In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the thread between life and death is thin. As a one-armed wolf, a loyal Shinobi who tries to save a young nobleman with a cursed bloodline, you cross a feudal Japan that is so saturated with remnants of war that the idea of mortality becomes inconsistent: corpses that infiltrate the local flora insert fauna, so many wounded soldiers sharing their last words that you could create a compendium of the lost. All of this is underlined by a cruel and ultimately exhausting irony – you cannot die.
Sekiro often plays with his sense of sound. The serious solemnity of a samurai film is undermined by darkly absurd and comically bleak moments. There's a training section that's offered to you by a man who only exists to keep dying for you, and he's a little bit relaxed about it. "Hey man," he might as well say. "Do you want to play around and kill me a little more for practice?" He has an understandable existential crisis due to his inability to die, and asks you to murder him with the same casual listlessness of a lonely friend who asks you to watch the game for the third time this week. Death is a kind of joke, and it is this feeling that has plunged the game world into total chaos.
The player quickly becomes the butt of this joke because sekiro is punishably difficult. (This shouldn't be shocking to anyone, as it was created by From Software, the developer of the extremely challenging Souls game and Bloodborne.) The struggle requires genuine attention to detail and a willingness to investigate some possible reactions. Boss and mid-boss battles are an angry interplay of choreographed patterns mixed with improvisation. First you learn the movements of an enemy. then, maybe five or ten deaths later, the real fight begins. Learning the attack patterns of the early boss Lady Butterfly is all the more satisfying since the presentation is excellent. She moves like a dancer and her attack animations tell a story.
I was deep in the way these fights went, and I was obsessed with every animation, cue, and possible tear-off combination that could occur due to my own reactions. The fight in Sekiro is like a dance, but it is also like a series of the fastest branches where you can choose your own adventure: parrying leads to a boost. Do not block results in a sweep. The addition of Shinobi prostheses and abilities, all of which can be improved through skill trees, opens up enormous opportunities. As stubbornly as Sekiro forces players to learn how each enemy telegraphs their movements, there are still many ways to approach each encounter.
For example, there is this tough boss fight in a poison pit. Huge Buddha statues protrude from the sickly blessed lake. Your palms are outstretched so you can land while a snake eye shooter's gunfire explodes in a firework of lights. You can dodge and run and fly through the air and eventually crash into her, or you can lure her into the poison pool and sit on a cliff as her health deteriorates slowly, slowly, painfully slowly. The game had just given me a tip about enemies in toxic areas with higher poison resistance – I couldn't tell if it warned me not to use the poison or persuaded me to do so. I took my win and still kept it moving. I quietly decided that this was perhaps the only cheese strategy I wanted to use during this playthrough. In general, it worked out well. As I struggled and struggled and struggled, I often found that playing and dying, resting and coming back actually did things – this word often appears in discussions about FromSoftware games – click.
Sekiro's struggle is based on two statistics called vitality, namely health and posture, represented by a counter that builds up when you are essentially out of balance. Your enemy has the same meters. The higher the posture indicator, the less you are ready. The lower your vitality, the faster your posture indicator will increase. If your stance indicator is at its maximum, you are vulnerable to attack by an opponent, which often results in severe punishment. If you make the most of your opponent's posture bar, you can kill and either kill him or remove a full bar of his health. Generally, this system rewards aggressive gameplay and strategic pressure. It's hectic and can be a blast.
What wasn't great was the feeling that I was repeating myself. Sekiro's winding world is full of almost double mini-boss battles, and I've often wondered why. I suspect the game developers tried to persuade the player to rethink their approach to boss fights, but I found that in some of these repeated encounters I wasn't really forced to, and I didn't really feel satisfaction, being able to rein in an enemy who had previously led me to battle. Fortunately, most of these encounters are optional, and although they are necessary for a final run (and to be fair, not so much time), I was thankful that I could just pass them on.
