It’s been a rather lengthy wait for Sekiro.
After Dark Souls 3, many expected the next game to come from From Software would be Bloodborne 2. When Sekiro was announced instead, most of us fans didn’t know what to expect.
Sure, in retrospect, From has a lot of titles under their belt. It was pretty stupid to assume they’d fall into a rotation, without changing up their releases.
While Bloodborne and the Souls games may be the ones that carved their names into the gaming consciousness, they’ve released a ton of different games that went largely ignored; Armored Core, Eternal Ring and King’s Field for example.
While I (and a few other people I know) love the Eternal Ring and King’s Field games, not a lot of others do because of their punishing difficulty and unforgiving gameplay.
It’s weird then that their spiritual successors (the Souls games) are pretty much beloved for that very reason. I’m still scratching my head over that to this day.
Most expected Sekiro to fall into that hardcore genre.
It does…but also doesn’t.
What is Sekiro?
Sekiro is a third person action game from Dark Souls and Bloodborne developers From Software. It’s out on a variety of systems; PS4, Xbox One and PC. We’re reviewing the PS4 version, courtesy of a review code from Sony.
While Sekiro is set during the Sengoku era, it doesn’t really refer to the events of the period much. That means you don’t go up against famous foes like Nobunaga, or even take part in important battles of the age. It’s just pretty much an excuse to set the game in feudal Japan.
Wolf (that’s who you play as) might look like a swordsman, but weirdly enough, he’s actually a shinobi (ninja).
Sekiro’s a faster, leaner hybrid of Tenchu, Bloodborne and Dark Souls. It takes the punishing difficulty of the Souls games, mashes it with the offensive slanted gameplay of Bloodborne and mixes in stealth and sneaking straight out of the old school Tenchu ninja games.
Sekiro eschews the plodding gameplay you get from Bloodborne and Dark Souls games and instead chooses to adopt a more faster paced system. It’s a bit like Ni-oh’s in some aspects since you’re fighting the same familiar enemy archetypes.
Most of the Souls/ Bloodborne gameplay stalwarts return.
You recover by resting at shrines, which respawns enemies. Defeated baddies drop Sen (money) and items you can use. Even quick items are assigned and used similarly, with a number of them having the same effects as similar items in the Souls games.
Dying is also something you’ll be doing regularly since Sekiro is as tough (if not tougher) as any of the Souls/Bloodborne games. However, there are some aspects that make the game a tad more flexible.
It’s a familiar gameplay style to be sure, but Sekiro also does a lot of different things to set it apart from past From games.
A whole new world.
For one, there’s no stamina to watch out for so you can pretty much be on the offensive the whole time, which is pretty much how Sekiro should be played. Hesitation or being defensive rarely wins battles as easily as relentlessly attacking (and countering) everything and everyone in your path.
Movement is similarly different, with the Shinobi Prosthetic (more on that later) and the ability to double jump off walls, hang of ledges and pressing yourself up against walls.
There’s also a counter mechanic that depends on Posture now. While you can do finishers and counters in past games, this time around, you’ll need to take into account Posture as well, which determines whether you’re stunned or not.
Each deflect or counter hit fills up the enemy’s Posture bar. When full, they’re stunned for a moment, and you can do a deathblow. These kill normal enemies in ONE spectacular hit, but it also takes away a boss (or named enemy’s) health stock when done of them.
These named enemies take a ton of hits to bring down (as befitting their mid-boss or boss status) but it’s EXTREMELY satisfying to fill up the Posture gauge and hit them with a devastatingly visceral blow, even if it doesn’t kill them that time.
Plus, you’re going to want to take them down anyways, as named enemies always carry with them unique loot that gives you access to new skills or increase your abilities.
Enemies are fiendishly more aggressive in Sekiro than in past From games. They’ll chase you for quite a ways if you decide to retreat and will remain on guard for a while even if they’ve lost you.
When fighting, they won’t hesitate at all to gang up on you, using their superior numbers to punish you. It’s genuinely fun, making every single encounter possibly your last, even with you finishing off basic grunts left and right.
