By almost any metric, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a terrific game. FromSoft risked a big departure from the settings, systems, and nearly stealthless, nearly jumpless, stamina-defined gameplay that had made their name across the preceding decade. And the risk paid off! They turned out an exceptional game that really doesn’t slack in any of the conventional categories by which games are judged: it plays well; it looks good; it sounds good; it tells an engaging story. It’s fun! So . . . if that’s all that needs to be said about From’s action-stealth hybrid, then why don’t I love it? I do like it a great deal. But why do I have this nagging feeling that Sekiro, despite its incredibly high quality, will never be listed among my absolute favorite games?
For starters, you can rest assured that the answer to those questions has nothing to do with the game’s difficulty. If you’re here for the next chapter in the ongoing saga of people opining about challenging games, you’ve come to the wrong article. But if not that, then what? Well, perhaps a promising way to go about this is to do what I’ve done in the past when there is an arguable flaw or set of flaws that I think is worth discussing within an otherwise excellent game: draw a clear line between what I like about the game and what I don’t like, in the simple layout of a pro and con list.
Now, when this discussion gets to the cons—to what I consider to be the flaws of Sekiro—they will not be flaws that most people care about. Even calling them flaws will be contentious. But you have to remember that, not very long ago, there was a stretch lasting over half a decade (beginning with the release of Demon’s Souls) during which the majority of the games FromSoftware released were among the greatest games of all time. This article is about gauging how well Sekiro measures up to that very high bar FromSoft set for themselves.
Pro – The Combat of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice:
It almost goes without saying at this point that Sekiro contains one of the most satisfying action combat systems ever implemented in a game. Despite its relative simplicity, it compares favorably in that regard even with the systems of games like Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, and Bayonetta (which were all directed by the undisputed master of the genre, Hideki Kamiya).
There are few feelings in all of gaming that provide as pure a hit of happiness and as deep a sense of power as landing a parry in the Souls series. In Sekiro, to their everlasting credit, FromSoft managed to build a combat system that feels like a constant string of parries and ripostes. Every block is a triumph, and every miss is a tragedy. The rhythmic clanging of repelling every attack and upholding veritable invincibility during a successful assault (often after several failures) is an experience that is not to be missed.
Fine details of the system, such as the importance of maintaining high vitality to ensure the fastest posture recovery, the way Wolf’s posture can’t be broken when landing a perfect deflection under normal circumstances, the many ways in which the prosthetics and combat arts can be smoothly integrated into fighting, and the increased importance of managing consumable buffs—keep the learning curve on its agreeably steady (upward) slope throughout the game.
The remarkably varied fighting styles of the numerous enemies are almost universally legible at a glance, even in the midst of the very high pace of the game’s combat. Even if the ‘perilous attack’ notification is used as a small design cheat in that regard, it and these other aspects lend the fights a clarity that makes them feel fair and ultimately worth conquering. Another nice touch is the subtle-yet-crucial difference in the audible weapon impacts between blocking or being blocked and deflecting or being deflected.
Now, it could be argued that there is a tension between the way that the combat rewards immensely aggressive tactics and the way that Sekiro otherwise emphasizes stealth—but I found this possible incongruity to instead provide welcome changes of pace. The overall playthrough then becomes a calm and careful sequence of assassinations punctuated by momentary explosions of miniboss- or boss-based activity. Along those lines, the game’s RPG, platforming, and stealth elements may not be good enough to merit their own separate spots on the pro list, but they’re perfectly serviceable and certainly don’t belong among the cons.
Even if the gory finishing blows feel a bit silly (a bit Mortal Kombat) and thus aren’t quite to my taste, it would be hard to argue that they’re out of proportion with the strikes dealt and received throughout each fight. And they do a lot to sell the brutality of life in a wartorn era. The intensity of the foes and fights also underscores the inhuman combat prowess of the game’s Berserk-inspired protagonist, providing ample ammunition for internet arguments about whether it’s Wolf or Artorias that is From’s closest approximation of Guts.
