Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review: Path of Most Resistance
SPOILERS: Some bosses are discussed and shown throughout this Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review.
It is human nature to take the path of least resistance. We use calculators at work for simple mental maths, we drive rather than walk and we learnt through evolution that the ripest fruit hangs from the lowest branch. The latest game by Japanese developers FromSoftware, famous for their creation of the Dark Souls and Bloodborne series, asks us not to take this path. They ask us to take the exact opposite, a path which at first seems significantly unconquerable. In order for us to succeed they demand our undivided attention, expect us to have the discipline of a Buddhist monk and have the patience required in learning a new musical instrument.
But does this hard, frustrating and at times demoralising path, sometimes lead to the greatest rewards? After around 35 hours with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I finally have an answer: yes (and no).
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review
- Available on: Xbox One/PS4/ PC
- Played on: Xbox One
Sekiro is a semi-historically accurate game set in war torn feudal Japan of the 15th and 16th century. Throughout the game you play as expert Shinobi and top-knot warrior Sekiro, who is eponymously named The One Armed Wolf after losing an appendage in battle. Mysteriously, you find yourself saved from the brink of death by the resurrective power of Dragons Blood held by Lord Kuro (with that sentence you will notice where the game gets it semi-historical accuracy from). It is your duty as a Shinobi to protect him, but immediately you are faced with a moral dilemma. It’s clear that the power of resurrection cannot exist safely within the world and the long bond of immortality contained within the Kuro bloodline must finally be broken.
The story takes supernatural twists and turns as it progressess, but in the early hours of the game it feels grounded like you’re taking part in a virtual history lesson. Travelling through once thriving Japanese towns you are thrown into the midst of war. Many houses have their walls blown off, their roofs crumbling down and the streets once lined with local residents are now patrolled by soldiers. You are forced to bear witness to a battlefield strewn with corpses and embers still burning, slowly smouldering to nothing. During this moment I was stunned to silence. It was horrifying, sobering and instantly made me invested in Sekiro’s world. I knew at this point, the game was going to be something truly special.
While the story isn’t necessarily ground breaking, there is enough present here to drive the game forwards. You understand what is happening and there is enough weight to the narrative to make your actions feel meaningful. Like many games the story serves mainly to push you through each location.
If you are familiar with previous From games this clear direction may come at a shock to you. Usually their narratives are notorious for being overly ambiguous where we are expected to join the dots ourselves (with most of the dots usually being in the wrong order). And while I appreciate that the main narrative was delivered clearly and concisely, I did feel lost at other times as From return to form in the delivery of their subplots. Why has this character disappeared? Who is this dead Shinobi in front of me? Who is this new clan I am fighting? I felt like I was eavesdropping on a great conversation, but I was forced to piece it together using the odd word I’d overheard. It was all very confusing.
But thankfully, all of the dots do eventually connect leading to a satisfying eureka moment. This technique is commonly used in film (e.g. Momento, Arrival, Get Out) and I actually like its ambiguity. When you piece together all of the subtle clues and finally understand the narrative, it makes all the previous bizarre and seemingly unrelated events worthwhile. I’m glad this technique wasn’t used for the main storyline though. It works for a two hour film, but over a 30-40 hour game it would have been just too much.
There are two aspects to Sekiros gameplay; progressing through levels and boss fights, both of which showcase some incredible combat mechanics. Throughout the entire game a katana remains locked in your right hand. You have one button to attack, one to block or deflect, one to dodge and one for the use of tools which can attach to your prosthetic arm. It sounds simple with a purposeful lack of variety. By forcing us to use only a katana, we are forced to understand it, the weight of it, how fast we can move it and what it can and cannot block.
As soon as you swing your sword in Sekiro it feels weighty, fast and responsive. The feedback is tuned to such perfection you’d be hard pressed to find a game with superior hand to hand combat. The incredible and addictive way it feels to swing your sword in Monster Hunter World can equally be found here too. And considering the Monster Hunter franchise has been developed over fourteen years and Sekiro over just four, it is an outstanding accomplishment.
The animations during combat also amplify the enjoyment in each encounter. Quick katana swipes send sparks flying as a massive clang rings out when steel meets steel. Sekiro can also dodge like the best of the Shinobi warriors allowing you to avoid incoming attacks and close open ground quickly. The animations continue to reach even greater heights due to the addition of a one shot execution move, the Shinobi deathblow. Each execution ends with gallons of blood spewing out of an enemy in an over the top pulpy manner. Every execution feels like you’re watching a finishing move from Mortal Kombat, except here you don’t need to input a complicated combo of buttons. It remained consistently entertaining throughout my entire play through.
As you progress through a level, scavenging for supplies becomes a key activity. Sometimes out in the open and sometimes hidden away are coin purses, attribute buffs and prayer beads which upgrade your posture and vitality (block meter and health). The vast amount of meaningful items to collect is of an incredibly high quality and could rival a modern Bethesda game. One of the greatest aspects of Skyrim and Fallout 4 is their exploration loop and the sense of wonder that can be found in every new location. And while the scale of Sekiros exploration is not as wide, the depth of exploration is arguably as deep.
