FromSoftware occupies a unique position in their territory which reflects a consistently renewed legacy that has earned a footnote in the history of game design. The conventions discovered in the foundational Dark Souls series and their successful reorganization in Bloodborne cast the critical shadow which blankets the entire “soulsborne” genre and comprises the prism through which we decide if copy-cat efforts deserve to be commended or discarded. As videogames expand and multiply around FromSoftware, the consequences that emerge in the gaps between canon and deviation decide not only our ability to praise or lament repeated additions to their portfolio but also offer opportunities to reinforce or reduce their prestige.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice distinguishes itself against FromSoftware’s body of work not only in its fantastical setting of feudal Japan, but also through a commitment to fully realize a modified combat system which forsakes historical muscle memory. Sekiro represents the commitment to outcomes that emerge from fundamental changes to a preceding formula when executed by the practiced might of AAA production quality.
In spite of FromSoftware’s commendable determination to evolve and the exhilarating aftereffects of that effort, there exists in parallel decisive byproducts that spoil enjoyment and repress praise from reaching heights set by their previous accomplishments.
Immediately apparent is an injection of iconography into the environment. Ledges and walls are distinctly marked, and animating symbols signify reachable areas. These obvious clues train the eye to scan the screen with peripheral vision in order to determine a course through the game world. This small decision to lead players results in a flattening of engagement. Where Darks Souls draws the player into the fiction through clever suggestions in terrain and appealing quirks in the surroundings, Sekiro keeps them at an arm’s length by adding visual shortcuts.
However, a depth of possibility returns in response to FromSoftware’s new stealth mechanics. The choices afforded to players when presented with a collection of enemies configured by the environment are more numerous than in previous titles, where a dominant strategy of mob isolation is now negated by the open playing field of the Shinobi Arts. Opportunities for players to update codified procedures for dominating these games represent the success of Sekiro.
To that end, FromSoftware’s biggest accomplishment with this title rests in the required destruction of habitual combat routines and the necessity of newfound reactions and physical prowess mandatory to triumph over enemies and bosses.
Where Bloodborne’s speed and health regeneration recommended aggression, Sekiro’s deflection and posture system necessitate it. To cleave away foes, the player has no choice but to attack in order to fill the antagonist’s posture meter and open a chance for the final stroke. Any relenting pause in the flow of the fight for healing or to reset one’s own posture grants an equivalent advantage to the enemy.
Inevitably, offensive strikes will be diverted and the adversary will return the intensity. It’s these moments where a moderately timed tap of the block button shifts the onslaught back again through deflection, rewarding the player in posture damage alongside a choreographed satisfaction of ringing blades.
After tackling a few hundred of these skirmishes and running through bosses multiple times, it is easy to compare sword combat in Sekiro to the rhythm gameplay of Guitar Hero. Success and failure is defined by your ability to react exactly to the enemy’s indications on screen.
Unfortunately, this analogy is still useful when taken past its surface-level appeal.
There is no choice in Guitar Hero. You play the notes or you fail. Sekiro is not different. By removing the openness of FromSoftware’s previous work within RPG stat progression, and also restraining the scope through the removal of gear and equipment, the player is left only with the sword as a tool to win. No specialized builds, no favorite move-set, and no varying game plans. You attack, you deflect, and you counter. That’s it.
Now, a total restriction of choice speaks nothing at all to the potential enjoyment of a videogame, as the satisfaction that comes when executing exactly what is expected or required can be immense. This remains true with Sekiro. Walking up to a fully memorized boss fight and dissecting their every move with precision provides a load of consummatory dopamine, and the obligatory steps in comprehension necessary to arrive at that point make the victory revelatory.
Regrettably, this rush isn’t enough to overcome the sulking low points that characterize the crushing punishment and arbitrary difficulty of late game bosses. One hit kills in Dark Souls come with an implicit fairness when delivered through a crushing blow by a gargantuan hammer. In this example, visuals, feedback, and game state are aligned.
Conversely, in Sekiro, whether you’ve mistimed your jump, had your posture broken over improper deflections, or got clipped by a glancing blow, loss of control during the prolonged stagger animation becomes a checkmate scenario as you watch your health melt away over lengthy attack combos. The speed of combat exaggerates the sustained helplessness felt as your controller refuses input while you observe defeat: exponentially so when you’ve reached the third hour of your singular struggle.
The FromSoftware faithful will regale any potential convert with the divine joy of overcoming the arduous challenge of the Souls series, and in that, I am one of the flock. Even so, the confirmation of my disappointment in Sekiro’s bosses arrived when the victory following my hundredth attempt brought little celebration and was instead a hollow confirmation of lucky chance.
I feel obligated to belabor this point from one last angle given the elevation of FromSoftware’s reputation for honest boss fights.
Theoretically, the dedication to varied attack speeds across movesets in late-game bosses would create a playground for experienced players looking for a challenge. So it’s distressing to see noticeable misalignment between attack animations and hitboxes which make feeling confident in deflection timings an absurd task. Additionally, some attack strings are so long and difficult to read that simply mashing the deflect button becomes an effective strategy. Hardly a pursuit worthy of the exacting ninja.
Throw in a few arenas that considerably exaggerate dilemmas with the camera and you’ll have the full picture of frustration that Sekiro has to offer.
With all that said, to give the entire stage to this criticism would conceal the otherwise enjoyable outcome of FromSoftware’s work. There are some marvelously epic set pieces, genuinely remarkable boss fights, excellent effects and UI artwork, distinct character designs, pictorial cut-scenes, and some surreal-as-shit plot devices. They even manage to take the expected victory state following a boss and subvert it for a thrilling surprise.
Yet, each experiment in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice doesn’t end in a gratifying alteration to the formula. The linear progression and lack of equipment make environmental exploration less rewarding. The gift of dying twice promised in the title has little consequence past providing a chore for utilizing the mechanic.
Furthermore, while my scarce use of the prosthetic secondary weapon so heavily featured in the game’s public presentation may coincide with my own lack of imagination, it’s likely just the tool’s inconsequential nature and exclusive functions. Lastly, when remembering developer Team Ninja’s brilliant dojo missions from Nioh which grant new skills through earned mastery, we are made aware of how ineffective unlocking abilities in a menu can be to understanding their utility.
In the end, Sekrio: Shadows Die Twice’s soaring difficulty reveals that FromSoftware is updating their principles, and players must cast aside old habits in order to move forward with them. But despite putting the biggest challenge in the soulsborne genre behind me, I don’t feel the same satisfaction as when I earned the platinum trophy from its contemporary competition, Nioh. The rough edges and frustrations that contribute to the overall strong character of Sekiro’s play indicate that the company is actively looking to refresh the genre they created, and I am still confident that the studio will continue to deliver standard setting quality going forward.
Edited by Malia Hamilton
Originally published on OK Beast