“Variations on a theme” is a phrase I’ve employed to describe the games of Hidetaka Miyazaki, but it’s all a bit more complicated with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It shares ample DNA with the games that made Miyazaki famous—Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne—but it’s also much more distinct. Any particular SoulsBorne game is unique, but looks and plays basically like the others. Sekiro doesn’t. The result is a game that revels in its surprises while nonetheless feeling familiar as an old shoe, or a loyal dog that bites. Hard.
No point in being coy: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is masterful. Miyazaki’s disciples may need a short adjustment period, but I think they’ll be happy with it in the long run. The most devoted SoulsBorne fans are also the ones most likely to struggle with Sekiro at first, because the natural instinct will be to approach the game like Dark Souls or Bloodborne, and it’s almost impossible when played that way. But once things clunk into place and you comprehend how to play this game, it really begins to sing.
So don’t expect Bloodborne 2. Because for all its similarities—and there are many—to the SoulsBorne canon, Miyazaki’s earlier work is to Sekiro what the Tori Amos cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit is to Nirvana’s original.
The specific music isn’t the point of the analogy. The point is they’re both the same song, but it’s the differences that stand out, not the similarities.
Like Maybe 300 Years Before the Tom Cruise Movie
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes place in post-Feudal Japan, specifically the
Something Period googlegooglegoogle the Sengoku Period, the 1500s “Warring States” era. A convulsion of violence between rival warlords, anarchy and near-constant bloodshed, when every village seemed perpetually in flames and every atrocity was countered with a more inventive atrocity. This is the period of samurai and Shoguns and stuff, a fitting backdrop for a bloody story.
Despite the historical setting, Sekiro has nothing to do with reality, preferring instead to present a sort of idealized-but-in-a-bad-way dark reflection of actual Japan. It’s a world of swirling cherry blossoms, moonlit duels, monstrous beasts, stern father figures, and ancient magic. Sekiro feels like a myth, and its Japan would be perfectly at home in a fantasy anime along the lines of Record of Lodoss War or Ninja Scroll. Though it’s made mostly of blood and sharp edges, Sekiro somehow retains an ethereal, numinous quality, as if the world were very young, and dreaming of itself.
But I Was Using That
You get hurled straight into the deep end. A boy of maybe ten is orphaned on some battlefield and adopted by a passing samurai, who names him Wolf. Raised to be a shinobi—sort of a mercenary ninja—Wolf becomes the sworn guardian of the Divine Heir, a little boy (or maybe girl?) who is, I gather, a person of Some Importance. Alas, Medieval Japan is not a safe place for juvenile royalty, since every rival house can cook up a claim to the Imperial throne. Surrounded by threats, Wolf and the Divine Heir are caught mid-GTFO by a hulking warrior whose name escapes me. The ensuing duel is classic Miyazakia, as Name Escapes Me-San chops off Wolf’s arm and kidnaps his charge.
Another, nicer man arrives and fastens a new appendage onto Wolf’s stump. The Shinobi Prosthetic offers a variety of advantages over your traditional run-of-the-mill arm, and supports sweet attachments that snap on like murder Lego. All you need to do is find the parts, and the nice man will do the rest.
“Sekīro,” by the way, is a bastardized mush of Japanese kanji that basically translate as “One-Armed Wolf” when put together.
Now you’re maybe 15 minutes into the game. It’s still technically the tutorial, but you’ve probably been killed half a dozen times already.
Shadows Die Constantly, OMG I’m So Not Kidding
Sekiro is balls to the wall stealth and action. At a glance, it has more in common with Tomb Raider or Splinter Cell, or, of course, the lesser-known on Western shores series Tenchu, of which From Software was a developer, than to what you might have come to expect from this studio. There’s jumping! Swimming! Sneaking! Tall grass and dark corners are a shinobi’s natural environment. Unseen, Wolf can observe enemy movements, eavesdrop on conversations, creep along hidden paths, and kill silently, from the darkness, like a shadow would.
And yet Sekiro is not a slow-paced game. Quite the opposite. The action is so fast it’s nearly impossible to take good screenshots (some of the ones here are mine, some are liberated from elsewhere). And it’s unforgiving, even compared to Miyazaki’s other work. I would never have believed that “slow” is a term I’d use to describe a SoulsBorne, but comparatively, Sekiro is a game of warp speed action and split-second consequences. You pay for mistakes with your life. Fortunately, Wolf can die twice.
Don’t jump to conclusions about this mechanic. It’s not much like the resurrection in Dark Souls or Bloodborne. When Wolf goes down, you can choose to die or resurrect him on the spot, meaning he leaps back to his feet right where he fell, with a micron of health, still surrounded by the foes who cut him down in the first place. It’s up to you to figure out cheeky ways to take advantage of this.
Get killed a second time and you’re “dead,” meaning you resurrect back at a nearby Buddha statue, Sekiro’s Bonfire analogue. But there’s no soul-impregnated bloodstain to recover. You lose half your cash and half your progress to the next skill level. That’s not too big a penalty, since enemies respawn when you trigger the Buddha idols, and the game’s not stingy with money or experience. But die too often and shit starts to get real, yo. Something’s rotten in the state of
Denmark Japan, something associated with the Divine Heir and mysteriously tied to Wolf’s inability to die. You begin to accumulate Rot Totems. There’s a plague, see, and every Rot Totem makes it a little worse.
