By Gieson Cacho
Digital First Media
At first, “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” doesn’t feel like a FromSoftware game. Controlling the nameless “one-armed wolf,” I nimbly move from cliffsides to rooftops using a shinobi prosthetic that lets the hero swing around like Spider-Man. The vistas have a clean Japanese look that’s the exact opposite of grit and decay of the “Dark Souls” series.
It was almost a completely different game until I met the samurai general. In our fight, he killed me, the screen darkened, and I got the Japanese kanji for “Death.” It’s essentially the words “You Died,” a statement that epitomizes the developers’ projects. Players see it all the time in “Dark Souls,” and in “Sekiro” players will see it often but with a few twists.
The most obvious one is movement. Whereas “Dark Souls” and “Bloodborne” feature protagonists who lumber forward and barely get off the ground, the one-armed wolf darts across the screen. He uses his prosthetic as a grappling hook to quickly scale walls. It feels more arcadelike, but don’t confuse this game with Tecmo’s “Ninja Gaiden.”
The combat has a distinct FromSoftware vibe flowing through it.
In “Sekiro,” it’s often better to go the stealthy route and defeat enemies in surprise attacks. This thins out the herd, so that players can focus on the tougher enemies, such as the samurai general. If players rush in, they’ll have to deal with snipers, bowmen and other fighters in addition to the big bad. That’s a recipe for death.
Part of the reason is that enemies can defend themselves. Although many don’t have shields, they can block blows with the blades of their spears or swords. When this happens, “Sekiro” evolves into a one-on-one chess match called the posture system. During these skirmishes, which are usually against minibosses, players have to break their opponent’s guard while also protecting their own.
Bars above and below represent the characters’ posture. It fills up and disappears depending on whether a character is hit or blocks a swing. When it fills up and flashes, that means a character is susceptible to a killing blow and the way to beat some enemies is to deal three or four of these hits. The way fights unfold, players will notice a tug-of-war in the fight as rivals struggle for advantage. It elicits a familiar tension in battles while also rewarding those with skill and patience. It reminds me of the fighting in “Dark Souls” but done in a different way.
The other big change to combat is that players can die, but they can also resurrect themselves. This opens up new strategies because when players die, they have a choice between reviving or restarting at a save point called a Sculptor’s Idol. When they die, the aggression that enemies once had goes away and they go back to their posts believing the one-armed wolf is dead. This gives players a chance to observe their movements or come up with a surprise attack to eliminate a foe.
Although players can revive themselves at any time, they can’t do it all the time. The talent does run out, so players have to use it judiciously.
The final element of combat is the prosthetic arm itself. Players can customize it so that it changes into three different forms. In my demo, the shinobi limb could change into an ax that smashes shields of enemies so that they can be easily killed. It can also be used to toss shuriken. Lastly, the arm could transform into a flamethrower. What’s even better is that the protagonist can swing his sword and catch fire on his blade to deal additional damage as flame sword.
Activision says other augmentations can be found in the game, and they should be used to complement a player’s playstyle. But keep in mind, only three arm augmentations are allowed at a time. In addition, items called white spirit emblems are needed to actually use the augmentations.
During the short demo, I got a nice feel of the combat. Despite being grounded in a real era, “Sekiro” does have elements of the fantastic around it. The shinobi prosthetic isn’t exactly historically accurate. In addition, players will encounter enormous beasts, such as giant snakes. Lastly, there are epic boss fights, such as the one against the Corrupted Monk who has otherworldly powers.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to beat him. I tried different tactics, like swinging around trees to avoid spear attacks. I used the candy power-up to boost my defense, and tried tossing ash in his eyes. I figured I’ll need more time to learn the mechanics of the game and master the art of parrying attacks in what’s likely going to be another challenging FromSoftware game.
“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is scheduled to be released March 22 on the PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.