I’ve always dodged the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, having very much been put off by tales of insane difficulty and punishing deaths that lead to bouts of extreme anger and frustration. Despite both series receiving rave reviews, I have always accepted that I simply don’t have the patience to put myself through such a torturous experience, no matter how good the game is.
I was captivated by the look of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice during its development and promotion, and I became fully engrossed in the hype, but knowing it was developed by FromSoftware gave me reasonable apprehension about the difficulty level and whether, quite frankly, I could be bothered putting myself through it. Having waited for the game to be released so I could check out some player feedback first, I was pleasantly surprised to read comments about the game being less difficult, more forgiving, and more accessible than FromSoftware’s other titles. Naturally, I decided to take my first venture into a FromSoftware title and check it out.
Let me start by making one thing clear – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is still very difficult. If you don’t have the patience for trial and error gameplay, learning attack patterns, accepting death and learning from your mistakes, and perfecting your own skills through difficult encounter after difficult encounter then this isn’t the game for you. Sekiro’s combat is very much skill-based, challenging you to perfect your swordsmanship and reactionary abilities to overcome your foes.
It’s all based around your enemies Posture bar, which you must break by successfully blocking attacks at the exact right moment, performing counters, and getting your own hits in when the window of opportunity presents itself. It’s all about learning your opponents attacks, knowing how to react to each attack in a split second, and then having quick enough reactions to do so successfully. You can block normal attacks with the simple press of a button, but then there are Perilous attacks, of which sweep attacks must be jumped over, thrust attacks must be countered, and grabs must be step dodged. Displaying patience and learning the telltale signs to know what attack will be coming next is key, but even once you’ve done that it can still be equally difficult to correctly react by pressing the right button at the precise moment without panicking. The slightest mistake is punishing; whether it be through killing you in one hit or just forcing you into using a valuable heal which won’t recharge until you rest. If you die, you lose a big chunk of both your XP and your Sen (money) and run the risk of afflicting NPC’s with Dragonrot, which can hamper story progression and lowers your chances of receiving Unseen Aid, which protects you from death penalties on your next death. While the game offers you some sympathy by giving you the ability to resurrect once with each life (hence the name Shadows Die Twice), getting through a playthrough without suffering a significant number of deaths is nigh on impossible.
This is even more evident in the games numerous and tremendous boss battles, each of which feels unique and challenging. Take the Guardian Ape for example, who’s erratic nature leaves you no real option other than to sprint around and avoid him while you wait for an opportunity to attack, or Genichiro Ashina, who’s aggressive sword-swinging forces you to go toe-to-toe with your Deflect button. These bosses are strong and powerful and can take a long time to kill, meaning you have to hone your craft and get almost every decision correct to avoid being punished and losing the fight. This can only be done by trial and error (or reading a guide), so having the patience to go through a few (or a lot) of failed attempts and learning from your mistakes is really the only way forward.
While this can be incredibly frustrating—and believe me, there were times when I loudly voiced my frustrations—it also gives you a great sense of satisfaction and gratification when you finally succeed that is missing from a lot of games these days. As you get deeper and deeper into a boss battle that you’ve been struggling to overcome you feel the adrenaline pumping through you, you feel your palms begin to sweat as you inwardly will yourself not to crack under the pressure and lose your composure. That feeling of finally beating that boss you’ve been struggling with is unrivalled, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I jumped out of my seat and punched the air in delight on numerous occasions. That said, I do still worry that the level of difficulty does drastically restrict Sekiro’s accessibility, as many players simply wouldn’t have the will or the patience to persist with it. During my time playing the game I found it very difficult to recommend it to a number of friends; not because it isn’t an excellent game, but because I know they just wouldn’t be able to get into it.
That said, there are tools at your disposal to make life a little easier. Sekiro has a Shinobi Prosthetic in place of where his arm once was, and it can be fully fitted and upgraded with all sorts of weapons and gadgets to aid you in combat. Prosthetic Tools that can be fitted include the Shinobi Firecracker, which can be used to temporarily stun beast type enemies, or the Loaded Umbrella which can be used to protect yourself from projectile attacks. Once again, the use of these tools is all about knowing who to use them against and when; certain tools are particularly useful and impactful against one type of enemy but completely useless against another, so doing your homework is key. The use of these tools is linked to Spirit Emblems, with each tool costing a certain amount of Spirit Emblems to use. You can only carry a set number of Spirit Emblems at any one time, so knowing how many uses of your desired tool you have and not wasting your uses is key. There are a pretty high number of Prosthetic Tool variations to unlock, and while I found some to be absolutely instrumental to success in numerous battles, there were plenty of others that I borderline never used.
