FromSoftware has a reputation for making one very specific type of video game, at least through their recent catalogue, and only if you ask their mayweather fans like myself. Aside from Deraciné, a very different VR venture, nearly every major recent console release of theirs has been taking from a formula they first introduced with Demon’s Souls in 2009. FromSoftware altered, adjusted, and perfected said formula over and over again, to bigger and bigger success. I wonder if this formula became more creatively crippling, with Hidetaka Miyazaki, one half of Sekiro’s directorial team and an industry legend, saying he wanted to walk away from the Dark Souls series.
Miyazaki’s words seem to indicate that even FromSoftware themselves are tired of everyone comparing every video game to Dark Souls, and I don’t blame them. FromSoftware has indirectly created an entire genre with their top tier Souls franchise, and they’ve continued to iterate on the ideas they first introduced in 2009. Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Twice seems to show that FromSoft has a lot more to innovate with that same magic game DNA they made ten years ago. There is a clear creative ferver for building on what they had before, and FromSoftware continues to excel at outdoing themselves. The intent throughout Sekiro is to go back to the drawing board on the core mechanics of the Souls-Borne formula, and instead reimagine them.
From top to bottom, Sekiro takes the bare essentials of their titles Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Demon’s Souls and re-engineers what was once a stat-and-build heavy action RPG the likes of a pen and paper role play, retooling those ideas and the satisfaction that can be gained from it into a character action game. The result is a much faster experience that favors brisk and intense action, amounting to a culmination of mechanics that FromSoftware has been experimenting with over the last decade into something very new. Sekiro is all of these games reimagined, better than they’ve ever been.
Sekiro is a very streamlined game, by which I mean many of the broader ideas appear to be shrunk, but more depth therein is found. Part of that is a much smaller story, told far more directly than other titles From has dabbled with before, and it cuts out anything that doesn’t directly feed into the gameplay. One such thing is your character’s unique power in this world.
You play the role of Wolf, a orphan taken in by a wandering ninja after a bloody war years before the events of Sekiro begin. The story is set in an altered Sengoku Era Japan, around the 16th century, where Wolf has grown into a full shinobi. He has been tasked with protecting Kuro, the immortal Divine Heir who carries “the blood of the dragon” within him. This is important, because this very blood could be the power that could save the nation of Ashina this world is set in, but also Kuro and Wolf’s relationship is the core of the smaller story.
Kuro’s blood, a gift and power he gives the Wolf, ties directly into the main mechanical hook of Sekiro: resurrection. If you die, you can come back to life. You only get two of these resurrections, one from resting at a checkpoint, the other from killing enemies. These two uses also can’t be used back to back, so if you die, resurrect, and die again, you can’t use that second resurrection.
This total shift in punishment for death is complemented by a total redesign of what we’ve come to understand as death in FromSoftware games. Before you would lose all of your currency that you used for everything upon death, and you’d recover them by going back to the point where you died. This whole system is gone. Instead of losing all your currency, you lose half your gold, and half the experience you’ve gained toward the next skill point upon death, and it’s gone. There is no retrieval, so the only way out of losing half what you’ve earned is resurrection and survival.
With the ability to resurrect, you can find yourself in a relatively forgiving routine: explore, fight, die, resurrect, and then immediately run back to the nearest rest point. Here, the resting, resurrecting, resting, grinding loop feels different than what From has established in the past, but inarguably has the same DNA. I feel the aspect of resurrecting, essentially controlling your major out of any given tricky situation creates an agency over the danger you put yourself in, one that’s incredibly empowering. Much like other aspects of Sekiro’s combat, it’s death loop gives the player far more control of their choices. FromSoftware has made a science of honing in on hurting players that abuse their systems, and rewarding players when they use it just right; Sekiro is a master at this.
Sekiro also completely removes leveling, equipment, and armor from play, fully taking out the RPG mechanics that were the fundamentals of Sekiro’s lineage. I don’t see Sekiro as an RPG, ultimately I see it more as a character action game. I say this genre, specifically, because it evokes more tropes we’ve seen there, while still maintaining the FromSoftware DNA and secret sauce they’ve mastered over the years. The level design is still top notch, the world creative, and its interpretations of Japanese myth unique and beautiful, but aspects like jumping and your grappling hook make From’s levels suddenly more vertical, the parrying makes combat much tenser, and stealth makes the whole piece more action-driven.
Where Sekiro may become more divisive is in its variety, where you’re limited to just one weapon, instead of many to divide your time with. Sekiro justifies this choice with the diversity of options this one weapon gives you remaining truly excellent throughout, and also this weapon choice forces you to focus on the core combat abilities, and that combat in Sekiro is far and away the best of any of FromSoftware’s games.
