There’s no doubt that when it comes to games set in ancient Japan, in 2019 everything will boil down to just two titles: Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. And yet, although both games belong to the highest echelons of video game production, with stupendous visual splendor and excellent narrative quality, except for the mild thematic similarity (i.e. the fact that they both deal with samurai/ninja protagonist), there’s more that sets them apart than they have in common. The upcoming Ghost of Tsushima will take root in ultra-realistic and historically-driven approach, while Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes diametrically opposite stance, delving deep in the troubled subconsciousness of Japanese nation, where historical accuracy flees in terror before diabolical folklore and where the iconic landscape of medieval Japan becomes a bloody stage between nightmarish forces of darkness and lone, honor-bound shinobi searching for his lost master.
All the better, we say, because if there’s one thing that guys from FromSoftware (the creators of planetary famous franchises Souls and Bloodborne franchises) are good at is making story-driven, third-person action role-playing games with the focus on awesome action-packed combats with often totally bizarre enemies and uncompromisingly ruthless gameplay. And while it’s obvious that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes cue from both Dark Souls and Bloodborne, it also boasts its own unique identity and tries to make the gameplay just a tad simpler and more quick-paced, while still managing to be engaging and punishing (sometimes even utterly unforgivable) as its predecessors.
The game takes place in the land of Ashina, in the closing days of the Sengoku era. However, don’t be fooled by this apparent historicity. Although the game is set in actual historical context, the creators of Sekiro had certainly never attempted to slavishly adhere to the laws of historical accuracy, except, of course, for the fundamental fact that Japan was at the time torn by near-constant wars, conflicts, and strife. You’ll play the role of the titular Sekiro. As a young boy, Sekiro was saved from the battlefield and trained to become a master shinobi. At the beginning of the game, Sekiro was charged with protecting his new master – a boy known as Kuro, The Divine Heir, who is universally sought after because of his divine heritage. When the boy was kidnapped by Ashina klan, Sekiro sets out to rescue him. Unfortunately, his attempt was thwarted by none other than Genichiro Ashina, the grandson of the founder of Ashina clan. Genichiro Ashina had cut off Sekiro’s left hand, leaving him to die. However, Sekiro was saved by a man known as Sculptor of the Desolate Temple, a Buddhist monk who obviously know how to carve other things besides endless statues of Buddha, because he made a prosthetic arm for Sekiro which will increase his ninja abilities tenfold. Armed (no pun intended) with this new tool, Sekiro the one-armed wolf must try to find his master and regain his lost honor.
This artificial arm also makes the first important point of departure from Souls and Bloodborne games. Besides the fact that this “Shinobi Prosthetics” can be used as a slot for various weapons, it has one more all-important purpose – it’s equipped with the grappling hook which will give you the ability to access remote locations and hard-to-reach places. It can be used at the specific, predetermined points (don’t worry, there’s lots of them), giving Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice the much quicker tempo, at least when exploration aspect of the gameplay is concerned. And while the level design is fantastic, complex, wonderfully labyrinthine and aesthetically pleasing just like in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, the fact that your grappling hook allows you to speed things up, jump across precipices and tiled rooftops of Japanese pagodas, traversing the considerable distance in a flash, is a welcome change from sometimes exceedingly laborious exploration of Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. In any case, this elegant, fast-paced mode of transport is more than suited for stealthy, nimble, pussyfooted shinobi who’s master of the irregular warfare. This Grappling hook ability also increases your tactical scope in combat, allowing you to take the higher ground when needed, or sneak behind your enemies and deliver the decisive blow before they realize what has happened.
The combat aspect of the game is also something we’ve enjoyed immensely, although, just like it’s the case with other creations by FromSoftware, it’s not without its challenges and frustrations. One of the trickiest parts in any swordplay combat oriented game is, of course, how to translate the feeling of actual combat, making it challenging, fun and believable at the same time. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice does it by relying on the system of various types of movements, attacks, sweeps, charges, thrusts etc, and finding the right way how to properly dodge, deflect or counter them – which, of course, must be done precisely in the split-second if you want to break through the enemy’s defense and deliver that satisfying, gory deathblow. This turns combat in the exciting spectacle of movements, parries, flourishes and creates the illusion that combatants really know what they’re doing. Of course, the challenge becomes even greater during one of the many spectacularly designed boss fights. Even the humble Japanese mercenary can prove a nuisance, but what should simple road-weary shinobi do when he’s faced with supernatural creatures such as blazing bulls, mountain ogres or, Buddha forbids, devastating divine dragons? Of course, just like in any game of these type, even they have a hidden weak point, but the true artistry and skill lies in the ability of the perceptive player to find it and exploit it on time.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will offer you all this and much more. Of course, it goes without saying that fans of Dark Souls and Bloodborne should give it a try. However, all others will also be able to appreciate its engaging storyline set in one of the bloodiest epochs of Japanese history and liberally peppered with elements of mythology, folklore and dark fantasy, as well as excellent gameplay which just might leave you beaten up and battered if you’re not careful what you’re doing. On top of everything, the overall visual design of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice isn’t something that you’ll likely to forget soon. You’ll fully enjoy the opulent sceneries of medieval Japan, from disturbing war-ravaged landscapes to delicate sights of almost poetic beauty – only expect that Japan portrayed in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is overcome by nightmarish creatures from the backwaters of the Japanese mythology and where almost everything is touched by grotesque.