Review: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • PC

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (16.82 GB)
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Publisher: Activision
Developer: FromSoftware
Original MSRP: $59.99 (US), £59.99 (UK)
ESRB Rating: M
PEGI: 18
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Brutally difficult. That has been the defining characteristic of previous FromSoftware titles. The Dark Souls series and Bloodborne have both received endless amounts of critical praise and yet players have drawn a line in the sand regarding their trademark toughness. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice not only proudly touts the challenging combat of its predecessors, it also refuses to relent in the form of an easy mode. Is demanding gameplay a design feature? Or does it hinder a game by creating an unnecessary barrier to entry? There is so much more to Sekiro than how hard it is, but these are the considerations that set FromSoftware games apart from the rest.

Gameplay:
Author’s Note: This review is based on roughly 12 hours of gameplay, not completion of the game.

After a short introductory cutscene, Sekiro lets you jump into the fray to familiarize yourself with movements and attacks. The controls are deceptively precise. It can take hours of gameplay before you begin to settle into the movements and variety of ways that you can assault your enemies.

Combat focuses primarily around sword fights using your katana sword, Kusabimaru. Pinpoint accuracy is required as you dodge, deflect, or launch an attack of your own. There are also useful enhancements to your prosthetic arm that can be found or earned throughout the game, such as a shuriken launcher or heavy axe.

Before your attacks will land more effectively, you must first break an enemy’s Posture and lower their Vitality. Some enemies have red dots above their Posture and Vitality bars, signifying that they need to be downed multiple times before they stay down. Your character, known as the Wolf, levels the playing field somewhat with a feature that allows him to gain the power to resurrect instantly. This power has a meter that is filled by slaying enemies.

There are RPG mechanics to Sekiro, but they are fairly light. Skill points can be earned with experience and used to unlock skills. The three types of skills are Combat Arts, Shinobi Martial Arts, and Latent Skills, with the latter two being passive. Items called Esoteric Texts can be found to grant the ability to learn a new style of skills. Collecting Prayer Beads allows you to permanently upgrade your Vitality and Posture. The upgrade and item systems of Sekiro are somewhat obtuse and it seems like there are unlimited items that you can find to have a different effect on combat. However, skills can greatly impact the way that you engage enemies, so unlocking them serves as a worthy goal.

The use of stealth is almost mandatory in Sekiro. Sneaking up on enemies to strike them from behind or drop down on them from above inflicts greater damage to most enemies and even finishes some off in one blow. Another, perhaps more important, benefit to stealth-killing enemies is that less attention is drawn to you. Fighting a group of enemies can quickly become overwhelming, especially when you have been targeted by both melee and ranged attackers. The stealth mechanics feel great in Sekiro. The game’s heightened stakes lend stealth play a gravity not found in similar games in which breaking out a roaring machine gun may be just as effective as tip-toeing around enemies. The Wolf has a handy grappling hook that makes quietly exploring each level’s verticality feel fun but strategic.


Pattern recognition is of vital importance throughout Sekiro, especially in the case of heavy enemies or bosses. However, knowing the pattern and pulling off the correct reaction are two entirely separate things. The second that you ease up on an enemy or lose patience to go after them with reckless abandon, you are punished swiftly and often fatally. By structuring combat in this way, Sekiro demands your full focus and effort while you play.

The lows experienced in the game can be very low, such as when you die at the hands of the same enemy several times in a row. What makes matters worse is that with each death you are punished in the form of losing currency and experience. Occasionally you receive Unseen Aid and are not punished for a death. Unfortunately, with each death you gain more of what is called Rot Essence and once you have enough Rot Essence your chance of receiving Unseen Aid goes down. Additionally, if you die enough you may inflict NPCs that you meet with Dragonrot and you will not be able to continue their playable storylines until they are cured. All of these compounding difficulties can be extremely disheartening, and at times feels like punishment for the sake of punishment. This piling on of penalties, without the ability to lower the challenge for the sake of enjoying the story or aesthetics of the game, is what creates a barrier that will keep some gamers away from the title. Without a doubt, this game is not for everyone.

The flip side of all of the negativity towards Sekiro’s difficulty is that when you succeed you are rewarded with an unrivaled sense of euphoria. The entire time that you are playing the game on the screen, you are unwittingly playing your part in the metagame of testing your resolve to keep pushing through wave after wave of challenges and setbacks. Staying the course and treating each lost battle not as a failure, but as practice and reconnaissance, pays off in a way that makes you pivot from cursing the game to being in awe of its brilliance.

Visuals:
Sekiro is not a visually stunning game. The game is by no means ugly, but it lacks the level of polish that can be expected from other AAA, single-player, action titles. At times, levels feel cramped or oddly isolated, almost like you are on an island. Textures are often overused and lack much variety. All that said, there are still moments and locations in the game that are beautiful and worth pausing to admire. In an odd but somehow satisfying way, the less than phenomenal aesthetics brings the focus back towards the game’s brutal combat.

The art direction makes up for any of Sekiro’s less impressive visuals. Particularly in enemy character models, there are details that make other-wordly abominations seem somehow grounded within the world of the game. Sense of scale is played with to an almost comical degree, whether you are encountering a gigantic, pot-bellied warrior dragging his sword on the ground behind him or an aggressive rooster standing eye-to-eye with the Wolf. Striking these enemies down often culminates in an over-the-top display of violence and gore.

Lighting is used to draw your eyes towards enemies or inject chaos into a battle. Lack of light is used to convey a sense of mystery and despair as you hesitantly progress towards unknown terrors that can be heard before seen. There are certainly horror elements to Sekiro, mostly thanks to the incredible variety of creepy enemies that you encounter.


Audio:
The combat sounds are crisp and impactful, with each clash of swords resonating and each dodge or landed blow punctuated by appropriate grunts of exertion. Soaring around levels using the grappling hook is accompanied by weighty clanks of the hook landing and gentle whooshing as you cut through the air.

The music of Sekiro plays an effective role in setting the tone of the fictionalized version of Japan that the game takes place in. Swells in the music add drama to fights or tension to stealth portions. The voice acting in cutscenes and during interactions with NPCs is all capably delivered.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is one player only with no online component.

Conclusion:
Debates will continue to rage on as to whether Sekiro’s unrelenting difficulty should be lauded for the high-risk high-reward gameplay it creates, or detested for the unpassable wall that it puts between some gamers and the finish line. In that sense, Sekiro already stands alone amongst other, less brazen action titles. The most impressive part of the game is not its razor-sharp combat, extraordinary character designs, or sense of foreboding imparted by unequaled challenges. Sekiro is unapologetically true to itself in a way that demands admiration.

Score:
8.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Brock Arnett

Gamer since the NES days, Boilermaker, Colts and Pacers fan. I can’t wait until my two boys are old enough to play games with me.

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