While there is still a gradation of battle scenarios from massive crowds of small enemies, to magic casters, to beasts, there is far more one-on-one combat here. The importance of guarding also means you’re typically engaging enemies one at a time, and if you’re not you put yourself in extreme danger doing so. The focus is not necessarily on reducing the opponent’s health, but instead building their posture meter to the point of breaking. Breaking an enemy’s posture opens them up for a deathblow. These close-ranged attacks instantly kill common enemies. Most bosses have two circles of health indicating two deathblows need to be put on that boss to defeat it.
Actual moment to moment gameplay is about attacking, but also constantly deflecting. With perfect timing, you can parry enemy attacks, taking some minor posture damage yourself (because of course, you have your own posture meter to defend), but dealing major posture damage to the enemy. While the player’s posture meter can certainly be broken, and it will be by the tougher bosses throughout, the punishment for it is merely a pause that can be easily dodged out of. Certainly there are moments when even a second counts, but ultimately it reinforces that a very aggressive offense is the name of the game in Sekiro.
One on one battles quickly become a series of clangs and echoes as your sword smashes against your opponents, either with attacks or deflections. Some attacks can’t be deflected though, like stabs which can be Mikiri Countered (a timing-intense parry for piercing attacks only), or sweep attacks, which can actually be jumped over. All these attacks can’t be traditionally guarded against, either requiring those special movements, or more perfect timing. There is a visual Kanji to indicate these moves incoming, but it remains on the player to anticipate and react appropriately, and when you see that symbol, an equally tensening audio cue sounds to tighten the tension even more.
That’s where the purity of Sekiro’s combat becomes brilliance: as you play and learn and experience the different actions you can take in any given combat scenario, whether it be another samurai with a blade, or a large shogun bearing a spear, you slowly get better and better at improvising. In the heaviest of moments, the attacks come at you with no mercy, and by the end of Sekiro’s long journey you need to counter, deflect, attack, attack, dodge, jump, and Mikiri Counter to survive. All this is complemented by a handful of elegant skill trees that adjoin the versatile tool set of basic momentum and attacks.
There are four main skill trees in total, and each corresponds to a style of combat, like aggressive Ashina style, or stealthy Shinobi style. The Mikiri Counter falls in the category of another passive tool in your set, and when acquired will enable that move in combat. Combat arts, essentially special moves, fall in the more active skill category, and spice up your basic attacks with stronger specials, but only one can be equipped at a time. All of these skills aren’t essential to success, but correspond well to the difficulty curve of Sekiro, and prepare the player with a bit of an edge for some of its hardest fights. Plus, timing a skill you’ve learned and incorporated into combat is another masterfully satisfying accomplishment to achieve in Sekiro.
The hardest fights in Sekiro, the bosses, all tend to be one on one, and each create captivating scenarios that challenge you in certain aspects of battle: how to deal with projectiles, how to deal with relentless attacks, or how to deal with a smörgåsbord of all your possible fatalities. No two bosses are completely the same, and all things considered, there aren’t many of them. Where FromSoftware also has a reputation for intricately drawn and designed bosses in the past, their ability here to flex with Japanese Samurai, Shinobi, and Myth from the Sengoku Era is in full force. On top of that, there are plenty of surprises in the bosses beyond just the intense one-on-one duels between Wolf and samurai.
There are typically no easy outs throughout all of Sekiro. It demands you pay its tolls to progress. While there are cheap tactics I found to make my exhausting attempts at the near-endless stream of new nightmares I experienced seem bearable, a certain level of ability and patience was still required from me. Where From’s past games had exploits—broken magic systems, secret swords—to get you through the hardest peaks in challenge, Sekiro becomes a brick wall that you must learn by heart and dismantle blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back. Frequently I finished bosses off with a sliver of health, all healing items consumed, and that escalation of stakes was perfectly directed through to the end of the game. While I felt exponentially exhausted from Sekiro’s unjust demands of my reflexes and patience, I felt equally compensated with excitement and satisfaction. All of FromSoftware’s engineering, experimenting, and reimagining of their own formula was to thank players for their lineage, and reward them with some of the most satisfying action play this generation.
Sekiro is almost a complete minimalist take on Dark Souls, this time with jumping. It paints a tapestry grounded in a much closer-to-home fiction for FromSoftware, discarding and gutting almost every major mechanic from their legacy, incorporating only what is the purest form of the backbone to Souls, Bloodborne, or any of its imitators. The result is a brilliant, empowering, demoralizing, and unforgettable journey that is the culmination of everything that came before it.
This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro system with a retail copy of the title purchased by the reviewer.