Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice in the test - and you thought Dark Souls was tough

Author: Dimitry Halley
Date: 2019-03-21 14:00:00
Sekiro pushes us far beyond our limit in the test, but also exceeds our own limits: it breaks our expectations in many places. Except when it comes to quality.

But my eye is not bubbling because the game is frustrating or because, like in Dark Souls, every step is a potentially deadly one. No, I just haven't been able to get off the screen for days because Sekiro fascinates me so much, so immensely. Especially where it does things differently. Different from the Souls games, different from various action titles.

Anyone expecting a new Dark Souls may be disappointed by Sekiro's much narrower play focus. And all other players could also be annoyed about design mistakes, especially a rather lame skill system and game-mechanical dead ends. In return, Sekiro concentrates almost entirely on great strength - and that is exactly what you need. If you get involved, you will get an intense dance of death that I have never seen in any other action game.

What is the story good for?

But before I draw the sword, let's talk briefly about why: The story of Sekiro at least outlines the initial situation much more understandably than Dark Souls and Bloodborne - and that simply because we are dealing with a quasi-historical scenario. I am a Shinobi warrior in feudal Japan of the Sengoku era (roughly the 16th century).

In my childhood, a deadly samurai took me under his wing, I swore allegiance to a divine child, and a few years later everything got out of hand so that I had to save the baby. So much for the first five minutes of history.

However, Sekiro does not remain in our world for long , it quickly becomes supernatural, I come across numerous cryptic characters and connections. The old Dark Souls laws apply: Those who diligently roll over object descriptions, study the surroundings and draw time strands in their heads get significantly more story diversity out of the game world. However, it is not as necessary as in the other From Software games.

Since I embody a specific character in Sekiro and not just a self-made avatar, unlike in Dark Souls, my Shinobi also chats with me, asks questions, researches backgrounds. This leaves at least roughly clear until the finale what I'm actually doing here.

Some of you might miss the all-encompassing mystery of Bloodborne and Co., but that doesn't change the fact that Sekiro also offers a fascinatingly alien world that you can immerse yourself in for hours. On a scale between poetry and prose, the game may be closer to classic storytelling than previous Souls games, but compared to the competition it remains a vague but exciting mosaic of hints.

How does Sekiro work?

The extensive forests, swamps, valleys and castles contain numerous secrets, hidden objects, areas - and also some hidden boss fights. As a Shinobi, I swing myself from place to place with a grappling hook, bag as much loot as possible and kill everything that even looks at me crookedly. Swinging with the gripping hook works flawlessly, and thanks to this function, many level environments now play significantly more with ups and downs because not every cliff means the end of my freedom of movement and exploration.

Speaking of »Movement«: Unlike before, I can now sneak up sensibly . As a Shinobi, I scurry through the tall grass, careless enemies from behind, ideally without an alarm. Sneaking is a cool thing that can give me big advantages against smaller boss opponents.

These struggles!

Forget what you learned in Dark Souls or Bloodborne. The tricks from back then no longer work. That finding struck me like one ... well, like a blow, on one of the first mini bosses in Sekiro. I compete against an actually inconspicuous enemy in a kimono who is only armed with katana. "I'll get it," I think, and attack.

I dodge two or three attacks, place a few punches, but the guy's lifeline is reduced by a fraction. And he hits a single hit - I'm dead! This failure repeats itself for almost half an hour until I insult my screen and angrily take a pee break.

As so often in life, I rethink my strategy on the toilet . A mix of evasive attacks doesn't get me anywhere. But what about a parade? If someone attacks you in Sekiro, you have a fraction of a second to hammer the block button and parry that attack. Since the enemy kimono wearer always uses the same deadly double attack in principle - well, maybe I can actually counter the thing. After a few tries, the miracle happens.

Kimono-Karl (that's how I called him now) spams me again with his sword attack, but I have seen through his rhythm. With my blade I fight back every single attack. This completely upsets Karl, his posture collapses and I ram my katana into his neck with just a single push. The fight is over in less than 15 seconds . That's how Sekiro works.

The fascination of Sekiro

Sekiro's learning curve is brutal, even for a Souls game. Instead of just attacking enemies, I have to learn to break an opponent's stance in order to massively weaken him with a Shinobi execution. You weaken attitudes with parades, but just parrying hardly gets me anywhere. After Kimono-Karl, another boss fight is waiting : a much more powerful samurai, who also attacks with a bow in addition to the katana. If I parry his attacks, it does damage his posture (there is a separate groin for this), but if I do not maintain constant pressure through my own attacks, he recovers.

As a result, an incredibly fast dance of attacks and parades burns, the blades collide until I finally win. But the next enemy is overturning all of my strategies. In principle, Sekiro's campaign is a fairly linear path to mastering your own blade.

The katana remains my main weapon from start to finish , the game never becomes unfair, but it is extremely demanding. Whoever does not fathom every single tactical nuance of this ultra-intensive parade exchange loses. You have to develop the lightning-fast reflexes for the Parry system, accept the training, otherwise it will not go on.

