“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice”: Heart and Soul amidst Blood and Chaos

NOTE: The following is kept mostly spoiler free, however there are discussions of the setup, some events at the midpoint, and discussion on general game progression and area details.

There’s a quality of desperation to a boss fight in a Hidetaka Miyazaki game. Every arena is littered with signs of past destruction, be it strewn corpses or collapsed rubble. Whether a hulking monstrosity or a corrupted humanoid lurks in it’s center, you can be sure it will come at you with unrelenting force, pushing you and your reflexes to the breaking point as unsettling orchestral music swells and quickens with your pulse. This has been true of all the works in a now decade plus career of creating punishing gauntlets of despair and terror, but it has never been more refined an effect than in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Miyazaki’s latest masterpiece in a discography full of them. Early on, you face an old mentor in an arena literally engulfed in flames, and as she cuts you down time and time again, through perseverance and a gradual understanding of an equally complex and rewarding combat system, you are granted a moment of catharsis upon victory, only for it to be interrupted as you and her exchange parting words, not in condemnation but in mutual respect. Your character speaks in Sekiro, you see, and above the game’s at times nigh on unthinkable increase in speed, its stunning level design and vertical exploration, and it’s stripping away of unnecessary and superfluous role playing systems, it is this change which transforms and elevates the familiar Souls template to new heights. Sekiro is replete with all the horror influences, dazzling sense of scale and, of course, legendary difficulty that has made the meta-series beloved and feared, but it’s most memorable aspect is the beating, human heart that powers this incredible 40 hour trip through Japan and beyond.

For those not already in the know, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice transplants Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware’s signature formula to 1500’s Sengoku Japan. While this is the first time the studio (in its current iteration, anyways) has built a world with actual historical context, the similarities with real world events is thrown out the window almost immediately when you learn that you have the ability to resurrect at will (once per life, essentially, before your sent back to the last save point to try again). From there the game follows a comfortably familiar and oh so “Miyazaki” path of gradual escalation into the bizarre, and by the time you leave the confines of the Ashina region and enter the realm of the divine itself, Sekiro has embraced a totally unique dark fantasy aesthetic that lends unpredictability to your every step.

For much of its early hours, however, 1500’s Japan is painstakingly recreated, with some Ogres and (in a welcome dose of odd humor to balance out the bleak proceedings) giant evil chickens to keep you on your toes. This is often a much sparser world than the sometimes delightfully chaotic gothic superstructures of Bloodborne, or the withering castles of Dark Souls. Structures in Sekiro are often highly symmetrical, with minimalist interiors and flat roofs. This serves a purpose beyond just historical accuracy, however. In addition to losing your life, you have also managed to lose your arm, which would make all the ninja action that follows quite impossible were it not for you being gifted a mechanical arm replete with a grappling hook.

This hook fundamentally changes the way levels flow and intersect with each other. You can jump on command (double jump off walls Mario style too) and use this hook to grapple onto points of the environment, not entirely unlike Spider-Man, though with obvious constraints. This means that levels are highly vertical, and platforming is no longer a half measure inserted into areas to spice up all the backtracking and looping which make up FromSoft areas of the past, but a fundamental part of the gameplay. This has the knock on effect that all that looping back and forth to bonfires, which have their own iteration here in the form of Buddha idols, is toned down a bit, but it is replaced with far more open ended levels which encourage exploration in all directions. You can just go straight forward and tackle the foes that prevent you from getting to the next idol, but to do so will keep you from experiencing the best content the game has to offer in addition to leaving you quite literally under armed for the next boss fight. Exploration in Sekiro is rewarded far more than in any FromSoft game before it, with entire tools for your Shinobi Prosthetic arm hidden behind secrets and side content.

That arm is used for more than just swinging, too. Combat in Sekiro follows a familiar flow that fans of the series will be well acquainted with, but it’s fundamentals are altered radically here. Gone is the stamina bar that defines fights in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, instead replaced with a new “posture” system. Essentially, you can swing your sword and attack as much as you want, but any time your opponent deflects your attack or damages you, your posture bar will increase. Should it fill up you will be left broken momentarily, and a moment is all it takes for any of Sekiro’s myriad bestiary of horrific foes to unleash a massive combo or high damage attack and kill you. Enemies have posture too, and it is here that the game truly moves into a league of its own within the framework of its fledgling subgenre of action games. Most enemies, particularly those who wield swords, will block and deflect most of your attacks. Continually attacking, keeping pressure high and forcing them to deflect instead of giving them the opportunity to attack or start a combo will also build their posture meter, and in Sekiro breaking any enemy’s posture is the same as breaking the enemy. Fill that meter and the opponent will be open to a single insta-kill death blow, no matter how much actual health they have, giving you the opening necessary to strike the killing blow and end the fight. Mini-boss (a new concept in the formula) and boss enemies usually require 2 or more death blows, but creating that opening to a single deadly attack is Sekiro’s most powerful feeling moment, a sudden release of tension in glorious, bloody spectacle that forms the basis of the best sword fighting combat system I have played to date. Gone is the inherent clunk of Dark Souls, however intentional, replaced with a dazzling and precise display of swords literally clashing into each other and sending sparks flying. Amidst all the dilapidated environments you will explore in Sekiro, amidst every towering beast and furious samurai you fight, amidst every plentiful death, I never did not feel inherently powerful.

