Every muscle in our body is clenching as General Naomori Kawarada swats us away for (what feels like) the 50th time. We’re pitting our wits against one of the earliest named enemies in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and this man-mountain treats us with the insolence you’d expect from a Dark Souls boss.
That’s no coincidence either, as Sekiro is the latest from the team behind that seminal series and Bloodborne. We die, respawn, and race back to see if we can crack his immaculately detailed armour. It’s a pattern many will be familiar with, but Sekiro is more than ‘Dark Souls with a Shinobi’. It’s an evolution and refinement that promises to enthral fans once more.
Prepare to… you know
Let’s get the obvious point out the way. Sekiro is tough. It’s also fair, but you need to be patient and spend time dancing between slashes, slices, and swings to figure out enemy attack patterns. Our fight with the hulking General is also a reminder that spamming buttons won’t get you far in your quest. But, here in lies in the compelling challenge, as you learn how to get the better of your opponents and exploit weaknesses.
If Dark Souls is about defence, and Bloodborne focuses on offence, then Sekiro finds a middle ground between the two. That’s in large part to the Posture system, a metre that lets you know when characters are vulnerable. If you block too much, you risk leaving the protagonist exposed to a heavy enemy attack. But, focus on parrying and keeping pressure on your opponent which fills their Posture meter, and you’ll have a chance to perform a strong attack that will kill off low-level enemies and seriously harm bosses.
The rhythm this creates feels era-appropriate. Fights are a battle of wits as much as attrition, and deceiving your enemies can create opportunities to sneak in a killing blow. So while the heritage is clear in the way you dodge and adapt, fights in Sekiro feel unique to this setting.
And what a setting it is. Set in the Sengoku period of Japanese history (broadly the 15th/16th century), Sekiro’s environment is vibrant and lush in a way that’s inviting instead of intimidating. Snow-capped mountains and castles that loom in the distance early on give you a chance to get used to your grappling hook, while a dense forest we explore near the Senpou Temple later on gives us the chance to ghost above a group of moldy-looking monks, whose graying skin betrays their unbelievable agility.
Seriously, that gang can cause some serious damage.
The Prosthetic Rules
Anyway, speaking of the grappling hook, it’s part of a larger set of tools that are built into the Prosthetic Arm you’ll get early on. As we explore the game’s opening stage, the Ashina Outskirts, we come across a Shuriken Wheel that can be fitted into our arm in the hub world of the Dilapidated Temple.
This toy allows us to spit sharp Shurikens at enemies, forcing them to stagger and giving us a chance to attack. When we’re whisked to Senpou Temple later on, we see The Wolf has found Fire Crackers and a Flame Vent to help in his quest to retrieve the Divine Heir.
These gadgets not only allow you to formulate a play style, they also offer variety to the way you tackle enemies. You can go in gung-ho, hurling projectiles to create an opening, or lure in your foes before dousing with them in flames. Simply put, they’re a lot of fun to experiment with.
You might have noticed that we’ve avoided talking about death, (um, barring the headline) and that’s because it’s one of the areas where Sekiro remixes the Dark Souls formula in quite a radical way. Death isn’t the end here, as you’ll have a chance to resurrect yourself if you go down in a fight. Enemies will saunter off, and a well-timed revive will give you the chance to sneak up on them or flee the scene.
If that sounds overly-generously on paper, it doesn’t come across that way when you play, as you enemies will take huge chunks of your health bar off with just one swipe. And, in one cruel twist, if you die proper, you’ll lose half your XP and currency. For good. There’s no tracking back to retrieve them, they’re gone. If games have made cheating death an art form, than Sekiro makes it something to embrace and master.
But then, that’s part of Sekiro’s charm. It’s both familiar in some of its rhythms and system, yet entirely unique in others. It takes what you know about Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and twists it in ways that delight. Yes, you’ll die a fair bit in Sekiro, but that’s part of the fun.
In the moments where you get to stare out across the Ashina skyline, admiring a world that is detailed and vast, the dread of stepping out into the unknown is stymied by the thrill of what awaits.
Pre-order your copy of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice from GAME today and if you want the latest news, features, and deals from GAME, sign up to our newsletter today!