FromSoftware’s New Masterpiece Will Push You to the Limit
We are, it seems, frequently short on words to fully express our emotions in our English-speaking bubble. You hear the stories all the time: a word in German for the feeling you get when someone is standing too close to you in a crowd, or a phrase in Japanese that speaks perfectly to that moment between when you stub your toe and when you start to feel the pain. Recently, while playing the exquisitely painful Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I’ve found myself in the need for a new word of this ilk — something akin to “rage bliss.”
It’s a feeling that will be familiar to the tortured souls of those who have played Sekiro, or any of its predecessors from the sadists at FromSoftware, the makers of the Dark Souls franchise. Rage bliss is the surprisingly deep satisfaction you feel only after you’ve spent hours inches away from destroying your controller, your television, your general vicinity, only to finally figure it out. It’s maddening, surely unhealthy, and truly addictive — and it’s only part of what makes Sekiro an unforgettable experience.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice follows the story of Sekiro, a shinobi sworn to protect a young noble from shadowy outside forces who wish to do him harm because of his “dragon blood” — an ability that makes people functionally immortal. When he’s snatched up by the son of a cruel warlord, it becomes your duty to steal him back — and when you fail to do so, you are sent on a quest for vengeance.
The world the game is set in is a brilliant blend of feudal Japan and an otherworldly amalgam of its folklore and mythology; one moment you might be fighting a series of sword-wielding humans, and the next you’re fighting a giant, sword-wielding monkey. Everything looks crisp and clean; unlike the beautiful but bleak worlds of Dark Souls, this game isn’t afraid to give you pops of color and life. In addition, your character has a very handy grappling hook, allowing you to explore the levels horizontally and vertically. The result is a rich, fully realized backdrop that feels massive without ever getting overwhelming. Which is important, because the gameplay will be doing plenty of overwhelming on its own.
Playing Sekiro. Ohhhhh, playing Sekiro. This is where, I imagine, the game-o-sphere dramatically diverges. Because there is no denying this core truth: Sekiro is a game designed to make you furious. “Why?” You might mutter to yourself, “Why would they make a game where every aspect of the gameplay is carefully planned to make me want to tear out my own hair and eat it until I choke?” If that sounds like you, then I hate to say it, but FromSoftware has made a calculated decision that you are not the kind of person for whom they make games. And it’s a bold strategy, but for the chosen few among us, the coolest of the cool, the slightly masochistic: There are few games that will challenge you and push you better than Sekiro.
The combat system of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is built around precision, timing, and situational awareness, which sounds great on paper but goes right out the gosh darn window when you’re being bumrushed by a giant troll hellbent on killing you for the 40th time in a row. The key to combat in the game is a feature called “posture,” which appears as a red bar above the heads of both you and your enemy. Your posture bar is depleted by repeatedly blocking, and if it hits zero, you open yourself up to an overpowered attack, or instant kill. While there are certain strategies to dodging and movement, most battles are decided by the way you time your attacks in regards to the posture bar–perfect parries, and well-timed strike combos can reduce an opponent’s defenses to zero. In this sense, battles can often become nail-biting wonders of split-second timing; a single parried blow can turn the tide of an entire fight.
However, the game is not just a hack-and-slash-a-thon; you’re offered many other methods for carrying out your bloody vengeance. One such tool is the Shinobi Prosthetic, a mechanical arm gifted to you early in the game that can be adapted to use different combat tools, such as a flamethrower or a shield-breaking ax. In addition, for fans of bloodless vengeance, you can use your grappling hook to stealth your way through levels — a difficult task, but a rewarding one. Although, you’ll have to decide for yourself if the 40 minutes it takes to bait enemies out, move them around, and skirt around them is time better spent than just using that 40 minutes to die 150 times — that is your right after all.
Speaking of dying 150 times, it’s unreasonable to write a review of this game without talking about the death: the numerous, laughable, endlessly frustrating deaths. The game is, quite literally, designed around death. One of the core mechanics, granted to you by your charge, is the ability to revive yourself immediately after dying. This does not come without a cost, however; revive too often, and it begins to have a debilitating effect on the world around you and those who populate it. At first, I was concerned about this — what an interesting and complex way to make you be careful as you play. But then, as I got further, I threw all complexity to the wayside. Avoiding death in Sekiro is like trying to dodge raindrops. You’ll die to falls, you’ll die to the same enemy 100 times, you’ll die to giant evil chickens — death, as always, is inevitable.
But, if you haven’t thrown your controller through the television screen yet, something incredible might happen; with each death, you’ll find you learned something new. A new tactic you just tried out, a new enemy tic that you haven’t noticed before, a pattern of movement that lets you advance into an area you hadn’t earlier. It’s a stuttered, frustrating kind of learning, but it is progress. And eventually — eventually — you whittle your enemy’s healthbar from full to half to zero. And that’s when that rage-bliss sets in: the incredible feeling of knowing that, just a while ago, you were ready to declare this task impossible, but then you found a way to solve it. You let yourself bask in that for a moment, and then you move on.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a beautiful game that will break your soul. But maybe that’s what you’re looking for in a gaming experience. If you love to be challenged to the ends of your very spirit and then see if you can make it out the other side, this game is one of the best meldings of aesthetic superiority and pure down-and-dirty grit that you’ll ever find. If you read the sentence, “It took me 16 tries to beat the first mini-boss, the easiest in the game,” and think “Why would I ever waste my time doing something as pointless as this?” Well, I can’t fully blame you. In the end, playing Sekiro might make you want to die; but, if you take a lesson from the proverbial hero himself, if you return from that death and give it a second chance, there’s an incredible experience waiting on the other side.