Preview – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is so challenging it’s great

Sekiro Shadows Die Twice - SS31

Hmm…I think I need to get a new dictionary. Because when I look up the word “brutal” in mine, all I find is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice in there.

GameAxis got more hands-on time at a private preview in Bangkok, Thailand last month (our last preview was at TGS 2018). This new demo was a lot more extensive in terms of the enemies, equipment, and stages. For example, instead of a samurai mini-boss in the first level, we came face-to-face with a huge, red-eyed ogre instead. The level design was also different, so it made for a fresh experience for both attending media and the fans reading back home.

Hosted at the Four Points By Sheraton, the venue was jam packed with both Thai and Singaporean media. Also, there were a couple of cool displays set up for everyone to go nuts over, including this large prosthetic hand.

This picture sure came in handy! Pun fully intended. (Kenneth Ang/GameAxis)

Unfortunately, we didn’t catch a glimpse of any Sekiro devs there, which is a pity. I would have liked to get some new insight and an autograph! But enough talking, let’s make like a shinobi and dive right into it!

It’s Soulsborne for a larger audience

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is developer FromSoftware’s latest piece of work, and as always: it’s no walk in the park. Like the “Soulsborne” games , Sekiro rewards technical mastery – calling for a unique blend of patience, immaculate timing, and finding opportunity. However, Sekiro also brings its own set of mechanics into the fray. For starters, there’s the multi-purpose grappling hook, as well as the Resurrection and Posture mechanics.

While it is absurdly satisfying once you get the hang of it, the learning curve is undoubtedly a steep one. Shadows die twice? Perhaps, but my death count was closer to 20.

Sekiro is in many ways similar and yet different from it’s spiritual predecessors. (FromSoftware/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

I think it’s because most casual players, myself included, have gotten used to tutorials spoon-feeding us information. That principle simply does not apply to Soulsborne-style games. They adopt a “back-to-basics” approach to gameplay, requiring you to explore, experiment, and adjust according to your opponents. In essence, they only give you as much as you need to know, letting you figure out the rest on your own.

The fun comes from the challenge

Having minimal experience in this field, I started panicking when the game hung me out to dry. At the start, I mistimed a lot of deflections and ended up dying to the basic enemies. However, along with the panic came a rush of adrenaline, as well as a nostalgic sense of challenge I hadn’t felt in a while. Instinctively, I started studying the enemies’ attack patterns and reach.

As the adage goes: “Success is a journey, not a destination.” To me, this is the underlying principle behind what makes Sekiro, and by extension Soulsborne-style games, fun. It’s the process of discovering and exploiting that loophole in an enemy’s defense, knowing that any slip-ups could cost you dearly. Consider it a high-risk, high-reward scenario, as it’s ridiculously satisfying when done successfully.

I’m pretty sure the veteran Dark Souls players among the media agree with me on this. Overextending attacks and mistiming parries made up a lot of the casualties that day, but amidst the annoyed groans you could feel the intensity and grit as they rose to Sekiro‘s challenge.

Arming the Wolf

Our two-hour allocation for Sekiro was split into two phases. The first section, lasting 90 minutes, was basically the tutorial. Or what the developers count as one. As mentioned before, the Sekiro tutorial doesn’t hold your hand, but for all its lack in depth, it’s clear FromSoftware are trying to make their content more accessible.

As your run-of-the-mill gamer, I’d still tell you the tutorial was grossly insufficient. That being said, it’s probably worlds more than what’s included in their other games to begin with!

Wheeeeee! (FromSoftware/SIE)

You play a shinobi known as Wolf, who gets the name from the intensity of his wolf-like gaze. He’s your average Japanese warrior: lean, muscular, hair tied up in a ponytail, skilled swordsman… you get it. After receiving a message from his lord, the last surviving member of an ancient bloodline, Wolf is promptly tasked with facilitating the duo’s escape from the castle. The attempt goes somewhat unimpeded until they are caught by an enemy warlord, and the ensuing battle leaves our shinobi with neither his lord nor his arm.

When Wolf awakes, he finds his stump replaced by a prosthetic. It’s the work of the Old Sculptor, a cursed old hermit who carves Buddha statues to make up for his past misdeeds. He found Wolf lying unconscious after the battle and brought him back to his home. When Wolf asks about his arm, the Sculptor simply laughs, saying the shinobi will probably put it to better use than him. Although still confused, Wolf resolves to rescue his abducted liege and sets off.

Cue the start of the combat tutorial as you enter the first stage, the Ashina Castle Grounds.

Watch your Posture

The Castle Grounds is probably the only stage where the game plays nice, and even then it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. As I darted about the ramparts, slicing and dicing through enemy fodder, the game teaches the basics of attacking, deflecting, and more importantly, the concept of Posture. This is Sekiro‘s core mechanic, replacing Stamina from the Soulsborne games. Naturally, a good understanding of it will make for an easier, tactically-engaging playthrough.

Ashina Castle certainly has a unique way of treating its guests. (FromSoftware/SIE)

Posture is a measure of how steady a character is on their feet, affecting both you and your enemies. Accordingly, you’ll have to chip the Posture bar down if you want to make any sizable dents, as a depleted bar leaves opponents vulnerable to killing blows. However, do take note that tougher enemies like Samurai Generals might require more than one killing blow to defeat.

