I’m not the audience for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I really didn’t get into Dark Souls, and I never played Bloodborne. So why am I so excited for this hardcore swordfighting title coming from coming from the veteran studio that revitalized the brutality simulator, From Software? Maybe for all of the things it does that isn’t Dark Souls?
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes place in ancient Japan. More specifically, a re-imagined 1500s Sengoku-era Japan. Your character is a ronin warrior in service (briefly) to a young lord as a bodyguard. Unfortunately, you become entangled with a Samurai warrior from a group called the Ashina who, with relative ease, takes your arm off at the elbow and leaves you to die. The game earns its title as the word Sekiro translates from Japanese to English as “one-armed wolf”, but you won’t be one-armed for long as that arm is replaced with a “Shinobi prosthetic” that has many special powers.
We got a good demonstration of these special powers as the demo kicks off with immediate action. As our as-yet unnamed protagonist approaches the Ashina castle grounds he prepares to leap down into the snowy castle area to ambush the castle guards, autumn leaves and snow crunching under our feet. We all have a quick laugh as the demo driver immediately and painfully dies, proving quickly that quickly proving not only that this game is going to be difficult, but our demo was running live.
The protagonist’s attacks and powers are split between his left and right arm. In his right arm lies his trusty full-length Katana, and on the left is a Swiss Army knife of utility items. A grappling hook expands verticality and traversal options, not just in movement, but also for combat. Switching attachments lets us pull out what looked like a fire axe, allowing us to splinter wooden shields, or hook them and dislodge them. Similarly, we can flip to a projectile launcher, throwing shurikens into our foes to break up the enemies attack rhythm. There are other items in this “Samurai prosthetic” arm, but this small taste was all the From Software team was willing to share at this point.
These new utilities allow the team to expand into what they have described as “light stealth mechanics”, allowing players to gain an initial advantage to thin the numbers before wading into combat, but it’s the combat mechanics that have received the most attention.
Rather than managing a stamina or health bar, you manage an invisible “posture” position. In sword fighting, a violent end is a single strike away, and being in the correct position to unleash your next strike is what enables that fatal maneuver. Here, both you and your enemies have a posture rating. As you and your enemies take hits, posture degrades — either yours or theirs. Imperfect blocks and taking hits causes you to lose posture quickly, and your job is to run your enemy out of posture before that happens. Small Japanese kanji pop up (specifically the word “Danger”, for whatever that’s worth) that help you land your strikes properly, but it doesn’t seem like you won’t have much beyond these visual cues to guide your sword. The team wants to capture the extreme tension in the clash of steel in a sword fight, and from what I can see here, they have.
Back to the fight at hand, our mission was to execute a Samurai General. Unfortunately, a nearby sniper has a good sightline on our proposed attack approach. Sneaking up and leaping onto the ledge dislodges some rocks, causing the sniper to investigate. Jerking him forward into our killing sword, we toss him from the cliff, clearing the path.
Carefully picking off our foes from the treetops, the field of battle is narrowed down to one spearman and the Samurai General. Leaping down onto the last spearman and driving our sword down through the top of his shoulder and through the entirety of his lung, he falls to his knees with a gurgle as we dislodge our blade and square off against the general.
Once again we see the demonstration of the team’s devotion to the authenticity and immediacy of death when it comes to sword combat. The combat is close, steel on steel, sparks flying as swords clash. Sparks fly as both sides parry, dodge, roll, and engage one another. Victorious, but bloody, we shake the blood from our blade, sheathing it and heading towards the nearby courtyard.
All of the foes we’ve encountered at this point have been humans — a stark contrast to the previous work from this team. Down in the courtyard, however, is an ogre-looking foe banging and making noise, and our first step into the more fantastic. Making our way down through the castle we find a nice looking old lady with a candle, but we know better – we cut her throat before she can alert the whole structure of our presence. Entering the courtyard, we use the enhanced verticality of the level to take out snipers on the walls, cut down some of the lesser Samurai, and engage the massive ogre demon creature as he executes what can only be described as wrestling style attacks like elbow drops and back falls on us to try to wipe us out. Using every trick in our prosthetic arm and our trusty Katana, we manage to carefully dance our way to a hard-fought, but heavily wounded victory.
Explaining the second half of the game’s title, Shadows Die Twice, we got to see that in this game that death is not the end. Here, you can resurrect in a limited fashion, but there is a cost. Dispatched, we slumped to the ground under a cascade of sword strikes. As enemies began to walk away from our battered corpse, we were able to use a special power to resurrect, catching them unawares and attacking them from behind. The developers intimated that there would be a cost to this action, but wouldn’t say what it would be at this point.
Heading towards the castle looming in the distance, we find that the bridge has been destroyed. Using the grappling hook, we made our way around the mountain pass, just as a massive snake easily hundreds of feet in length encircled the mountain, threatening our path. We have to use the shrubbery to hide ourselves from its gaze as we sneak towards the castle in the distance. This demo-abbreviated area is meant to demonstrate a signature cat-and-mouse feature that will be a large portion of the game when it ships.
Again, in the interest of time, the team showcased a “Shinobi door” (sorry guys, no points for naming on these) that represent the secret passages that will lead to optional side areas. In this case, it’s given us a secondary path into the castle courtyard. In this case, it opens onto an amazing bridge covered in beautiful cherry blossoms. It would be a sight to behold, if it wasn’t being guarded by a naginata-wielding 11 foot tall boss called a “Corrupted Monk” intent on killing us. Leaping onto its back, we pull back its head, revealing a Nioh mask. Cutting it’s throat, causes it to split into a mass of several ghosts, closing the demo.
I came away surprised at the way the team was combining hardcore combat with the utility of the prosthetic arm prevalent in the game. While there are no stats to manage, you’ll earn new items for your arm, and multiple playthroughs will reveal secondary paths and options — a throwback to the original Dark Souls. The strict adherence to player punishment is still present, asking fans to “get good” to take on impossible foes. Maybe it’s the Japanese setting, or perhaps it’s a more carefully crafted world rooted in techno-mysticism, but suffice it to say that I’m eager to see how From Software iterates on all of the successes they’ve had with games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne and bring it into something entirely new.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice ships for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC sometime in 2019. Stay tuned to GamingTrend.com for our continued E3 coverage.