FromSoftware releases are more than simply games, these days they are practically cultural events. Masters of minimal, atmospheric storytelling and punishing, but satisfying gameplay, each of their titles comes with much fan anticipation, online speculation and endless, earnest think pieces about why “this one should have an easy mode”. In short, FromSoft games are a big deal and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is no exception.
Speculation about the new From game has been rampant since the Dark Souls trilogy closed out with its third entry in 2016. What would be next, we wondered. Bloodborne 2? A reboot of Demon’s Souls? A new IP of some kind? When we finally saw footage of Sekiro, it immediately became dubbed “Samurai Souls”, which was an exciting premise but not particularly accurate. You see, while Sekiro shares many similarities with the so-called Soulsborne games, it’s actually not part of that family. Sekiro is its own thing, for good and for ill.
Sekiro tells the story of Wolf, a wandering shinobi, who is on a mission to save the Divine Heir Kuro from the Ashina clan. The mission gets off to a bad start as during the opening minutes of the game, Wolf gets his left arm lopped off. In typical From-style, you the player need to rebuild the gruff hero’s strength, learn to use a fancy prosthetic and save Kuro from certain death. If this all sounds unusually straight forward for a From game, you’re absolutely correct. Sekiro’sstory is, by the standards of this developer, almost shockingly vanilla. Oh sure, there are some weirder aspects towards the middle and end sections, but nothing like the mind-bending cosmic horror of Bloodborne or the nihilistic fantasy of Dark Souls.
The other big change from standard operating procedure is the gameplay. Whereas Souls and Bloodborne let you choose from a variety of weapons and a variety of play styles, Sekiro gives you a single weapon. Certainly, Wolf can swap out various prosthetic gadgets and other nifty tricks, but it’s sword all the way, baby. Plus, get ready to block and parry. A lot. Like, pretty much the whole game. Sekiro is on a mission to retrain the player, so forget the slower back and forth dance of Dark Souls or the dash-and-slash of Bloodborne, because this is all block, deflect and break that posture for the deathblow. It’s a clever, nuanced system with a steep learning curve but once mastered it makes combat quite satisfying, however it’s hard not to miss the weapon variety from other From games. The inclusion of a spear, hammer and other era-appropriate gear would have gone far in making the proceedings feel a little less samey. Other aspects of Sekiro have been streamlined too, with PvP elements and the ability to summon online players to assist you both missing, and frankly, missed.
Look, dear reader, I’m going to be frank with you here as I slip briefly into the first person. I adore the Soulsborne games, with all my heart. Bloodborne in particular is in my top two all time games – with the other entry being a second copy of Bloodborne – however as much as I respect the craft and artistry of Sekiro, I don’t love it. The story feels a wee bit generic, the characters a little flat, and while the technical aspects of blocking, parrying and breaking posture are well-designed and executed with aplomb… they’re not all that much fun. Obviously this is subjective, and you may feel completely differently, but that’s how this one landed for me.
There’s a lot that’s great about Sekiro, mind you. The world is vital and a joy to explore. The new grapple mechanic adds a degree of verticality to the levels that is a real eye-opener. And the stealth elements, while not always perfectly implemented, are often a great deal of fun. The boss fights, as always, are memorable and frequently wrenchingly frustrating too, and I suspect it will be a while before I forget facing Madame Butterfly, Genichiro Ashina or the freaking Guardian Ape for the first time. However, as happy as I was besting them, I didn’t experience the same endorphin surge delivered by previous From games, instead feeling a kind of grumpy relief. Like I’d just finished cleaning a feral bathroom or a much-delayed trip to the gym.
Ultimately Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is going to be for a very specific type of player. The kind of gamer who liked the other From games, but wanted a more grounded story. Who enjoyed the likes of Bloodborne, but felt it needed more ear-jangling parrying sections and was, perhaps, a little mystified by all those weapon options. Sekiro is a very good game, conceptually, artistically and mechanically, but it’s also a streamlined, pared back experience that feels like it’s lacking some essential element, an indefinable component, that made the other From games masterpieces.