Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the new game by From Software, the studio behind the infamous Dark Souls series, games noted for their difficulty. The first question I expect people to ask is how does Sekiro compare to Dark Souls/Bloodborne? And the answer is that it doesn't feel like a Soulsborne game, but it does feel like a From Software game. Allow me to explain. Sekiro has Dark Souls DNA strands in it, for sure. It's brutally difficult, there are checkpoints where you can rest that reset most enemies, this time it's idols instead of bonfires, and you carry a healing potion that resets too, but now it's a gourd instead of a flask. But that's where the similarities end and Sekiro becomes its own thing. For starters, it's an action game, not an action-RPG. You can gain skills, but you don't really level up stats in the traditional sense. Instead, when you kill an enemy you gain experience you can use to buy different skills, but stats are different. You only have two stats, vitality and attack power. Vitality is raised by gaining prayer beads (usually collected from mini-bosses) and attack power is raised by killing bosses and getting their memories.
Furthermore, when you die you don't lose all XP and have to try and get it back as per the usual souls formula. Instead, when you die you lose half your XP and half your money (yes, XP and money are separate now) and there's no way to get it back. Your only hope is that Unseen Aid (an ability that randomly saves your XP and money) kicks in. There is a resurrection mechanic, but instead you choose whether or not to resurrect from the same spot where you died. You can only do this a limited number of times. Moreover, if you die too often, a curse known as dragonrot spreads, infecting NPCs and leaving them unable to have their side-quests completed, as well as lowering your chances for Unseen Aid. Dragonrot can be cured, but the item that does so is extremely limited, so you have to choose carefully when to use it. How you like dem souls?
Sekiro is brutally difficult, even by Dark Souls standards. I actually reached a point where I wasn't sure if I would be able to finish the game, and I honestly considered conceding defeat and finally starting Red Dead Redemption 2. Please keep in mind, I've platinumed Nioh, that's how hard this is! However, I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did, because I finally reached the point where the combat clicked for me, at which point the game's difficulty lessened significantly as I played. Still it's taken me about two weeks to get there.
Dark Souls and Bloodborne allow the player to choose how they want to play the game. In Dark Souls for example, you can tank if you want too, or you can wear light armor and dodge, which is what I always do. Bloodborne puts a bit more of an emphasis in having you parry enemy attacks with firearms, but you can still build your character in different ways or primarily rely on dodges. Sekiro does not give you that choice, you have to parry. Dark Souls and Bloodborne are about whittling your opponent's health down. Sekiro is about breaking through their defensive posture and getting a one-hit-kill. Breaking through means building up their meter through a combination of attacks and parries. When the meter fills, a red dot pops up on the enemy, at which point you press the attack button and kill your opponent. For bosses, these meters are huge, and you have to break through it two or three times, which can get very frustrating. Some bosses end up coming down to patience and attrition, which means you can spend hours (or even days) on a single boss.
All of this probably doesn't sound all that fun, and for many it won't be, but if you're one of the people that Sekiro clicks for, you'll find the combat frantic and rewarding. The pace of the fights is closer to Nioh then to Dark Souls or Bloodborne, which kind of makes sense since both are Samurai games. I know someone out there is yelling at their screen right now that Sekiro is a "Ninja" game, not a Samurai game. And to an extent they're right, but it's still basically a Samurai game. Think of it this way, it's like the Zatoichi film series. Technically they aren't Samurai movies, but they really are.
The two other features that set Sekiro apart are stealth and verticality. Since you're playing as a Ninja, stealth is a major part of this game, and a smart player can take out several enemies in an area before facing a boss or mini-boss. The stealth is so well done that even I had no problem with it, and I am hilariously awful at stealth games. Combined with the verticality, it makes for some very satisfying stealth kills. Now I say verticality because Sekiro has a lot of climbing and jumping. In fact, the first half of the game consists of the player character, the Ninja Sekiro, climbing his way up a castle in the mountains to reach the top, making liberal use of the grappling hook to scale walls, towers and the mountain itself, all while fighting Ninja, Samurai, and a host of other pissed off monstrosities out of Japanese folklore.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game that isn't for everyone. Personally? I love it. Despite the frustrations, I've been having an absolute blast with it, and the only game I've played with melee combat this satisfying is Nioh. However, I have to recommend it with an asterisk attached. If you're a Dark Souls fan, I suspect you'll probably like it, but even then, I can't guarantee it, because Sekiro is very much its own game. For me personally, I think this might be From Software's best game, it's certainly their hardest. That said? I sincerely hope their next game is not even more difficult than this, because if it is, I probably won't be able to play it. This one pushed my gaming skills to the limits. I suspect if you're reading this, you already know whether or not Sekiro is a game you'll want to play. If not, I'm not going to mock you as "not a real gamer" or tell you to "git gud." I actually find that mindset to be really, really obnoxious. Not every game is going to be for everyone, not even one as good as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Two severed thumbs up, but one of those thumbs has fallen over and is frozen in the snow.