Pro – The Aesthetics of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice:
This will be a quick one. Sekiro is visually and sonically impressive. It’s dripping with rich detail, from the armors to the architecture to the landscapes. The encampments, castles, towns, and cities are credibly laid out in a way that, say, the Lower Undead Burg (where the player-character in Dark Souls first fights a Capra Demon) simply isn’t.
Sekiro is yet another in a long line of demonstrations that FromSoft are absolute masters when it comes to realistic, engrossing, consistent world layouts—with Dark Souls II being their only noteworthy misstep in that arena in the last decade. And FromSoft’s trademark excellence at placing enemies, items, and structures within that world in ways that are consistent with the lore and story is still strongly on-display in Sekiro. Nothing looks or sounds out-of-place in the alternate-history Japan that From created, and the culturally specific soundtrack created for the game matches it nicely.
When it comes to artstyle, what Sekiro loses from taking another step toward realism and away from the highly stylized approach used in the earliest Souls games, it partially recoups in little touches: immersive weather effects; believable flames; the sparks, blood, and other particulate matter of intense combat; and an array of animal combatants (not just canines and crabs) that are all animated with verisimilitude.
The setting is used to tell a magical realist story that matches it well. Like Bloodborne, the story and world of Sekiro start out relatively grounded, and grow weirder and more unfamiliar as they go along. The story is one of the most complete and unambiguous in FromSoft’s catalogue, and it is (though not as emotionally effective as it seems to hope) certainly filled with intriguing concepts and themes that measure up to FromSoft’s best.
There you go. The core gameplay is great, and the aesthetics are great. So, why on earth is my opinion of the game mixed enough to merit this pro and con article? Here we go . . .
Placing Sekiro in a FromSoft Context:
The many small elements that will be discussed momentarily (and which constitute my one con for the game) do not have a great deal in common with each other. The most salient thing shared by all of these aspects of Sekiro is simply that they all show up with great regularity in big-budget games made by other AA and AAA developers over the past 20 years. They’re popular design tropes, and in some cases may even be considered game design ‘best practices’ in the industry. But for my purposes, the most important thing about all of them is that they are precisely the sorts of things from which I see FromSoft’s earlier Miyazaki-led projects as a welcome escape.
Dark Souls was my first FromSoftware title. When I played it initially in mid-2016, it was already five years old, and I knew that it was considered notable in part for using elements of mechanical design which had been considered outdated since the 90s. Nevertheless, it struck me, as it continues to do to this day, as being 20 or 30 years ahead of its time. I felt like I was getting a window into what games as a medium could some day mature into.
That feeling wasn’t caused its combination of a simple story and a deep set of themes. It wasn’t caused by its approach to difficulty. It wasn’t even caused by its remarkable and consistent world design, with the accompanying elegance of its checkpoint placement and shortcut system. As much as I do love those elements, and do feel that each of them contribute to what an excellent work Dark Souls is—they feel more like inevitable outcomes of the true reason I see it as so forward-looking and hold it in such nearly-unparalleled esteem.
This is because the feeling in question was actually caused by the high level of trust that Dark Souls places in the player. It feels like one of the first big games developed specifically for people who have lived from birth to adulthood in a world that includes games in the modern sense—where the vocabulary, expectations, and parameters of such games are as comfortable and familiar to them as those related to literature, film, or any other artistic medium. In a world where most prominent releases still feel like they are trying to painstakingly introduce the player to the basic vocabulary of games, Dark Souls stands apart.
Very little overt instruction is present, and what exists in the game is entirely optional. Even the majority of the narrative material in the game is, strictly speaking, not told to or forced on the player; instead it is discoverable, scattered around the game or else happening as one plays. Special care was taken to ensure that nearly every mechanical aspect of the game makes logical sense within the universe it depicts, and the immersion fostered by that care is almost never threatened by fourth-wall-breaking developer interventions or advice. Indeed, developer-originating reminders or suggestions practically never appear on the screen to condescend to the player and break up the flow of gameplay. Which mechanics are to be considered relevant to different scenarios, and how to approach or use them, is entirely in the hands of the player.
