Release Date : 22 March 2019
Developer(s) : FromSoftware
Publisher(s) : Activision
Platforms : PS4, Xbox One, PC
This March 22nd, Sekiro: Shadow Die Twice will be available in all your favorite stores, on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. We were able to play it on PS4 PRO for several dozen hours, and after 172,000 deaths (to be multiplied by two, i.e. 344,000 in total), the time has finally come to give you our opinion: it slays.
It took a long time waiting between Dark Souls III and Sekiro. Almost three years during which the “soulist” had almost nothing to eat – except for a remaster of the first episode, the excellent Nioh, or other titles of uneven quality such as Ashen or The Surge. And if Déraciné was able to seduce us, it was only a small appetizer while waiting for this highly anticipated March 22nd. Anyway, this is it, FromSoftware is back, for real, with a game that will slap you in the face. Or rather two slaps, a sort of two-way hit.
THE DOUBLE SEKIRO EFFECT
The plot of Sekiro takes place in the kingdom of Ashina, in the medieval Japan of a Sengoku era on the verge of an apocalypse. We play The Wolf, a Shinobi who has been raised and trained by The Owl, and whose role is to protect his young master, The Chosen One, against all the threats that weigh on him, because of his secret powers that interest some very bad people… The Wolf is in a bad situation, in the sewers, with no memory, and his young master captured by his enemies.
If we will touch his rescue in the prologue, losing an arm in the process, during a magnificent fight, it will be a failure, which will see our Shinobi undergo a new dishonorable challenge. But as luck would have it – or not – an old sculptor of Buddha statues finds The Wolf, heals him, and installs a mysterious prosthesis/Swiss knife which will become a real asset for the future. So we launch ourselves, a bit blindly, in search of our master, who could well be at the top of Ashina’s castle, that we see over there, in the distance…
Although the scenario does not shine by its originality, the gallery of characters presented in it remains very charismatic, as well as the settings, simply magnificent in their Japanese universe, made of old pagodas or Buddhist temples built on top of high mountains. Places that you can observe from afar, to get a glimpse of the place where you have to go next. Similar to Bloodborne or Dark Souls III. The game is much less stingy in words and descriptions, and more talkative than the two previous games. There are even a few ghosts here and there, which offer to relive old scenes from the past, just like we saw recently in Déraciné.
The result is much less cryptic, and more accessible than Dark Souls, even if you’ll still have to poke around to expand your knowledge of the lore, which has the luxury of taking place in several different timelines. Clearly, with its very high-quality art direction, maybe even a step above Nioh’s, Sekiro has everything to seduce the Tenchu fans who would pass by the latest FromSoftware game on the shelves of their favorite cultural store, or even at the local supermarket. The only difference is that the music is a little behind, with Japanese compositions that are quite relaxing, but a little repetitive, especially in the fights.
SEKIRO, SEKIRO, I NEVER REALLY KNOW THAT SHE COULD DANCE LIKE THIS
Sekiro is not only a universe, it is also a gameplay that will be a variation of what has already been offered in the Dark Souls series. With its legendary difficulty at the center, and the least we can say is that here it will not be abused! It is not our first death, after 10 seconds of play, due to a fatal fall into a pit cave, that will make us say the opposite.
We will obviously find some mechanics similar to the previous FromSoftware games, especially the principle of prayer idols, which work like campfires. They allow you to rest – while resetting the zone, except for the bosses that have already been defeated, phew – to pass levels and to travel quickly. There is also a limited-use gourd, which works like the estus flask. Posture variations in combat are also very similar, but to tell you the truth, that’s about it. The rest will significantly deviate from the Souls formula.
Already, here you can pause the game, as it has no multiplayer features, whether cooperative, competitive, or asynchronous. And if the rest of the mechanics are still just as complex, we’re a little less lost, since the game will automatically offer a whole bunch of tutorials that will pop up in the middle of the screen at the right moment, at least at the beginning of the game.
