so you don’t lose it all from dying. After you have a decent chunk of Sen, and you aren’t too sure if you’ll make it out alive after seeing the next mini-boss. Make your way back to a merchant and spend your Sen on Sen pouches. You’ll lose a little bit of money doing this, but it’s better than losing it all from dying multiple times on the next boss. Unlike losing Sen, you won’t lose Sen pouches when you die.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Using Sen and other materials allows you to upgrade your prosthetic tools.

Speaking of death, with a name like Shadows Die Twice, and it being a FromSoftware game, you know that it’s going to have some interesting death mechanics. But before I fully explain all the death mechanics, I need to talk about Dragon Rot. As I mentioned above, the young lord you have sworn to protects has a pure bloodline that is imbued with the Divine Dragon. This gives the lord, anyone in his bloodline, and anyone that he makes a blood pact with, the ability to never die. This is why the other clan is trying to capture him and this is why Sekiro himself can die and resurrect. It is a blessing and a curse, as well as an important plot point.

Resurrecting from death doesn’t come without a cost, however. As you continue to die and resurrect, you’ll curse the ones around you with a terrible disease called Dragon Rot. You’re essentially stealing their life force to resurrect yourself, and if you continue to give them Dragon Rot, they can die permanently. You can rid them of Dragon Rot by using a Dragon Tear, but these are limited items, so use them wisely.

Not only do you run the risk of losing important characters, you also lower the chance of receiving Unseen Aid. The max is a 30% chance of receiving the Unseen Aid, but each time you die and resurrect it will lower. The Unseen Aid is a granted upon death, and if you’re lucky enough to receive this, you do not lose any of the Sen or XP from that death. There is no way to increase the percentage above thirty, and since it’s a low chance, I wouldn’t bet on receiving the aid and make sure you store your Sen as I mentioned earlier.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Sculptor Idols are used like Dark Souls bonfires. Access fast travel, skill trees, and enhancing Sekiro.

FromSoftware changes their death mechanic up a bit in Sekiro and it does make it a bit easier. When you die, you have the choice to resurrect in the exact spot your were stricken down at or resurrect back to the last Sculptor’s Idol (essentially bonfires). If you barely did any damage to your enemy, but used up all your health items or Gourd uses (estus flasks) then you may want to just go back to the idol to refill items and your gourd. However, I recommend using the resurrect as often as you can even if you know you won’t be able to beat the enemy. It essentially gives you another shot and additional time to practice and learn moves without having to start the fight over. You also no longer have the opportunity to retrieve your XP or Sen from your death location. When you die and restart at an idol you’ll automatically lose half of each resource unless you receive the Unseen Aid.

Stealth also plays an important roll in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but I feel like it’s the least effect mechanic in the game. Sekiro takes inspiration from the Tenchu series, but unfortunately streamlines the stealth elements so much that it can cheapen the experience all together. What I mean by this is that you’ll get the typical new wave stealth where hiding in tall grass makes you invisible. Crouching down even out in the open will still lower your presence. Enemies have a big bright alert indicator over their head that can be seen through walls. This means that most situations can be dealt with by stealth killing, hiding for ten seconds until you see the alert indicator go away, then stealth kill the next guy. There are a few moments of good stealth moments where you can tell they were made with stealth in mind, but the general open world makes it too easy to cheese stealth.

Most of these elements are incorporated very well, because let’s face it, FromSoftware knows how to build a cohesive experience. However, in typical FromSoftware fashion, the performance isn’t perfect. I played my entire time on the Xbox One X, and while there wasn’t any massive frame rate drops in important parts, it does still happen. There is also some pretty noticeable frame pacing issues that had me seriously question how an attack got through my parry.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Stealth is very important in order to survive this world, but often can be cheesed.

There is also a fairly big balance issue when it comes to the regular enemy fodder and the bosses. In other FromSoftware games the hordes still put up a decent fight and they will introduce new enemies or elements that will prepare you for a boss fight. In Sekiro, the regular enemies are so easy to dispatch and with the inclusion of the simple stealth mechanics, you likely will not be prepared for the first real boss you face. Even when you come up to a tougher mini-boss, you still usually have an opportunity to stealth attack them to take down a health bar. The main bosses don’t offer that opportunity, stealth isn’t allowed, and you’re now forced to adapt to a much more aggressive fighting style than any enemy before them. Also, with no way of grinding to get better, I can see why some hit a wall and give up.

