Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice hands-on: Your Soulsborne experience means nothing
With Sekiro, FromSoftware has evolved their signature sadism into something genuinely new.
I strolled into a preview session cocky and was slaughtered for my arrogance. This is the TL;DR of the time that I – a veteran "Soulsborne" player – had with FromSoftware's next sadistic adventure, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Listen to my cautionary tale now, dear traveller. Learn from my pain.
First of all, I should note that I walk in greener than a Grass Clan ninja. I'm vaguely aware of Sekiro's existence, but it's an oddity on the edge of my radar. The fact that it's being published by Activision strikes me as... odd, and I've kind of already had my fill of the "feudal Japan + Dark Souls" formula with the thoroughly satisfying Nioh. Essentially, I'm confident that I'll be putting down the controller 30 minutes from now as I walk away a winner. I'm an idiot.
I strap on my sandals, land in-game and the first thing I notice is that Sekiro looks sumptuous on a PS4 Pro running through a 4K TV. I've just breached the outer wall of some colossal Japanese castle that's hanging on the edge of a snowy mountain peak. Everything is bathed in a lovely sunset and when I leap across to a perch in a nearby tree, the branch bends to accept my weight and there's a mini explosion of snow powder. This game is a looker.
It's also beautiful in motion, too. By the time Dark Souls 3 rolled around it was increasingly obvious that the animation system was tied to an aging engine – everything was a bit stiff, utilitarian. In the lore of this game Sekiro may well be an "elder ninja", but time hasn't slowed him down much -- I positively whip about the level by tapping L2 to anchor onto grappling hook points. With acrobatic flair he attaches to these and slingshots up with stylish little side-sault twists thrown in for coolness. Likewise, there's a dedicated jump button that offers me Ninja Gaidenesque leaps and bugger all fall damage. To any Souls player worth their shin splints, that's a huge change.
After insta-killing a few fools who don't see me coming (From has layered in a stealth crouch located on L3) I get arrogant and try to take on two grunts and a mini-boss head on. Everything seems like business, as usual, to begin with. I lock on with R3, switch to target the soldiers first and mash R1 to slice and dice up a storm. I also mix it up with a "sword art" or two (L1+R1), a fancier leaping attack that closes distances a little better.
Curiously, while the minnows in this pond have bars appearing over their heads, I realise they're not health bars per se. With sheer brute force and ignorance, I hammer these foes until their guard breaks down and a red HUD element says that they can be executed. What happens next is satisfyingly bloody. I also grin when Sekiro does the classic downward flick of his sword to clear the blade of viscera.
When I turn my attention to the Samurai General, it becomes apparent that he cannot be overwhelmed with speed of attacks and dodging alone. I doggedly stick to what Dark Souls has taught me to do. I fumble, I die. Three times. Dodging is somewhat slower than I'm used to, as tapping Circle makes Sekiro gingerly step laterally, not bodily dive-roll out of the way. Expect to rely less on this and more on reading incoming attacks so you can parry them with a tap of L1.
More importantly, I'm forced to recalibrate my brain to the new Posture system. Forget the old ways of carefully managing your stamina meter and brawling until somebody in the fight runs out of health. There is no stamina here, grasshopper – you can chop and hop all day without slowing down one iota.
Also, whenever you take a hit – or even absorb an incoming hit via a block – it'll fill a bar, not deplete one (obviously the former engorges it a lot more than the latter). Let the enemy dominate the fight for long enough and your bar will become a 100% angry red colour. One more hit at this point and you're toast. Your only recourse is to chug a potion or land some hits to make the bar diminish again.
When the sandal is on the other foot, a red barred enemy is susceptible to critical attack. In this case, Sekiro gives the General an unorthodox tonsillectomy with a lunging stab. It's not enough to end the fight, however, it simply removes one of three red diamonds next to his name. From here, the Posture mechanic resets and I must do the dance two more times before he's relieved of his command (and his intestines).
Ordinarily that sort of "kill me multiple times" nonsense would irritate me, but it's hard to complain of cheapness when the grim reaper issues Sekiro a similar free pass. His ninja magic allows him to absorb one fatal blow. You can then resurrect again on the spot or teleport back to the last shrine you prayed at.
As my short demo rolls on I find my footing and learn to automatically respect the mini-bosses I face. In the next section of the level, I clear out a courtyard of four soldiers using the cover of tall grass and pure sneakiness. The game then weaves in a 12-foot ogre, unblockable attacks and grabs to mess with me. At one point I'm scooped up like a child's doll and get driven into the dirt. That'll teach me to over-rely on parrying.
Later, I encounter a stealth section that pits me against an impossibly powerful foe. The general gist is to use Sekiro's grappling hook and hyperactive platforming skills to ping across a canyon, all while avoiding the gaze of an enormous snake. Once again, this new engine of FromSoftware's impresses the heck out of me with the sheer scale of this environment and the danger-noodle that calls it home.
Before the demo timer runs out, my ego is dealt one more crushing blow. The final boss of the piece – an 11-foot tall Corrupted Monk – expertly slices me up, like Fugu, with her massive nagamaki blade. Basically, I just can't read her attacks correctly and my "prosthetic gear" (read: ninja magic sub-weapons deployed via R2) can't make up the difference. Before I can even witness the phase where she makes mirror copies of herself, I'm beaten down like I owe her money.
I still walk away from my time with Sekiro in love with it.
Weirdly, I still walk away from my time with Sekiro in love with it. Maybe I have something of a masochist streak in me, or it could be because FromSoftware has genuinely evolved their signature sadism into something genuinely new.
For the first time in a long while, I was clutching my controller a little tighter and my mind had to race to weigh up my tactical options before death took me (yet again). There's challenge here. Technique to learn. Endorphins to feel. Swear words to shriek. I simply cannot wait for a rematch.