'Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice' Review: Die Hard With A Vengeance

9.5/10 (PS4)

Immersion is a tricky thing. It usually involves an assumption on our part that we are, inherently, identical to the persona in our story. But we are not. The story of the man Sekiro, in From Software's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, bears virtually no similarities to the story of the man Mo Mozuch, reviewing said From Software title. An overweight, soft-handed 30-something in our modern, comfortable society is as far from Sekiro's grizzled, lethal Sengoku-era samurai hero as it gets.

Lesser games would bridge this gap by putting me on a path to godhood, and have me button-mash and cleave my way through hordes with an unrelenting and perpetual slaughter. But Sekiro is no lesser game. Sekiro offers a punishing challenge that forces me to rise to it , rather than catering to how good I think I should be. I feel immersed in some sort of brutal and bitter training regiment, a montage of humiliating failures culminating in a flash of competence. Sekiro, through a combination of innovative combat and a pitch-perfect high fantasy setting, delivers thrilling victories unlike any I've experienced in gaming in a long, long time. Maybe ever.

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From Software

SEKIRO REVIEW: BOSSES, NOT LOSSES

The defining aspect of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are its bosses and sub bosses or mini bosses or rivals or whatever you call them. The maps are populated by plenty of lesser unit types that run the gamut from long range riflemen to snarling attack dogs to mythical monsters like ogres and spirits. And swordsmen, oh-so-many swordsmen. These foes are just fodder for your melee training though, as you can stumble through them without much strategy. Sekiro also has a generous stealth system that helps you thin the crowds in particularly troublesome spots. But it's not until you encounter boss types that you can begin to understand just how bold, and how challenging, the Sekiro combat style really is.

For me, and for most of you, I imagine, that lesson will come at the hands of the Chained Ogre. The first real boss you encounter that isn't just a beefier version of a foot soldier, the Chained Ogre unleashes devastating attacks, unpredictable patterns and very little room for error. It took me nearly three hours to get past him. Defeating him will forever be one of the most memorable moments I've experienced in a game. Not just because he seemed insurmountable, but because he served as a tutorial of sorts for Sekiro . I was much, much better at the game after that fight. Not since the Legendary difficulty in Halo have I felt such a visceral sense of achievement and progression. It's exhilarating and daunting all at once. And Sekiro serves up this feeling over and over and over.

SEKIRO REVIEW: POSTURE MAKES PERFECT

From Software has a reputation for challenging games. I never played Dark Souls much, and didn't try Bloodborne. Sekiro is my first real introduction to their work. It does not disappoint. At a glance it appears to be a hack-and-slash game, the kind of thing you're used to playing when a game gives you a samurai sword. But players discover it is far from that, with a level of nuance in its unique "posture system" unlike anything in modern gaming.

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From Software

Simply put, posture is health. Enemies actually have a health gauge, but you don't get a kill until you max out the posture meter and get the prompt for a deathblow. Most enemies only require one, but the bosses require two. You don't fill the meter through damage alone, in fact, skillful blocking and counters can cause big gains. So can using the right equipment. Sekiro's left arm prosthetic can be outfitted with a number of special attachments, from a flamethrower to shurikens to an axe. Using the right special attack, at the right time, can deliver more posture damage than sword fighting alone. He also learns special counters and strikes, adding more layers to your arsenal. Combat becomes akin to a fighting game as you must master the moves, and the timing, by watching your opponent closely.

You can, thankfully, cheese things a bit with stealth.

The stealth aspect of Sekiro has about 1/100th the nuance of the sword fighting, but remains as lethal. Sneaking up on a foe, including bosses, lets you land an automatic deathblow. And sneaking is very easy, even startled guards fall back into the same routines mere moments after you "hide." It's a welcome respite from the intense combat, but also suffers by comparison.

SEKIRO REVIEW: LUDONARRATIVE HARMONY

I have a problem with ludonarrative dissonance in games. It's the primary hurdle a game must clear in order to be considered for any kind of GOTY honors. In short, ludonarrative dissonance is any moment in a game where your character has to do something at odds with who the character is, i.e. Nathan Drake killing a bajillion people in Uncharted despite being a "good guy." In Sekiro , this problem does not exist. Not only do his actions make sense, his very existence as a resurrected samurai with a magical arm prosthetic does, too.

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From Software

From Software achieves this by building a world around Sekiro that supports the mysticism driving his character. The world is steeped in magic in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The fantastical creatures, like a white snake the size of a mountain, serve to make Sekiro seem somewhat normal. And the cast around him, like the mysterious sculptor who built and maintains Sekiro's arm, all seem to traffic in the same strange energy that keeps him alive. An in-game death penalty, a disease called dragonrot, affects these characters. The more you die, the more the disease spreads. NPCs affected by dragonrot no longer offer storylines to follow, but can be cured. Deciding when to lift the curse and which challenges to pursue as a result gives you a sense of agency over the narrative.

The major plot thread involves Sekiro's relationship with Kuro, a royal heir in possession of a magical bloodline that grants him resurrective powers. Your life, and many, many deaths, are defined by your service and loyalty to Kuro. Without spoiling things, Sekiro also revisits his own memories with Kuro throughout the game and you replay pivotal moments to gain a deeper understanding of who Sekiro is, or was, before he lost his arm and started on this winding, mystical path. It's a simple theme, loyalty. And one that is easy to identify with as Sekiro tests your resolve and dedication over and over again.

SEKIRO REVIEW: EASY DOES IT?

Sekiro is undeniably the hardest game of the year so far, and none of the thrills it gave me would exist if I could tone it down. But the challenge of Sekiro overshadows many other things the game does well. The environments are beautiful. The story is compelling. I don't think the game needs "easy mode" (but it can and should figure out a solution for accessibility), but it is not a game for everyone. Sekiro has sold very well, but I'm curious about how far the bulk of the audience actually goes.

We're not dedicated samurai, after all. Despite how much we'd like to be.

Newsgeek Review Score Sekiro Shawdows Die Twice
Newsweek // Rocco Marrongelli
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