In fact, that’s one of the best things about the game; the animation for the deathblows are incredibly cool to look at.
The fatal blows in Bloodborne and the Dark Souls games are amateurish in comparison to finishers in Sekiro.
Death also isn’t as punishing as it no longer means a complete restart.
If you have a charge of restorative power left, you can use it to resurrect with half health to fight where you died. You get one charge refilled every time you rest, but you can also get extra charges by killing enemies.
If you die though, you lose money and XP (which can never be recovered), which are used to buy stuff and learn skills. There aren’t any stats (other than Vitality and Attack) so you can’t measure your progress as easily as in Dark Souls or Bloodborne.
It’s one of the downsides to the game to be honest.
The Souls and Bloodborne, while incredibly hard, were also incredibly flexible. They allowed you to play how you want. Sekiro forces you to play as it wants you to. You can’t opt to stay back and lob spells as a pyromancer, or carry a tower shield to prevent being staggered. It’s counter and Shinobi Prosthetic or bust.
You’d think that with counters being so crucial to success in Sekiro, it’d be a straight up action game. That’s where you’re wrong.
The game actually allows you to be sneaky and stealthy if you don’t want to rush in. I even prefer to play the game that way, since you kill enemies much faster with a stealth takedown. Being sneaky also means fighting on your terms, instead of being to fight whenever you encounter enemies.
Complementing the stealth mechanic is the Shinobi Prosthetic.
It’s basically the grappling arm from Bionic Commando, only now it’s in ancient Japan. You can imbue the prosthetic with Prosthetic Tools, which gives you special skills depending on what’s equipped.
The prosthetic also allows you to grapple to access grapple points that are littered throughout the maps. These allow you to bypass certain routes, traversing on the rooftops and high ground instead of hacking and slashing on the group.
Vertical gameplay is much more important this time around, as it’s the only way to access alternate routes or bypass large groups of enemies. It’s just a shame the grappling arm can only be used at specific points, as I think it’d be MUCH better if it can be used anywhere, anytime sort of like the grapple gun from Batman: Arkham Knight.
In basing the game in Sengoku era Japan, Sekiro loses part of the visual appeal from Dark Souls and Bloodborne. The gothic, dark fantasy setting prevalent in both has been replaced by ancient Japan.
I particularly miss the gothic architecture of Yharnam. At times, I find myself lamenting that the game looks too much like a Ni-Oh sequel instead, since both games are set in the same setting.
The game does look pretty good visually, especially during the cutscenes. During gameplay, there are some technical issues, like object pop-in (particularly foliage) and an inconsistent frame rate, even on a PS4 Pro.
The frame rate inconsistency can be a drag at times as it directly affects your reaction time. You’d swear you countered on time, but due to the slight slowdown, you’re off by milliseconds. Since a single hit can mean the difference between life and death in Sekiro, that’s certainly an issue.
For the voices, Sekiro has dual audio; Japanese and English. While I normally prefer the Japanese voices when possible, the English ones are just as good this time around, on par with those in other From games. They’re not going to be winning voice over of the year performances, but they’re functional and good enough to not be cringe worthy.
The end of it all.
At the end of the day, Sekiro’s minor issues can be easily overlooked due to the incredible quality of the game. It’s certainly an evolution of From’s Souls and Bloodborne games, but it’s also a completely fresh take on the formula, just like how Bloodborne was from Dark Souls when it was released.
It might not be Dark Souls 4 or Bloodborne 2, but Sekiro doesn’t need to be. It is its own beast and certainly deserves to have a niche of all its own (which hopefully it’ll get), instead of being pegged to the coattails of its spiritual brothers.
Sekiro is a MUST buy if you’re an action fan. Its tight combat, coupled with the unforgiving gameplay and heavy offensive focus makes it an experience few others can match. There are some issues but none of them are major enough to be game changers.
– Great combat
– Open stages encourage exploration
– Awesome deathblow animations
– Feels needlessly hard at times.
– Too much focus on the deathblows.
– There are object pop-ins, particularly in foliage heavy areas.