Shadows Die Again & Again
I’ve never been a big fan of From Software Games. I do, however, appreciate what the studio have done for the gaming industry, presenting the right balance between risk and reward through its robust, intense fighting and imaginative boss fights. The worlds they’ve created, from Demon Souls and Bloodborne through to the Dark Souls series have been gorgeously rendered and done well to show off fantastical worlds full of some of the best enemy design seen in years. Whether you’re a fan of their games or not, there’s no denying the studio have done a wonderful job with their recent IPs.
Steeped in Japanese culture and set in 16th century Sengoku Japan, Sekiro is a game I want to love but have a real hard time doing so. The game is gorgeously presented, with some beautiful landscapes that really show off the quality of the art team. Running up steep steps toward a temple flickering with fire or walking through a tranquil field of white flowers are moments that really stand out and aesthetically at least, Sekiro keeps the same memorable locales the other games have intact.
The story itself feels more like a device to stitch everything together if I’m honest and although there are a few good moments, including three different endings courtesy of some dialogue trees late on, there’s not much to get excited about. The gameplay is the real drive for these games but ultimately you take control of the “one-armed wolf”, a man sworn to protect a young girl but ultimately fails to do so. As the game progresses, you’re presented with the choice to either follow Kuro or Owl. This opens up different bosses and segments of the game to follow but unlike the Souls games, the lack of variety with combat will inevitably mean you won’t want to replay this one in a hurry.
One of the best things with Dark Souls and Bloodborne came from the character creation and ability to mould them to fit with your combat style. While I personally chose the traditional sword and shield, the option to choose a mage, archer or pikeman add some variety and an extra level of challenge to the game which is sorely lacking here. Given the game’s grounded approach, you’re given a katana and a grappling hook with a few customisable elements for your prosthetic arm. Beyond that, there’s not much variety to the combat.
Outside of bosses and mini-bosses (which we’ll get to shortly), the combat generally sees you choosing to either sneak your way round the linear areas, stabbing enemies when a bright red spot appears or engaging in hand-to-hand combat with them, parrying attacks and charging sword blows to strike at the right moment. One-on-one this is fine but as enemies surround you, much like in the Souls games, you may find yourself swarmed and succumbing to cheap deaths.
This methodical combat never quite translates across to the boss fights though, at least not for me, as you see yourself spamming the side-step button while jumping around and slashing at opportune times. Unlike Souls’ methodical pace, it all feels very frantic and chaotic here, with a lack of variety with the combat quickly becoming more laborious than it should be. Some of the bosses feel completely overpowered too, with one chained ogre mini-boss early on ultimately proving to be the catalyst for a lot of the issues felt late on. Unavoidable special moves, outrageous one-hit killshots and the inability to skip grab holds feels far more unfair than it perhaps should be.
At this point, there will be inevitably be a lot of people calling for me to “Git gud” and it’s a fair point. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terrible at these sort of games but I also love the risk and reward system From Software have perfected over the years. Defeating the Bell Gargoyles in Dark Souls was one of the most satisfying moments of my gaming life…until I fell off the roof and had to restart again. For a brief moment though, I understand what made these games so good and it’s something that’s repeated throughout the series. The blissful tranquility that followed these fights allowed you to revel in you victory, at least for a while, until the next boss reared its ugly head and you started the struggle all over again. In Sekiro, I never felt that.
After defeating the aforementioned Chained Ogre, you literally walk through a door and are presented with another, more challenging mini-boss. There’s a brief 2 second pause before the struggle starts all over again. The game regularly feels unbalanced with its risk and reward system that I never felt from either Dark Souls or Bloodborne. It’s a shame too because Sekiro is a game I really want to like but have a hard time doing so.
To make matters worse, Sekiro punishes you for dying too much as well. In the other From Software games, dying meant you had to return to your original spot to pick up your gear in a tense few minutes to prevent you losing everything. Sekiro doesn’t do this. Instead, the more you die, the more the world changes as Dragonrot begins to infect NPCs which consequently stifles your progress with some questlines. Given some of the overpowered bosses and questionable design choices, dying is something you’ll be doing a lot . The “git gud” concept feels like “git perfect” here and it’s something that constantly holds the game back, especially with the combat.
Having said all that, there are some wonderful boss fights here, with the Great Serpent and Lady Butterfly my personal favourites. I loved the way these developed and throughout the game there are glimmers of excellence here. With a lack of customisation and replayability, Sekiro pales by comparison to what’s come before though. It’s a good game, no doubt about it, but it’s a game that can’t quite decide who it wants to appeal to. It’s likely to be far too challenging for the average gamer while Souls fans will likely lament the lacklustre combat by comparison to what’s come before. What we’re left with then is a beautiful game, one that’s stuck with a real identity crisis that some will love and others loathe.