Sometimes Thrice

HIGH After a few health- and attack-ups, the middle section is great. 

LOW The frustration of forced delays between attempts at the toughest bosses.

WTF Why do so many of the prosthetics feel inconsequential?

This review is a Second Opinion. For more info on game basics and a general overview, please see Darren Forman’s Main Review.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a love/hate relationship with a game as intensely as I did with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I’ve played almost every From Software title released in the States so I’m no newcomer to their ways, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a From joint that starts the player at more of a disadvantage than this one. It does get better and good times were eventually had, but the connection between Sekiro and myself was always a temporary, tenuous one.  

At the beginning of Sekiro, protagonist Wolf is fragile and weak, and his life-giving estus fla… I mean, “gourd”, only restores a small fraction of his health bar. There’s no way to farm low-rank enemies to level up, and when he revives after a death (shadows do die twice, after all) he’s got just a tiny bit of health – if he can’t immediately heal, one hit from nearly any enemy will send him back to the grave.  

Fromsoft is clearly all-in on ‘die and try again’ as the primary mechanism of teaching the player, but setting them up for such a rough introduction is off-putting and unnecessary. With just a few tweaks to Wolf’s stats, the initial learning curve could be smoothed out and players could be onboarded more effectively. Instead, it’s several hours and several difficult fights before a player will find themselves resilient enough to have a little breathing room.   

Those who persevere and strengthen Wolf enough to press on will find the vast majority of Sekiro’s middle section to offer an excellent run of vertically-oriented levels filled with challenging-yet-manageable boss fights, exciting scenarios, stealthy sneaking, plenty of one-hit-kill backstabbing, and some of the most satisfying grappling hook action around. I also loved that the story is generally straightforward and easy to follow, even if some of the sidequests remain impenetrably arcane. 

(But seriously, that hook. Chef’s fingers.)

I was glad that I made it to this stretch and genuinely enjoyed the majority of Sekiro’s content. From has been locked into the Souls series for years, but prior to that they were a diverse studio with a wide range of concepts. It’s great to see them doing something different again even if there’s still a good dose of Souls DNA here. However, this step away from their bread-and-butter is shakier and less assured than it first seems. 

For example, Wolf’s prosthetics – arguably one of Sekiro’s most notable features – end up feeling inconsequential and superfluous. Even worse, the player is actively discouraged from using them. 

Early in the campaign, Wolf has his left arm amputated and replaced with a prosthetic limb capable of packing a variety of ninja weapons – a spear, firecrackers, a clutch of throwing stars, an iron umbrella, and more. It suggests the player will have a wealth of deadly options, but I found many of them to be difficult to use and largely ineffectual. The shuriken saw use since it can defeat animals with a single hit and the shield-splitting axe was great for two or three types of enemies, but I generally ignored the rest and felt as though I wasn’t missing anything — mastering Wolf’s basic attacks and parries is enough to carry him the distance.

It’s possible my opinion would have changed about these ancillary weapons if I’d used them more, but they’re fueled by a consumable resource called “spirit emblems”. These emblems can be purchased at a save point, but the player needs money to afford them, and they get progressively more expensive as Sekiro goes on.

It doesn’t make any sense for the player to buy these emblems. Grinding for resources is not a desirable way to spend a session, and From has already shown that they know better in the past – the emblems are analogous to the Souls estus flask system in which the player had X uses and then had to refill at a save point. Doing the same with emblems would eliminate potentially running out of them, would eliminate grinding for cash, and would maintain balanced employment of special weapons since Wolf can only hold a limited number at a time. 

I take issue with some of the bosses as well. Most are fine once Wolf has toughened up, but there are three that stand out in my mind as ‘walls’ that can potentially halt a player’s progress. They’re tougher, faster and deadlier than most, and they require the player to possess a certain level of proficiency – with no way to change builds or find better weapons, the only way forward is to use twitch reflexes and give better than Wolf gets. While some players may find joy in throwing themselves into the fray for hours at a time, the difficulty here feels like too much weight is given to raw physical ability and doesn’t leave players much recourse if their parrying skills aren’t up to par.

Additionally, each of these bosses is preceded by both a loading screen and at least one cutscene that can be skipped, but must still be loaded. So, not only are these the most difficult fights in Sekiro, the forced waiting period between attempts also makes them the most frustrating. The four-phase (!!!) final boss is the worst offender with two skippable (yet loaded) cutscenes and a load that must be endured every time the player fails and has to try again. Such a setup feels disrespectful of someone’s time and pushes patience to its limits – in fact, this is where I parted ways with Sekiro since I couldn’t put up with the annoyance anymore. 

On the whole, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a great effort coming from great developers who deserve a hard-earned break from the franchise that’s kept them in one zone for years – there’s a hell of a lot more to From Software than Dark Souls and I’m quite happy to see them doing something different. That said, they’ve picked up some bad habits that they need to shake – just a little rebalancing and a touch-up here and there would make Sekiro truly shine. In its current state it’s a frustrating experience that becomes a rewarding one, only to turn frustrating again before the end.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by From Software and published by Activision. It is currently available on PS4, XBO and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS4.  Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore and Violence. There’s a lot of pitiless murder constantly happening throughout, so as awesome as it is, maybe keep the kids away from this one.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: While Sekiro can be played from start to finish with subtitles (they cannot be resized) and there are numerous onscreen prompts displaying enemy behavior, I can’t help but feel that it will be a harder game for those unable to hear audio cues that lack visual components — I mean, that bastard on the kite is one obvious example.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Brad Gallaway
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