To put this into perspective, I found myself pitted against an ogre mini-boss within five minutes of leaving the Old Sculptor’s home. The number of killing blows required for a boss mob is shown by the number of red dots around their health bar. This ogre had two, which, to be honest, is probably among the easier mini-bosses in Sekiro.

Being a novice, I made the mistake of letting my guard down after dealing one killing blow, which is something you should never do in Sekiro. The next thing I knew, he picked me up like a rag doll and proceeded to throw me off the side of the mountain. What a way to go.

I’d like to remind players that Sekiro‘s resurrection mechanic, i.e. your insurance policy, doesn’t help there.

Resurrecting shadows

I guess this is one of the ways FromSoftware admits they’ve made a ridiculously difficult game and are trying to apply a Band-Aid. When you die, you’re always presented with the option to resurrect at your current location with a 50% health penalty. Any enemies you’ve damaged prior to dying will remain hurt, so you don’t have to start all over again.

One thing to note is that when the resurrection marker appears on screen, enemies will automatically revert to their unprovoked state, so it might be wise to wait a bit before resurrecting.

Seems like this guy might need more than one life to take down. (FromSoftware/SIE)

That being said, it’s not something that can be readily abused. Although you can resurrect once for free per Sculptor’s Idol (Sekiro‘s version of a bonfire), dying a second time results in an actual death.Not only do you lose experience points, consumables used in the previous run will not be refunded as well.

Essentially, treat this mechanic like a safety net, but don’t squander it carelessly. Dying repeatedly results in minor debuffs which, unlike Pokémon, you don’t want to collect at all. They’re like a sort of “bad karma”, but while their effects are not game-changing, it’s pretty unnerving.

Of monks and headless monsters

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get past the ogre, so we moved on to the next gameplay segment. Admittedly, this phase lasted only half an hour, but I got to play around with a lot more features. Loading up a more advanced save file, we spawned near a temple surrounded by forests and mountains. It seemed rather tranquil, until a mob of staff-wielding, fireball-tossing monks started attacking me.

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Ouch. That’s gonna leave a mark. (FromSoftware/SIE)

Apart from having more health, I got to try out weighted shuriken, flamethrowers, and even battle axes, which are available options via your prosthetic arm. I found the battle axe particularly useful here, since some of the enemies spawn with wooden shields. There’s nothing quite like seeing the look of fright on their faces after smashing their shield into smithereens. But after that fiery “Cirque Du Soleil” got too intense for comfort, I escaped via a mountain route and went exploring. This brings us to another integral part of a successful Sekiro run: improvisation.

Improvise, adapt, overcome

Improvisation is what makes or breaks a Sekiro playthrough. This temple stage is where the game lets you explore this aspect, since there are multiple ways of reaching the end of each level. Most of these routes or strategies often require thinking outside the box, making the overall Sekiro experience much more dynamic than most action-RPGs.

If you can’t go to something, make it come to you! (FromSoftware/SIE) 

Apart from the occasional dwarf-esque mob trying to poke you with knives, grappling from cliff-to-cliff felt peaceful and oddly therapeutic. Really, it’s during these ventures that I started to appreciate the detail paid to Sekiro‘s environment. Snow-capped mountain ranges, temples concealed in the forests, and even caves hidden behind trapdoors. It’s nothing short of impressive.

To add on, I even came across a secret boss by accident. Think Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, except he’s about ten feet tall and has no head. That last part made things a little complicated; after all, you can’t lop off his head if he doesn’t have one.

Logically, I decided to get a bit of distance between us while I figured out what to do. While I said you should always stay on your toes in Sekiro, it seems like still haven’t learned my lesson. Japanese Gollum ended up teleporting behind me to chop me up to bits!

Sekiro’s golden rule: Failure is the mother of success

If I’ve learned anything from the preview, that would be it. Failures pave the way to success.

But for all it’s scare-inducing bosses and general unfriendliness to beginners, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is undoubtedly gorgeous. FromSoftware has done a great job of balancing that authentic Japanese touch with the heart-pumping intensity of an action-RPG. Topping that off is a fluid, brutal, and yet immensely satisfying combat system. However, it does require extensive practice and a little ingenuity to master, making the experience all the more dynamic and interesting.

Praying for a miracle usually doesn’t work. (FromSoftware/SIE)

All things considered, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice deserves a closer look. Even if you aren’t familiar with Soulsborne-style games, it’s pretty fun to put on your try-hard cap every once in awhile.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice releases globally on 22 March 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

Oh, one last thing: Hardcore enthusiasts might want to consider the Collector’s Edition, which includes a 7-inch tall Shinobi statue, SteelBook case, a map, the digital soundtrack, replica coins, and a physical artbook. Check out the official Sekiro site for more information!

We also got to try out SIE Bend Studios’ Days Gone — read about it soon here!

Disclosure: Flight and accommodation provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Kenneth Ang

Kenneth is your dedicated jack of all trades gamer and borderline anime nut. When not writing, he likes to wind down with Overwatch, Apex Legends and a bit of Fate: Grand Order on the side.