In addition, death will be less hardcore, since you will only be punished by the loss of half your money and a bit of your experience. It is impossible to recover what is lost, but failure is less punishing. On the other hand, during our defeats, the NPCs from the universe will catch a disease, which limits the possible appearance of “divine help”, which then works like the sacrificial ring of Dark Souls, allowing you to lose nothing at all!
This mechanic can be quite interesting because all this experience and money will be used to buy new and useful combat skills, whether active or passive, as well as improvements for his deadly shinobi prosthesis, by combining it with raw materials collected here and there. Not all skill trees are available at the beginning, and you’ll have to poke around to find them, at the risk of missing some. And of course, you can go farming in some areas to speed up the improvement process of your hero, which can be very useful if you get stuck in a difficulty. Meanwhile, when it comes to attack power, you’ll have to defeat the main bosses of the game…
SEKIRO, IT’S STRONGER THAN YOU
Regarding the fights, here again, the formula will be very different from what Souls usually offer. First of all, everything is much faster and more nervous. Also, the stamina bar has disappeared, and it has been replaced by another gauge, the stance gauge. The latter is used to define, for you and your enemies, a limit to the defense, which can be broken when this gauge is filled, which allows you to deal a fatal blow to your opponent. The regeneration of the mentioned gauge is done over time, and of course, if it will be enough to attack the first weak enemies without any break, very quickly you will have to vary your blows, use dodging, and parrying, which not only allows you to open your opponent’s guard a bit, but also to make his gauge soar towards the break.
The system is pretty complete, works very well and the confrontations are quite successful and engaging, especially since other mechanics make things even more complex. For example, your enemies can frequently use risky, devastating attacks, but they can be countered – not without difficulty – with the right move at the right time, the result of a long-term observation of the enemy patterns. Yes, the underlying idea here is that you’ll spend some time, really, before you understand how a boss’s attacks work, and which mechanics will be the most suitable to defeat him.
And there are plenty of possibilities in combat. With the sword, a real instrument of death and defense; but also with the mechanical prosthesis, which works a bit like the magic used in Souls games, except that this time it uses the enemies’ souls that were defeated in battle and can therefore be recharged during the exploration phases. The grappling hook will also bring a lot of variety to the gameplay, whether it is in the movement of an already very mobile hero, able to hang on to ledges, sprint, jump high and far, and bounce on walls for jumps worthy of Ryu Hayabusa in Ninja Gaiden, but also in the fights against the basic monsters and sub-bosses that mark out your progress, with a fast pace: Indeed, stealth is an essential element of Sekiro, which will allow you to make your life easier by isolating and killing your enemies one by one, after observing the area’s layout and the enemies’ movements for a while, rather than trying to fight them all at once, which is impossible in many cases.
As for the sub-bosses, it is almost always possible to take them by surprise and break one of their two life bars in one shot. You’ll have to be careful, because since the Gamescom demo, the AI has improved a lot, and it’s very persistent, not giving up immediately, even if you can always reproach it for some casual behavior. Moreover, the possibility to die once and then resurrecting is rather sloppy and not very strategic: you don’t have enough time to really deceive your enemies, and you can’t count on being able to surprise the same boss twice… In fact, it is mostly used as a second chance, when you didn’t have time to drink a potion before receiving the final blow… However, clearly, in the fights, the formula differs a lot from the Souls games, but remains ultra-enjoyable, especially against the most powerful enemies.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
Yes, it is indeed against the bosses that we will take the most pleasure – or frustration – while playing. The enemies are quite basic at first, with an army of more or less powerful samurai, but the game becomes more diversified later on, with monsters coming from the folklore of the time, animals, but also humanoid bugs living in the swamps. The area leaders are more charismatic, memorable, and dangerous! Most of them should give you a hard time in the quest for the right solution that leads to victory, with each time several tries before finding the right strategy, and then a few more to implement it. Clearly, time is spent, and this might frustrate some.
