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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice - Review


Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was From Software’s last biggest hit before the massive hell storm we know as Elden Ring. When the game was originally teased, all we were shown was a contraption made of gears slowly turning and dripping blood. A text screen then dropped, and the audience was shown the text, “Shadows Die Twice.” Fans were speculating that From Software was working on a sequel to Bloodborne which would make sense. Dark Souls 3 ended the year prior to the reveal and From Software would go on to work on other big projects. Bloodborne didn’t really need a follow-up, but the idea of a trilogy was in the minds of many. Would the company follow up on one of their greatest games ever made? The answer was no, because one year later we were shown what “Shadows Die Twice” actually was. A new action-packed adventure which takes place in Sengoku era Japan where we control a shinobi possessing powerful tools and skills. This is when Hidetaki Miyazaki revealed the full name for his next big project. The game was known as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. There was a small percentage of fans who were disappointed that Shadows Die Twice wasn’t a sequel to Bloodborne, but they ignored the disappointment and were still amazed with what From Software had to offer. They would not only stick to their hardcore routes but show that it could take on different formats. A ton of hype built up since the gameplay reveal and when Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice finally released it lived up to the hype. I mean this is From Software we are talking about. The company where no matter what they touch turns to gold. Sekiro received tons of praise from critics, became the fastest selling game From Software had released until Elden Ring, and even managed to nab the GOTY title at the end of 2019. From Software absolutely deserved this moment. They make games which go against industry standards and stand out because of it. Sekiro was a masterpiece, and it was here to stay……… I wasn’t a fan of Sekiro when it was originally released.


I was becoming a Soulsborne fan at the time thanks to the introduction from one of my close friends. I hope you know this story by now. It was difficult at first, but I picked up the franchise really quickly and spent the first half the year catching up on all the greatest they had to offer. Familiarizing myself with the worlds of Bloodborne, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 3. After enough playthroughs of each game I finally decided to pick up Sekiro during a holiday sale. My friend was telling me it was amazing, and I completely went off his advice. Plus, from what I saw in the trailers it had a Japanese setting. I absolutely love Japanese settings. I love each of the time periods, the culture, the mythology, and the influential ideas which the country influenced for future generations. Some of my favorite games take place in Japan. Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Ghost of Tsushima, 13: Sentinels: Aegis Rim, and Persona 5. I was down to exploring more of my favorite setting, but things didn’t go as expected. Sekiro had a completely different design philosophy from the RPG structure which Bloodborne and Dark Souls had. There was no wide selection of weapons and gear to choose from, so I was limited to one type of build and play style. The world lacked the interconnectivity which Bloodborne and Dark Souls had, and at least Dark Souls 3 still managed to have maze-like level design. There were no invincibility frames, so the dodge and counter playstyle I centered myself around was unviable. Sekiro also forced me to heavily rely on deflecting and parrying which is a type of playstyle I absolutely despise. Sekiro was a painful experience to go through. It wasn’t that the game was hard or unfair, but I reached that point where even overcoming the challenges stopped being fun. I never managed to beat the final boss or beat the game properly. I occasionally come back and start new playthroughs. Hoping to hook myself in that time. It still didn’t work though, and I was failing to understand why players even liked this game. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was not for me. Until recently.


I’ve poured over more than eighty hours into Elden Ring now. Explored each section of the map, surpassed every encounter, slayed the toughest foes, killed the demigods, found each secret, and experimented with all possible playstyles. Elden Ring was an absolute dream and pushed my potential harder than any of the previous Soulsborne games. It got me to play differently and think differently which is a mindset I’m always looking for in video games. I ran out of things to do and just needed more of that satisfaction which From Software provides. I wasn’t feeling like replaying Dark Souls 2, and I already replayed Dark Souls 3 before the release of Elden Ring. It made more sense to return to the one I never managed to beat. See if the strength I gained from Elden Ring could be applied here. It was time to finally beat Sekiro. I listened to a couple guides and reviews and learned that the best way to approach Sekiro wasn’t to have the mindset that multiple options should always be provided. Sekiro wants you to adapt a specific playstyle similar to how I adopted the aggressive playstyle of Bloodborne. Sekiro had bosses who worked like rhythmic puzzles and once you figured it out you cracked the code. I stayed calm, looked forward, and persevered. Managed to make my way up to the final boss within a single weekend and defeated him during the time I’m writing this review. I finally beat Sekiro and what an amazing game. It’s not perfect. Some of my minor complaints from before are still around, but my appreciation has grown bigger. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice does so many things better than a majority of action games out there and I want you to understand what specifically. Today we’ll be talking about why I love Sekiro and why it deserves your attention.


