How does it feel to play Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice? More than anything else about it, From Software’s inevitable samurai (or rather, shinobi) game is all about the feelings conjured by gameplay. It’s about the rhythms of swordfighting, the painful path of redemption, and the stench of death. From has honed its melee RPG formula much as a warrior would their sword, and the result cuts deep.
The game follows the titular Sekiro (a portmanteau roughly translating to “one-armed wolf”), who after suffering a humiliating defeat has dedicated himself to rescuing the young lord to whom he dedicated his life in service. To do that, he’ll sneak and slash his way through a despot-ruled Japanese kingdom existing somewhere between history and folklore, defeating untold numbers of respawning warriors, guards, generals, and monsters. It’s a tough ask for a warrior, and an even tougher ask for a player.
Even more than in From's Dark Souls games, melee combat is the heart of Sekiro. Gone are the bows and spell chimes of From’s flagship series, replaced by a much more confined set of Japanese melee weapons. Leaning hard into the Sengoku-era setting, combat revolves around tactical duels, all about manoeuvring and deflecting and breaking your opponent’s posture. Mechanically, this manifests through hitting tiny time targets in order to deflect your opponents’ attacks, break their posture, and deliver a killing blow (or, in some enemies’ cases, multiple killing blows). It’s hard, whether you’ve played Souls games or not, and requires laser-precise timing and observation of enemy movements. You must be both active and reactive, and there’s little room for error.
I hated it immediately.
Only when you truly engage with Sekiro’s particular rhythms does it open up and become enjoyable. For Souls fans, it takes some unlearning; luckily (and hilariously), there’s a soldier at Sekiro’s home-base temple who’s cursed with immortality and offers himself up as a training dummy, moaning as you kill him again and again. In true FromSoft fashion, the combat won me over as I worked harder at it, finally yielding a distinct satisfaction and accomplishment upon defeating brick-wall-difficult bosses, after in some cases dozens of failed attempts. Swordfights feel like real swordfights, and victories are always hard-won.
You’ll die a lot in this game. Death robs Sekiro of half his collected experience and currency, but he can resurrect himself for a last-ditch attempt at defeating the foe that killed him. Die twice (ha!) and you’ll see Sekiro respawn at the last Buddha sculpture you communed with - one of many Souls standards given a reskin in this game. As you abuse this resurrection ability more and more, it causes a plague to spread amongst the game’s numerous non-player characters, who cough and splutter and weaken thanks to a disease known as Dragonrot. You’re a selfish monster for using the game’s mechanics, essentially, which is a hell of a risk/reward system.
At a certain point, though, the difference between one death and two begins to lose meaning. If you’re on a tear of unsuccessful attempts at a boss (which is virtually guaranteed to happen at some point), you’ll be so bereft of resources, your world so poisoned by dragonrot, that you might as well take the extra revive. This kind of nothing-to-lose nihilism is freeing, in a way, but damn it feels dirty. In a game about fighting to regain one's honour, it's important to feel as if you've lost it to begin with.
Unlike From’s other games, which grant the player a wide array of options for approaching each encounter, Sekiro has a fairly clear “intended” playstyle. Deflection-oriented combat is half of it, but stealth plays nearly as important a role. Traditional stealth mechanics abound - wall-hugging, sneaking, hiding in foliage, distractions, assassinations, watching attention indicators over enemies’ heads - and if you don’t charge straight into combat, you’re able to eavesdrop and get hints as to upcoming challenges. A typical encounter will start with stealth, progress to combat, and end with victory - or, in all probability, death.
Very early on, Sekiro’s arm gets chopped off in a duel, which - thanks to a multi-purpose prosthetic - only really gives him more battle prowess. The abilities granted by Sekiro’s prosthetic are more adjuncts to melee combat than usable weapons in their own right. Some are based around mobility, as with a grappling hook that can whisk you to new heights, out of harm’s way, or into an enemy’s face for a special attack. (The additional mobility granted by the grapple is going to make speed runs of this game ridiculous.) Other upgrades are more offensive, but they’re often highly situational, as are the combat techniques unlocked from gaining XP. You pick your gear to suit the circumstances, but it can only get you so far, and you can’t endlessly grind your stats upward or summon help from other players. If you can’t succeed at basic swordplay, you’re dead.
It might seem a secondary concern, given the tautly tuned gameplay, but Sekiro is easily the handsomest From title yet, and that’s important. Though most of its design revolves around a familiar historical Japanese aesthetic, the game bears a strong streak of Japanese folklore, and accordingly the studio’s penchant for bizarre enemy design cannot be tamped down. Human enemies vary wildly in shape and size, and others are given animalistic or supernatural characteristics. The game is shot through with beautiful earthy colours and textures - including an awful lot of blood - and the same evocative, imaginative approach to level design and environment art that characterises the studio’s other games. Its mountain-range setting is a perfect representation of the lack of oxygen the player is afforded; its dilapidated castles reflective of broken honour.
Surprisingly, Sekiro’s greatest distinguishing feature from its spiritual predecessors is the way it makes more traditional concessions to the player experience. There’s no multiplayer here - it would conflict with the character-specific story - which means nobody’s going to invade your game, and crucially also means that bringing up your inventory actually pauses the game. What’s more, tutorial text appears each time a new game mechanic is introduced, and menu text actually tells you what everything means, as opposed to giving vague lore-heavy hints it takes an entire fan-wiki to decode. There are still secrets hidden amongst it all, especially once you start speaking to NPCs, but coming from this developer, the mere fact that the game’s basics are laid out for you is quietly revolutionary.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice represents a much bigger shift in FromSoft’s design philosophy than it might seem on the surface. Its lone-wolf story flies in the face of its previous connected player-universes; its historical setting means less fantasy stuff (but not none of it); and perhaps most notably, its highly specific intended playstyle makes for a much more curated experience than the Souls series’ freeform character builds. It’s still incredibly demanding - at times infuriatingly so - but as always, its demands are balanced by the rewards gleaned by meeting them. The game breaks you down, then you build yourself back up again. I flipped the bird at many a tough enemy in Sekiro. Mostly it was in loss. But I’ll more clearly remember the times I did it in victory.