This is sometimes very frustrating , but in reverse I look back on an unforgettable trip at the end of the campaign. At first I never thought what I could do in fights. I can counter attacks with ease, even though I actually only have a fraction of a second for every keystroke.

Boss opponents who seemed unbeatable at the beginning , I now mercilessly push against the wall. A bit like Son-Goku at Dragon Ball, with a similarly fast stroke rate. This experience will be experienced by everyone who holds out to Sekiro to the end. However, I can well imagine that many throw the shotgun in advance. In addition to the high degree of hardness, there are significantly fewer aids than in Dark Souls, with which you can make it easier for yourself.

Where Sekiro breaks with Dark Souls and Bloodborne

Yes, Dark Souls was a tricky thing, but you could always do things to make your life easier. If you didn't grab the legendary bosses Ornstein and Smough, you went leveling, increased your own health, found new weapons and armor, or grabbed a co-op partner. Almost all of this assistance is eliminated in Sekiro. You can only tackle the game solo, NPCs do not rush to help you in combat (with one exception) and with experience point grinding you achieve significantly less.

All of this has to do with the fact that Sekiro throws many role-playing properties overboard . Your character has neither a class nor umpteen attributes. I only increase my own attack power by killing boss opponents. My life points only grow when I find prayer beads in the game world. And where are they usually? With mini bosses. Sure, if I conquer optional areas and bosses, I will definitely gain advantages. But there are only a handful of them, and some of them open up really late in the game.

Whoever struggles with the duels can often only flee to the front. This is how »I can't get any further!« - dead ends that avoid other games in a much more elegant way. Sekiro has two or three nasty bottleneck bosses that you have to do before the game world opens up further. There is little that can be done about this.

Skills and prostheses are two exceptions . As with Bloodborne shotguns, you can unlock various special weapons in addition to the katana, which you attach to your prosthetic arm. New essays can be found all over the game world. For example, fire crackers, a lance or a giant ax. However, these utensils only function as a supplement to your sword, never as a replacement. So fire fighters stun briefly, axes destroy shields. These prostheses can also be upgraded with additional functions or bonuses.

A skill tree with room for improvement

The skill trees also allow some character customization. If I kill enough enemies, I can invest points in new maneuvers or passive buffs. Healing potions fill up more energy, enemies drop more gold and so on. The range of special maneuvers ranges from "vital" to "only useful in very specific situations".

An additional counter move, for example, lets me step on the opponent's weapons if he wants to impale me - very delicate! Or I pull my grappling hook at enemies to blow them off the air. This often helps, especially with big bosses.

But only real professionals will be able to do anything with many skills . At best, they only marginally improve survival for newbies. For example, vortex attacks do a lot of damage, but leave your cover open for miles - and depending on the opponent, a single hit sends you on the boards. So I don't get much net if I'm not a god in the parry anyway.

Many special skills are a nice addition if you want to stun a boss for a short time or if you want to use poison blades on him. But they do not replace mastering your own katana. If you stumble here, you won't find any training wheels in the skill tree. Even more than in Dark Souls, there is only the hard way in Sekiro, the relentless learning through constant failure.

After all, you can revive yourself once on the spot (this can also be expanded). And some snack items at least provide damage and defense bonuses. Nevertheless, the skills system remains a mixed affair. In addition to some really useful skills, many other maneuvers have hardly brought me any further.

Not what Souls fans hope for?

You won't find many things in Sekiro that Dark Souls fans might expect. The playing time is shorter, the last area can be reached after 25 to 30 hours . Sure, there is always the attraction of a second or third game run, but if you approach Dark Souls leisurely, you could easily estimate twice the game time on the first try. The boss and surrounding design doesn't show off with the same exoticism either.

There is no sudden step out of a swamp into an abandoned city like Anor Londo, I do not descend into the pitch-black ruins of a New Londo and my jaw does not open like I did in the fiery shallows of Izalith. Sekiro's world remains more earthed, with temples, pagodas, swamps or abandoned villages. Many of these landscapes still have their own cool accents and make other action scenarios look pretty old, but they do not reach the creative balance of previous From Software titles.

Instead of gigantic demon creatures, worms and beasts, you mostly fight against powerful samurai. Well, there are at least a few murderous animals. Both animals and samurai are also relentless, but not two stories tall. But if you only compare Sekiro with Dark Souls, you are doing the game wrong . Because it wants to be something else.

Sekiro sees itself as a rapid action experience, as a duel marathon. One sword master fights you after another because that is the essence of the game: I should master this weapon instead of choosing from 30 different ones. Every boss fight challenges these special features of Sekiro - sometimes in a very, very creative way apart from the exchange of blows.

Mastering Sekiros Katana feels absolutely great . A good combat system doesn't have to put one gun at a time to give me a sense of growth. Regardless of the Souls line of ancestors, completely detached from the weaknesses of the game, no sword dance has inspired me for so long as that of Sekiro. However, you should carefully consider whether such a ride suits you.