Whether or not you've played From Software's previous action titles before, you're not prepared for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Fans of the studio will have to ditch all their Dark Souls habits, as this game plays by its own rules. It's certainly in the same wheelhouse, but Sekiro is a bold and distinct change from its predecessors that's somehow more accessible and more difficult at the same time.
We're still early on in the game, having defeated one major boss so far, and we'd be lying if we said it's been an easy ride. The opening hours of this game don't pull any punches. More than any other From Software game, it makes an effort to teach you the ropes, but you absolutely need it if you're to make any headway. The combat, based on breaking an enemy's posture before delivering a fatal blow, is relentlessly fast, and your foes are more than up to the task of doing you in. The ability to resurrect provides a second chance, but it's smartly balanced so you can't abuse it. You need to be careful how and when you use this power, because you can't use it all the time.
Getting accustomed to how the game works can take a number of hours, and it's a real uphill struggle as you find your feet. Fortunately, things do become a little easier to handle, and not just because you've been playing for hours; Hanbei the Undying is an immortal training dummy with whom you can practice sword fighting, and it isn't long before you'll start to unlock upgrades for Wolf, gradually giving you an edge on your enemies.
You're thrown straight in at the deep end, then, but the learning process is satisfying to master. Successfully parrying a flurry of attacks makes you feel unstoppable, and offing opponents with one nicely animated blow is a great reward. Of course, stealth is an option if you need to thin the herd, and while it's very basic, it allows you to even the odds, and clearing an area without being seen makes you feel like a true shinobi.
The world in which the game is set is wonderful, too. It's a more colourful, lively place than From's other settings, but it still has a bleakness running throughout. Sengoku era Japan was an extremely violent time, and that's absolutely portrayed here. Typically, the map is littered with secrets, alternate pathways, and hidden items to discover, which isn't necessarily the impression you get initially. Once you have access to your grappling hook, you can go more or less wherever you like, and there's so much off the beaten path that's worth finding. We found a merchant selling useful items atop a plateau, a character who craves the scales from the giant fish swimming in a river, and an optional, and rather creepy, mini boss all within the first few areas.
While most of the game's secrets are kept from you, the main thrust of the story is told in a more traditional way. There seems to be more character interaction throughout your journey, helped no doubt by a fixed protagonist with a name and a voice. There's still some lore to be discovered within the flavour text of each item, but there's a more defined narrative to follow this time. Whether that's a positive or negative will be down to you, but we like it.
There are some aspects we're not so fond of, however. The biggest negative we can take away from the first few hours is that the game's performance is far from ideal, with a choppy frame rate in places and some occasional graphical glitches. Load times are fairly swift, but for a game so reliant on timing and precision, it definitely struggles to keep up. It also feels impossible to judge how to deal with an enemy sometimes, as their movements are as fast as yours -- it's something to get used to, but the window in which you can deflect attacks is minuscule, and can sometimes feel a little too unforgiving.
Again, though, we're gradually getting better at Sekiro's unique combat. The difficulty curve is steep, but you'll slowly become a master of the parry, and it's definitely satisfying to pull off. We need to delve a little deeper, but despite the high level of challenge, this is an engrossing, intense action game that'll keep you glued to your seat.
How are you finding Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice so far? Are you enjoying the challenge, or is it all a bit much? Crouch in the grass in the comments below, and look out for our full review of Sekiro soon.