Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Where to begin with this one? I struggled soooo hard in the beginning of FromSoftware’s Japan-based samurai/shinobi styled action RPG. I managed to adventure a little way but then got stuck, put the game down and didn’t return to it for ages.

Then, just like with Bloodborne, I made up my mind to be stubborn and stick at it until I succeeded. A lot of struggling and DEATH later, I overcame the obstacle that was in my way and the astounding and amazing world opened up before me. And what a world it is. Beautiful, brutal, lore- and history-tinged tales being told all wrapped in the warming blanket of sword-based combat. Clang. Clang. Slash. Clang. Clang….

The arsehole that stood in my way first of all was the Shinobi Hunter Enshin based out at the Hirata Estate. This is, just like all the many mini-bosses sprinkled throughout the game, a skill-check on your progress. And it was obvious that I wasn’t up to scratch in this instance (a situation that would repeat throughout much of the early game)! A little bit of research and I discovered there were additional skills to be earned. Skills like the Mikiri Counter, which if you didn’t know, counters the thrusts of sharp-weaponed-weilding opponents just like the Shinobi Hunter! So, much training later I finally understood how it worked, got the timing of the red kanji warning sign and dispatched this spear-thrusting fool. At last. And this was the moment that it all started to make more sense.

With my preference for stealth kills (much easier than head-to-head fights) I commonly found myself attempting to find the sneaky way through opponents. Whilst this may be the sensible way to approach things, it did mean that once again. just like in Bloodborne, I had avoided learning properly a major mechanic in this game. I had let my familiarisation take hold before I had learnt how to fight properly (In Bloodborne it was parrying, here it was deflecting. Timing is the key!). So the further I got, the harder it was for me until I met Lady Butterfly. Although she is an optional boss, I was determined to best her and it is here that deflect timing and the rhythm of attacking and defending really hit home during the many, many attempts it took me to bring her down.

But, once again, the process all helps you to move on to take on the next boss or next area. And even if you can’t progress past a certain point, three are other ways to go, giving the Sengoku-period setting quite an open world feel as you roam from place to interconnected place with only a few skill checks in place that you must pass in order to progress further, but more about them later.

Once again FromSoftware’s level design is on another level. Just like in Bloodborne with it’s interconnected locations layered over and through one another, Sekiro also has the same, albeit with added verticality with the use of the grappling-hook. Gaining a good vantage point allows you to survey the domain and see where you have just been and where you need to go next. It cannot be overstated how much fun it is to zip around with your grapple, changing hook-points mid-air to confuse and get the better of enemies. Gaining the elevation to get the deathblow-drop on multiple foes is huge and so satisfying.

Ensuring you don’t miss a location is a little confusing at times but once you learn the layout and know where you need to go it makes traversing this world a lot easier. There is an additional mechanic that you pick up part way through the game that opens up another facet of the game in an interesting way. Speaking of additional mechanics the skills you can pick up all become highly useful the further you get into the game and each will usually have a type of enemy that they are particularly useful for. On top of the skills that you can learn are the shinobi prosthetics. Your lost arm has been replaced by a false arm by the old Sculptor and this thing can be upgraded and fitted with additional tools. These things, I won’t lie, can be the difference between life and DEATH (and then life. And then proper DEATH again) and come in hugely helpful.

Thankfully there are many checkpoints throughout the game allowing for quick travel and, most usefully, a quick return to the boss/mini-boss fight that you just got destroyed in. The boss fights are really where the game sings. Each coming with their own style of combat, weapons and special moves and skills it does mean that there is a lot to take in at times, especially when you can be dead pretty swiftly! But again, thankfully there are more familiar moves the further you get and by then you have a catalogue of moves to combat against it, avoid it or stop them from doing it. In comparison to other Souls games, the realisation that you only have one weapon does feel a little bit limited in how you can approach this game but to master that one weapon is the challenge, especially as the dodge mechanic is far less useful and effective. So, toe-to-toe it has to be sometimes and this can lead to frantic exchanges of attack and defence in fractions of seconds to adjust your move, listening to the sound of the attack to work out whether you can attack again or if it’s coming back at you with big consequences. It is thrilling to do, and totally uncompromising when it goes wrong!

It isn’t all enjoyment, as with other FromSoftware games. Sometimes it is just a plain slog to get through, repeating the same area time after time until you get far enough to get to the checkpoint and save/rest. But when you do get through, when you do beat that boss or area, the feeling of accomplishment is second to no other type of game I have come across yet. Returnal has it close, especially with the lack of checkpoints, but even that doesn’t stand up to the number and complexity of the bosses in this game.

I hated it, I loved it. The story of how I play FromSoftware games it seems. Long may it last!

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