No matter how many times one dies, or what types of enemies they are approaching, or which NPC they are interacting with, or what areas they are entering, or what mechanics they are neglecting—the player is never pestered, never nagged, never interrupted. They are almost always respectfully left to think for themselves. In fact, dedicated cutscenes and lengthy animations (which are extremely rare, carefully implemented, and always brief) are some of the only moments where control of the player-character is taken away from the player after loading into the game. Dialogue doesn’t take it away; level transitions usually don’t take it away; even some menus don’t take it away. The result of all of this is a game that, with some irony relative to its reputation, feels very natural and inviting to play.
This fostering and safeguarding of player immersion within the crafted experience, this consistent presentation of itself as a cohesive work of art (rather than an instruction manual on controller usage), is one of Dark Souls‘ paramount and outweighing virtues. And it’s a method of design that a player nowadays usually has to stick with indie games to experience. There are huge stretches of the game where a player can just live and act in Lordran, effectively forgetting that they are playing a game at all. As Matthewmatosis puts it,
One of my favourite things about Dark Souls is the sheer amount of completely uninterrupted playtime you can have if you don’t die. For example, from Firelink Shrine, if you skip the Bell Gargoyles, then you can play all the way to the Gaping Dragon without a single interruption. No cutscenes, no dialogue boxes you’re forced to skip through, absolutely nothing but you and the game. In fact, if the boss introductions were completely removed, there’d only be a couple of cutscenes in the entire thing. I think this is one of Dark Souls’ most understated strengths, and it’s shockingly uncommon. Next time you’re playing a game, especially something with the kind of budget Dark Souls had, you should see how long you can go before your gameplay is interrupted. It’s very unlikely that that will match the amount of time you can play Dark Souls for in a single chunk. If you go at a reasonable pace, and cover some stuff like Darkroot Garden, then getting from Firelink Shrine down to the Gaping Dragon can take a couple of hours. Whether people recognize it or not, this is one of the real strengths of Dark Souls. (Matthewmatosis 2:57:59)
In Sekiro, “uninterrupted playtime” of this kind is a rarity. It no longer feels, as it did in those earlier games, like the developers truly trust the player. Instead, it seems, like the games of so many other teams, like it is trying to introduce the player to the concept of a game. The cracks in that regard which began appearing in the later Souls games have in Sekiro widened to a disappointing degree. Maybe that sounds like a strange or exaggerated claim to you. Allow me to get specific.
Con – The AAA Tropes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice:
This section has a looser format than the preceding sections of this article, as what it covers is a list of small things that, when taken altogether, sum into my impression that Sekiro doesn’t measure up to that high level of ‘design maturity’ described above. As I go through these elements (all of which are commonplace in the works of other developers), focus on how rare they are in the best games of FromSoft. There’s no particularly good place to start with this, so I’ll just get listing:
First, cutscenes are more frequent, and individual cutscenes are often longer. FromSoft now has a proven track record of success, and with that record comes higher budgets for each succeeding project. With higher budgets come additional resources for high-quality pre-rendered cinematics and in-engine animations, as well as additional team members dedicated to only the writing and telling of a game’s story. But every minute spent watching a cutscene is a minute not spent actively playing Sekiro. I mean, there are five separate cutscenes just in the tutorial—compared to only one or two in the first level of each Souls game. The saving graces here are that all of the game’s cutscenes are skippable (making repeat playthroughs bearable), and that the content of the cutscenes is up to From’s exceptional standards (provided, as recommended by the game upon booting it for the first time, the Japanese voice acting is selected).
