It's a bit of a tired point at this stage, but it's definitely true -- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a far cry from Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and anyone who ignores this will be summarily slashed to pieces. From Software's latest shares some similarities with its predecessors, but with combat, traversal, and character progression all very different, it's a new experience and a new challenge to face, even for seasoned players.
In fact, Sekiro might be a good entry point despite the high level of difficulty. The game takes a much more overt approach in its storytelling, providing you with more exposition and a more character driven narrative. That's not to say everything is spelled out for you; this is a From Software game, so there are plenty of secrets to discover. However, the story is arguably more compelling here because you're given just enough to chew on to grab you early on. Playing as the titular shinobi, you're sworn to protect Kuro, a young lord who's heir to a sacred and powerful bloodline. In his duties, the Wolf loses his left arm and Kuro is taken, and when your character comes around, he has a false arm called the Shinobi Prosthetic.
This kicks off the game proper, as you set out into the world in order to find the Divine Heir. It's a fresh setting that looks gorgeous and interconnects with itself in plenty of clever ways. The region of Ashina is a diverse place; you'll go from war-torn villages to a huge castle, as well as bamboo forests and creepy dungeons. It's set in Sengoku era Japan, although this is a fantastical spin on the violent period. It might be a slightly more realistic setting on the surface, but From hasn't skipped the opportunity to get weird.
For the most part, though, you'll be facing off against human enemies. With most encounters consisting purely of sword fighting, you'll need to become familiar with the game's combat system, which can take some getting used to. Instead of simply whittling down a foe's health bar, your main aim is to build up their posture bar. This meter fills as you attack, but there are other ways to break an enemy's posture, the main one being deflections. Most incoming attacks can be parried by pressing block just before they hit, and doing so does damage to the baddie's posture. Reducing their health means their posture builds up more quickly, so you shouldn't ignore health, but you're really trying to stagger your opponent. When you have, a red mark will indicate you can deliver a fatal Shinobi Deathblow.
However, enemies are trying to do the same to you. Simply blocking will see your posture quickly weaken, so deflecting becomes your main tool for victory. The combat is incredibly intense as a result; you're relying on your timing and your wits to avoid or parry strikes, and it can be a very tough first few hours as you wrap your head around it. It's also very fast and death comes swiftly; a few wrong moves and you'll be down. Once it clicks, though, and you play by Sekiro's rules, the fights become supremely rewarding, with every deathblow earned and satisfying to pull off.
There's a basic stealth system in place, which is also key to success. In fact, the game teaches you this even before combat. It's an essential method you'll use a lot in order to even the playing field. Enemies do tend to have eagle eyes, and getting spotted by one can quickly turn into being chased by a mob of angry men, but it isn't long before you can escape with a grappling hook. This, along with an actual jump button, makes for a much more vertical world that you can use to your advantage.
Speaking of the grappling hook, your Shinobi Prosthetic can be upgraded with all kinds of side weapons that can help turn the tide of battle. Each one has its uses and there are plenty to find throughout the game, from a fire blasting Flame Vent to the impenetrable Loaded Umbrella shield. There isn't really a dud among all the Prosthetic Tools, although you'll definitely use some more than others depending on who you're up against and what you prefer.
Of course, these tools can be improved, as can other aspects of the One-Armed Wolf. The difference here is that leveling up and stats have been largely removed; instead, certain items will increase your health, posture, and attack power, while you improve your abilities with Skill Points earned by killing enemies. It's much easier to wrap your head around than a screen full of numbers.
More than any From Software game, this is all explained clearly to you. It doesn't hold your hand, but you're never left wondering what on earth a particular system does. Again, newcomers will appreciate this more direct approach to tutorials, and there's even a man with whom you can train if you need to practice your katana skills. The game might be hard as nails, but it's also more accessible than its forebears.
Death doesn't even necessarily mean death anymore. The protagonist carries the ability to resurrect after a defeat, meaning you're immediately back in the action where you dropped. This power isn't something you can do all the time, but it can give you a second chance against a foe you're struggling with. You can even use it to your advantage, waiting for enemies to move away and then springing back to life to execute a stealth kill. The system is smartly balanced to prevent abuse, and dying shortly after resurrecting will kill you for real, and this carries harsh consequences.
Occasionally, deaths can be caused by some frustrating things. Losing a fight is one thing, but losing it because the lock-on disables and you can't find your opponent is irritating. You may also come unstuck with the game's rigid movement and camera. You'll be jumping chasms, grappling tree branches, and scaling sheer rock faces, but sometimes traversal feels off. Jumps can falter, and the window in which you can grab a ledge feels a little too narrow, and both of these will send you falling to yet another death.
Performance is also an issue on PlayStation 4. Running at an unlocked frame rate on PS4 Pro, both it and the standard console occasionally struggle to keep things smooth, and with combat so reliant on precision and perfectly timed parries, it's not ideal. These issues aren't particularly intrusive, though, and most of the time you probably won't notice because the game's presentation will pull you in. The visuals and music provide the game with a distinct feel, and as always, world and enemy design is top drawer stuff. It looks great, and you'll be glued to the screen exploring all that Ashina has to offer.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a fiercely challenging, yet highly compelling action adventure. The posture-based combat is tricky to learn but wonderfully rewarding to master, and all the nips and tucks to From Software's usual tropes make for a game that's surprisingly accessible for new players. Despite some slightly ropey traversal and occasionally dodgy performance, this game will keep you hooked from start to finish with its built-in "one more go" death mechanic and a bleak yet gorgeous world to explore. This is a fresh new spin on From's formula that fans and newcomers alike should definitely give a stab.