And be careful to remember everything, because it is very likely that you will cross paths with one of your former opponents later on in the game! Your long quest can lead you to one of the four different endings, provided you are a master of the difficulty. In any case, we can already see from here the speedrunners and performers arriving with their Sekiro finished in 38 minutes without being touched. The challenge should be great, because the Ashina area where the game takes place is quite huge. The beginning of the game is pretty linear for the first ten hours or so – less if you are a god or playing with a hint, much more if you have square hands – with two rather large “corridors” to explore in a straight line, but then the scenery opens up with multiple twists and turns, still in corridor levels, but interconnected to each other in a pretty stylish way, a bit like in a classic Souls game.
But overall, you have two or three different paths to explore at the same time, and you really feel a bit more linearity than other FromSoftware games. Recognition is still quite enjoyable, with many secrets scattered here and there, and we really appreciate the presence of the grappling hook, which makes things more fluid. You get caught up in the game and you manage to see some possible paths from afar, or even secrets like this little ledge to catch 30 meters below the cliff you are on. Clearly, the exploration is one of the strong points of Sekiro, even if it remains a little behind and more linear compared to Souls.
But be careful, you have to keep your eyes open, and the right one, because it is very easy to miss a new arm prosthesis, a technique or a key object… Clearly, whether it is about gameplay, exploration, or artistic direction, Sekiro is a real success, we are more than seduced. Let’s talk about the technical aspects of the game, with a more than honorable result on PS4 Pro. Some small details are nice, like the destruction of objects on the ground, especially the flying books, some lighting effects or flower fields worthy of Ghost of Tsushima, but the game is not ultra fluid (if we observe some high peaks, it makes the whole thing not very smooth).
Framerate drops exist, but they are fairly rare. On the other hand, we can complain a little about the camera, which can be somewhat unstable in the room angles, whether in combat or on the move. Also, out of the sublime cinematics, the 3D models are not the most successful of the moment, but clearly, thanks to its magnificent artistic direction, Sekiro still manages to give us a real graphical slap, followed closely by its gameplay. We were waiting for it, and it satisfied us in almost all areas. An essential of the genre, clearly.
Anticipated by thousands of fans, Sekiro offers a formula similar to Dark Souls in appearance, with some common mechanics, but it manages to distance itself enough from it to have its own identity, whereas Bloodborne could be considered a game of the Souls saga. Indeed, the fights are extremely nervous and fast and made without a stamina bar. A stance gauge takes its place, and one of the main issues of the confrontations will be to break your opponents’ gauge, by forcing them to block our attacks, but also by parrying and dodging them. Other mechanics are added to the game, and Sekiro offers a beat ’em-all gameplay, very demanding and extremely challenging, especially against the bosses, who should give you a lot of trouble.
Another dimension also appears: stealth, which invites us to observe our opponents’ movements, then isolate them in order to avoid facing a large group of enemies, even if they are not very powerful, who can also be deadly. The AI is not insane, but it is enough to make the formula work. The progression in the universe is really pleasant, with medium-sized areas to explore, which follow each other in a somewhat linear way, at least at the beginning. Indeed, soon enough, we’ll discover that the different parts of the map overlap in a rather convincing way, even if we’re still a step below Dark Souls or Bloodborne.
Exploration remains essential, always looking for that little item that will tip the balance in our favor, with a new skill or weapon, and with the possibilities of moving our hero, who flies from rooftops with his grappling hook, going on an adventure is a real joy. In addition to this, the art direction is amazing, with breathtaking scenery and landscapes, and the story is much more accessible than in any other FromSoftware production – but don’t dream, you’ll have to dig a little – and this is enough to counterbalance a technique that won’t make Sekiro a technological showcase. Clearly, with its action gameplay and its difficulty, its very engaging exploration aspect, and its levels with a rather insane atmosphere, Sekiro does not disappoint our expectations and takes a ticket to enter directly into our hearts. We highly recommend you to check it out.