“Sekiro,” more than any game in recent memory, left me breathless. The thrill of finally defeating a seemingly insurmountable enemy after hours of failed attempts is one of the best feelings in gaming.
As the latest game from “Dark Souls” and “Bloodborne” developer FromSoftware, “Sekiro” continues the lineage of tough as nails, mechanically rewarding action games. But rather than simply iterating on its predecessors, “Sekiro” instead tears the From Soft formula down to its foundation and builds something bold and different.
With this heritage comes an expectation of difficulty; the “Dark Souls’” tagline was “Prepare to Die” after all, and “Sekiro” certainly delivers in that aspect.
This may be the most brutal game From has ever put out. Death is never far away, and a single mistake can easily spell your doom.
While this is a plus for many, and some love the tough, but fair formula, it can be a deterrent for some players. While this game is fantastic, it is not one that can be played carelessly or without thought, which is ultimately a benefit for the game.
The most apparent change is the movement. Gone are the plodding, armor clad, protagonists of old, replaced instead with an agile ninja.
The titular protagonist can sprint, climb, swim and grapple around with an empowering degree of agility, allowing stealth attacks, tactical retreats and evasion of the games many powerful foes.
It feels incredible to anger a mob of enemies only to give them the slip, circle around and stealth kill the most dangerous of their ranks before cleaning up the rest with a flurry of strikes.
The flipside of this is that the player is also intensely fragile. Even the most basic of enemies can drop the player with a few well placed strikes, ending a run in seconds. This goes double for the game’s numerous bosses and mini-bosses, powerful enemies that stalk the world and provide major challenges.
Both enemies and the player’s vitality is measured in two ways, first, the health bar, and more importantly, posture, which when depleted, leaves you vulnerable and opponents open to a deathblow, which destroys one full bar of health.
You drain an opponent’s posture by attacking them or deflecting their attacks. This is easier said than done as bosses have complex attack patterns that can easily trip up players.
The best way to defeat the game’s menagerie of terrifying bosses is to stay up close and personal, deflecting their attacks and depleting their posture, the indicator of which dominates the top of the screen showing players their progress.
Seeing as the best way to deflect attacks is to block at the last possible second, leaving players vulnerable if they miss the timing, combat is a tense, rhythmic clashing of swords where the player is rarely more than a second from death.
Backing off to heal yourself causes the enemy’s posture to regenerate quickly. Little is more disheartening than retreating only to watch your hard won progress amount to nothing.
However, pressing on while on the verge of death only to prevail is intensely satisfying in a way that few other games are. It is in these moments that juxtapose ferocity and fragility that “Sekiro” shines brightest.
Throw into the mix unblockable attacks and an already versatile combat system and it becomes one of the most heart pounding, rewarding systems in gaming.
Offsetting this fragility is the ability to resurrect. These revivals are limited and rather than making the game too easy, it often feels like not enough to offset your opponent’s relentlessness. Some bosses can put you back in the grave in under a second.
An early game roadblock, an ogre that is briefly interred in a stockade provides a daunting early game challenge, with many of his attacks depleting all but a sliver of your health bar.
Fights like these are common, and it’s easy to feel demoralized after a few dozen defeats.
Luckily, there are often alternate paths, shortly after the tutorial, the game opens up allowing players to delay the especially difficult sections. And since defeating bosses and mini-bosses increases health, stamina and attack, tougher fights can be made easier by delaying them.
This freedom is one of “Sekiro’s” greatest achievements. As items and secrets are packed into every corner of the world, and movement through the world is so fluid and empowering, it is simply a joy to explore.
This is helped by the sheer beauty of the environments. What starts as war-torn battlefields and imposing castles quickly gives way to idyllic mountain monasteries, water palaces surrounded by falling cherry blossoms and snow-capped mountains.
For players who love the “Souls” series, or are just looking for a challenge this is a must play. The combat system and exploration are nothing short of masterful.
“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is available on Ps4, Xbox One and PC.