‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’ Review In Progress: So Much Harder Than ‘Dark Souls’ Or ‘Bloodborne’
Be afraid. Prepare to die—over and over again.
You’ve never played anything quite like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twicebefore.
I’m a FromSoftware veteran. I’ve beaten Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, Bloodborne and Dark Souls III. Some of these I’ve beaten solo without ever summoning another player. I’m not the best Souls player out there, but I’m pretty good.
Each of these games has been challenging. Scrabbling your way through the Boletarian Palace, navigating the treacherous passages of Sen’s Fortress, finally overcoming the odds . . . it always comes with a sense of pride and accomplishment. It’s unlike any other type of game I can remember. Beating those ridiculous Maneaters in Demon’s Souls. Finally taking down Smough and Ornstein, not to mention getting past those dreadful Silver Archers. Putting an end to the beastly Vicar Amelia. What emotional moments these all were.
Finally getting to the bitter end has always come with a sense of relief and triumph. You’ve made it through the gauntlet and to the other end and now you can go do it again in NG+.
Go East, Shinobi
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is so much harder than any of these games it’s not even funny. I’m far from completing the game, but even in its opening few hours it’s more challenging than some of the most difficult parts of previous FromSoft games. As you progress further, it only gets more and more difficult, even as you are required to hone your skills to a fine edge. As the game’s various skill trees blossom, and you gain various new powerful Shinobi prosthetic tools, the true scope of Sekiro’s depth comes to life. But even as you grow in skill and power, so do your foes. And the learning curve is steep and relentless.
The game’s challenge is heightened further by the fact that you have to go it alone. You can’t turn on “easy mode” by summoning help. In Sekiro, you’re a lone wolf and you must fend for yourself.
Dear readers and potential players of this game, here is a truth: You will die so many times, in so many different ways, that when you do finally topple that ridiculously challenging boss, you will feel godlike and badass and just utterly relieved all at the same time. You’ll exhale without realizing you were holding your breath.
How many controllers you go through before you get to that point remains to be seen. It’s the kind of game that will certainly encourage rage-quitting.
If that sounds familiar—if it reminds you of Dark Souls, perhaps—get over this delusion. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is much more challenging than anything FromSoftware has made previously.
And frankly, I think it’s the kind of game that most people will never finish. That’s normal for most single-player games, but I think it’s doubly true here. I bet we see a pretty high drop-out level not that far into the game. I could be wrong, but this is my prediction. And that’s fine. This is a game for the truly masochistic, the diehard, the hardcore. The true ninjas.
I love it. Sometimes I hate it, but then I figure out the puzzle, I figure out what I was doing wrong. I learn, I improve, I emerge victorious. And then it’s on to the next overwhelming challenge.
I think Dark Souls is a reasonable challenge for just about any gamer that puts the time and effort into it to see it through. I think Bloodborne, while faster and perhaps a bit more challenging in some respects, is also a game that can be overcome by most reasonably decent gamers, especially since you can summon help (though I played before there was any online community during the pre-release review phase and I managed . . . once I got the hang of it . . .)
But Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is going to intimidate the hell out of people. It’s not just learning a new system, either. That’s part of it—you will need to relearn everything you thought you knew about these games. It’s a much more radical shift in gameplay style than even Bloodborne.
With Bloodborne, I simply had to retrain my brain to play the game differently than I would in Dark Souls, trading the sword-and-board for a faster, more aggressive and riskier approach. In Sekiro, it goes beyond that. Mechanically, there are just way more moving pieces. Between your sword attacks, your grappling hook, all the prosthetics and items, and all the various ways you have to defend and attack . . . it’s an intricate, fluid and frankly beautiful system.
In Sekiro, you have to learn to respond to a vast array of rapidly incoming threats. There are sweeping attacks that you have to jump to avoid, potentially unleashing a cool jump-based counter-move; there are thrusting attacks that require a special skill to properly parry that also opens up a killing blow (otherwise you’ll need to dodge to the side); there are normal slashing attacks that can be parried or dodged, with benefits to both. A perfectly timed parry opens up a Shinobi Deathblow. Simply blocking enough attacks in a row can drain your opponents Posture as well.
Then there are grabbing attacks and other special attacks and you’ll have to learn how to properly counter each one, which in turn requires you to be able spot each opponent’s tell and anticipated the attack. It’s all so fast and brutal.
Unlike Souls and Bloodborne, there is no Stamina bar in Sekiro. You still have Vitality/HP, but Posture replaces Stamina. The higher your Vitality, the quicker your Posture replenishes. Holding up your sword also replenishes Posture more quickly. When you’re out of Vitality you die; when you’re out of Posture you open yourself up to devastating attacks. It’s a really interesting, innovative system that works incredibly well in practice.
