When I got back from the restroom and entered the preview room I was met with a torrent of frustrated cries. Almost everyone in the room was fighting a gruesome mini-boss know as the Ogre, which was manhandling any person foolish enough to challenge it. This is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the newest game from Dark Souls developer From Software. Recently we got a chance to sit down and experience roughly two hours of Sekiro’s unforgiving world.
(Disclaimer: Activision paid for my transportation out to the event, supplied food, and gifted me a demon mask.)
Difficulty has become synonymous with From Software’s games. Whether it’s through vicious bosses, intricate traps, or punishing mechanics, these titles force players to either learn from their mistakes or die trying. Sekiro takes this formula and supercharges by forcing users to master more than one playstyle. This is unlike previous “Soulsborne” titles which allowed courageous warriors to tweak and customize their own character’s build.
Instead, players are limited to the katana and will unlock different combat techniques via a skill tree. While it’s a bummer that Sekiro severely limits your arsenal at first, the polished swordplay quickly made up for the lack of additional weapons. Every enemy is a mini-puzzle that needs to be solved. Some foes are incredibly aggressive forcing you to go on the defensive, while others boast strange fighting styles that you’ll have to comprehend.
It’s a deadly dance, more so because users will have to manage a new mechanic called Posture. Along with a traditional health bar, both you and your opponents boast a yellow meter over their heads that slowly fills as they are attacked or forced to block. Once the Posture meter is completely filled, users can perform a cinematic finishing blow. This will kill most basic foes, but some enemies will require multiple fatal strikes to be permanently put down.
This makes battles tense, as foes can fill up your Posture meter and perform a similar strike that deals a lot of damage to you. This isn’t a huge problem in solo battles, but groups of angry swordsmen proved to be quite a challenge. Sekiro forces you to manage a lot in battle and it’s perhaps the most demanding combat system From Software has ever produced. Thankfully, the protagonist has several tricks up his sleeve to help even the fight.
Despite being locked into using a katana, your shinobi also boasts a prosthetic arm. This “trick arm” is full of different gadgets, consumables, and weapons that can be utilized in combat. Ranging from throwing stars that knock leaping foes out of the air to fireworks that stun foes, there appear to be a lot of different support tools at your disposal. While we only got to experiment with a few, it’s clear that there are quite a few hidden throughout Sekiro’s world.
This is an eloquent solution that adds some much-needed variety to the moment to moment action. Each tool offers different benefits and you can swap between them on the fly. This allowed me to perform some fun combos such as blinding my enemy, striking them while they’re distracted and then setting that foe on fire. Since we only got to play a small slice of the game, we will be interested to see what other gadgets are littered throughout the world.
Yet, the biggest surprises to Sekiro is the implementation of stealth, mobility, and resurrection. Players can now sneak around the world and instantly kill some enemies without alerting others. This is a great way to quickly thin enemy numbers or remove key targets before a battle begins. I have some reservations about being able to instantly kill targets, but a representative of From Software assured me that stealth is more of a tool and less a way to eliminate everyone you come across.
Another big addition is a grappling hook attached to your shinobi’s arm. At designated spots, players can launch themselves up onto branches, rooftops, or cliffs. This allowed me to scout out locations and decide when or where I wanted to pick a fight. Launching through the air is remarkably easy and you can even use the grappling hook to close the distance in a fight.
If all else fails you have one final tool in your bag of tricks. Unlike previous From Software games, you can actually die twice before being whisked away to this game’s version of a bonfire. Players are gifted with the ability to die once and then resurrect on the spot. While this can be used to save your behind if you make a fatal mistake, you can also use this death tactically.
Once you die, foes will walk away to their normal spots. This allows you to come back and strike them while they aren’t looking. It’s a fun little trick, though I noticed enemies seem to be very perceptive when you come back to life and I rarely got to surprise my foes. Additionally, death does have repercussions, as you’ll lose half your experience and money when felled. It’s a nice balance that doesn’t keep the extra life you have from feeling overpowered or game breaking.
Tying this all together is a story about revenge and loyalty. Players assume the role of a shinobi who is wounded and left for dead. After awakening in a mysterious shrine – which acts as Sekiro’s new hub world – he learns that his young lord was taken by a rival army. From Software confirmed during our Q&A that many of the story elements will be hidden or tied to item descriptions. What NPCs we did meet only offered a handful of dialogue and there were no additional cutscenes after we were set loose upon the world.
This is perhaps my biggest concern with Sekiro. While the Dark Souls games relished in obscure storytelling, Sekiro is clearly trying to tell a more concise story. I worry that the cryptic elements of the Soulsborne games will end up hindering our ability to connect with the characters rather than adding depth. We aren’t an unnamed warrior or hunter, but a named protagonist in the very real 16th century Japan. It will be critical that we get a solid plot and not have to dig through mountains of clues to deduce what happened.
Coming out of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice I am more excited than ever to get my hands on it. Despite my issues with the storytelling, From Software has clearly put a lot of time developing this world. Battling my way through large mansions and holy temples was a blast and the new combat system is more demanding than ever. Sekiro could easily be the hardest game this studio has ever produced. Even with some lingering concerns, I look forward to getting my hands on Sekiro and dying many, many, many times.