Gaming

'Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice' Isn’t ‘Dark Souls’ And That’s Why I Liked It

Full disclosure: I’m not a Dark Souls guy. It feels almost like a sin to say that given the reverential way so many of my friends and fellow gamers discuss FromSoftware’s vaunted franchise. I’ve played a few hours of Dark Souls entries over the years but I’ve never finished a game, never found myself in the thralls of that punishing-but-oddly-satisfying grind. Watching others play and hearing their discussions made me realize the hyper-difficult RPG was just a little too far outside my wheelhouse.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is different.

Sekiro first impression hands on preview 1 The balance-based swordfighting is superb. FromSoftware

It’s not just different in the sense that I want to dive in with an aggressive, masochistic glee in a way Dark Souls never inspired in me; it’s actually from-the-ground-up different. FromSoftware isn’t making any apologies for breaking away from the conventions fans expect. It’s made small changes; for the first time in its 25-year history there’s no Moonlight Greatsword in Sekiro, a small detail fans assumed would be there. And it’s made big changes, ditching the memory-based combat of dodge rolling your way through hit-and-run attack patterns in favor of a balance-based system built on parrying and deathblows. And while the Dark Souls combat was always more alienating than challenging for me, Sekiro is not.

Make no mistake, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is still quite hard, and still very much a FromSoftware game. It features dark, authentic world building and a high level of immersion centered around elaborate detail. The environments are spectacular, and the titular Sekiro’s use of a grappling hook, one of many functions of his prosthetic left arm that can also be a shield-busting axe or violent flamethrower, adds a verticality that lets you appreciate the architecture and landscape modeled after 15th century-Japan’s Sengoku period.

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The combat is still rooted in the growth, and cunning, that achieves what FromSoftware devs frequently describe as “the joy of victory.” Fans looking for a Dark Souls 4 flavor won’t find it, but an open mind will reward you with a game that is both brutal and breathtaking.

Alongside bouts of intense swordplay that saw me fighting everything from castle guards to samurai generals to a massive, drunken, poison-spewing ogre there is a stealth gameplay system that can considerably lighten the load. If it looks like Sekiro is a hack-and-slash, look again. It’s possible (and immensely satisfying) to quickly dispatch a gaggle of foes with smart parrys and deathblows. But it’s a lot easier to study a scene and take advantage of strays with a stealth kill or three, because it’s equally possible to misfire against two or three enemies and get wrecked, too.

But what really made me fall for Sekiro during my three-hour demo was the world itself. FromSoftware has crafted a superb high fantasy setting full of unique characters and ominous themes. Sekiro is a game that celebrates the beauty of death, of endings. Sekiro himself lives this over and over, every death requires a resurrection that binds him ever tighter to his liege, a young royal with a mystical power that keeps Sekiro coming back again and again.

Sekiro first impression hands on preview 2 Seeing your allies suffer a penalty because of your in-game deaths makes the losses much, much heavier. FromSoftware

Resurrection also comes with a cost. You lose half your acquired skill points and currency, and it spreads a mysterious disease to the NPCs around Sekiro. I saw it first in The Sculptor who sits at the center of the Dilapidated Temple that serves as the main hub for the game. He crafted Sekiros arm, and is the conduit for skill tree upgrades. Already a withered old man, hearing him hack and cough as a result of your sloppy or rushed swordplay is jarring. Dying rarely carries such consequences in games. Seeing a gameplay mechanic tied so wonderfully to the themes speaks to the talent and experience FromSoftware.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a departure for FromSoftware, but it's clear they approached it as a creative challenge in order to bring out the best in their team. It appeals to me as a not-Dark Souls -guy because I’m excited to experience something from them that doesn’t make me feel as though I’m unworthy or inexperienced because I don’t have hundreds of hours logged in other games. I hope the fans that do can see what I’ve seen so far. Sekiro is a striking, dark vision from a studio with a stellar track record. The “joy of victory” is in full effect across a stunning, detailed world wrapped up in a compelling story.

I’m not a Dark Souls guy, but I think I’ll end up as a Sekiro guy when the game releases on March 22.

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