Mark of the blade. Mercy on a fiery field. Fostered in the honor of the oldest codes.

Painting the stains. Out across the centuries. Blood upon the banners where the waters flow.


Story

The story takes place during the Sengoku period in a land known as Ashina. Named after its faithful ruler, Isshin Ashina. However, the once peaceful country has been taken over by war and it was up to Isshin to fight for his people. The battles raged on for days until Isshin managed to topple the enemy general and claim momentary peace. He was viewed as an icon and the people not only viewed him as one of the most skilled swordsmen in Ashina, but an all-time symbol of war. Of what could happen if you stand in his way. However, the story isn’t about Isshin and what his legacy would carry forward. No, the story is about a child left alone in the remnants of the long-lasting war. A bold shinobi navigates his way around each corpse and finds the child staring blankly into the voids of death. He tells the child to scream, but it seems he is willing to follow the shinobi wherever he goes. The shinobi is named Owl and he decides to both adopt the child and raise him to become a master shinobi like him. Several years pass and this lone cub of an orphan has proven himself through each test of strength. Out matching each member of the clan and even being given royal duties. Wolf, the shinobi we play as, has been assigned the oath to protect a young child known as the Divine Heir, Kuro. Said to possess blood with the magical ability to come back from death and be immune to the chains of mortality. It was Wolf’s job to protect this child with all his might, but an unfaithful event happened one night which led to Kuro’s kidnapping. Leaving Wolf to slowly wither away within a pit.


This didn’t change Wolf’s determination to save the Divine Heir, because shortly afterwards he crawls out of the pit and finds his master stashed away in a hut. He eliminates the guards within the vicinity, and together they plan to escape from the grounds of Ashina Castle. Why would they be stashed away in a place such as this? Wolf locates a secret passage and afterwards they encounter Genichiro Ashina, the grandchild of Isshin Ashina. Genichiro is aware that Kuro’s blood has the key to immortality, so he plans to defeat Wolf and take Kuro for himself. Wolf prepares himself for battle but is easily cut down and gets his left arm decapitated. Wolf passes out from blood loss and is dumped into a nearby river. To be washed far away from Ashina.


A few hours pass and Wolf wakes up to find himself not dead. His decapitated arm has now been replaced by a wooden prosthetic and he is now in the custodies of a sculptor. Luckily the sculptor is a calm, reasonable person, but tells Wolf that the land is being flooded with Ashina soldiers and the Divine Heir has been locked away yet again within the chambers of Ashina Castle. He gave Wolf the prosthetic arm because it was specifically designed for shinobis. To zip over to places they normally wouldn’t be able to reach and utilize special tools to pressure enemies. Wolf also encounters Lady Emma who tells him a disease has been spreading throughout Ashina. It clogs up your veins and makes it extremely hard to breathe. However, the sickness is eternal and prevents the holder from dying until lifted. She states the sickness might be related to Kuro’s blood and that a cure to immortality must be found before it ravages even further. It’s now up to Wolf to save Kuro and live out the legacy of an honorable shinobi. Even up until death.


Sever the ties. Purge another parasite. Cursed are the spirits of the permanent.

Never denied. Order in the acolytes. Truth in mortal codes.


Gameplay

In my original review of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice my mind was more focused on the RPG aspects of this game and whether it would match up to From Software’s other titles. I desired an experience close to something of Bloodborne or Dark Souls, but these expectations only disappointed me further. Sekiro is not close to the action RPG format of Soulsborne and is more geared towards more traditional action adventures like God of War or Devil May Cry. It’s different in design and depending on who you are you will have mixed tastes. However, being different isn’t bad and Sekiro still holds up to its Soulsborne counterparts. Maintaining some core ideas while implementing fun twists. It pushes the player beyond their limit and forces them to utilize the tools in their arsenal. Leading them out of their usual comfort space and inching them toward the fun zone. The style of play the developers knew would be the most engaging.


