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Sekiro : Shadows Die Twice: 20 Hours in (Twin Sticks Impressions)

My full review of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will be uploaded as soon as I finish the game. I’m taking my time with this one and also trying to find time to play in between working away, weddings, flat warming’s and late nights playing destiny for my Season of the Drifter review (coming soon).


SPOILER WARNING : Minor spoilers for one of the bosses in Sekiro and some of the levels (images and videos)


INTRODUCTION

I’ve never engaged with previous From Software games for two reasons. With Dark Souls, it’s fantasy setting, while admittedly intriguing, left too much to the imagination for me to become fully invested. The timing of my first play through didn’t help either. I made it to the half way mark in the original Dark Souls, but decided to stop playing when I returned to University in 2014. Moreover the main reason I wasn’t interested, which is probably a reason shared by many gamers, is the brutal difficulty. I decided it wasn’t wise to play these games when already studying for a seriously stressful Master’s degree.


But when Sekiro was announced I was engaged from the outset. The superbly animated katana combat, beautifully imagined quasi-fantasy feudal Japan setting and the promise of another desperately needed single player game was enough for me. It was also said to be the most forgiving game in the From Software series due to the addition of a new resurrection mechanic. Whether or not Sekiro is easier than Dark Souls or Bloodborne is up for discussion, but after 20 hours it is clear that this is definitely not an easy game. I’ll go into more detail about the difficulty and my experiences in my full review, but for now let’s discuss my initial impressions.

LIBERATION THROUGH MOVEMENT

The most obvious difference in Sekiro compared to the Soulsborne series is the movement. Here we are presented with a generous jumping distance, an Olympic standard sprint speed and a handy Assassin Creed-esque ledge hang. While the movement in Dark Souls made you feel intentionally restricted, the movement here is simply liberating. But by far the greatest achievement is the grappling hook, which allows you to quickly ascend pagoda tiers or zip through tight ravines with ease. Combining grappling points is particularly empowering as air time is rewardingly extended after each carefully planned out manoeuvre. It feels like you’re a superhero and it unashamedly reminded me of Spiderman. Grappling through Sekiros gorgeous environments is as fun as soaring through the virtual streets of Manhattan and even after 20 hours, it still hasn’t got old.

Friendly neighbourhood Sekiroman

EMPOWERMENT THROUGH COMBAT

The combat in Sekiro is like a beautifully twisted choreographed dance. Hours of rehearsal and patience are required, but when a routine is completed flawlessly it’s exhilarating. During combat a katana is locked in your right hand, while customisable tools such as a flamethrower which sets enemies alight, fire crackers which startle beast enemies or an oversized axe capable of breaking shields, can be added to your left. The tools add variety, but the main combat loop is associated with mastering the skill of the katana. And it definitely is a skill based system. At first it feels unnatural and progression slow, but over time your prowess in combat gradually increases. Blocks become more effective, deflections, counters and dodges are better timed and you subtly notice you are losing less health after every encounter.


The fulfilling sense of achievement, the world class combat animations and the expertly crafted sound design combine to produce arguably some of the best hand to hand combat seen in recent video game history. The Foley artists deserve a special mention, purely down to the sound effect when two katanas clang together. It sounds so satisfying and it is simply perfection.


Just watch this video and listen to the sound effects – you’ll see what I mean.

FRUSTRATION IN FAILURE

People have said playing Sekiro is like repeatedly punching yourself in the face due to its brutal difficulty. I disagree with this statement because overall the game feels fair (for the most part). The majority of deaths can mostly be accounted to a mistake you’ve made. You dodge a fraction of a second too late or you try and squeeze in an extra attack when you know full well you should be retreating. It’s because of this fairness that playing Sekiro is more akin to trying to navigate a familiar room with a floor lined with garden rakes. You know which path you should take, but one misstep results in a wooden handle springing upwards and smashing you in the face.


It doesn’t help that the developers continually try to demoralise you. The shear amount of bosses in succession is relentless and certain sections, more often than not, feel like a war of attrition. The cruelty even goes too far with certain bosses coming back tougher and stronger for a final phase just after you think you’ve won. For context I spent four hours on one such boss.


But there are times when these frustrations are in fact warranted. The camera can be atrocious with tight angles unfortunately common during boss battles. It can sometimes be impossible to tell what is happening on screen, adding a layer of unnecessary and unfair difficulty. There’s also an issue of enemies being able to attack you through walls which is especially frustrating.

VICTORY IN VALOUR

Like in previous titles the developers have once again adopted a cruel to be kind approach. At times you will curse their name, but deep down you know they have your best interests at heart. You constantly feel like you’re at a fork in the road, presented with two different paths. The left path offers you freedom from frustration, a chance to put down the game, never to play it again, while the right path offers you another attempt against a seemingly unbeatable boss. And like me I’m sure there were times when you have considered the left path.


But if you push on you are rewarded with an unprecedented sense of accomplishment. Overcoming this challenge has similar feelings of elation and euphoria as scoring a last minute goal on FIFA Ultimate Team or finally beating a raid encounter in Destiny after far too many exhausting hours. In fact, Sekiro is surprisingly competitive for a single player game and constantly challenges you. At first it seems impossible, but the developers believe you can do it and in the words of many cheesy coming of age Hollywood movies “You just need to believe you can do it too”.

Sekiro Shadows Die Twice Shinobi Execution
The end of a long and treacherous boss battle. After so many rakes to the face this screen filled me with elation (Worth it!).

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