It is rare to find a video game that I would consider to be near perfect, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice does about everything it could to persuade me that it is. A groundbreaking title, that defines what storytelling should be about, where the biggest flaw is that there isn’t more of it. A marvel in terms of satisfying gameplay mechanics, and the presentation of a new mythos that I genuinely thought was based on actual Japanese folklore. A phenomenal title with surprisingly few shortcomings, this is definitely one of my all-time favourite video games.
Set during the backdrop of the Sengoku era in Japanese history, this time was highlighted by war and political unrest. Shown through the perspective of the ‘One-Armed Wolf’, the royal protector and shinobi of the young Divine Heir who possesses immortality-granting blood, exacting revenge on the Ashina clan, led by Genichiro Ashina and Isshin Ashina – who wish to use the blood for their own purposes. In a rescue attempt by the Wolf during the beginning of the game, he loses the fight against Genichiro and forfeits custody of the Divine Heir, losing not only the boy, but his entire left arm in the process. Bleeding out in a field of white flowers, a mysterious old Sculptor rescues him and installs a Prosthetic limb on his severed stump. Throughout the Wolf’s journey, he discovers that there are many items that can be fitted onto the prosthetic arm, giving him a tactical advantage in almost every encounter. Having been brought back from the dead using the Divine Heir’s blood, he sets out across the war-torn land to bring him back to safety – and sever the immortality of those that are in his way.
This game excels in both the gameplay department, which offers a wide variety of customization options to change your approach to different encounters; and the story department, which is a curious journey through the nightmarish land that has become. Both aspects work in tandem with one another to create a world that is deeply scarred, while also tacitly interrogating the concept of immortality. This was a fantastic experience from start to finish, and it is very difficult for me to find anything bad to say about it.
I always enjoy a game that forces the player to think about what they are doing and their implications for doing it. There is a moment during the story where the game forces the player to make a moral decision that completely changes the ending, that questions the One-Armed Wolf’s conviction to the Iron Code of the Shinobi. The main character deliberately has almost no personality because he acts as a vessel for this Code, and then he is forced to make a serious decision that has major implications to his identity and affiliation. I appreciate this design decision from the creative directors, because even if there’s only one major decision to make in the story – it effectively changes the entire narrative. Other games would call this attempt a ‘branching storyline’, but there have been very few titles that managed to actually make a branching storyline. The vast majority of effects that these ‘decision points’ would make throughout a particular game either amount to a different ending, are only shown very far into the game, or have no effect at all. They are also very heavily advertised in all marketing and promotional material because that somehow means that it is a good game, nevermind the bloat that a majority of these so-called storylines copy. Sekiro takes a different approach and says almost nothing – leaving it all up to the player to discover everything that the game has to offer. While this design decision is certainly welcome, it leaves a lot of players in the dark who are used to a directional arrow pointing them in the right direction at all times.
Often when one plays games, there is a level or a section – that does something really cool with the given mechanics that switches up how the game is played and adds onto it. Then once you finish it, you have the rest of the game and it just doesn’t reach the same height of creativity that that one section had. For me, that is definitely the ‘Clean House’ mission and the beginning section of ‘The Wolf’s Den’ mission in Call of Duty Modern Warfare. But what if you took a great mechanic, like stealthily walking through a house, slowing the game’s pace down to a crawl, and eliminating hostiles with accurate shots under the cover of night like in those two missions from Call of Duty – or parrying sword blows to result in the satisfying sound of clanging metal in Sekiro, and made a whole game around it? Hidetaka Miyazaki’s earlier series, Dark Souls, was a dark fantasy focused on difficult combative encounters coupled with the cathartic feeling of overcoming great difficulties. It was such a groundbreaking title that it shaped part of my life’s philosophy – where I learned to appreciate difficulty, and while fail I may – my determination will persevere, and only through difficulties is that success where the reward is truly sweet. However, a large part of that game was a mechanic called poise – the amount of attack that you can take before you fall to the ground, and parry – a timed deflective maneuver, akin to blocking, that reveals the enemy’s vitals wide open for the finishing blow. A successfully implemented parry mechanic will in almost all cases result in maintaining the game flow and speed, while also involving the player more in every combat encounter – making each fight meaningful. I would argue that giving a player an active defensive measure that can immediately be followed up with an attack is ultimately more satisfying than recoiling like a turtle with a shield from each blow. Not only that, but giving it a satisfying feedback is almost enough to even make a whole game around it because it acts like a shot of dopamine with each successful execution (another game that does this amazingly is Katana Zero). Sekiro’s main combat focus is to parry the opponent’s attacks and drain their poise, while also maintaining your own poise, so the enemy does not get past your defenses. Every enemy has an attack tempo, requiring the player to match their button input with the enemy’s attacks on screen, which results in a successful parry. It is important to note that every single enemy has a different approach to not only initiating combat, but attacking rhythm. To switch things up, there are also unblockable attacks, telegraphed by a red symbol above an enemy’s head that each require their own special approach. This system can be circumvented through a stealth approach, which takes out a majority of enemies in one hit. Adding on top of that, there are combat arts, which are special combative maneuvers that the Wolf can unlock through finding the appropriate hidden Text – which gives access to different skill trees that unlock new techniques in a