The main Soulsborne roots which has been kept around is how you aren’t allowed to cancel out of attack animations, so you must dedicate yourself to the buttons you decide to press. Know that the actions you decide to perform require preciseness and patience. You fight aggressively, but also decisively at the same time. Normally you would cut down enemies until they have no health left, but Sekiro takes a different approach to speed up the combat. Rather than wither an enemy’s health bar down to zero you can instead pressure them until their posture is broken. Opening them up for a critical strike and instantly killing them with a death blow. Not saying you don’t have the option to knock away at their health bar, but it would take a much longer time and lead to more frustration. Posture is represented with a separate meter. It goes up whenever you physically hurt them or when you clash your blade against theirs. It continues going up the more you clash against them but can go down if you don’t keep up the flow. This is how Sekiro gets you to play faster than before. Maintaining this rhythmic flow and only stopping when you know you are in perilous danger. There are other ways to continuously raise an enemy’s posture meter besides attacking and this is where we move towards how defense works in Sekiro.


You have no invincibility frames in Sekiro. Invincibility frames are essentially the invincibility time provided during a dodge. Meaning as long as you time your dodge just right you can negate all damage no matter how hard the attack would have hit. The dodge in Sekiro is more of a sidestep to quickly reposition yourself. If you attempt to dodge through an attack, then you will get hit. However, this leads the player to use their second option which the game heavily encourages. Deflecting enemy attacks. When the player holds down the guard button they will block with their sword. This is fine until you realize that you and the player have a posture meter to manage. If it goes up too much, then you remain open for a short period of time for critical damage. The posture meter can go down when you aren’t guarding, moving or attacking. To not make your posture meter go up as quickly you can instead time your deflects correctly. Lessening the amount of damage dealt to the posture meter. There’s another benefit to carefully deflecting enemy attacks. Deflecting can also raise their posture meter. This helps maintain that rhythmic flow and make quick second decisions during a stressful encounter. You can attack a couple of times, deflect a few blows, and quickly follow up so that the enemy doesn’t overcome you. There are also several other ways you can counter attacks and even whip out special shinobi tools to weaken your enemies.


Occasionally a red symbol will appear, and an enemy will enter a specific posture. This signifies they are about to perform one of three perilous attacks and you need to perform one of three actions to counter them. The first can be a grab which you’ll need to outmaneuver and quickly follow up with an attack. The second is a sweep which can be jumped over and kick the enemy in the head afterwards. Finally, there is a thrust which can be dodged into to perform the special Mikiri Counter. The head kick and the Mikiri Counter are difficult to master, but once you finally understand how they work you can tell a lot of posture damage. Then there is of course your Shinobi Prosthetic, a wooden warm that can be equipped with one of three tools. These tools require Spirit Emblems to use which can be purchased from checkpoints, found in the world, or obtained by killing enemies. You have a limited amount of uses, so you must find out when is the perfect time to fire them. There’s an axe which deals tremendous posture damage and can be used to cut through wooden shields. Firecrackers which can cancel any type of attack and for a few seconds open an enemy up for free physical hits. A folding shield which can shelter you from heavy attacks, a flame vent which can apply fire damage, and much more. These are the tools I specifically found the most use in, and there’s even lines of dialogue which hint what specific enemy types are weak against them. Animals are highly reactive to the sound of firecrackers, or red eyes enemies are susceptible to fire. You can even visit the Sculptor, basically a blacksmith who can forge stronger variants of your shinobi tools. You can give your folding shield curse resistance which is a damage type which can instantly kill you if it builds up too much, or a flaming version of your axe which deals fire damage alongside posture damage. Really cool stuff, but you need specific materials and money to forge these tools. I do want to discuss progression, death, and what changes were made to fit the more action focused format.


