Image courtesy of FromSoftware
After “Dark Souls III” was announced to be the definitive end to the "Souls" series, many wondered what developer FromSoftware would come up with next. After all, with the "Souls" series they stepped on a commercial landmine, bursting in popularity over such a sustained period of time more so than perhaps any other gaming series in history. But the company decided that all good things must come to an end, and they decided that their “Dark Souls” series, as good as it was, could not go on forever. And so we wondered, what would they come up with next? Well it seems FromSoftware had the same question because “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is basically just more “Dark Souls.” Being a spiritual successor to the souls series, “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” will look more than a bit familiar to those at all familiar with previous "Souls" games, albeit not exactly the same. But with bonfires now being sculptor’s idols, stamina is now posture, and depressing fantasy Europe is now depressing fantasy Japan. The similarities between the two games are numerous, so I won't go terribly into detail on them and will be instead focusing more on “Sekiro” on its own terms.
In “Sekiro” you play as Sekiro, who starts the game getting his left arm cut off by big baddie Genichiro while on a mission to rescue the divine heir, Lord Kuro of the land of Ashina, the location of the game. Sekiro is left to die, but ends up surviving after being rescued by a man named The Sculptor who replaces Sekiro’s missing left arm with a prosthetic. Now a shinobi on a quest for vengeance, Sekiro must rescue the divine heir from those who would seek to use his power of resurrection for their own ends. The game takes place in the land of Ashina in Sengoku Era Japan, a century-long warring states period of Japanese history known for its social and political upheaval as various warlords battled each other for power and land. Overall, the story remains relatively shrouded and serves much more as a backdrop to the action and gameplay rather than the focus, but a deeper well of lore waits for those who wish to dig deeper. Unsurprising, considering this was the exact approach taken by the previous "Souls" games, although the story seems considerably shallower now. Much of that is due to the reliance on more real world history, despite being very much so a fantasy setting the game takes place during a real era of Japanese history and the time periods inspirations on the world of “Sekiro” shine even through the heavy fog that covers most of the map. "Souls" games of old were much more stooped in building their world, dark and foreboding, around clearly defined chronological events that led to the culmination of the world you found yourself in in each of the games, while “Sekiro” is more of a brief synopsis on just kind of what's going on in the little world of Ashina. What remains constant between the two, however, is just how depressing and hopeless each world remains. “Sekiro” takes heavy inspiration from the souls series in that regard, its world grim and hopeless, but deep and dripping with atmosphere.
The atmosphere has always been one of if not the strongest attribute of the "Souls" series, and with “Sekiro” FromSoftware has displayed their mastery of the craft once again. The grand cathedrals built for beings bigger than you have become the various mountaintop monasteries of Ashina, with varieties of classical Japanese architecture, various colorful flora, a peculiar thick fog that seems to cover most of the map, and splitting canyons that dot the landscape. Obviously with the change of setting “Sekiro” is much more focused on a Japanese aesthetic than the European setting of the "Souls" series, but the effect and immersion of the atmosphere present in “Sekiro” remains just as strong and continues to lend greatly to the feeling of the game as a whole. In addition, you can use your sweet new robot arm to grapple your way around the map like fantasy Japan Batman, opening up the world a lot more and allowing for additional exploration and interaction with your surroundings.
The combat has seen perhaps the greatest overhaul since the "Souls" series, being much more focused on parrying than blocking or rolling. Much of the combat centers around the stat known as posture. Posture most closely resembles stamina of the "Souls" series, being how close your character is to being knocked off balance and stunned. Both your character and the enemies have a posture gauge, which determines how close you are to being stunned. For Sekiro, being stunned means that enemies just get to wail on you for a bit, but for them being stunned allows you to get a “deathblow” which is an insta-kill. Deathblows can be attained by either filling up an enemies posture gauge, by sneak attacking them, or by draining their vitality (basically health) to zero. Posture is drained by blocking, rolling, or getting hit by head on attacks, thus increasing the posture gauge. Deflecting an enemy attack, meanwhile, will increase the enemy posture gauge. Once an enemies posture gauge is full, a deathblow can be performed and they will be instantly killed. Bosses and mini bosses will require multiple deathblows, however. Dealing enough damage to get their vitality to zero will also allow you to execute a deathblow. Aside from its emphasis on parrying, “Sekiro” also has a much greater emphasis on stealth. Aside from draining vitality or posture, a deathblow can also be performed by sneaking up on an enemy. Your new grappling hook allows you to zoom around the map and get to high up locations perfect for sneaking and performing these stealth deathblows.
Although not as good as the "Souls" series entries (with the debatable exception of “Demon’s Souls”), “Sekiro” still offers a different edge that remains interesting and enjoyable in its own right. Fans of the "Souls" series will appreciate a twist on the previous games’ mechanics as well as the return of their meaty difficulty and tough-but-fair gameplay, while newer players will enjoy a solid game carried by a well crafted core combat system.
Final Score: 7/10, while the "Souls" games are better, “Sekiro” works more than well enough in its own right and provides well crafted environments supported by good core mechanics and combat system. Weaving all this together is deep atmosphere and a functional while not exceptional story.