fight. Alongside these arts, there are also passive effects which activate on a prescribed condition that give various bonuses. There are also a number of tools that can be fit onto the prosthetic, each with their own upgrades and specific use cases – with the player being able to equip up to three different tools. There are also ninjutsu techniques, which are found later in the game, but they allow for the player to activate one of three different special maneuvers on an execution of an enemy. Finally, there are the items which have a wide variety of use cases, from healing, to buffing, to outright killing the player (there are some contexts where suicide is seen as a strategic option). The main upgrade system works on finding Prayer Beads, which only drop after successfully killing a boss – a unique enemy that has a larger health pool and varied attacks. Finally, there are the Memories of Battle, which are obtained through killing a major boss – and they are separate items that boost attack power permanently, resulting in less hits being needed to end off enemies. While this sounds like a lot, and believe me it is, all of this knowledge must be applied when dealing with vastly varying enemy encounters and enemy types. From the lunging wolves, to samurais, to ogres, to monkeys, to ghosts, and the list just goes on and on. The difficulty remains a staple of Miyazaki’s games, and it persists here – but it is counterbalanced by each challenge having a set or improvised solution for each encounter. What sets this title apart from others, is actually part of the games’ namesake – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. After a death, the player can use the Divine Heir’s power to come back to life for a second time. Each ‘life’ is broken up into two chances, where they are refilled by the Wolf as he rests at one of the games’ numerous shrines. There is an item that can ‘assist’ the player with this limitation, but it’ll be up to the player to find out how. The penalties of death are not huge, but when accrued in large amounts – the penalty can be severe. Upon each death, the player loses Sen – the currency of Sekiro’s world; and they also lose experience points, invaluable towards expanding Sekiro’s combat move roster. Die a lot of times in a row, and various key characters will start to be afflicted with Dragonrot – a mysterious disease currently plaguing the world. Upon death, there is a certain chance that the Wolf will receive ‘Unseen Aid’, a percentage gamble that will result in the player not losing money and not causing any Dragonrot infection. Each death lowers that percentage amount, an incentive for the player to not die. There are rather varied areas in the game, each with their own ‘quirks’, backstory, and unique traits that exist only in those specific areas; for example, and without spoiling too much, very early in the game – the Wolf travels back in time into a memory of an ongoing wartime invasion, reliving the events in his mind as he prays to a Buddhist statue. By using a bell and listening into the clear, metallic reverberating sound – he can enter a meditative trance and live through memories of others. This is an important artistic and storytelling device that involves the player in the story and walks them through important events with engaging gameplay rather than passive exposition. It’s all ‘show’, and very little ‘tell’. While hiring a voice actor and giving them a script to voice over an animation is a substantial time and budget saving strategy, it gives credence to creative integrity to have the player be involved in the events that happened. Keep in mind, this is only one section in the game, there are many other locations in the Wolf’s path that are entirely unique and demand their own approach.
Through Miyazai’s previous projects, it is evident that he hates exposition – and would rather have the player piece the story together. There is absolutely no hand holding and the player can explore several different areas simultaneously at their own leisure, until they get soft locked (a skill barrier to prevent underleveled players from moving through the story) by a boss. Each boss is a test of the player’s skill, dexterity, reaction, and ingenuity – they all heavily test the player’s ability to think on their feet and apply what each enemy has taught them to the boss fight. They are Miyazaki’s way of making sure the player is worthy enough to continue the narrative, with each boss fight ending in a cathartic release of a flashy execution sequence. Miyazaki’s approach to triumph in battle is always solemn, almost like a necessary evil was committed by the character. The Wolf is forced, rather than willing, to vanquish a misguided foe that stands in his way. This is particularly important because the Wolf himself never actually smiles throughout the entire story – he always keeps a stern face, his expression hinting at his detached nature as he slices open yet another enemy, silently fighting an implied internal conflict. Further in the game, when there are more supernatural enemies, the Wolf comes across the figure of the centipede – an insect which gives its host immortality in exchange for complete domination. The centipede is a faceless parasite, yet it seems to corrupt anything that it touches – eventually resurrecting it and completely taking over, should the host die. The game makes the player question whether immortality is a good thing, as upon first glance it would seem as though living forever would be nice – and in exchange they invite something into their body which will never be a true part of them. It shows the player the concept of servitude from several different angles, where the Wolf is in servitude to the Divine Heir, Ashina’s army is serving Genichiro, and further in the story, monks who lost their way are in servitude to the centipedes.
There is no happy ending here, but rather a grim message about reality hiding under the façade of a flashy video game.
Featured Image by: Octavian Dan from Unsplash
Game Review Thumbnail by: Nasik Lababan from Unsplash
Game Trailer by: From Software and Activision
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
A phenomenal blend of storytelling and gameplay, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a must play for any gaming enthusiast.
- - Gripping gameplay
- - 'Everything has a place and everything is in its place' mentality brought to the forefront
- - No fluff, everything is necessary
- - Fantastic characterization without unnecessary boring dialogue
- - High level of customization that allows you to tailor each approach
- - Unique storyline that could be mistaken for actual Japanese folklore
- - Satisfying feedback from the gameplay brought to the forefront to shine
- - No paid DLC to continue the story
- - No sequel that was announced as of yet
- - It isn't longer