There are big pros and cons to the difficulty levels of Sekiro then, but no such thing can be said of the games world and level design, which always looks pretty without ever looking truly stunning, at least not on console. The game takes place in Japan during the Sengoku period, with the setting split up into several distinctly unique areas—each of which is excellently scored—that can be explored in a semi-open world fashion, encouraging you to go on the hunt for secret areas where you can find items such as Prayer Beads and Gourd Seeds which can be used to increase your Attack Power and healing usages, and there are numerous NPC’s scattered throughout the world who give you side quests to complete too. The exploration is aided by Sekiro’s grappling hook, which is a masterstroke that gives the game a tremendous sense of verticality and freedom. Thanks to the grappling hook no part of the map feels off limits, and it also allows the player to take a more stealth based approach to the game, giving you the option of creeping across pagoda rooftops before dropping down onto an unsuspecting enemy to perform a one-hit stealth deathblow. It’s the closest any game has ever felt to a modern day Tenchu, and it fits the game perfectly.
Scattered around the world are Sculptor’s Idols, which act as checkpoints where you can rest, spend your skill points, or fast travel between locations. These Sculptor’s Idols are generously placed at regular intervals, which thankfully means that your next checkpoint is never too far away if you’re struggling with the games difficulty levels. Spending your skill points allows you to unlock a variety of different abilities from a number of different skill trees to make yourself more powerful, including latent skills such as the ability to carry more Spirit Emblems or take less Posture damage, and combat skills such as the ability to perform a spinning attack that damages several enemies at once. While the sheer number of these skills seems too great for all of them to be worthwhile, I’m pleasantly surprised to say that I found a great use for every single skill I unlocked, which is an achievement worth mentioning for FromSoftware.
Sadly, where Sekiro succeeds in combat and setting it falls pretty flat on story. Taking on the role of Sekiro, your aim is to protect the divine heir, Lord Kuro, from forces who want to get hold of his blood which harbours the power of resurrection. While the story is fairly well told and relatively easy to follow, I found it very difficult to fully immerse myself in it while simultaneously trying to navigate through the games crazy difficulty, which very often required numerous playthroughs of the same section of the game. While the godlike players amongst us may be able to easily work their way through the game without suffering too many deaths, your average player will most definitely struggle for large parts and could easily get so focused on taking the game on section by section that they completely forget or lose interest in the story, which was certainly the case for me. By the time I finished the game I honestly didn’t care about the outcome.
Thankfully, the exceptional combat and exploration alone was enough to keep me playing, and if you stick with the game you’ll get a solid 50 hours worth of gameplay out of Sekiro. While that may be the case, please bear in mind that there is not 50 hours worth of different gameplay here – your 50 hours of playtime will come from numerous attempts at the same section of game or the same boss battle.
From a technical standpoint, I did suffer some pretty bad framerate issues late on in the game when a significant amount was going on on screen, and weather effects during the final boss hampered performance too. I was playing on the standard Xbox One, which is obviously the lowest-powered machine that you can play Sekiro on, so I can’t comment on whether these issues are present on other platforms, but I can confirm that the issues were always short-lived and didn’t severely hamper my experience.
While Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is an undeniably sublime game, I do worry that its greatest achievement—which is its tremendously satisfying skill-based combat—could also be its greatest hindrance. While some will relish the challenge and salivate at the idea of having to perfect their skills to such a degree, the difficulty levels will make the game completely inaccessible to a large number of players who simply can’t be arsed with the hassle of it, which does throw Sekiro into a niche category. Of course, this is to be expected with any FromSoftware title, but if Sekiro is the easiest of their games then I don’t really feel a great desire to play any of their other titles, which could be seen as a problem, although I’m sure that FromSoftware already know this and have accepted their self-made restrictions.
If you’re a person of incredible patience who doesn’t get frustrated easily and relishes a challenge then there’s a fascinating world to explore and a great variety of foes to hone your skills against in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. If, however, you’re just looking for an easy to play third-person action adventure to get stuck into while you relax on the couch then you need to steer well clear. Personally, I sit somewhere between the two, so while I have to admire the fantastic game that FromSoftware have created and applaud myself for having the will, desire, and ability to finish it, I also can’t deny that I was both relieved and delighted when it was finally over. That’s not because I didn’t like it, in fact I loved it, but I was more than ready to go back to being able to chill out during my gaming time. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a masterpiece in game design and I don’t regret my time with it one bit, but I couldn’t face going through it all over again.