If you’ve experienced FromSoft’s blood-boiling, hardcore RPGs, you’ll know that the company managed to establish a sub-genre focused on experiencing defeat over and over to achieve victory in the end. Reception is generally split – players either love its delicate design or hate the unforgiving nature of its world and combat.
The latest FromSoftware title, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, turned over a new leaf and changed many of the core elements that shaped the Souls series.
One of the first things the word “soulslike” brings to the mind is the stamina bar. Although many gamers track the origins of the stamina bar back to Demon’s Souls, FromSoftware first used it in their 1994 first-person action-adventure title King’s Field.
The stamina bar is the most impactful element of soulslike games — it controls the flow of the combat, as well as the rate at which the player explores the world. Due to the impact of this mechanic, combat in soulslikes is often comprised of constant attack/retreat phases.
FromSoftware continued to use the stamina bar without any significant changes for more than two decades. It seemed that both the company and its players had grown to appreciate the well-calculated nature it brought, but Sekiro changed the rules by completely ditching it!
The combat in Sekiro, unlike the Souls series, is more aggressive and fast-paced. FromSoftware first introduced this new approach to combat in Bloodborne. In addition to faster combat, Bloodborne introduced a ‘rally’ mechanic that allowed players to recover lost health by quickly attacking the enemies that hit them. This element encouraged an aggressive playstyle, but the flow of each fight was still controlled (and limited) by the stamina bar. The fast-paced combat of Bloodborne has ultimately evolved into a system that uses “posture” in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
The posture bar fills gradually when both enemies and players take damage, or when incoming attacks are blocked. This new-to-Fromsoft element required the attention of the player during combat (just like the stamina bar) but didn’t break the flow of battle. Players could still attack and engage if they acted carefully because posture damage is gradually recovered. As such, the attack/retreat nature of classic Souls combat became a more skill-based element.
To balance this out, From gave double health bars to most Sekiro bosses. Now, if players wanted to end a boss fight efficiently, they had to continuously attack and fill their opponent’s posture bar to finish them off. In short, although the combat in Sekiro remained action-oriented, it required a new set of skills, while not being simplified.
The story in Sekiro is another element that experienced radical changes in comparison with earlier Soulsborne entries.
The plots of From’s work generally revolve around saving the world from total annihilation. In Demon’s Souls, the player should destroy an ancient demon and stop the world from being consumed by a magical fog. The plot of Dark Souls is based on the same basic concept, but this time you should save the “First Flame” and prevent the word from descending into eternal darkness. Even the revolutionary Bloodborne follows the same principles in storytelling — the concepts of Cursed Protagonists Seeking Redemption, A World On The Verge Of Obliteration and Ancient Evil Antagonists are all recurring elements. However, if you dig a little deeper into the storytelling in Sekiro, you’ll find it quite different from the rest.
In From’s earlier work, the stories are focused on saving the world, and the potential salvation of the player character is actually a byproduct of that action. In other words, the focus of the story is on the world in which the game takes place (and its history) but not the protagonist. The protagonists of soulsbornes never speak. These ‘strong, silent type’ characters never develop during the course of a game – they’re just shells to be occupied by us, the player.
Unlike its predecessors, Sekiro offers a character, The Wolf, who experiences a full arc. He’s a disgraced shinobi who seeks to regain his honor. He has a past and a family — in a manner of speaking — which ties him to the world. Last but not least, Wolf speaks and has personal relationships with NPCs in the game. Wolf is a well-developed character, and this time, the player takes up his role – not the other way around!
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice also introduces other elements that no other FromSoft games have, the stealth mechanics and skill tree being two of the most important ones.
While the stealth elements in Sekiro are pretty basic and mostly unpolished, they still offer players new (to Souls) ways of experiencing the world while introducing new combat scenarios.
Much of the stealth comes from the verticality of the world made accessible to Wolf thanks to his grappling hook. Soulsbornes traditionally had their characters stick to the ground, and because of that, the exploration side of those games was focused on opening new doors and connecting different areas to the hubs of each game. In Sekiro, verticality takes some aspects of exploration and combat to a (literal) other level. Now, players could use rooftops to get behind enemies and minibosses to finish them off silently. The hook also gives the player the ability to get around the map faster and zip past obstacles and walls.
The skill tree is another evolution introduced in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This time around, the power of our character is not simply represented by a bunch of increasing numbers. The skill tree present here provides players with ability customization and lets them choose what types of martial arts they’re going to learn. Choosing a character type at the beginning of Souls games usually limited the use of different weapons and skills later on, but the skill tree in Sekiro allowed the players to be a shinobi, a samurai and a Kung-Fu fighter, all at the same time. This innovation provided a more dynamic, free approach to the combat.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice received critical acclaim, but it’s not flawless and doesn’t define any new technical standards in the industry. No, Sekiro is great because it evolves a sub-genre that had remained fairly static for more than a decade and proves that reconstructing the fundamentals of a series or genre holds value and cements the courage and genius of the developers working at FromSoftware.
— Ali Arkani