Normally in the Soulsborne series your experience points are a resource which can be lost upon death. You are offered the opportunity to retrieve them, but if you die again before retrieval then they are lost for good. This helps create a sense of urgency, because the resources needed to get stronger are about to be risked. However, it also makes the player work carefully back towards them. Take their time instead of rushing into danger. Figuring out what killed them and how to avoid it next time. Sekiro doesn’t really do a retrieval. When you die you lose half the experience points and money you accumulated for good. No way to keep what you lost, but there is a mechanic which occasionally lets you keep what you have on hand. Unseen Aid provides a randomized chance to keep whatever you have on hand. This chance can be increased by using a Dragon Blood Droplet, and you’re always going to want these on hand because this chance can be decreased due to another system. Sekiro provides one of my favorite systems in all the Soulsborne series which is the ability to resurrect and continue the fight. You can resurrect a maximum of two to three times, but these resurrections must be replenished by either killing multiple enemies or powerful foes. It lets you keep going, but there is a flaw to it. If you resurrect yourself but die shortly afterwards, then you will die. Respawning you at a nearby checkpoint and decreasing the percentage number that Unseen Aid will trigger. It will also inflict Dragon Rot on NPCs, a disease that can only be cured by using Dragon Blood Droplets, and if it builds up too much then you may block yourself from continuing NPC questlines.


Anyways, if you do rack up enough experience points you gain a skill point. These skill points will always stay with you even after death and can be spent at checkpoints to unlock new skills through a skill tree. These skills are pivotal to what actions you can perform during combat. Remember the Mikiri Counter from earlier, the only way to counter thrust attacks? It must be unlocked through your skill tree and you can’t counter thrust attacks until you do. Other skills will include the ability to attack while jumping, follow-up attacks after using a Prosthetic Tool, being able to carry more Spirit Emblems at once, your healing items working more effectively, not being detected as easily, and combat arts with different attack speeds and ranges. Sekiro has a skill tree that actually works as you feel your character grow stronger and more knowledgeable with each skill they gain. The method you upgrade your health bar and attack power has also changed. Attack power is upgraded using Memories which are obtained by defeating major story bosses. Health is upgraded by obtaining four Prayer Beads which are occasionally hidden, but mainly acquired by defeating min-bosses scattered throughout the world. It works sort of like how heart containers worked in The Legend of Zelda, but you can quickly figure out how to find them. This gives players the incentive to fight foes who would normally be optional. Gain the Prayer BEads they guard and upgrade their health to last longer against the story bosses.


Another new addition to Sekiro is the ability to grapple using your Shinobi Prosthetic. This allows you to propel yourself to higher areas or reach places you wouldn’t be able to get to through normal means. The designers had to add more verticality to the level design to fit the player’s newfound ability. Stealth is another new addition, and you’ll have to make good use of it to make a challenging encounter less stressful. Several areas will have enemies patrolling about and once one of them spots you the rest of them are signaled. You can’t just simply run away and hide, because enemies will pursue you. You’ll have to sneak up, hide behind walls, or jump from high places to stealth kill enemies. Stealth especially needs to be used against mini bosses as all bosses have two health bars you must cut down. Find a way to get close to them and eliminate half of the fight. Making these toppling opponents now approachable.


Bosses are the true tests of Sekiro as some of them stand between you and the path forward. These bosses range from human sized opponents with skills similar to yours, or beasts sized fiends who will slam you into the earth. They can take a bit of practice to nail down, but that’s the joy of a From Software experience. The trial and error you need to go through to eventually overcome the adversities. That rush when you finally get their attack pattern and land the last blow on them. The joy and wonders that push you to see what lies at the end. This is the true heart of every Soulsborne game and luckily that feeling is still maintained in Sekiro. Hopefully you can end the curse of immortality which spreads across the land and fulfill your duty as an honorable warrior. The one who will save all of Ashina.


I am rebirth! I am the ear in the ties! “Wake me when I die again!”

I am rebirth! Cycles of spirit denied! “Get back up and try again!”


Thoughts

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a difficult recommendation to make, but I absolutely believe this is one of the best modern action games in recent years. Despite some shortcomings Sekiro stands tall thanks to its satisfying combat, clever design choices to push the player, and its unique twist on the Sengoku period. It does so many elements right with only a few concepts and ideas.


Sekiro may lack the options and build variety which Soulsborne has provided for years, but what it makes up for is by having the most immersive swor