FromSoftware is renowned for making difficult games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but the first few hours of their latest offering, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, aren’t actually too bad. Sure, you’ll die a few times learning the ins and outs of the game’s stealth and combat systems, but the difficulty level doesn’t seem all that intense to start with.
And then you meet the Chained Ogre, the first mini-boss and real challenge in Sekiro, and he’s like a brick wall smack dab in the middle of a racetrack. It’s easy to die at least 50 times to the ogre’s flurry of kicks. Or his loathable grab attacks, which either wipe out your health or send you flying over the edge of a cliff into a bottomless pit. The Chained Ogre is a real bastard.
Finally, though, you’ll start learning his patterns. You might even backtrack and pick up a helpful new weapon in another area. And then, the Chained Ogre will go down for the count. You’ll feel pretty pleased with yourself… until you run into the real boss of the area, a spear-wielding samurai atop a lightning-fast black steed, and the whole process begins again.
The Souls games were hard, but after easing you into a false sense of security at the start, Sekiro ramps up the difficulty to an even more absurd level. While FromSoftware’s previous games could be conquered with rolling and calling on help from other players, Sekiro’s combat demands precision, and it’s a strictly single-player affair. This is a brutally difficult game the likes of which has rarely been seen in the modern era.
The opportunity to perfectly parry an attack and set up a deathblow feels like it lasts less than a second with most enemies. Missing that window means getting hit with a brutal attack that often ends in death, and many enemy attacks are simply unblockable.
Being able to resurrect from at least one death during combat doesn’t do much to ease the difficulty either. It’s not all that rare for your character (the katana-wielding Wolf) to come back from death only to find himself on the receiving end of another enemy attack which will put him down for good and send you back to the last checkpoint.
Sekiro doesn’t let you retrieve lost experience points like in the Souls series either. Death means the loss of half your experience toward your next skill point and half your currency (called Sen). There is a chance that these items remain with you after each death (called “Unseen Aid”), but the chance of that happening is also reduced with each failure thanks to a system called Dragonrot, which affects NPCs and must periodically be cured.
With only one weapon, a trusty katana, the best bet for success in combat often lies with items and the Wolf’s prosthetic left arm. In all, there are ten different prosthetics available, with abilities ranging from spraying fire to teleportation, and they all work in conjunction with a sizable skill tree.
The high difficulty level will eventually make you feel like a better player, but as you gain more abilities and fight more battles, Sekiro never feels easy or approaches something like the “normal” difficulty of most action games.
While it’s easy take the blame for a lot of deaths (because you failed to recognise a pattern or made a move too early), a good number of deaths just feel cheap. As aforementioned, sometimes you resurrect straight back into a fatal attack.
Compounding issues is that, while Sekiro demands perfection, sometimes its controls just don’t work how they’re supposed to. Several times in boss battles, you’ll press the button to land a major attack only for nothing to happen.
The upside of this challenge is an incredible feeling of accomplishment and relief when a boss is finally defeated after dozens of attempts, but seeing Sekiro through to the end requires a certain level of masochism. The game will likely even turn off some of the Souls faithful with its extreme difficulty, and it’s almost impossible to recommend to casual gamers or those who are easily frustrated.
That’s unfortunate, in a way, because From Software has crafted a beautiful fantasy vision of feudal Japan here. Sekiro’s interconnected world, with its many secrets, rivals anything the developer has previously created. And while the enemies might be brutal, all of their visual designs are fantastic.
It must be said that the process of approaching the same boss again and again, betting on a gut feeling that one more try might result in a long-awaited victory, isn’t always enjoyable.
If Sekiro was a samurai film, it would rank among the best, thanks to strong cutscene direction, moody music, pitch-perfect voiceover performances (available in both English and Japanese), and an excellent story. But as a game, it’s hard not to wish it was a bit more forgiving.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is out now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.