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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice humbles even the most hardened Souls veterans

In every From Software game there’s a moment where things click. In Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne, those moments were vague: a series of successes and failures that steadily taught me how to play. In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I still recall the exact moment everything clicked.

His name was Genichiro. Genichiro is the boss that stands between the shift from the early-game to mid-game, the point where Sekiro begins to fully open up and the stakes of the story are unveiled. He was also the first major obstacle I faced. I’d had plenty of trouble in other spots — the shinobi hunter, the chained ogre, the drunkard — but Genichiro… he was something else. Here was a boss who was on equal footing as myself in terms of abilities. Everything I could do, so could he. It made for an especially difficult fight, but a thrilling one too. I spent hours trying to defeat him — enough that I seriously wondered whether I simply wasn’t going to be able to do it.

But then that moment came. I finally internalized his patterns, learned how and when to block, counter, and parry. I could consistently make progress, death now purely a result of my own hubris. It still took me several more attempts before I prevailed, but that didn’t matter. What mattered is that I was confident now. Up until that fight my play was sloppy, but no more. I knew what I was doing now. Whatever Sekiro could throw at me, I felt ready to take on.

Those moments are always some of the strongest. From Software’s built itself up as a company that creates games specifically to embody the feeling of overcoming incredible challenges and their work has constantly excelled in that regard. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice follows this lineage by delivering more of the same difficult but rewarding action, but also strays from its predecessors in some key ways.

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Sekiro is character action by way of From Software. All the usual staples are there — bonfire-like rest points that respawn all enemies upon use, loss of experience points/currency on death — but different this time around. You’re not creating a character from scratch, pumping points into stats and choosing their equipment, but rather assuming the role of an existing character with their own set of skills. You’re not customizing your play-style but working within the boundaries of a prescribed approach. Where Dark Souls was all about patience and defense and Bloodborne was all about speed and offense, Sekiro lands somewhere in the middle. Its combat is the very embodiment of “the best offense is a good defense.” You’re not just blocking attacks waiting for your moment to strike, nor are you constantly dodging enemy swipes getting hits in where you can. You’re getting right in their face and deflecting their attacks to throw them off balance so you can deliver a fatal blow.

In Sekiro, stamina is gone in favor of posture — a meter that gauges how many attacks you can withstand before you leave yourself wide open. Posture is everything, as its your primary focus in combat. Blocking and deflecting enemy attacks fills the meter, just as attacking your opponent and deflecting their own strikes fills theirs. The goal of most fights is to break your opponent’s posture so you can open them up for a deathblow while being careful to avoid letting the same happen to you. You do this by playing aggressively and relentlessly: by deflecting enemy strikes and attacking constantly to make sure they never get a break. It’s a big change from the more measured combat of the Souls series. Whittling down your opponents health isn’t nearly as important here — at least insofar as it’s really only useful to slow them from regaining posture. Thus you’re forced to learn how to parry attacks rather than just block and evade them, as deflections are far more damaging.

Health, then, is measured by the number of deathblows needed to slay your opponent. They’re measured as circles that appear above the enemy’s health bar. How many circles you see determines how many times you need to land a deathblow to kill them. For most enemies, it’s just one. For stronger foes and bosses alike, it could be anywhere from two to three. The more they have, the more difficult you can expect them to be.

Every victory, whether it be against foot soldiers or the most elite generals, is hard fought. In the early hours especially, it took me a while to get the hang of the flow of combat. Just as the jump from Dark Souls to Bloodborne forced me to unlearn bad habits, the jump from those to Sekiro once more made me do the same. Only instead of moving from being defensive to aggressive, it was from playing safe to playing daringly. I couldn’t just dodge and counterattack as I usually do; I had to stay on top of them by not giving them any space to back off and recover. In other words, I had to put myself in harm’s way.

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For the first dozen hours, I approached every encounter with trepidation. I wasn’t confident in my abilities in the least and my experience at that point hadn’t given me reason to think otherwise. My deflection timing was poor, my dodges always way too early or too late, and the limited use of my healing flask coupled with my small pool of health meant I didn’t have many chances to make or recover from mistakes. It gave me flashbacks to playing Demon’s Souls for the first time years ago: the fear that every step forward could be my last if I wasn’t careful. The constant struggle of trying to wrap my head around combat and how best to approach every fight.

I elected to clear areas via stealth kills as much as possible, then, not because it’s a smart tactic (it is), but because I was too afraid of making any minor mistakes that could cost me against any stronger foes. Again, much like Demon’s Souls and how I favored drawing out enemies one at a time with a bow, trying to whittle down their health as much as possible before they closed the distance so as to save myself the trouble of engaging them directly.

That fear isn’t something I’ve felt in a while. For as different as Bloodborne was from Dark Souls, the learning curve there was one of adjusting my approach. A lot of the same ideas still worked — I just had to move from defensive to aggressive play. Whereas Sekiro felt like I was learning everything from scratch. It felt different enough that none of the usual tricks or knowledge I’d gained from other games, FromSoft-developed or otherwise, lent much help. That’s in part because I’m not usually one for parrying in action games (would always rather dodge or block instead), but also because, in the early goings especially, Sekiro doesn’t give you much room for failure.

