Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice hands-on: Destined for greatness
After what has now been 4 cumulative hours with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware has us sold.
There's no two ways about this. Dark Souls players will need to unlearn what they have learned before playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. If you fail to adapt to the new, ninja way of doing things, you can expect to be greeted with a death screen. And then another one. Within two seconds of resurrecting yourself from the last one, no less.
You'd be forgiven for seeing that mechanic as FromSoftware's gimmick to get the casuals into this uber-sadistic sub-genre of games. However, if you dig a little deeper it becomes apparent that these free lives are a double-edged sword. Exhibiting some skill and refusing to join the choir invisible will shower the hardcore with rewards. XP mostly, and I also noticed that some of the friendly NPCs started to look a little worse for wear after I'd carked it a dozen times. Feels like a twist on the zombifying Hollowing mechanic that dogged us all in the Souls series, no?
That mechanic is one of the rare occasions where Sekiro looks backwards into the series and not forwards. Everything else about this game smacks of evolution – a new breed of sadism to make you punch holes in your walls and embed your favourite controller into the TV. Gone is the piddly little stamina bar that used to give you all the mobility of an arthritic senior citizen – Sekiro is a bonafide master ninja who can merrily chop until everybody else drops. Nothing slows ol' homeslice down.
Likewise, gone is the platforming pain that revolved around Dark Souls' hideous little jump + commando roll combo. Sekiro leaps about and wall kicks up to rooftops like Ryu Hayabusa on red cordial. Even better, you can now take a 20ft drop and not need a health kit, or a new spine and legs. Last but not least, Sekiro has a grappling hook that is an exit-stage-left solution to almost any fight that isn't going your way.
And you'd better believe that there'll be fights that won't go your way. As mentioned earlier, you can forget the old ways of nipping into land a few hits before rolling away. Enemies are adept at blocking and the idea here is to overwhelm them with showers of katana abuse until their composure cracks (represented by a bar above their head). Put them in a tizzy and you can land a death blow that'll spill some serious claret on the virtual cameraman. The bigger the enemy, the more of these critical strikes you'll have to land to make them "proper" dead.
That degree of finality was inflicted upon me many, many times during my first hands-on with Sekiro. That was a month ago. I'm happy to say that my mindset changed for a second hands on that I had in Sydney recently. Now I knew that backing off from a bad situation (to chug a health-giving magic saki) was just about the worst tactic in my repertoire. At a distance, your victim's composure recovers quickly and effectively resets the encounter to zero.
You need to back yourself, no matter how bleak it looks. Double down on aggression and pray to Jeebus that your timing with the parry button will be on point. All that being said, even the weakest enemies in this game seem to be masters of the feint. Even the lowest paid samurai sword-fodder-dudes can trip you up if you're not paying attention to them.
Honestly, you're much better off slitting throats and installing new blowholes in people from the shadows. Gloriously, Sekiro layers in some lovely stealth mechanics for that authentic ninja experience. Observing enemy patrol patterns and hiding in shrubbery can let you get into shanking distance for those lovely one hit kills. The suspicion level of guards are handily painted onto your HUD the moment they clap eyes on you.
Extreme body piercings from out of nowhere will never be an option for you with bosses, however. FromSoftware has devised a bunch of cunning beasties who will put your strategies and reflexes to the test in climactic, multi-stage showdowns. I'll not spoil them here, though I will say that ancient Japanese mythology has been well tapped to provide some truly weird and wonderful creatures. Sekiro goes from beautiful to mesmerizingly gorgeous in these moments, especially in 4K.
After what has now been 4 cumulative hours with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I'm all in for launch day. Though I had a few reservations related to a lack of PvP and the unorthodox choice of choosing Activision as a publishing partner, FromSoftware has nonetheless skirted around my defences and executed a sneak attack on my heart. I remembered viewing Bloodborne with a similar degree of suspicion in 2015 and it grew to become one of my top 10 favourite games. I honestly see the same sort of potential here.