Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019) REVIEW

As a first foray into the jump button, grappling hook and ‘character action’ side of action RPG video games Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is at its best an average spectacle with a mountain of idiosyncratic failures that pile up as you play. There is some expectation that From Software is now some sort of monumental developer after their last generation triumphs with the Demon’s/Dark Souls series that assuredly contributed much in the realm of dark action RPG video games but, their lineage is spottier than even the worst Capcom or Square-Enix sub-division if you look at the studio prior to 2005 and they’d never truly generated a masterpiece. To think that the gaudy self-referential Dark Souls III was a swan song for a series that was truly just developing was a testament to how bored and frankly out of ideas the studio was in terms of set piece and boss encounter design. Those were fine games because they were tuned to be mastered by the player through cleverness, trial and error, or just sheer brute force grinding of resources. With Bloodborne, the spiritual successor for the ‘Souls’ series, took several steps forward with an alluringly cryptic narrative, brilliant atmospheric design, and an interconnected world design that rivaled the twists of the original Dark Souls. There an increasing focus on aggressive action forced players out of the comfort of sword-and-shield tactics (or in my case, sword and sorcery) towards quick and decisive motion. It was fluid, masterful and a true peak for what From Software would do with combat design. Where does Sekiro, which is obviously related in every way to their previous four games, innovate? Well, what if they just forced you to become a bad ‘parry king’ video?

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Every aspect of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has a downside and beyond the initial excitement of getting to play a game by the makers of Dark Souls it is a game without enough options, or fun factor to warrant its length and bland storyline. But what about the exploration? If you’ve ever played Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within (cue the Godsmack song when the Dhaka attacks…) where you have to backtrack through the entire palace a total of at least six times I’d say that sort of padding is implemented here where Ashina Castle and its outskirts somehow manage to fill around twenty hours of in game time depending on how long you take to beat each boss. Yes, the castle is beautiful and yes it absolutely changes as the story progresses while ‘rats’ and invading shinobi take the castle. The main reason to revisit each nook and cranny of the area is to grab whatever items that’ve replenished in the meantime but this also means that a few of the mini-bosses in the game are missable if you rush through the story too quickly by taking on all of the major boss fights (usually designated by dead ends). There are some beautiful locales otherwise, a cursed monk temple, a divine lake (that you can dive into), a zombified village next to a mist-cursed forest, a poison valley, an… Oh, right, old From Software cliches and most of them are a bit small and straightforward compared to what they’d done with the labyrinthine Bloodborne. I spent about 60 hours with the game on my first play through and by the end I felt like the game funneled me back to the castle over and over while the more interesting outer areas never had enough to do or offered very little challenge.

Challenge is probably the most prominent point of interest for the greater conversation about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and it couldn’t be a more boring back-and-forth between soft-headed video game journalists and limp dick Twitch-addicted man children. That said, I think suggesting an ‘easy mode’ for accessibility is definitely absurd. But difficulty in Sekiro doesn’t honestly come from the timing that gameplay demands, you can literally spam the parry button lazily and still do fine but, it comes from the never-improving character you’re given in this supposed ‘RPG’. I do think they’ve focused so much on choreographing each boss fight to provide that difficulty and with maybe 1-2 strategic options for most bosses (parry, or use a tool to do posture damage) they’ve designed the game to be approached in a very linear fashion. Without any meaningful tactics to choose from the trick to beating the most difficult parts of Sekiro becomes simply trying each sub-weapon and doing your best to get the drop on any boss where it is possible. The best example of this is perhaps Lady Butterfly, a frantic boss fight that relies on consistent parrying and punishing openings to win or… or you can simply spec the Nightjar Slash combat art and once you hit her with it you can spam it repeatedly as her AI does nothing to counter it for up to 20 hits. Unfortunately if you work your way through the game simply being clever as possible with each boss fight you’ll hit a major wall when the final bosses (of any ending) come around. The difficulty spike is absolutely damning and if you don’t learn quickly they could take many, many hours to figure out.