The limited pool of health you start with may technically be enough for the early game challenges, but it’s just small enough to make any mistakes feel more serious than they really are. With only a couple of swigs of your healing flask available, there’s not much of a safety net to fall back on. The presence of Hanbei, an NPC who is essentially undead and serves as a training mode of sorts, certainly helps with making it easier to get the hang of combat, but actual progress feels slow and harsh for first few hours because of how weak and limited you are to start. Given the many ways the Souls games have given you a fair start, Sekiro feels harsh by comparison. Granted, the punishments for death are hardly as mean as they have in the past (you only lose half of the experience points you’ve earned and half the coin you’re carrying), which definitely helps keep the sense of utter devastation the Souls games could bring at bay.

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Once you’re familiar with how to play, however, you start feeling confident in you ability to handle whatever the game throws at you. What once were foes that you dread to fight eventually become just another speedbump. It’s part of what makes the FromSoft formula work: that through perseverance and repetition, you’ll overcome anything. (Assuming you’re able to play them in the first place, anyway. Frustrating that they still haven’t done anything to make these games more accessible.) The Souls games were explicit about this by incorporating those themes not just into play but the worlds themselves and Sekiro is no different. Upon death, Wolf can immediately resurrect himself at least once before succumbing to death proper and reverting to the last checkpoint. This essentially allows you to subvert the penalties for dying, either by making a comeback or by retreating from battle entirely. Given how quickly you can die in Sekiro, it goes a long way toward making the game less punishing.

It’s also the crux of the story. Sekiro is a story about how servants suffer for their masters. It follows Wolf, a shinobi, in his quest to rescue his master, Kuro, the Divine Heir, from those who wish to use his powers for their own ends. Kuro has a peculiar ability: he can’t die. Those of his bloodline are essentially immortal thanks to something called “the dragon’s blessing.” Those with this blessing are able to grant immortality to anyone they choose, which of course makes him extremely valuable. Enter Ashina, the governing clan of region Sekiro takes place. War is almost upon Ashina, its armies desperate. One of its general’s wishes to gain the dragon’s blessing to secure the country’s future. Kuro, however, isn’t keen on sharing. At the start of the game, Wolf and Kuro attempt an escape. They don’t get very far before they’re caught, which results in Wolf losing an arm and Kuro once more being taken captive.

From there, the game begins as a simple quest to rescue Kuro. There’s more to it, of course, but to get into specifics would be to spoil wide swaths of the game. That immortality is greatly coveted in Sekiro is a strong contrast to the depiction of it as a curse in the Souls series. In those games, being undead was more or less a fate worse than death. You couldn’t just die — you’d always wake up again and again, your very being slowly rotting away until all that’s left is a walking husk. Whereas with Sekiro, baring some exceptions, the dragon’s blessing grants you immortality with seemingly no strings attached. Easy to see how people would desire it.

There is, of course, a cost. Over time, as you die and resurrect again and again, the people around you develop an affliction called “dragonrot.” Dragonrot is a disease that results from the use of the dragon’s blessing. It’s a nasty sickness: those afflicted have trouble breathing and regularly cough up blood. Being able to cheat death may be useful, but it comes at the cost of others’ lifeforce. It can be cured, but there’s nothing stopping it from infecting people again as you continue to rely on the power of resurrection.

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Mechanically, Dragonrot doesn’t amount to much. Afflicted characters can’t progress their stories until they’re cured, and the more people who are sick, the lower the chances of “unseen aid” occurring — a sort of dice roll on whether you’ll be able to retain your experience and money on death. But with how many items you can gather to cure Dragonrot over the course of a single playthrough, you can easily stock up to ensure it’s never actually a problem. It’s much more a thematic tool, then, and it’s very effective in that regard.

Sekiro‘s more direct storytelling doesn’t take away from the mysterious nature of its lore (there’s still plenty that I’m sure all the lore masters will happily dive into), but it does make the core plot stronger because you’re able to be more easily invested in the characters and see them develop. It allows them to create more moments that carry actual weight when they happen instead of retroactively once you’ve read the lore and know more about the powers at play. It’s almost weird to see cutscenes be a regular occurrence given the more sparse nature of the Souls games, but for Sekiro, it helps make those key battles meaningful.

For as fun as the more esoteric storytelling and microfiction of the Souls games are, the change to a more direct, straightforward storytelling style is a nice change of pace. The same could be said of the entirety of Sekiro, really. While it still adheres to much of the same core tenets of the Souls series, the ways it differs make it feel fresh and exciting. From Software could have just kept making games in that particular style with only the slightest changes, but that they continue to try new things with it is encouraging — doubly so when it turns out as good as Sekiro.

There’s part of me that wants more, whether through a sequel or DLC. Imagining the ways they could iterate and play with the foundation here is exciting (worked for Dark Souls 2, after all). But at the same time, I think I’m more interested in seeing what their next project is, as From Software is always at their best when they’re making something new. If Sekiro is proof of anything, it’s that they can continue to make these core ideas fresh and exciting again and again.

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