Breaking an enemy’s Posture will allow you to deal a Shinobi Deathblow. This will take out a normal enemy, but harder enemies can have more than one health bar, meaning you’ll need to break their posture two times or more. Breaking each enemy’s posture varies, but the basic rules apply. Either widdle down their Vitality or exploit their weaknesses. Either way, when that blood red dot appears on your foe, go in for the killing stroke.
There are many ways to break an enemy’s Posture:
- Perfectly time a counter.
- Stealth attack/backstab.
- Keep parrying an enemy until their posture breaks.
- Keep attacking an enemy until their posture breaks.
- Use various special moves/counters you gain in the skill tree.
- Use various Shinobi prosthetics like the Shinobi ax to break shields/posture.
- Combine various elements of the above to exploit weaknesses.
Pretty quickly you should be able to face down normal enemies with relative ease, though you’ll often find yourself facing a mob of five or six or more, some firing long-range weapons while others come in for the kill. And, naturally, as you progress into more difficult areas the normal bad guys become more challenging as well.
It’s the higher-tiered enemies, mini-bosses and actual bosses that are the real challenge, of course. As soon as an enemy has two health bars they become enormously difficult. You can sneak attack some of them to take out one health bar, but if you wait to try to get a second sneak attack they’ll go back to full health. Cheesing isn’t that easy in Sekiro.
But even with one health bar remaining, many of these more challenging enemies are incredibly difficult to take down. Many can kill you in just one or two hits. Their moves are more difficult to counter. They’re either bigger or stronger or faster than common enemy types, and you won’t have much Vitality or Posture or healing items to fall back on. Learning enemy movesets and timing in these encounters is crucial, but even then it’s so easy to make one tiny wrong move and find yourself, well, dead again. You can also eavesdrop on certain enemies who will give you clues about upcoming fights or secrets. Definitely eavesdrop whenever you can.
Another big change is the lack of grinding to improve your character, at least not to the degree you found in previous From games. In order to increase stats, you need to gather four prayer beads which are typically dropped by these harder mini-bosses. After four are collected you gain just a smidgeon more Health and Posture. Beating bosses grants you Memories which you can trade in for an increase in Attack power.
The whole “die twice” thing is also kind of a tease. Bonfires in this game are called Scultpor’s Idols, and you find them as you progress. They serve as checkpoints. Resting at them will refill your health and this game’s version of Estus Flasks. And you’ll regain one revive option, allowing you to come back to life with half your health and continue the fight. You can earn more revives by killing enemies.
But this won’t replenish your Healing Gourds (Estus Flasks, basically).
Meanwhile, death comes with a cost. Something about the blood of the Divine Heir that’s been bestowed upon Sekiro which gives him the power to come back to life is also spreading a disease known as Dragonrot. It will begin inflicting any NPC you come into contact with which can hinder their quest-lines unless you heal the affliction.
Likewise, the more Dragonrot there is, the lower your chance of recovering Skill XP and sen (money) become. Skill XP is what you use to unlock skills in the game’s various skill trees. Earn enough for one point and that point is “banked” and you’ll never lose it until you spend it. But if you’re somewhere in-between skill points and die, you’ll lose half your XP and half your money (which is used to buy items in this game.)
Unseen Aid is a stat in this game that protects against that loss. A higher Unseed Aid percentage means you’re more likely to not lose XP or sen. The spread of Dragonrot decreases your chances of receiving Unseen Aid. Because dying isn’t punishment enough, I guess.
At least you do have a chance to Revive, with half your life and no replenishment of Healing Gourds, and you can gain extra Revives by killing enemies.
Thus you are left facing enormously challenging enemies, losing XP and currency (almost) every time you die, unable to summon help or grind to improve stats (though you can to earn more skills . . .) carving your way through a demonic version of Sengoku Japan. All you have is your skill and your wits.
It’s a sublime distillation of everything that makes the Souls games so amazing, but it truly is more challenging than any of those games by a very long mile. I am not exaggerating here. I think Sekiro may be one of the very best games ever made, but it is not going to be for everyone. I still recommend that everyone gives it a shot. It takes patience but it’s just such a well-crafted action game, I’ve never played anything quite like it.
I’m playing the game at my own pace rather than rushing through. I’d get too frustrated, I think. So I’ll take my time to finish this beast. And I’m okay with that. I’m in no hurry to be done with the world of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It’s the best game I’ve played since Bloodborne.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice launches on PS4, Xbox One and PC tomorrow, March 22nd.
This is a review-in-progress. In future installments I’ll delve into the story and world, the graphics and sound and so forth. I wanted to talk chiefly about combat and challenge in this opening foray. But the world-building, the level design, it’s every bit as outstanding and I can’t wait to talk more about it. Good luck!