It’s not often I go straight back to play a game demo again at a convention, but after spending 30 minutes slashing my way through Sekiro’s sadistic samurai fantasy, I immediately felt compelled to return.
As the latest game from From Software, the studio behind the infamously difficult Dark Souls games, you might think you know what to expect from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Yet, despite the game teeming with the same oppressive atmosphere and deviously challenging enemies you’d expect from Souls mastermind Miyazaki, once that controller’s in your hands, it’s clear that Sekiro is an entirely different beast.
Where the punishingly difficult Souls games offered up slow and brutal combat, battles in Sekiro run at a blistering pace. Armed with a samurai sword for standard attacks, three different swappable “prosthesis” heavy weapons, and a Spider-Man-esque grappling hook, I found myself grinning from ear to ear as my samurai avatar seamlessly zipped across a rooftop and dove straight into an enemy, triggering a brutal finishing move.
Considering it’s a From Software title, Sekiro feels like a disarmingly accessible game. Where Dark Souls had a penchant to palm you around like a piece of playdough, Miyazaki’s latest opts to give players more of a fighting chance. While facing larger enemies will still have you muttering obscenities, this time you have a plan B. Zooming around via grappling hook is an awesome way to navigate the game’s Kyoto-like locales. But, it also doubles as a quick way out of a testy situation.
Surrounded by a swathe of savage samurai, I manage to defeat two with a mix of light and heavy attacks before a third one charges at me with a killer blow. With a health bar that’s all but depleted and the threat of imminent death looming over me, I opt for flight over fight and zip my way up to safety.
To hardened Souls players, this may sound like a nooby cheat tactic. Yet, in practice, the ability to retreat to nearby ledges or rooftops results in a more immediate (and admittedly daring) approach to trial and error. See an intimidating new enemy type? Why not dive in, figure out its attack patterns, and then retreat to reconsider your approach.
A Platinum Performance
It encourages players to be bold, which makes sense given the lightning-fast speed of combat in Sekiro. It feels like From Software has been taking notes from its Japanese peers. The satisfying new parry mechanic rewards players with a fist-pump-worthy KACHLANNG every time your sword strikes steel. Combine that with a wonderfully smooth-feeling dodge system and movement in Sekiro is newly agile. The combat is reminiscent of Platinum Games, but the attacks pack the heft and impact you’d expect from Dark Souls.
This time around, From Software has shaken off its action-RPG roots and instead delivered a straight-up action game. That’s not the only change made here in the name of accessibility though. Death is also handled differently in Sekiro than other From Software’titles.
As you defeat enemies in Sekiro, your resurrection meter fills up. It’s a system that lives up to its name, with a full resurrection bar giving you the option to rise from the dead and bring our hero right back into battle as if nothing has happened. Interestingly, players have the option to take a Western-style stealth approach to battles too. Our hero can crouch and conceal himself in the long grass. This means you can sneak up on unsuspecting foes and finish them with a brutal animation that sees your blade run directly through their chest. There’s even a nice little triangle-shaped icon to tell players whether they’re close to being spotted by an individual enemy.
Familiarly Fearsome Foes
Don’t worry though — this is far from an easy game. Unlike the largely linear environments of the Souls games, Sekiro leaves players free to zip around this gorgeous sandbox as they please. While this may provide the player with more options, Sekiro’s wider world houses an array of dangers too.
Aside from cutting down a sea of standard-looking samurai, the demo saw me come up against more classically Miyazaki foes. As well as encountering crazed, Akira-esque priests and hulking, samurai generals, I stumbled upon an imprisoned behemoth while slashing and zipping my way across the snow-covered mountains. This terrifying-looking ogre was strapped to what looked like a crucifix, guarded by two samurai.
As I attempted to sneak up on my human foes and slit their throats, the ogre began to roar and strain against his shackles, breaking free and launching straight towards me, jumping into a WWE-like dropkick. This is where the hero’s shinobi prosthetic comes in, well, handy. These special replacement arms come in three different attachments, a loaded shuriken, a hulking Monster Hunter-esque axe, and a flaming blade.
With my normal attacks, shuriken and heavy axe blows barely put a dent in the surprisingly nimble beast. I had one option left. Thankfully, fire seemed to be his weakness. A lucky hit from my wildly swinging, flaming blade saw him release a blood-curdling, painful cry. Knowing what I must do, a quick one-two of normal attacks and flame vent strikes swiftly depleted his health bar. A brutal finishing animation sent a sword right through his skull, felling the beast for good.
How’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Shaping Up?
With Activision publishing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, it’s hardly a surprise that it will be a far more beginner-friendly take on the Souls formula. Yet, before the purists groan, that doesn’t mean that Miyazaki’s latest will be a walk in the park. With faster-feeling combat and a more forgiving approach to death, this simply means players need to take a different, more aggressive approach to enemies.
It’s still in its early days, but based on what we’ve seen so far, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice could well set a lofty new standard for combat in action games.