There's a lot going on in Sekiro, a game about both stealth, sword fighting and Shinobi art. The stealth of the game started exciting. It was exciting and fun to discover new hostile patterns and layouts, examine how my tools and objects work, and quickly deal with the consequences of failure. But as the game progressed, I was tired of dodging random mooks that I could easily kill one on one or even one on two, even if they were eventually flanked by stronger ninja and new, more disciplined samurai types. On top of that, the enemies' intelligence did not seem to be getting more complex and mainly stared in your general direction in terms of range of vision, hearing and how long enemies would have discovered you. Most areas of stealth felt interchangeable.
But then there are stealth moments when Sekiro is really, really right. In addition to a few unique chases that I won't spoil, there is a particularly striking boss encounter in the middle of the game that I remember. It's more of a hunt than a fight, which means stealth is key, and there is a very light puzzle element that makes the change from normal combat deeply refreshing. The increasing pressure of a growing wave of enemies in the area increases the difficulty and presents a completely different challenge than the one I have already seen. It's really, really good. There's also a stealth part in the endgame that is so punishing that it's interesting, but I was still largely over this aspect at the time of the game and felt that it could have gone so much further.
The music, mostly sparse, works well when it appears. Atmospheric accents lend depth and dimension to the tracks loaded with strings. The encounter music in a monastery area is underlined, for example, by the deep rumble of the chant, which emphasizes the atmospheric differences to other areas in which you were located and underlines the underlying theme: these monks have deviated from enlightenment. A normally meditative and harmonious sound is used to create a creepy, otherworldly effect that highlights something that the scenes in the middle and late game completely hit: the boundary between life and death is blurred, and with it death creeps on horrific Introduce the mortal world.
This topic is also served in an interesting way by the non-linearity of Sekiro's world. I explored areas that I didn't need to visit before continuing the story, and as it continued to deal with the issues of decay and immortality, I saw myself that parts of the world were drawn into grotesque and miserable forms by the search for eternal life, which made my foray into the next parts of the game all the more moving. I also felt a sense of accomplishment and was thrilled to see that I had almost reached certain quest goals, which added to the feeling that the world was collapsing in an interesting and rewarding way. I finally realized how immortality really went down in history.
The wolf's immortality comes at a price: when you die, the non-player characters you meet and befriend with become infected with a plague called Dragon Red. The disease appears to be fatal, but does not kill anyone and can be healed through items in the game. You cannot access side quests and certain dialog lines from sick NPCs, but the story is otherwise unaffected. I found that a bit disappointing at first, but now that I see it as a backstory rather than a really important mechanic, I feel like it has a place in the game. I wish there would be a more real impact if it were done to the people around you. What would it be like for Dragonrot to have a lasting impact on the game? A lot of anger probably stops.
The game's death mechanics do more for the themes than for the gameplay itself, and that's fine. You lose money and skill point experience when you die, which was deeply troubling in my early gameplay, but eventually became trivial as I learned to use wallets to store cash and keep an eye on how much experience I had given moment could potentially lose. I became more strategic about who I should hire when and how I should prepare for these engagements. Then there is invisible help, a blessing from above that sometimes comes when you die without an available resurrection and prevent you from losing your resources when you die. It starts with a 30% chance of activation and continues to decrease if the characters are caused by Dragonrot. As a result, I never thought I would rely on it. But like the Dragon Red itself, it also matches the religious overtones of the game, so I appreciated it at a certain level.
Sekiro does a lot of things right. Its themes permeate feudal Japan in a compelling way, and the gameplay is largely deeply satisfactory. There are things that could make it better, especially avoiding repetitions, but the notes that Sekiro hits are memorable enough that the slog doesn't completely ruin the flow of the game and the inertia is strong until the end of the game. The challenge that Sekiro poses is formidable and time consuming. Ultimately, the question I asked was, "Will it be worth it?" After going through countless cycles of life and death, tense, angry, and finally overcoming my challenges and letting go of my anger like Buddha, I decided that was the case.