Continuing with the discussion of the regular enemy fodder and boss, let’s talk about graphics and their design. I have to admit I was very let down by the overall enemy design in Sekiro besides a few exceptions. For the most part you’re going to be fighting pretty standard looking Samurai type warriors, even most of the mini and main bosses have a pretty grounded design. There are some weird beasts, and a couple of cool bosses like the snake and ape, but after playing Demon Souls, three Dark Souls games, and the fantastic Bloodborne, I can’t help but be let down by the designs here.

While I wasn’t impressed by the character designs, the world design is top notch. I will admit that I was worried in the beginning as it does start off slow and linear. But once you get passed a certain point in the game, it opens up multiple winding paths that left me a bit lost. Essentially you’ll need to test the waters of each path until you reach points that are too hard for you. This is a good way of acquiring Prayer Beads and Gourd seeds to level up a bit before moving onto one paths main boss. You’ll go from cramped castle corridors to sprawling vistas with beautiful Japanese architecture and plant landscapes, as well as exploring underwater levels. There are some truly beautiful sections of Sekiro.

Plenty of these cliff side good views.

The overall graphics are the best FromSoftware has produced, and while I still think that Bloodborne’s aesthetic was better implemented, the overall visuals are much sharper. There are far less instances of aliasing, objects and environments have a much more sharp and clean look, and the draw distance is improved. It’s certainly not a graphical showcase, but there were still many times I stood on the edge of a cliff side and observed the view. FromSoftware has always acknowledged that gameplay comes before pushing beautiful visuals, and I can respect that.

The sound design is well done from the steel crashing together during duels to the surprisingly well voiced acted dialogue. I did play it in Japanese with English subs, so while I couldn’t understand the intricacies in the voice acting, the Japanese voice actors all provided convincing lines. The general sound design and ambient sounds of the environments are high quality offering a greater deal of immersion while exploring.

The soundtrack was a bit hit or miss for me, and by no means is it bad, but I was also expecting a larger variety of epic compositions during boss fights. The Dark Souls games always had very grand soundtracks that matched the monumental over the top boss fights. But much like the more toned down enemy and boss designs in Sekiro, the soundtrack was also more subdued. There are still some fantastic pieces of music and the score for the final boss is exemplary, but I think the limitations of using the traditional Japanese wind flutes and drum instruments held them back a bit. It feels very authentic and at no point did I feel it was forced, but there is a noticeable lack of punchy scores.

I absolutely loved my time with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and I fully plan on doing multiple NG+ runs. The mix of Dark Souls and Tenchu is a concept that I wanted for a long time, and while some concepts and mechanics didn’t come out perfect, it is still a fantastic game. While I wish there was more stand out enemy and boss designs, the level and environments more than makes up for it with some truly impressive presentations and layouts. I do wish there was a bit more balance and that the stealth was a bit harder like their sword combat. I also would have liked to have seen more weapon and stance variety like in NiohBut if you’re a Souls fan, picking up Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a no brainer.

Graphics: 8.5

Environments are the real showcase here with open sprawling vistas. Character models are good looking, but there is a lack of interesting designs. Up close texture work is questionable at times.

Gameplay: 9.0

Sword fights can be exhilarating with a fairly steep learning curve. Difficulty spikes and unbalanced stealth can make some fights feel unfair, but never impossible. There isn’t much variety in combat outside of a handful of prosthetic tools.

Sound: 8.5

Swords fights feel heavy due to the impact sound effects of swords clashing. Various battle sounds of monsters and items are all well done. Soundtrack is a bit hit or miss, but there are some brilliant moments of great songs during boss fights.

Fun Factor: 8.5

Repetitive boss fights, lack of character options, shallow stealth options, and balancing issues harm this otherwise fantastic blend of Dark Souls and Tenchu.

Final Verdict: 8.5

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is available now on Xbox One, Playstation 4, and PC.

Reviewed on Xbox One X.