Flawless Level Design and Awe
Throughout my time with the game exploring never felt like a chore as I was curious to see what each location had hidden away. My sense of wonderment was enhanced even further due to the stunning, yet unique design of each level. There are historically influenced locations such as the gigantic Ashina Castle which extends into the sky with multiple pagoda tiers to climb. There are also imaginative fantasy locations such as the un-dead Mibu Village, buried deep below Ashina Castle, or Fountainhead Palace, a once religious place blessed with rejuvinating waters. When reaching Fountainhead palace via giant rope creature (no idea what that’s about), I was stunned to silence once again. Spring blossoms blew past me and a huge waterfall cascaded peacefully off a nearby cliff face. Moments later this tranquil image came crashing down as I witnessed cannibalistic bipedal fish creatures eating each other. The contrast of horror and beauty was implemented flawlessly.
At the end of Fountainhead Palace is one of the most awe inspiring bosses in the game, if not of all time. Clearly inspired by Dragonball-Z it is time to take down the majestic Divine Dragon. The fight isn’t difficult, it’s actually quite easy. It involves grappling between tree branches, channeling lighting strikes and riding gusts of wind creating a feeling of actual flight. The easy nature of the encounter is of course intentional and serves as a gift from developer to player. From just want us to enjoy the experience, to keep the sense of awe sustained as long as possible. I know if I had died twenty times in a row here, my feeling would likely be riddled with frustration. Thankfully I was allowed a moment of peace before it was time to repeatably bang my head against a wall on the proceeding boss.
While my favourite moments in Sekiro were exploring each level, it’s largest draw is associated with boss battles. None of the boss battles have any noticeable flaws on an objective level (except perhaps the issue of tight camera angles and enemies attacking through solid objects, which will probably get patched). However you have to be aware of what you’re getting yourself in for because most encounters are difficult. In my opinion, they are too difficult. And while the counter argument to this is “git gud”, success in each encounter does not rely on skill alone. After you’ve learnt attack patterns the skill element for each encounter peaks and the experience plateaus into a repetitive slog. At this point other factors play an important role like state of mind, stress level, emotional well being or personal resilience.
Of course, this is clearly the experience that From want. By defeating a boss which seems impossible, the player is granted with a feeling which is rare in single player games – a heart pounding injection of adrenaline followed by unlimited satisfaction and a gratified sense of achievement. Overcoming this challenge is one of the games main hooks and admittedly I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put the controller down. Sekiro had it’s hooks in me. I wanted to progress, improve and take down whatever lay ahead of me.
Or I did until the last few hours. By this point I was getting significantly fed up. The experience started to stumble and playing felt like a chore. During these moments the game asked absurd amounts of dedication from me during the Demon of Hatred boss. This hulking, rage induced flaming monster appears approximately 10 minutes before the brutally difficult final boss. It took me fifty grueling attempts over the course of a week which involved me getting up extra early and playing before work just to topple him. Afterwards I was mentally drained and struggled to find the willpower to carry on. This problem of fatigue could have been avoided by cutting two or three bosses out of the game, or even having larger breaks between bosses and mini-boss fights. The sheer relentlessness outstayed its welcome.
To clarify, the Demon of Hatred is an optional boss, but given that each victory gives you an attack boost it is unwise to skip it, especially before taking on the final boss. The Demon also plays a key role in one of those pesky sub-plots…
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review – Final Thoughts
The level of difficulty baked into the core of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice may be a significant barrier to entry for some, some who are unwilling or unable to play. These people will never witness the outstanding art direction, environmental design, variety, combat mechanics, exploration and feelings of empowerment throughout the game which are all flawless. But what is the alternative – an easy mode?
I imagine this was a topic discussed frequently by the developers, who in the end were willing to make the sacrifice. By creating this game which bows to no one, they teach us to take the path of most resistance, a path which shows us we can conquer challenges which seem overwhelming at first. And playing through this incredible game I agreed with this sentiment. I was willing to thank From for their gift to me.
That was up until the last two bosses. At this point I rolled my eyes rather than stepped up to the challenge, unwilling to face the mental requirements or potential cramp to achieve victory. But in true Stockholm syndrome style I did (although I can’t say I enjoyed it). At this point I realised that one of the best games of the year, one that I would recommend to any gamer, would not be experienced by a lot of people. The joy I felt exploring this haunting and at times beautiful world would be lost to them.
Looking back now, my time with Sekiro was always affirming, sometimes demoralising and in the end bittersweet. But even now one thing keeps coming back to me. In the world of art there is a saying about masterpieces. It is that great art is only created through suffering. And if Van Gogh was willing to cut off his ear, perhaps we should be willing to have cramp, feel drained and truly test what we are capable of every now again. Perhaps just not everyday. Then we definitely would go mad.