Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the latest release from Japan’s FromSoftware studio, has proven somewhat divisive, breaking the studio’s near ten-year streak of perfect hits. It’s won its fair share of Game of the Year awards, and its sales figures are none too shabby, but the discussion still continues that the game is just too hard. Most of these complaints seem to relate to the game’s new mechanics, which deviate from the FromSoftware formula in two key ways. First, it ditches the old combat system of dodging and attacking, opting instead for a fast-paced, up-close-and-personal parry and counter system. Secondly, it’s a stealth game.
There’s no denying it’s a hard game. In fact, it’s so hard that often you’ll find yourself screaming into a void while you choke back the tears of your own worthlessness. But it’s also a balanced game, and the key to all of it is its stealth, opening up both Sekiro and the old FromSoftware formula to new and dizzying heights of challenge and fun.
The Dark Souls series and the standalone Bloodborne, all directed by Miyazaki Hidetaka, are all intensely nihilistic, supremely punishing, and thoroughly unwelcoming. And yet, they’re probably the most popular games of the last ten years. Each is set in a dark fantasy world inhabited by brutal and terrifying creatures which you, as the player, are expected to fight and kill. Death comes quick and often, and while there are power-ups and skill improvements, getting good at the game requires work. Progression comes from clearing an area and making your way to the next checkpoint. Often, this checkpoint is guarded by a boss, meaning that the player has to eliminate all standard enemies and a boss without dying, because death sends you right back to the beginning. However, when it comes, the rush of victory is like nothing else. To a certain degree, Sekiro follows the same structure.
Set in Japan during the Sengoku period (15th-17th centuries), the player is given control of Wolf, a shinobi tasked with the sole protection of his lord. Kuro, Wolf’s charge, has been kidnapped by the Ashina, a once-powerful clan now in their final days. Retreating to their mountain stronghold, the Ashina hope to hold off the oncoming advances of Japan’s Interior Ministry and, through the magic of Kuro’s divine blood, they intend to resurrect their diminished strength. Wolf must enter this shattered land and stop at nothing until his lord has been rescued.
The Souls/Borne games follow a recurring loop: meet an impossible challenge, beat it, feel like nothing can stop you, meet a new impossible challenge, and so on. They’re oppressive games and make the player feel like they’re facing an insurmountable wall and being asked to climb it. However, in Sekiro, even if they don’t realise it at first, the player begins the game (in some ways quite literally) already on top of that wall.
As a shinobi, Wolf is armed with all the skills of a ninja assassin, with a few impressive improvements. Along with the ability to move silently, creep along walls, and hide in tall grass, Wolf comes equipped with a grappling hook, allowing him to leap to the top of buildings with Spider-Man-like speed. But best of all, Wolf can kill any enemy with one, single deathblow. Provided the player can get him into the best position without being seen, Wolf can instantly kill his foe with a bang and a deeply satisfying geyser of blood.
This is a radical change to the FromSoftware structure. In previous games, the player feels densely solid, unable to jump and forced to plod their way through the world, occasionally gaining points which they can spend on getting marginally faster or slightly stronger. Wolf, by contrast, feels like a feather; he’s able to bounce, leap, and sprint all over the level. For the seasoned Souls/Borne player, this can be a surprisingly big mental hurdle to clear. It goes against all that has been learned through hours of punishingly repetitive gameplay; but once it clicks, the wonder of Sekiro and the genius of its design really start to shine.
If an action game is typically about rushing head-on and fighting with brute strength for as long as your health or stamina bars will allow, then stealth games are primarily about avoiding this. Instead, they engage the player’s strategic thinking, challenging them to think their way through a situation and work it to their advantage. Sekiro combines the strategic thinking of the latter with the high stakes of the former.
Miyazaki’s previous level design was based firmly in the horizontal; players could only move from A to B with enemies blocking their path. This is continued in Sekiro, but now with added vertical movement. Rather than follow a linear path, the player has the option to leap to a rooftop and scout the surrounding area. If you make it to a good enough vantage point, the entire area can be revealed to you—including every enemy position. Jumping from rooftop to rooftop, scaling down the sides of cliffs, and leaping between trees can take you to the end of the area without having to fight a single foe. Also, areas can be easier to clear if you approach them from behind. Enemies will face a certain direction, so if you’re able to navigate your way over their heads you can drop down behind them and stab them in the back. At first glance, this gives an overwhelming advantage to the player; where equivalent sections in Dark Souls could take days of grinding, in Sekiro they can be cleared in minutes. However, this game is balanced, and the other side of that scale will come swinging up and slap you in the face the second your stealth operation fails.
Slip off a building, miss a crucial jump, or get spotted by a scout and the game switches from stealth and plunges you straight into action. Sekiro’s combat follows a posture system; an enemy’s balance can be broken through a series of perfect parries, finally opening them up to a deathblow. The timing of this system is so precise and punishing that it effectively turns Sekiro into a rhythm game. It’s also so difficult that the game actually gives you two chances at it, with Wolf allowed to resurrect once each turn. When the final death comes, the level restarts and you’re back in stealth mode and jumping over buildings, but now it doesn’t seem so easy. The threat of death is so severe that many of the earliest sections turn into the most terrifying game of “the floor is lava” you’ll ever play.
The key, of course, is balance. The game gives you everything you need to complete an area, you just have to decide on the best way to use it. For example: Wolf’s stealth deathblow can be used on bosses, meaning that some of the most powerful enemies can be killed, or at least have half their health removed, in a single blow. However, these bosses are rarely situated on their own. So you have a choice: remove the heavy hitter but then deal with an onslaught of smaller enemies, or vice versa. The various ways of balancing this gameplay can lead to hundreds of different possibilities of approaching the same area, which is welcome relief from the rewarding but repetitive grind of the Souls/Borne games.
Throughout the game, Miyazaki’s level and narrative design perfectly complement this balance at every turn. The first act of Sekiro is a rescue mission and can, with the exception of some bosses, be played entirely in stealth. The second act takes you down through ravines and jungles, which significantly reduces the stealth in favour of combat. The final act returns you to Ashina castle, now under siege from soldiers with the same skills as Wolf.
It is a shame if there are players who’re finding they can’t get far with Sekiro. The game’s genius lies in the balancing of its mechanics and it can take a while to see the full effect. Rather than leveling up character stats by spending collected points, the balancing of stealth and combat levels up the player. By the end, it is your tactical thinking in strategy and your perfected rhythm in combat that makes you feel like the world’s deadliest assassin.