Review: The Punishing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Coasts on Borrowed Moves

Its boss fights highlight the contrived lengths that FromSoftware has gone to in order to satisfy players’ thirst for difficulty.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Photo: Activision

After the release of 2011’s Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki became one of the most respected names in the gaming industry, and with good reason. After all, Dark Souls is much more than a difficult action title with a fascinating semi-open environment, as its tense purgatorial trials and the ambiguity of its dread-inducing journey leaves one with a sense of ennui. Now years later, Miyazaki’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, offers the best opportunity yet to question the media’s worship of this undoubtedly talented artist. While Dark Souls represents a distinctive landmark in game history, Sekiro is more like an uninspired contemporary clone of 1998’s Tenchu: Stealth Assassins in which the stealth gameplay largely comes down to you watching little awareness meters above the heads of enemies and running away with ease when you’ve been spotted.

In a fictional 16th-century Japan, you play as the eponymous shinobi, who must rescue a young lord named Kuro from danger. There’s more at stake here than Sekiro’s loyalty as Kuro’s official bodyguard, as Kuro carries a bloodline that can grant immortality to those who can harness its power. Though this premise is more straightforward than the quest in Dark Souls, which refrains from giving the player an explicit direction or motivation, Sekiro still borrows ideas from that 2011 masterpiece, including, most significantly, the notion of restoring one’s health at a checkpoint in exchange for the resurrection of almost all defeated threats.

This double-edged mechanic feels more obligatory in Sekiro than it was in Dark Souls, as the player can fast travel to avoid repetitious combat or, in quintessential ninja style, silently destroy nearly every foe with various stealth tactics. Sekiro can also, under certain circumstances, come back to life on the spot immediately after being killed, further reducing the probability that players will be troubled by resurrected obstacles.

Sekiro’s shinobi protagonist knows a few melee tricks, but the game is best conquered by picking off guards one by one without being seen. Such killing can be satisfying in the moment, particularly when you feel as if you’re just blowing through a complex route without much issue. Right down to how the game’s grappling-hook tool allows the player to perch on top of gorgeous Japanese buildings to spot potential prey, Sekiro’s emphasis on sneaky, cold-blooded executions owes an obvious debt to Tenchu’s style and gameplay.

Yet Miyazaki and his team betray the point of following in the footsteps of a title like Tenchu when they also subscribe to the forgiving nature of modern stealth games. In Sekiro, you always know how aware a person or even an animal is of your presence, thanks to the tiny indicators hovering above them. On top of that, the hero is very quick, perhaps inspired in part by Snake’s over-the-top speed in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Such factors translate to a reasonable amount of comfort for players, which distances the game from the uncompromising Tenchu. As long as you’re willing to be unrelenting in your approach—like fleeing a group of enemies after murdering one of them, hiding, and coming back to dispatch another poor bastard from behind—your adversaries will fall like dominoes, as they, unlike smarter AI opponents in other games, are prone to forgetting that you were in their space within a few seconds of your escape, sometimes even when you’re still within sight.

Sekiro’s draining boss fights not only seem to contradict the idea of the player feeling like a furtive ninja but also highlight the contrived lengths that FromSoftware has gone to in order to satisfy players’ thirst for difficulty. The recipe for success in these melee contests, which can initially appear unfair, tends to be similar to that of so many other violent skirmishes within Miyazaki’s catalogue: lock on, dodge (a lot), parry, and counter during openings. You do have to keep an eye on the hero’s posture bar to prevent bosses from completely piercing your defense, but you don’t have to worry about a stamina variable as in the Dark Souls series.

In the end, the game’s combat system lacks a truly innovative hook such as the Ki Pulse dynamic from 2017’s Nioh, the boomerang axe from 2018’s God of War, or the total dependence on defensive technique in last year’s Way of the Passive Fist. Even though Sekiro does sport a prosthetic arm that can be equipped with non-sword weapons, the items are hardly inventive: axe, spear, flamethrower, shuriken, and so on. There’s simply little in Sekiro to make it stand out in a vast ocean of releases, rendering it more of a footnote in the gaming market than the product of a distinguished auteur’s imagination.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by PMK•BNC.

Score: 
 Developer: FromSoftware  Publisher: Activision  Platform: PlayStation 4  Release Date: March 22, 2019  ESRB: M  ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Violence  Buy: Game

Jed Pressgrove

Jed Pressgrove's writing has appeared in Game Bias, Film Quarantine, and Unwinnable.

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