Even if you are careful with your timing Wolf (Sekiro) is a bit of a wobbly ragdoll that controls with the momentum of a balloon tied to a lead bar. From the first hit of the jump button and that quarter second delay I knew that the platforming was going to be a terrible mess and From Software seemed to think the best solution was to place grappling hook points all around the world to distract from their sloppy jumping animation and awkward character physics. Hell, you can ‘swim’ too but it controls about as nicely as a Playstation 2 game and with a camera to match. What will be satisfying initially is the high-stakes combat which is entirely comparable to Ninja Gaiden (2004) [or if you were a Playstation 3 guy like me, Ninja Gaiden Sigma (2006)], but wait, didn’t everyone say that about Nioh? No, the difference here is that you’re stuck with the same katana throughout the entirety of Sekiro and this not only compares poorly with every ‘souls’-like game ever made but it again limits the choices available for approaching any situation. There are many branching paths to take, nooks and crannies to explore, but ultimately you will have to approach each boss encounter as the game intends it and their damage output and response time is often a bit overcharged if you’re not good at timing parries. Remember avoiding parrying in basically every third person action RPG ever? Right, because Sekiro isn’t Bayonetta and the parrying isn’t just a way to avoid damage it is completely necessary to do ‘posture’ damage to enemies so that you can eventually stab them (then, repeat this up to four times). When I realized that I would -have- to parry king my way through all of the bosses beyond the first Genichiro fight at the top of Ashina Castle I admittedly stopped having fun playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Delicious tears.

Unless my memory fails me I’d given Nioh a perfect score and thinking back on the game it was likewise punishing and often put you up against ridiculous odds that you’d have to adapt to with any number of strategies. What Nioh did so beautifully was add rich color and high-fantasy demons to feudal Japan and it is somewhat pathetic to see what From Software does with that same (admittedly earlier) era and their peculiar taste in macabre enemy design. To see folks praise Sekiro for its color palette has been laughable as it is as generally washed out as a Playstation 3 era game compared to most modern video games and I played it in the more richly colored HDR mode to remedy some of this. There is perhaps as much beauty and personality in Nioh‘s add-on content ‘Dragon of the North‘ as there is in the entirety of Sekiro excepting the Guardian Ape boss fight, the great Snake, and the whole of Fountainhead Palace. The most impressive progression within the main story comes with Hirata Estate, an area you approach as if it were a dream where you relived the past events, which is essentially a prologue with vital information you’ll only get through flashbacks that occur as you beat Lady Butterfly. The lush bamboo-lined temples alight with the flames of the burning estate at night are truly a beautiful and well-designed part of the game that I’d wished there were more of once I’d finished Sekiro. So, there is exploration and all of it provides some reward but ultimately the combat and boss fights that gate each area are where you’re going to see progression in the game.

There are tens of named human mini-bosses, giants, monsters, sorcerers, headless terrors, mobs, and about 7-8 main (possible) boss fights depending what choices you make along the way. The choices are vague and the consequences are impossible to see outside of choosing to kill your adoptive father or not. I’d unknowingly chosen to do the Immortal Severance ending and this meant I’d also chosen what is certainly the most difficult final boss fight in the game. I can perfect parry about sixty percent of the time, I can almost always react to unblockable attacks (about fifty percent of the time) and yeah I cannot work up my reflexes any better than they are. Get good? I hear you, I mean I have a platinum trophy in every single From Software game and I got up to New Game+6 on Dark Souls III. So, why did it take me about two weeks and roughly eight hours to beat Genichiro & Isshin, the Sword Saint? Well, at first it was a matter of not being able to memorize the predictable aspects of their patterns and then it become an issue of the responsiveness of the controls. Nothing in the game really prepared me for the level of precision required for that final boss fight. Sure, I had my rough 2-3 hours hammering away at the aforementioned Lady Butterfly, the first Genichiro fight, and especially that goddamn Guardian Ape but each one allowed me to play a certain way and still win. That meant basically playing the game as I did Bloodborne, dashing through attacks, parrying volleys, and chipping away at their posture with Combat Arts until I’d win. This doesn’t work with Isshin, the Sword Saint and the way the game forces you to learn and play this final fight is an incredibly steep difficulty spike. In those hours and hours of repeated dying I felt miserable that I couldn’t seem to learn his patterns and simply react fast enough, and there was no ‘fun’ in being forced to play that specific pattern through. The triumph of winning wasn’t a point of joy it was simply nice to be done with a game that I really didn’t get much out of in its last ten or so hours.