To be clear, I’m not saying that cutscenes have no place in games. I think they can certainly serve many worthwhile purposes: underscoring the importance of a particular moment, establishing events that don’t involve the player-character, conveying an occurrence that (for whatever reason) wouldn’t be possible to show within the gameplay, providing a satisfying reward for challenging in-game activity, or simply being entertaining or comedic in a manner resembling film or TV. I’m definitely not as extreme as someone who would say they should always be replaced with gameplay. But I do feel that they are massively overused across the industry, in situations where simply removing them or else incorporating the same narrative material into gameplay would lead to better games. When used even just a little too often (like before, between phases of, and after several individual boss encounters in Sekiro), they unduly break up the flow and momentum of a game.
Second, on a related note, dialogue between the player-character and an NPC has been formalized in a fashion that brings it closer to being an additional form of in-engine cutscene. The player-character is now locked in place during all dialogue, all viewing of NPC remnants, and all eavesdropping. Far more characters are deemed too important to the plot to allow fighting them during incidental interactions. And conversations sometimes play out by exhausting dialogue trees. All of these common RPG tropes were presumably employed to offer a serious tone to the more extensive and coherent story details, as well as to the back-and-forth conversations enabled by the decision to have a voiced protagonist this time around. Entirely wresting control from the player during dialogue was only done during incredibly important conversations in the past, such as when interacting with Gwynevere or Gwyndolin in Dark Souls. The interruptions to the player’s control over the character introduced by Sekiro’s approach to dialogue and related moments are tiny, but these aspects of NPC interaction were especially noticeable to me despite being so minor because they’re introduced in circumstances where the same studio had previously championed player autonomy.
Third, contextual button prompts and non-diegetic status indicators have hugely multiplied, littering the screen with buttons, targets, words, bars, and more—when in combat, when in stealth, when grappling, and just generally when playing Sekiro. The abundance of these elements relative to their other recent releases makes it harder than ever to get lost in the simulated reality of the gameworld. And these can’t be removed in the options menu without completely disabling the entire HUD.
Now, not every development team has the time, talent, and motivation to have believable, purely diegetic interfaces and indicators like Dead Space. Certainly, there is no game by FromSoft that accomplishes that. And, equally certain, there are tons of titles that intentionally abstract mechanics to UI, or that intentionally surface a huge amount of information to the player through fourth-wall-breaking parts of the interface. Puzzle games and games with turn-based structures are some easy examples. As with cutscenes, these things absolutely have their place. Nevertheless, the more of that kind of visual clutter that is allowed to seep into an otherwise coherent virtual world, the less immersive that world becomes . . . and the closer FromSoft gets to some day including something truly distracting from its aesthetics and world design, like a minimap.
Fourth, as a minor bonus point along the lines of the third: does anyone like ‘press X to hug wall’ gameplay? Does anyone like ‘press X to scoot along ledge’ gameplay? Has anyone ever liked it? Such moments aren’t quite quick-time events, but they are noticeably quick-time-event-adjacent. They are automatic contextual actions accompanied by button prompts that usually just initiate a slower way of navigating. It’s hard to imagine that the extremely acrobatic protagonist of Sekiro actually has to sidle along in this way to get past such obstacles, so passing a ledge feels like less like gameplay and more like watching a loading bar fill up for returning to normal traversal. Wall-hugging and ledge-grabbing are nice tools to have for platforming and stealth, but sections where they are required to slowly pass small gaps are yet another form of ‘micro-interruption’ to living and acting naturally within the core gameplay inside the gameworld, without having to be aware of the controller in one’s hands.
Fifth, on the subject of micro-interruptions: full-screen, game-pausing descriptions pop up whenever receiving a tutorial tip, and whenever picking up an item off of the ground (regardless of whether that item has been obtained previously). Where before both the function and lore description of each item and ability was left to be investigated or ignored according to player preferences, they’re now shoved repeatedly in the player’s face. The only exception to this is for items dropped by regular enemies and then vacuumed up by Wolf’s strangely windy torso. (Wolf’s item and coin suction is, of course, also a weird design decision, but one that’s harder to categorize than everything else on this list.) Anyway, sadly, something that is not an exception to this is any item or mechanic received for defeating a boss. After conquering one of the game’s high-difficulty boss encounters, in a veritable nightmare for both pacing and player satisfaction, the screen is always immediately taken over by what amounts to a PowerPoint presentation about the things they receive as rewards.
