Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review: Masterful Execution
Sekiro wall-kicks away from the RPG heavy elements of the Dark Souls formula and lands comfortably in a fascinating new space
Not to sound too much like Master Yoda, but here's a warning to my fellow Dark Souls and Bloodborne veterans. You must un-learn what you have learned. With this ninja game, FromSoftware has more or less built Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to subvert and destroy its existing fans. Go in with an ego, and your screen will be wall-to-wall death-screens (or "shinobituaries" as I like to call them).
Carved into being by Hidetaka Miyazaki, and weirdly published by Activision, SSDT is a third-person, action-adventure game with RPG elements. And that's an important distinction, because while platforming and fast-paced katana slinging is in -- a number of key elements I'd usually associate with a Souls game have either been massaged into new mechanics or have been killed off. Online functionality, for example, has gone the way of the bushidodo.
For now, let's dive into what SSDT is, rather than what it isn't. You'll be sliding into the bad-ass sandals of Sekiro, a "one-armed-wolf" ninja whose leash runs to the hand of a young lord. Without getting too deep into the tale – as I want you to discover as much of it for yourself – what we have here starts as a clear-cut rescue mission that branches out into a murky journey of self-discovery. Sekiro is an amnesiac, and the young lord is of a cursed bloodline. Your beloved master's influence may be twisting the world and the people around him to some degree.
I'll not say much more than that, beyond this warning: you'll need to make a very large decision come the mid-point of the story. The darker path will lead to a much shorter adventure (followed by a New Game+). The nicer option will also grant you a New Game+ but you'll have a ton more game to see and slice through.
Speaking of chopping 'til you drop, SSDT is very much its own beast when it comes to combat. Your old Souls games conditioned you to stand at a distance, observe and then nip in for a cheeky hit-and-run assault (or a "hit-and-roll, roll, roll, roll" assault). Very rarely will that tactic work here. You're expected to stay nose-to-nose in an effort to repeatedly deflect (read: parry) consecutive attacks to fill up a posture-break bar above your enemy. Do that, and you'll earn a Deathblow. These will insta-kill smaller foes, but mid and end-stage bosses will require multiple Deathblows, and those will be only be offered once you chew through a health pool that is more like a health ocean.
Fail to maintain pressure on your prey, and they'll recover their posture. Try to ignore this system in favour of a battle of attrition, and you most likely won't win. Don't let the fact that Sekiro isn't bound by a stamina bar to fool you – button mashers will get mashed. This is very much OG Dark Souls rules: even the most innocuous-looking enemy – like an oversized chicken – could remind you of your low place on the pecking order in half a second or less.
It's good news then that Sekiro has a bunch of other techniques and tools up his wooden sleeve. As the game goes on you can unlock a bunch of L1+R1 combat arts tied to one of five skill trees (they're basically SSDT's idea of heavy attacks). These can be complemented with ninjutsu techniques, special mikiri counters that parry otherwise unblockable thrusts and a host of all-purpose skills that you can buy with XP swapped at Shrines.
Sekiro also has access to a bunch of prosthetic tools that can be deployed via R2 at the cost of spirit emblems. Three of these can be equipped at a time, you can cycle through them with Triangle, and they offer some damn cool offensive options. You'll go from par-for-the-course throwable shurikens and enemy-stunning firecrackers to Loaded Umbrellas and a freakin' axe for an elbow. Half the fun is combining certain prosthetic tools with combat arts to create super effective combos.
I think that uber-hardcore players will love learning the nuances of how remaining enemy vitality will affect their posture recovery rate. Plus there's a lovely rock-scissors-paper approach to how deflect, quick-step and jump can cancel out otherwise unblockable thrust, sweep and grab attacks. Similarly, there's a lot to know about how effective your guard is to normal, piercing, thrust, spirit and fire attacks. Bottom line: SSDT's combat has an abyss-like depth to it, and you'll constantly need to adapt and respond at a blistering pace not seen in a Souls game.
I should also like to mention that the Dark Souls bonfires return as prayer shrines, however, death is handled a little differently. Sekiro has the limited opportunity to resurrect after a fatal hit (at which point you'll still be in a desperate, sudden death state). If you die for reals, you'll lose half of whatever XP and money you had on you. Unlike Souls, there's no retrieval. It's all gone for good. Your tears will be real.
And the hits keep on coming. The more you die, the more friendly NPCs exhibit symptoms of a hideous disease known as Dragonrot. You can reverse this by sacrificing a certain item to a Shrine, and you'll want to do that because NPC plot-lines can be halted by infection and the more rot in the world, the less Unseen Aid you'll get. The latter is basically a percentage chance to negate XP and money loss when you die next. Your peak Unseen Chance is 30%, it can drop to 5% if you keep carking it.
Though it took some time to adjust to it, I'm very much in love with the combat side of SSDT. It's fast, furious and rewarding if you can think on your feet. The stealth and platforming side of this game....yeah, I like a tiny bit less. I'm certainly not complaining that Sekiro can shrug off 40ft drops, and being able to zip out of trouble with the L2 grapple hook is super handy. That said, The Wolf isn't as sure-footed as I'd like when it comes to what he can and can't land on, or wall-run up. Likewise, the grapple is very contextual about where it may be used. Don't go in expecting free rein with it, like a Tenchu game.
For the most part, the stealth system is a blast to use, but it could be better. On the one hand, it's empowering to eliminate a dozen samurai in a level using nothing but shrubbery, one-hit kills and death from above. On the other hand, a roving patrol of guards will flat out ignore the body of a compatriot who's sprawled a metre away with six speedholes in them. I also experienced the odd issue with the lock on system when I tried to surgically drop in on a mob. Weird little focus shifts to a different enemy would occur and I'd end up shanking the weakest in the cluster as opposed to dangerous shield dude I absolutely needed to kill.
Those problems were few and far between, however. FromSoftware's first stab at stealth mechanics in a very long time and while this is no Metal Gear, for the most part, it's a solid effort. You should definitely take the time to play it sneaky, too. I know of at least one instance where you'll be handsomely rewarded if you quietly install gills into an entire courtyard of minions who are guarding a boss. Impressed by your ruthless efficiency, a friendly samurai will appear to help you. Much like a Dark Souls Summon.
Speaking of, if you didn't know it already, there'll be no player summoning or invasions in SSDT as it's a purely offline experience. I think that's a huge loss to the package. That and the removal of character creation, player classes and the usual RPG trappings of weapon and armour enhancement. I can certainly see how all of that would be a deal-breaker for some – but not me. SSDT was never professed to be a continuation of the Souls franchise, nor should we have expected it to be an apple-fallen-next-to-the-tree spin-off like Bloodborne. What we have here is an action-leaning holiday that's branching off in a lovely new direction.
All that being said, I think there's more than enough Dark Souls DNA present to make this game irresistible to all but the most obstinate Dark Souls purist. Visually, FromSoftware's creaky old engine has received a shot in the prosthetic arm, and it allows for some truly intricate and surprising boss battles. From has outdone itself with the scale, design and challenge of these.
Likewise, the world at large is dripping with detail and hidden lore that will reward those who take the time to dig and decipher it. Better yet, a host of visual flourishes, incidental animations and environment destructibility means Sekiro feels so much more grounded in this place. And rest assured that this thing purrs along at 4K.
Whichever way you slice it, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice stands as its own thing. A near-perfect bridge between old fans and a nervous new audience. FromSoftware has had the courage to break the mold, try something bold and it's paid off. Miyazaki-san set out with the intention to break down our expectations and teach us a ton of new tricks with an Old Wolf. I'd be damn surprised if you played this and weren't grapple hooked in seconds.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
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