So, it was a horrible experience? No, actually every other boss was a heart-pounding thrill and there was this weirdly frustrated mental boner I’d get each time I finally succeeded that was so much more intense than previously challenging Dark Souls combat. I won by my own merit and solved a problem through grueling trial and error. This was the only time I truly enjoyed Sekiro. Otherwise the exploration lacked any major interest, it seemed like I kept hoping something really stunning would show up around each corner but I’d never get anything spectacular, at least compared to say Bloodborne or God of War. The enemy types might’ve been varied and appropriate for their environment but, at least half were human-type samurai (or monk), and their design wasn’t up to par with what horrors From Software had brought before it (nor as good as Ninja Gaiden, or Nioh). With Nioh 2 and Ghost of Tsushima coming in the near future I think the shinobi/samurai action RPG had been done better previous and looks to be improved upon in the future so, unless you are just here for the challenge of From Software games to wear as a badge of ‘win’ this may not be the game for you. I don’t play their games for their challenge but for the RPG development and the options it provides for combat and overcoming challenges. Without those options in my hands, it is just a pretty and slightly-wobbly Ninja Gaiden clone. There was a cleverness in the ‘soulsborne’ series that makes Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice look a bit too bushy-tailed and overconfident in weaving its tale while providing twitch-based combat challenges.

So will I, too, for the sake of all beings, generate the mind of enlightenment.

The story is perhaps the mortal blade upon the undead neck, as it were. At no point was it -that- interesting that a war-displaced orphan Shinobi warrior bound to a divine child by duty becoming a zombie (who could revive by way of the child’s dragonblood Jesus resurrection magic, because he liked you?) really feel like a meaningful tale. It wasn’t revenge, it wasn’t duality, it was just a parable of duty (depending how you play it?) and from the Buddhist perspective. Kuro’s choice to save you from death because you died protecting him seemed arbitrary and the Immortal Severance ending only places you within a cheesy infinite loop akin to that of Dark Souls where instead of ‘linking the fire’ you stab the child in the chest and end immortality then go about carving wooden Buddhas. Yeah, spoilers you’re the sculptor and all will repeat ad infinitum. This fable is not inherently bad but you will find a lot of armchair slack-jawed YouTube psuedo-Buddhists explaining it sooner or later. There is no depth or meaningful symbolism here without a very, very detailed deep-dive into what the Fountainhead Palace (and the peak of the mountain there) represents, if you even go there… and to the average Christian-raised ‘western’ video game player this will appear as less a mundane Buddhist parable and more a cheesy way to loop the game infinitely. At the end of the experience I am at least grateful that I didn’t have a chatty character following me around explaining everything but I surely thought From Software could have really ‘gone for it’ in terms of exploring duty, the afterlife, ego, revenge and eternity in a very direct and meaningful way. Instead, we get a bad shinobi-themed fantasy art film.

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In this case I ended up writing down my thoughts on this game throughout the experience and then scrapping them all after the several hours spent fighting the last boss. I realize that I sound salty and beaten up by Sekiro, that’d be accurate and honest. I’ve played too many games throughout my life to still get any thrill out of overcoming a twitchy combat system and then trying to sell the experience to others simply because I was able to figure it out. I gain no badge or honor from doing said chore. Most people should not play this game because you may become so frustrated that it’ll be too difficult to finish either because you lack the patience or the coordination to complete it. I know I was on the verge of snapping the disc in half at least three times and I play this sort of game more than any other type anymore. So, though I am being a sourpuss about the constraints of the boss fights, I’ve spent enough time with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to be completely sure that I do not like it as much as I probably should on paper.

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Title: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Genre: Third-person Action RPG
Released:  March 22, 2019 | From Software
Platform(s) Reviewed: Playstation 4 Pro [Blu-Ray]
Score: 3.0/5.0 [Above average. Mild recommendation.]

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