It’s rare to find a video game that comes close to perfection, but Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice does just that. This groundbreaking title sets a new standard for storytelling in video games. Its only flaw is that there isn’t more of it. The gameplay mechanics are incredibly satisfying and the presentation of a new mythos is so convincing that I initially thought it was based on actual Japanese folklore. With surprisingly few shortcomings, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is one of my all-time favorite video games.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is set against the backdrop of the Sengoku era in Japanese history, a time marked by war and political unrest. The story is told from the perspective of the ‘One-Armed Wolf’, a royal protector and shinobi who serves the young Divine Heir. The Divine Heir possesses blood that grants immortality, and the Ashina clan, led by Genichiro and Isshin Ashina, seeks to use it for their own purposes.
In an attempt to rescue the Divine Heir at the beginning of the game, the Wolf loses a fight against Genichiro and is forced to surrender custody of the boy. In the process, he also loses his left arm. Bleeding out in a field of white flowers, he is rescued by a mysterious old Sculptor who installs a prosthetic limb on his severed stump.
As the Wolf journeys across the war-torn land to bring the Divine Heir back to safety, he discovers that many items can be fitted onto his 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 to sever the immortality of those who stand in his way.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice excels in both gameplay and storytelling. The game offers a wide variety of customization options that allow players to tailor their approach to different encounters. The story takes players on a journey through a nightmarish land, exploring the concept of immortality along the way. Both gameplay and story work together to create a deeply scarred world that is both haunting and thought-provoking. From start to finish, this game is a fantastic experience and it’s hard to find anything negative to say about it.
One of the things I appreciate about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is that it forces players to think about their actions and their consequences. At one point in the story, the game presents a moral decision that can completely change the ending and challenges the One-Armed Wolf’s adherence to the Iron Code of the Shinobi. The main character has little personality because he serves as a vessel for this Code. However, when faced with this decision, he must confront its implications for his identity and allegiance.
This design choice by the creative directors is commendable. Even though there is only one major decision in the story, it effectively changes the entire narrative. Many games attempt to create a ‘branching storyline’ but few succeed. Often, these ‘decision points’ only result in a different ending or have no effect at all. They are heavily advertised in marketing materials as a selling point, regardless of their actual impact on the game.
Sekiro takes a different approach by saying almost nothing and leaving it up to the player to discover everything the game has to offer. While this design decision is refreshing, it can leave some players feeling lost without clear direction.
In many games, there is often a level or section that introduces a unique mechanic that adds a new dimension to gameplay. However, once that section is completed, the rest of the game fails to reach the same level of creativity. For me, the ‘Clean House’ and ‘The Wolf’s Den’ missions in Call of Duty Modern Warfare are prime examples.
But what if a game took a great mechanic, like stealthily navigating a house and eliminating hostiles under cover of night, or parrying sword blows in Sekiro, and built an entire game around it? Hidetaka Miyazaki’s earlier series, Dark Souls, did just that. The game focused on difficult combat encounters and the cathartic feeling of overcoming great challenges. It was so groundbreaking that it shaped my personal philosophy: to appreciate difficulty and persevere through failure.
A key mechanic in Dark Souls was poise – the ability to withstand attacks before falling – and parrying – a timed defensive maneuver that left enemies vulnerable to attack. A well-implemented parry mechanic can maintain the flow and speed of gameplay while making each combat encounter more meaningful. I would argue that giving players an active defensive measure followed by an immediate attack is more satisfying than simply recoiling from each blow.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’s main combat focus is parrying. The goal is to parry your opponent’s attacks and drain their poise while maintaining your own. Each enemy has a unique attack tempo that requires the player to match their button inputs with the enemy’s attacks on screen. This results in a successful parry and provides satisfying feedback.
To keep things interesting, there are also unblockable attacks that require a different approach. These are telegraphed by a red symbol above the enemy’s head. Players can also use stealth to take out most enemies in one hit.
In addition to basic combat mechanics, there are also combat arts, passive effects, prosthetic tools, ninjutsu techniques, and items. Combat arts are special maneuvers that can be unlocked by finding hidden texts. Passive effects activate under certain conditions and provide various bonuses. Prosthetic tools can be fitted onto the Wolf’s prosthetic arm and upgraded for specific use cases. Ninjutsu techniques allow players to perform special maneuvers after executing an enemy. Items have a wide variety of uses, from healing to buffing to killing the player in certain strategic contexts.
Overall, Sekiro offers a rich and satisfying combat experience with plenty of options for customization and strategy.
In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the main upgrade system involves finding Prayer Beads, which are dropped by bosses. These unique enemies have larger health pools and varied attacks. Memories of Battle are obtained by defeating major bosses and provide a permanent boost to attack power.
While this may sound overwhelming, all of this knowledge must be applied when dealing with the game’s diverse array of enemies. From lunging wolves to samurais to ogres to monkeys to ghosts, the list goes on and on. The difficulty is a staple of Miyazaki’s games and it persists here, but each challenge has a solution.
What sets this title apart is the ability to come back to life after death using the Divine Heir’s power. Each ‘life’ is divided into two chances, which are refilled when the Wolf rests at one of the game’s shrines. There is an item that can assist with this limitation, but it’s up to the player to discover how.
The penalties for death are not severe, but they can add up. Upon death, the player loses Sen (the game’s currency) and experience points. If the player dies repeatedly, key characters may become afflicted with Dragonrot, a mysterious disease plaguing the world. There is also a chance that the Wolf will receive ‘Unseen Aid’, which prevents the loss of money and prevents Dragonrot infection.
In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, each death lowers the chance of receiving ‘Unseen Aid’, providing an incentive for players to avoid dying. The game features a variety of areas, each with its own unique traits and backstory. For example, early in the game, the Wolf travels back in time into a memory of a wartime invasion by praying to a Buddhist statue and using a bell to enter a meditative trance.
This artistic and storytelling device allows players to experience important events through engaging gameplay rather than passive exposition. It’s all ‘show’ and very little ‘tell’. While hiring a voice actor to narrate events can save time and money, involving the player in the events that happened adds to the game’s creative integrity.
This is just one example of the many unique locations in the Wolf’s path. Each area demands its own approach and offers a distinct experience.
In his previous projects, Miyazaki has shown a preference for letting players piece the story together rather than relying on exposition. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is no different. There is no hand-holding and players are free to explore different areas at their own pace until they encounter a boss that serves as a skill barrier.
Each boss tests the player’s skill, dexterity, reaction time, and ingenuity. They challenge players to think on their feet and apply what they have learned from previous enemies. Boss fights serve as a way for Miyazaki to ensure that players are worthy of continuing the narrative. Each fight ends with a cathartic execution sequence.
Miyazaki’s approach to triumph in battle is solemn. The Wolf is forced to vanquish misguided foes rather than doing so willingly. He never smiles throughout the story and maintains a stern expression, hinting at his detached nature as he silently fights an internal conflict.
Later in the game, when supernatural enemies appear, the Wolf encounters the centipede – a parasite that grants immortality in exchange for complete domination. The game makes players question whether immortality is truly desirable. At first glance, living forever may seem appealing, but it comes at the cost of inviting something foreign into one’s body.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice explores the concept of servitude from multiple angles. The Wolf serves the Divine Heir, Ashina’s army serves Genichiro, and later in the story, misguided monks serve the centipedes.
The game does not offer a happy ending. Instead, it presents a grim message about reality hidden beneath the surface 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