What’s This Sekiro Thing Then?
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice raised many an eyebrow during its cryptic reveal and with its initial gameplay trailer. Last year saw the release of Tecmo Koei’s brilliant Nioh, an early Edo period Japan set action RPG that did not hide it’s Souls inspiration. Then Sekiro was revealed and it turned out that From Software were also developing a game set in 16th century Japan. Would this be From Softwares answer to Nioh?
The answer to which is: sort of?. Nioh was an excellent game that blended the core controls and idea of Souls combat with a faster paced and tighter action game. Sekiro almost completely abandons the feel of Souls combat for more of an action game feel, tight fast controls aimed around combo attacks. This means that on a structural level, Sekiro is a big departure from From Softwares big hit franchise, and a very welcome one.
An attack has seen a young lord, who you are sworn to protect, get kidnapped. Meanwhile, you have lost your left arm and been left for dead. Saved by a stranger who, while you slept, replaced your missing arm with a prosthetic and told to take revenge and save your lord. A more clearly established story than Dark Souls, for sure
No Smoking Samurai Style Ranks (Yet)
I said Sekrio is a big departure due to it’s leaning towards a faster, more action game feeling. This is not From Software doing Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, you’re not getting a combo counter and rankings on fights. Instead, the systems of the game directly promote the idea of comboing attacks together. Gone is the stamina bar, a staple of Souls games and the heaps of games they inspired. No longer is the ebb and flow of when to attack controlled by that green bar in the top left, instead, the combat revolves around a poise system.
The majority of your attacks will not actually inflict damage to the enemy but instead will wear down their poise. Once their poise is broken you can trigger a “kill attack” to actually deplete enemy health. Here is where the combo focus of the combat comes in, sustain attacks on an enemy to break their defence and deal actual health damage sometimes outright killing them depending on the enemy.
You, the player, are also subject to this system. Blocking hits will fill your break bar and once it’s full you’re vulnerable to a devastating attack. So reveals the game’s big risk-reward loop; the best way to break enemy poise is to parry attacks and sneak attacks in afterwards. Miss the parry window timing on either side, and you’ll either take damage or block it and fill part of your break bar opening yourself to potentially lethal damage.
In addition to normal attacks, there are also a few neat tools such as a grapple that is used to traverse the terrain of the world that can also be used to launch yourself towards enemies, and the prosthetic arm our character uses can be outfitted with a number of different tools.
Armed & Dangerous
The GamesCom demo contained an arm that launched shurikens, a short-range explosive flamethrower that can ignite both enemies and your weapon, and an axe used for heavy attacks. These tools have specific purposes they can fill, the heavy axe attack was capable of breaking the shield of defensive enemies and the flamethrower can cause enemies to stop going on the offence when on fire.
The core gameplay loop works really well; multiple enemies cause tense fights, and the push to keep attacking without pausing even to heal is a strong and dangerous feeling. A number of deaths came from thinking that if I just kept attacking, I could break his poise before I died. Death moves us nicely into one of the features in Sekiro that was deemed so important (read: marketable) by Activision that it’s in the title. It’s that you can die twice. Go figure.
Shadows Die Twice, Or Do They?
Upon death you get the choice of staying dead or reviving on the spot and resuming the fight. Once you have revived, you are unable to revive again until you have defeated an enemy, or until some time passes; the demo wasn’t explicitly clear. It seemed odd to me that the resurrection count wasn’t reset when resting at checkpoints.
The ability to revive five times in one section of the game as long as you beat an enemy before each death seemed a bit too forgiving. It seems like it might work to the detriment of the game to not enforce some level of learning its mechanics. The case of The Wonderful 101 comes to mind, which due to its generous checkpoint system had players go through the game without realising there was a block.
The feature sounds like a big deal, but honestly, I don’t think its impact is that big. It’s almost just like having two types of healing; you have one which functions similarly to Estus that you can drink in the fight and is consumable, then you have this healing option that will automatically trigger when you need it and, after a cooldown, will be there for you to use again. Like a fairy in a bottle in Zelda.
I feel like part of the idea behind this mechanic is to create a feeling of tension in the player. It can make them hyper-aware that once they’ve resurrected in the middle of a fight that they are making their last stand. In that regard it does work. However if you ever get tense seeing you’ve used the last of your healing items it’s basically the exact same thing except harder to miss.
I Have To Wait How Long?
All in all, Sekiro promises to be a highlight of early 2018. From Software have proven themselves many times over with regards to level design and world building. While the combat is feeling slick, responsive and like a real challenge to master. The appeal of what might exist in Sekiro and how later additions in the game might change the gameplay. Whether that comes in the form of new arm attachments or something else, has me counting down the days.
I hold out hope that Activision might release a demo out for download by the public. Mostly because I just don’t want to have to wait until March 22 to play Sekiro again. That alone is surely a good sign.