Nobody asked the creators of “Dark Souls” and “Bloodborne” to make a game set in 16th-century Japan featuring fluid traversal and a parrying-based combat system, but that’s what they did. And we’re all better off for the masterpiece From Software has graced us with.
“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is the newest franchise in the “Soulsborne” genre, which includes games known for their brutal but fair combat and rewarding progression. As much as I adore the “Dark Souls” series’ medieval setting and role-playing elements, “Sekiro” capitalizes on everything that made its predecessors great while giving fans what they didn’t even know they wanted.
“Sekiro” features the best melee combat system I’ve ever experienced in a single-player action game. Where brute force could get you through the toughest “Dark Souls” battles, “Sekiro” is designed to make you feel like a master swordsman, which usually means perfectly timing deflections of enemies’ attacks enough to leave them open for a single death blow.
Low-level enemies can usually be taken out quickly and, if you’re efficient, quietly. Stealth is very much a welcome addition to this “Soulsborne” game. But combat truly shines during boss battles, which, if you’re counting minibosses, number more than 50.
Taking down a boss usually requires learning their move sets to figure out how to time deflections and when to push the counter attack, leading to thrilling back-and-forths between defensive and offensive tactics. While some bosses can simply be wailed upon to hurt their health enough to kill them, most are bested after ruining their posture, which is basically an alternative health bar that dictates whether a boss has a solid stance. Deflect enough attacks and the boss missteps, leaving it open for a death blow that never gets old to deliver.
But the game’s combat system is more complicated than simple parries and counterattacks. Bosses throw out perilous attacks that are telegraphed with a red symbol, giving players only moments to dictate the appropriate way to respond.
Does it look like the enemy is about to thrust his spear your way? Press a specific button to step down on his weapon and deliver a huge hit to his posture. Does it look like he’s going to spin around and sweep his weapon across the ground? Jump off of him and get some sword swings in on your way down. Judging which way to respond to enemies’ attacks at a moment’s notice makes “Sekiro’s” combat incredibly challenging at times but also infinitely rewarding.
The best example I can give is during my fight against the guardian ape. The first time I saw this beast, my heart dropped. Not only is the ape huge, but he’s also fast and relentless. It took me two solid hours to vanquish the monster, and throughout the entire session, I could feel myself slowly learning and improving. Each time I died, I had hurt the ape just a bit more than before, and the feeling it gave me when I finally conquered it for the first time is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a video game. Victory in “Sekiro” is a high every gamer should experience.
The game’s protagonist is outfitted with a prosthetic arm that makes the game’s traversal the quickest and most fluid of any “Soulsborne” title. With the press of a button, you can grapple up several stories to get the drop on your foes or quickly escape a dangerous encounter, which is a welcome addition to a genre that has traditionally anchored players to the ground.
The prosthetic can also be outfitted with 10 different tools to spice up combat even more. Facing a creature that hates fire? Douse it in oil and use the prosthetic’s flame vent to set it ablaze. Got a foe that just won’t stay still? Thrust at it with your prosthetic’s spear and pull it closer.
My favorite tool is probably the loaded umbrella, which is basically an iron shield that makes deflecting and blocking a little bit easier. The game can be played while minimizing the use of prosthetic tools, but the unique combat avenues they open up are virtually endless and adaptable to several play styles. I’m excited to see the unusual ways players apply them to specific boss fights.
The world of “Sekiro” is beautiful and a joy to explore, and, for better or worse, more linear than the endlessly branching paths of other From Software games. The story is a bit more straightforward and easy to understand than other lore-heavy “Soulsborne” titles, which I appreciate, but the world is still riddled with the creepy and disturbing imagery From Software loves to pump into its games. Some of the surprises in “Sekiro” left me slack-jawed.
For those seeking a real challenge, there are items you can activate early on to make enemies more challenging or make blocking damage you, and the game gets harder each time you start a new playthrough after beating it. Considering there are four unique endings to see, I’m looking forward to playing through the game that many times to see everything “Sekiro” has to offer and conquer the ever-increasing difficulty.
“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” features the best combat I’ve ever experienced in an action game. The thrill of victory is second to none, and the beautiful world is full of challenging and fun bosses to best. From Software has crafted a true masterpiece every “Soulsborne” fan should experience.
Final score: 10/10
“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” was reviewed on the Xbox One with a digital copy provided by the publisher's PR agency, Step 3.