Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the culmination of From Software’s past work, and it shows through influences from Tenchu, Bloodborne, and the Dark Souls series. With its latest release, the studio has once again chosen to explore the ninja fantasy theme, bringing back the 16th century feudal Japan setting. There’s no direct relation to Tenchu, however, as Sekiro is poised as a fresh IP with a reimagined take on the Sengoku period.
From Software makes it clear very early on that this isn’t an Action RPG in the vein of Dark Souls, or even Bloodborne for that matter. There’s no character creation nor a variety of combat classes to choose from. Instead, you’re put in control of “Wolf”, a skilled shinobi warrior who is tasked to protect his young master, the heir to the blood of the dragon. Things don’t go according to plan, however, and the shinobi loses his arm in combat and is left to die, while his young master is taken captive by an opposing Ashina clan. Saved by a mysterious old sculptor, Wolf is given a prosthetic replacement for his arm and thus granted a chance to save the young heir. Unlike in the Souls series, your character actively engages in dialogue with NPCs, and you’re essentially living his story as opposed to carving your own path.
Gameplay involves both action and stealth, and the latter is just as viable an option as engaging enemies in combat with your katana. This brain versus brawn approach is complemented by From Software’s well-established interconnected level design, as the path ahead of you often branches out and rewards you for exploration with the discovery of alternate approaches to enemy encounters. It’s even possible to stealthily attack some of the game’s bosses, provided you find the safe passage that lets you sneak up to them.
Swordplay is by far the most exhilarating and unique aspect of gameplay. In order to defeat an enemy, you need to break their posture by successfully striking them and gradually wearing them down before finally landing the deathblow. This will often be difficult when facing bosses, against whom the margin of error is far less, as some of their attacks can deal a fatal blow. A faster method for breaking an enemy’s posture is by timing your block just before their attack hits, resulting in a deflection. It’s an immensely rewarding mechanic that encourages you to strategize and be vigilant about your timing. The resulting deathblow is essentially an extension of Bloodborne’s visceral attacks, but the concept is more tightly knit into the combat loop here. Much like his enemies, Wolf also has a posture gauge that fills up as you continue to take hits or block incoming attacks. Your posture breaks if it fills up, leaving you open to your enemy’s attack.
In a stark contrast from the Souls series, there are no alternative weapons or armor to discover in Sekiro. However, unlike in the former, there’s a diverse list of moves to unlock here, giving you the opportunity to be more creative in battle. The bulk of in-game customization comes in the form of tools for the aforementioned prosthetic arm, ranging from an ax capable of penetrating enemy shields to shurikens that can tackle quicker enemies. These tools can further be upgraded for greater efficacy. The idea is to encourage you to pick the right tool for given situations, particularly when opting between engaging enemies via swordplay and stealth. You’ll also find a grappling hook attachment for the prosthetic arm that lets you swing across to otherwise unreachable areas.
Sekiro’s skill tree is divided into several sub-trees, each of which allows you to acquire a broad range of skills within each category. Should you prefer to focus on directly confronting enemies in combat, you’d spend greater skill points on Ashina Arts. Similarly, Shinobi Arts are for those who prefer engaging in stealth tactics. Meanwhile, Prosthetic Arts allow you to broaden skills pertaining to Wolf’s shinobi arm.
The flow of progression is where Sekiro echoes the greatest similarities to the Souls games. The idol shrines – Sekiro’s version of bonfires – serve as checkpoints that restore your health and replenish your healing gourd upon resting. You’ll also find gourd seeds with which to increase the number of times you can heal yourself using your healing gourd, much like how you upgraded your Estus flask in the Souls games.
In a bid to shake up its formula, From Software has completely done away with all forms of the asynchronous online multiplayer features found in its last few games. There’s no way to invite another player for coop and no way for other players to invade you. You won’t even find random messages left on the ground by other players. That said, you will still occasionally find NPC allies accompanying you in battle. It’s clear that Sekiro has been designed as a single-player game, though there’s no denying that the absence of these features certainly hurts the game’s longevity and replay value.
While the game may or may not favor certain playstyles, Sekiro is generally easier to get a grasp of and is less overwhelming than the Souls series or Bloodborne are at first. By default, there are several leniencies afforded to the player. For starters, unlike in the Souls games, you’ve got a varied and diverse move set at your disposal, which allows you to be more creative in battle. Stealth makes it easier to overcome odds stacked against you. Even when engaging in combat, your enemies will often be slower and will go down with just two or even a single well-timed charged strike from your katana. As a result, mob control is also fairly easier than in the studio’s other games. In stark contrast to Dark Souls and Bloodborne’s larger-than-life beasts with unorthodox hitboxes who throw area-of-effect attacks at you, the bosses in Sekiro are largely grounded in nature and have limited reach.
Dark Souls and Bloodborne have a stamina gauge that prevents you from endless evasion. However, this is not the case in Sekiro, and you can evade freely without restriction. This, in turn, puts you in a safer position during combat, as you can comfortably evade away when your posture gauge is almost full and wait for it to recover before engaging the enemy again. You’re also able to jump in Sekiro, and given that it has invincibility frames at startup, it’s an even safer way to bail out of tight situations. There’s also less risk involved in repeatedly attempting deflects during battle, as failing to do so still yields a block. Couple this with the ability to revive Wolf upon death, and you’ve got a From Software game that is less tailored towards the masochistic crowd than its predecessors.
Not everything about Sekiro is on the easier side of things, however. The usual leveling system found in previous From Software games is gone, and you’re unable to farm orbs and brute force your way to higher character stats. Instead, you’re only able to upgrade your attributes via Prayer beads, which are earned by defeating bosses. This is a welcome change, as it eliminates grinding and keeps the focus on mastering the combat.