On the surface, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a very difficult video game. Many players will probably get stuck on that idea, using it to frame their take on the game. Fans of the developer's previous titles, the infamous Dark Souls and Bloodborne, will automatically look to compare Sekiro to those past outings. Their discussions will focus on how Sekiro's difficulty stacks up. Newcomers who are used to cheesing hard video game bosses will rage at how Sekiro's combat demands precision. Both groups will be right in some ways, and yet only scratch the surface. Sekiro goes deeper than just being a hard game.
It's 1500s-era Japan, a time of warring clans, where samurai become legend on the battlefield. Yet Sekiro is largely unconcerned with the romantic fantasy of cherry blossoms and noble warriors. Just like how Dark Souls showed the gruesome side of medieval fantasy and Bloodborne skulked through the diseased back alleys of its Victorian setting, Sekiro's world makes you stare straight at the brutality of feudal Japan. The main character was scavenging swords from dead samurai as a child, only to be picked up by a shinobi. Given the name "Wolf," the child is molded into a stealth agent with a singular purpose: protect his master. Even when his arm is cut off by his master's kidnapper, grown-up Wolf can only get up and get back to work.
That conceit cleverly ties into the now-famous gameplay formula of developer FromSoftware. Wolf's young master has a special bloodline that allows people to come back from the dead. It's why Wolf can continually come back to life every time the player gets him killed by a boss. Veterans of FromSoftware's Soulsborne games (the fan name for Dark Souls and Bloodborne) are very used to dying repeatedly to their many challenging bosses. But Sekiro takes it a step further than its predecessors, not only establishing context for the continuous cycle of death and resurrection, but also consequence.
Wolf can be brought back to life as often as is needed, but there's a price to pay for that power. Die too many times, and you'll be notified that a disease called Dragonrot has spread to an NPC character. Suddenly, an innocent victim of the bloody clan wars, the creepy shopkeep, any friendly face that Wolf encounters could start coughing uncontrollably. From a story standpoint, it carries the implication that Wolf could spread an incurable disease to the whole land if he's not careful. When it comes to gameplay, it means that sick NPC can't give you a sidequest. With how limited resources are in Sekiro, too many missed opportunities is a major setback.
In the Soulsborne games, repeated deaths do cost resources, but are mostly a source of frustration. In Sekiro, they go beyond mere salt. Carelessness could result in you missing out on parts of the game. That constant pressure to perform well or prevent spreading Dragonrot adds a certain context to the game's difficulty, rather than it simply being hard for the sake of it.
So, with a mission to rescue his lord and an ominous reminder to not die while doing so, Wolf is sent out to infiltrate the enemy castle. He will face hordes of enemy soldiers, ogres, ghosts, and even a giant snake. His weapons are a sword, stealth, and a new prosthetic arm fitted with an ever-growing series of gadgets. The odds are impossible, and you soon learn that survival depends on the smart use of all your tools.
Sekiro simply won't let you play it like any other video game. The RPG elements are light, mostly reduced to buying skills, so you can't just grind levels until you overpower a tough boss. There's no meta builds or enemy AI flaws to take advantage of. Even the dodge roll, a favorite move of Soulsborne fans, simply doesn't cut it for certain bosses. You have to expertly wield every tool in your arsenal. Your use of the grappling hook to always have the high ground is just as crucial as your parry timing. Even then, when you feel you've mastered every weapon at your disposal, you'll probably die.
You can sneak up on a boss, take an entire health bar away with a backstab, come armed with the gadget you know they're weak to, and still get your butt handed to you. You'll quickly find that you've developed certain habits as a gamer. Maybe you dodge too frequently. Maybe you always attack after dashing. Sekiro will find these habits and punish you for them. The first few hours are going to be tough. You'll learn to let go of your habits and actually react to what the enemy is doing. This process seems to be dividing players when it comes Sekiro. Some embrace the challenge of picking up entirely new skills, others feel they don't have the time to waste on a game that punishes them for playing a certain way. I personally found it rewarding when my brain and reflexes finally came together to deliver victory.
On the flip side, the game isn't unnecessarily cruel. Enemy soldiers are surprisingly conversational, and eavesdropping on them will give you hints on what the next boss is vulnerable to. These simple soldiers are also very susceptible to stealth kills, giving you gaps in between impossible boss fights to feel like a total badass ninja. There's a special thrill in silently taking out a whole courtyard full of enemies, including a hammer-wielding ogre, and emerging intact with a bloodstained blade. It feels like that ninja version of Assassin's Creed people have been asking for.
All of this is set against a gorgeous backdrop and rousing soundtrack. It's rare to see a big mainstream game that makes full use of a Japanese fantasy setting. Sekiro actually makes Japanese voice over with subtitles the default. The environments are moody, such as a samurai duel in a moonlit field, and make room for some genuine surprises. Sekiro's Japan is one where a local legend could be waiting just around the corner to claim your soul. Imagine dispatching another group of dumb soldiers only to walk up the stairs and find an ogre who's surprisingly good at wrestling. Or a headless ghost with a large katana. These supernatural foes keep the world exciting and only further remind you to stay on your toes.
Of course, Sekiro isn't for everyone. It expertly weaves its difficulty into its narrative, but it's still a very hard game. There's that old saying about how doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity. Sekiro's bosses certainly made me feel insane on more than one occasion. It's not what I'd call fun, at least not in the traditional sense. I enjoyed the experience and in the end, every victory got my blood pumping, but every ten defeats made me borderline question my life choices.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is more than even its own ad campaign claims it to be. It's not just a stealth-action game. It's not just another Soulsborne game. It's the rare near-seamless fusion of narrative and gameplay. It's a game that makes you rethink how you play games and what habits you've picked up. I love it. And I'm also going to stop playing it for a while so I can remember what it feels like to relax.
A PS4 copy was purchased by TheGamer for this review. The game is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
4.5 out of 5 stars.