Wolf is immune, but NPCs and critical allies eventually get too sick to help you. Story branches start getting locked off. Too many Rot Totems and you can’t finish the game.
“Death will be your one constant companion on this journey,” wheezes the Fire Keeper at the beginning of Dark Souls 2.
Yeah, I know. But in Dark Souls it’s my death. It impacts me. It doesn’t screw my friends.
Thus my protip for Sekiro: play for six or seven hours, then start over. You can either do this by choice, like a normal person, or by accidentally erasing your save, like me. You won’t have lost that much progress and you’ll make a bazillion percent fewer mistakes. This is especially important for SoulsBorne fans, who will inevitably approach Sekiro with certain expectations of how it plays, and those people are about to get bungholed the worst way.
Swiss Army Arm
Progression through Sekiro’s world surely evoke the setpieces and boss fights of Dark Souls, but this is far more structured overall. The theatre of grotesquerie trying to kill you doubtless conjures memories of Demon’s Souls, but foes in Sekiro—distorted afterbirths of Miyazaki’s nightmares though they may be—are largely human in some way or another. And the Shinobi Prosthetic, which obviously recalls the transforming Trick Weapons of Bloodborne, is a support tool, not the star of the show. Each attachment serves a narrow purpose, and you won’t find a host of different weapons to experiment with. The sword you start with is the sword you’ll end with, and it’s what does the heavy lifting.
That’s where stuff gets really different. Combat in Sekiro is a whole other beast.
Controls are deceptively simple. You’ll memorize them in about a second: Right bumper, attack. Left bumper, parry. B, quick-step dodge. And it’s theoretically possible, I suppose, to just tap repeatedly and hope for the best, but you’d be making it much harder on yourself. Whittling a foe’s health is the slow, clumsy approach of a noob. You gotta ninja this shit.
You gotta read each enemy’s moves and predict their attacks, then deflect them with split-second accuracy. Time it right and you’ll stagger your foes, opening them up to delightfully gory fatality strikes. The timing is what makes it really hard. Just blocking attacks isn’t a problem, but correctly reading an enemy’s stance and knocking his weapon aside at exactly the right moment, with exactly the right technique, is another matter entirely. The lowliest enemies can take dozens of blows to defeat if you insist on just hacking away instead of mastering the art of defensive combat, and lowly or not, they’ll cut you down in seconds if you’re careless.
The best way to ninja this shit is to make sure enemies never see you at all. Stealth is critical. Even bosses can be killed in a couple strikes if they don’t see you coming, and thanks to the Prosthetic’s built-in grappling hook and Wolf’s general shinobi badassitude, you can drop-bear into a scrum of villains, murder one, and swing away before the rest react. Stealth kills aren’t always an option, but they’re an option a lot of the time, so it behooves you to approach each fight carefully, looking around for sneaky ways to get close.
Once you get the hang of it—even if you suck, which I do—combat becomes a joy. You can grind a lot if you like, using early areas to work on your deflection skills and experiment with different approaches. This has the dual benefit of letting you practice on enemies you’re familiar with, and earning you experience to spend on skill upgrades. Progress toward some stuff is gated, so even if you spend 50 hours grinding the first area there’s only so many skills you’ll be able to get, and honestly even if there were no limits at all you’re never going to wind up OP in what is, in my opinion at least, Miyazaki’s most pulverizingly difficult game yet.
The biggest single difference between Sekiro and the SoulsBornes is that this is a single-player game. No ghosts, no summons, no invasions, no way. Speaking as a player who not only leaned heavily on those mechanics, but saw them as integral to the SoulsBorne experience, I both appreciate and bemoan the absence of multiplayer here. Appreciate because this is a very different game, and multiplayer makes less sense in context than it did in Miyazaki’s other stuff. Bemoan because I could really use the help. I mean really.
Finding fault with Sekiro is tricky; there’s just not much to complain about. Indeed, my only persistent gripe is that Wolf switches out of his “sneak” stance whenever he jumps, clambers, or grapples. So there you are sneaking along, you mantle up onto a ledge, and suddenly you’re standing straight instead of being slightly hunkered, rendering you much more detectable by foes. If I choose to be sneaking (accomplished by clicking the left stick), the game should assume I mean to continue sneaking until my sneakery is done. I’m not sure it’s ever gotten me killed, it just strikes me as a single mechanical blunder in a game that’s otherwise liquid-smooth.
Beyond that, Sekiro is pretty awesome—assuming, and I stress this point—assuming it’s the kind of game that interests you. Dark Souls it is not, but it certainly retains many Miyazakian trademarks: the grim and blood-soaked plot, the terrifying boss encounters, the overall sense of challenge, and the fact that you have to own your own failures because it never cheats you. It also looks and runs great piped from my PC onto my television using Steam Link, and the RTX 2060 I recently invested in is really paying dividends.
Naturally, the game I describe as Miyazaki’s hardest has already been beaten (just not by me) and speedrunners have already posted examples of themselves whipping through Sekiro in less than an hour. I have no idea how long it’ll take for normal humans; I’d guess it’s shorter than a Souls game but maybe not by much. Regardless, Sekiro is one where the phrase “you get what you pay for” is a pure compliment.
Email the author of this post at Steerpike@Tap-Repeatedly.com.