My regular two readers will have noticed that I haven’t posted a piece in just over a year. Apologies for this, but a 16 month old child has a nasty habit of hoovering up every spare moment of your free time. Yet here we are, back from the wilderness.
Due to the aforementioned bundle of carnage, my gaming time is measured in minutes these-days and so I have to be very selective with what I play. Long gone are the massive 100 hour gameplays of Persona 5 and Monster Hunter: World. I have even staved off playing Red Dead Redemption 2 (which is complete torture having waited years and years for its release) as I know that I can’t invest the time it deserves. But when From Software announced their newest title I knew it would fit the bill perfectly.
Now I must admit from the offset that I am one of many From Software fanboys and I consider Bloodborne not only to be one of the greatest exclusives to ever grace the Playstation 4, but one of the greatest video games I have ever played. Therefore I sat in excited silence as I watched the download finish installing (during little one’s nap time) and began on From Software’s latest offering. So here it is, almost a month after release, my Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review.
Now, we’re almost 230 words in so let me cut to the chase: Sekiro is good, but it isn’t great. It pains me to say that but I have thought long and hard about this and I think From Software have tinkered with their successful formula a tad too much. Let me try and explain.
The story is straightforward enough, you play as a shinobi called Sekiro (Wolf) tasked with retrieving your young master from a very naughty man. Cue a From Software jaunt around old school Japan. There’s a plot point about you being given some of your master’s blood which enables you to use the new gameplay mechanic of Resurrection (more on that later) – hence Shadows Die Twice and all that. Oh, and also you get your arm lobbed off in the first act and get fitted with a prosthetic which of course can be upgraded with various bits and bobs throughout the game – some useful, some cack. The prosthetic arm also has a built in grappling hook enabling Sekiro to traverse the terrain more vertically (the gaming press have been very excited about this) and land “deathblows” on enemies from above.
On immediate control of Wolf you will also note that he can jump, yet the jump is a bit “off” if you ask me. It’s as if the whole movement is a bit too quick. In later sections of the game I was being treated to a nostalgic feeling of rage I haven’t felt since the early Tomb Raider games when plummeting to my death due to a combination of janky jumping and annoying camera angles. This frustration of falling to your death is only multiplied when using the grappling hook as the range at which it can be used effectively seems to differ every time you’re prompted to use it. I also don’t like the grappling hook being mapped to L2.
A lot of emphasis has been placed on stealth in this game yet the AI is very basic and can be frustrating. At times enemies will spot you even in cover and it can take an age for them to “reset”. When you are spotted and have to confront enemies, you are faced with what I think is the biggest mis-step From Software have made with this game – combat.
There was no better feeling in Bloodborne than visiting previous areas of Yharnam to do a bit of farming and slicing through enemies like they were butter. Such a delight. In Sekiro however, combat is much more defensive. Enemies, as well as yourself, have a posture meter in addition to a vitality meter. Wailing on an enemy is often a waste of time and the emphasis is on defending and deflecting an enemy attack by tapping L1. Doing this at the right time fills up the enemy posture meter and once full allows you to perform a “deathblow” to kill them in one hit. This applies to bosses as well, however they often take one or more of these “deathblows” to die.
What this means then is that combat is incredibly dull and frustrating. One on one and an enemy can be defeated fairly quickly, but if you have two or more enemies on you and it can mean death. Why they needed to implement this dire mechanic is beyond me. Sure, be allowed to block, but to have a posture gauge that needs to be filled up is perverse. Enemies and bosses also have these “impenetrable attacks” where a red kanji symbol plops on the screen and you must decide whether to jump, dash or evade the attack. If you’re not perfect with your timing then even the weakest of enemies can inflict massive damage. These “impenetrable attacks” are nothing more than quick time events in my eyes and are as obnoxious now as they were in their 2000’s heyday.
When you do die you have the option of resurrecting yourself (at the cost of losing half your XP, money and triggering an ongoing crappy side mission thing called Dragon Rot) and continuing the fight. But to be honest I rarely use it as it’s only marginally useful in certain situations. This was meant to be one of the standout mechanics of the game but I’m totally nonplussed by its addition.
I think that one of the issues I have is that I can’t help comparing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice with Nioh. The latter was a sleeper hit the other year and an absolute blast to play. The combat in that was so cathartic and Team Ninja got it spot on.
Now on to some of the positives. Sekiro is a great looking game. Some of my favourite moments involved standing atop a mountain or pagoda, whipping out my Nightjar Monocular, and surveying the backdrop. Lovely. The level design is also typically superb as you would expect from From Software. Hidden paths and ledges make exploring every nook and cranny a rewarding experience. Finding an NPC with a little side quest and accompanying story is always a highlight.
Boss battles are as notoriously challenging as you would expect. One of the earlier ones against an old bag called Lady Butterfly had me punching the air in delight (a feeling completely unique to From Software boss fights) upon dealing her the final “deathblow” after days of trying. The character design is sublime too, with every boss uniquely designed so they stick long in the mind. Yet these battles are bittersweet as the emphasis on dealing posture damage takes away from the enjoyment as a whole I find.
So after nearly a month of playing I still haven’t finished Sekiro and you know what the worst part is? I have no real desire to. I am just not enjoying it as much as I feel I should. Gamers picking up this as their first From Software title may think it’s the dog’s danglies. But it’s not. You know what it is? It’s a 7.9 out of 10. A 79% game.
As for me, I can wait no longer. To Rockstar’s latest foray into the Wild West I must venture….