Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – Initial Impression

I got Sekiro a few days ago.  Unfortunately, due to my work schedule and some personal illness I haven’t been able to spend more than a few hours with the game, but I’ve made it as far as the chained ogre in Ashina Outskirts and the shinobi hunter in Hirata Estate.   I have yet to engage in battle with the ogre, but I’ve killed the shinobi hunter and made a bit of progress past him.  I’m incredibly excited about what I’ve seen so far, and I can’t wait until I complete the game to write SOMETHING about it.

This shit is really good.  For starters, if you’re wondering about the style or nature of the game, it’s this: From Soft made a sequel to Tenchu for people who really liked the Royal Guard style in DMC3.  It is very much NOT a Souls game.

Stealth is very important, as is verticality. These things surprised me coming off the Souls games, in a good way.  Veterans of that series will need to unlearn some habits.  When you see a group of enemies, your best course of action is almost never to charge in swinging.  Rather, you want to hang back and observe the group’s configuration and viewing angles, their patrolling habits, the surrounding terrain.  You want to try and get above them if possible, or find tall grass otherwise, and look for a chance to get kills from hiding to thin their numbers before engaging.  The pace of the game during this phase is slow and deliberate, almost contemplative.  It also helps to look around for eavesdropping opportunities, which show up as a yellow icon from farther away, and often give you insight into items or tools you’ll need, upcoming enemy strategy and placement, or incidental bits of lore.  There are also usually ways to get over or around enemy groups, so engagement isn’t always inevitable.  This is especially true in the more open areas.

Once combat breaks out for real, it’s incredibly fast and intense.   It’ll take a little time to come to grips with everything; for me, it took about 2-3 hours to not feel like a flailing idiot.  Once it clicks, you feel incredibly badass, zipping around the battlefield as a little whirling ball of death.  You’re incredibly flimsy, but have access to instant kill deathblows once you can break an enemy’s posture.  Posture is expressed as a meter that fills up as you attack enemies, even if they block.  You can also deal posture damage by deflecting enemy attacks, using moves like the Mikiri counter (where you step on the blade of a weapon being thrusted at you), jumping off of the enemy’s head, and other things.  Most enemies take only one deathblow to kill, but minibosses start appearing early on that require two, and I’m assuming it escalates from there.

There is no stamina mechanic, only a blur of nonstop action.  You can sprint endlessly around, and grapple off of many different points in the environment with your arm’s grappling hook thing, so navigating the world is fast and fluid.  Those environments have a similar feel to a Souls game, with interconnecting paths and shortcuts, items scattered around in corners for you to find, and all that good stuff.  But they’re much more condensed and tightly constructed.  Gone are the sloggy, sprawling levels of Dark Souls 3, and in their place is something that feels a lot better to navigate while retaining that same feeling of grandiosity.

The thing to remember here is that you’re not a samurai.  Wolf (the protagonist, who is a set/non-customizable character) is a shinobi, a ninja.  He is incredibly skilled with a sword, but is more about agility and speed than brute strength.  He’s also not concerned with “honor” or a fair fight.  It’s about completing your mission, whatever it takes.  You’ve got access to various weapons built into your prosthetic left arm, giving you options or sometimes a hard counter to different enemy types.  For instance, one such tool is an axe that breaks shields, without which shield-bearing enemies are really really tough.  Another is a tube that shoots fire, which is the best/only way to get an opening against certain big scary monster enemies. Each of these tools cost spirit emblems per use, which are found as enemy drops or scattered in the world and you can only hold a limited number of them.

Basically, if you can sneak behind a miniboss and get a stealth attack in to shave off one of those required deathblows in open combat, do it.  Would you rather learn the attack patterns of some huge dangerous hammer beast?  Or just slit its throat and be done with it?  Your path is clear.

The environments are completely gorgeous.  The fact that this game is only 12 gigs makes me pretty mad at like, every other “AAA” developer who makes their shit like 60+ gigs just to have it look okay.  Here’s Sekiro over here like “hello I’m beautiful” with sparkling eyes and he’s only taking up TWELVE GIGS on my hard drive?  Jesus.  Amazing.  I’ve been extremely impressed so far with the way every scene is like a painting.  They took great care to make sure that there were striking images any way you had your camera pointed during dialog etc., and it’s really impressive.

As a Zen Buddhist, I also appreciate the massive explicit shoutouts to Buddhism the game is using for its themes and setting.  The sculptor carving thousands of Buddha statues to purge his mysterious bad karma, the fact that resisting death spreads rot through the world, there’s just a lot going on here.  I’m not too far into the story yet, so I’m looking forward to seeing where they go with all the stuff they’re setting up, but I feel right at home in a heavily-Buddhified nightmare version of Sengoku-era Japan, apparently.

Here’s a quick tip that helped me immensely and it’s something the game doesn’t really do a good job of telling you: Against the shinobi hunter, to make the Mikiri counter work, you have to dodge FORWARD into his spear.  Don’t stand still or you’ll eat the attack every time.

What else, let’s see… there’s skills you buy from tomes that you unlock as you make progress.  Skill points accrue as you kill enemies, and once the meter is full, you get a point to spend on something from a skill book.  These are basically like gradually-unlocking skill trees.  Skills in them vary in cost; already in the two books I have so far, I’ve seen one that costs 5 points.  Some skills are passives, others are active attacking skills that have to be equipped, and there’s some (like the Mikiri counter) that once unlocked you can just do whenever without equipping them.  Dying takes away half of the points you’ve accrued toward the next skill point, as well as half your money.  There’s no way to get these back, they’re just gone.  There’s a chance to receive “Divine Aid” when you die, though, that prevents this loss.  Your base chance to have this happen starts at 30%, but it goes down quickly.

Mitigating this is the ability to resurrect yourself upon death.  You can do this once or twice per full death, but there’s a hard cooldown on using it repeatedly, so you can’t just spam it; if you die again right away after resurrecting, that’s just tough.  Resurrection charges recharge gradually as you kill enemies.  Also, as you use it more and more, you’ll gradually make the NPCs in the world sick, which decreases your chance to receive Divine Aid.  It’s a nicely-balanced and thematically-interesting mechanic.

Anyway, like I said I’m only a few hours into the game so far.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how things develop as I continue to make progress, and once I’ve completed the game I’ll post my final thoughts.  Definitely a strong recommend on this one so far.

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