Sixth, the ambiguity and believability of the gameworld has been reduced through the standardization of rewards for actions. Practically every eavesdropped conversation corresponds directly to a singular gameplay hint. There’s a checkpoint immediately after every boss, regardless of how close the previous one was placed or whether there’s another one a few steps forward. Almost every single solitary miniboss, no matter what it is, no matter if it’s even sapient, reliably drops a prayer bead on death (I guess the Blazing Bull is pretty religious). And every path has an item at the end of it; there are no more true dead ends, no more (in the parlance of the Souls community) ‘hurrah for pointless.’ Exploration, once a cornerstone of the company’s output, is barely a part of the design here. To be fair, it’s no more linear than Dark Souls III, which also had a barely forking path of progression. But it’s still a starkly different type of level and world design than in FromSoft’s best works.
Seventh and finally—most, uh, heinously—true invisible walls are placed above some buildings and surrounding some boss arenas to compensate for the player-character’s increased vertical movement. A problem that definitely should’ve been solved by changing the level design or circumstances of the events is instead solved by making the rules of the gameworld feel capricious—an all-too-common and utterly-immersion-shattering AAA convenience.
The result of all of the tropes covered in this section compounding on each other is that, moment-to-moment, Sekiro often doesn’t feel like I’m playing a FromSoft game at all. It feels more like I’m playing an unusually good game made by some other developer. And it is certainly the case that there will be other articles where I praise games while ignoring the presence of some or all of the types of elements discussed here, whether because in isolation each of these details is minor, because they can be implemented situationally in circumstances where I would not deem them flaws, or because the developers of those games don’t have a prior record of excellence in this regard—as FromSoft does.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game that I truly enjoy. I’ve already played it three times for three of the game’s possible endings, and as a result I’ve beaten every boss in the game, most of them multiple times. Yet I still plan to return to the game at some point in the future, to play it through once again just to see the fourth and final ending. Obviously, it’s not a game that I think people should avoid. Far from it, it’s a magnificent game that experienced players should seek out and should prefer over numerous superficially similar offerings. The only con I could muster up for it is that it’s only as good as the best games of other development teams, and thus falls short of the pantheon of legendary games in which several of their earlier works reside.
And hey, it’s not all negative changes for player immersion. Recall what I said earlier about the more believable weather effects, animal and beast animations, and layouts for individual areas and towns. And most importantly, unlike in Dark Souls, in Sekiro the doors that only open from one side are actually designed in such a way that they would only open from one side in reality if locked! It could almost bring a tear to the eye to see them figure that out—if not for the fact some doors still make zero sense. Also, why on earth don’t either of the mortal blades have any effect on the respawn mechanics? I mean, the game explains that . . . right, right, I’m supposed to be backpedaling from the whole ‘pointing out ways it breaks immersion’ thing. Sorry about that.
Now, if you’re still surprised that the difficulty level of the game did not feature at any point in this analysis, that’s because it’s—fine. Some games are harder than others, just as some novels are more complex than others. It’s fine as long as it suits the work. Many aspects of Sekiro, from the difficulty to the themes to the setting to the world design to the story, are working in tandem. The numerous instructions and distractions targeted by this article, though, are noticeably out-of-step with that design. I would only ever say difficulty is the element that should be adjusted in a situation where difficulty is the element that seems out-of-place—or where there is a sudden drop or spike that seems out-of-place. That’s why I have said that Crypt of the NecroDancer (whose final challenges are substantially harder than the final challenges of Sekiro) should’ve had some of its later spikes re-tuned.
Sekiro is an amazing game, and though it is tough to learn, overall it isn’t too hard. But from my perspective, it is in many small ways too ‘video gamey.’
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