I haven’t even discussed the myriad ways that you can work your prosthetic tools into combat, gracefully creating combos by slashing your sword and following it up with a flaming axe hit from your other hand, but that is because in many ways, combat is the least interesting part of the package. It’s brilliant, and it is what propels the game and keeps it fresh over dozens of hours, but when I think back to Sekiro in years time, the first place I will think back to is to the story at its heart. Miyazaki has always excelled at building worlds and filling them with sad, aching histories, whispers of a past that flesh out the enemies you encounter and mysteries that beg to be uncovered and pondered. Bloodborne took this a step further by telling an actual, in the moment narrative, where sudden shifts in the environment and the literal ability to see new enemies signaled twists in an expanding plot, still one of the most unique and incredible examples of alternative storytelling in the medium.

Sekiro, however, brings things a little more in line with the mainstream (only a little, though) by replacing the nameless player created avatars of past adventures with a named, artist created character named Wolf. He doesn’t have much to say, but he does speak, and it is here that Sekiro truly ascends from meer reinvention of a familiar form into something truly memorable and peerless. Wolf is orphaned as a child in the game’s opening cinematic (it’s only pre-rendered cutscene) and taken in by a rogue shinobi (the game does not like to use the word ninja) named Owl, who trains Wolf in the art of killing. Wolf eventually finds himself in the service of the young lord Kuro, heir to a divine bloodline which is the source of Wolf’s and his own immortality. This promise of immortality is predictably a source of great desire among the various warlords of the sengoku era, and three years prior to the events of the game Wolf is attacked and all but killed, his adoptive father murdered, and the divine child kidnapped by the ruling Ashina clan. If this set up sounds pretty familiar that’s because it is, but it’s only the setup, and Wolf’s quest is not one of revenge but instead one to save the only person left alive that he truly cares for. The relationship between Wolf and Kuro is the central, beating heart of the game, and it imbues an already strong foundation of world building and quiet mystery with raw emotion. When Wolf and Kuro are reunited midway through the game, the scene of their reunion is a quiet masterpiece of minimalist writing. In only a few words Miyazaki conveys a love and respect between these two that many pieces of storytelling spend hours trying to make believable. Perhaps it is because real dialogue and character development are so sparse in the game that when it does come up it is so powerfully emotional, and when Kuro asks Wolf for help breaking the power of resurrection, so as not to further corrupt the hearts of man, it sets Wolf on a genuine arc of change. Sekiro does more with its character work in as few words as possible than most games do with reams of text.

Side characters are more fleshed out, too. The Bonfire Tender of this game, Emma, slowly reveals herself to be a fully formed character to boot, and decisions made late in the game have the potential for her story to end in truly memorable ways. The Sculptor, your closest ally and the builder of your prosthetic arm, reveals his painful, hate filled past, imbuing him with a sense of regret and anguish. The ending to his tale is one of the game’s most powerfully heartbreaking moments, and an example of how a focus on character work pushes ideas and themes that Miyazaki has explored repeatedly into a form that feels at once fresh and like a culmination of a life’s work.

This focus on character serves the gameplay as well. When you reach a new area you want to explore it not just to find out why it has fallen into chaos and ruin, but because you truly want to help its denizens, be it to find happiness or just a bit of water to quench an unending thirst. Failing to complete the cryptic steps to a side quest feels genuinely impactful, because the consequences on the characters involved are truly cruel and severe, in true Miyazaki fashion. The world reacts to you in a greater way than any previous work from the studio.

What a world it is, too. While individual areas don’t have you opening locked doors and looping back and forth between the same idols as in past games, the payoff is that the world itself snakes and intertwines with itself in a way not seen since the original Dark Souls. Taking a hidden path in the early Ashina Outskirts area and ending up in the Senpou Temple area literally on the other side of the world, and the realization of this link when it hits you, is the kind of fascinating world design that made Dark Souls sing, and it is abundant here in a truly remarkable way. That Senpou Temple area is perhaps the strongest space that FromSoft has ever made too, and the best moment in the whole game involves flying a kite and concludes with a display of raw, visceral violence on a scale unseen outside of God of War that I wouldn’t dream of saying more about, only for you to suddenly end up in a completely different area. The world obeys a fascinating internal logic too. Kill a giant creature in one area at the top of a waterfall, and you will find its corpse and its reward at the end of the river that flows from that waterfall, deep, deep underground. Sekiro is a fairly linear game, though at the midpoint you are given the choice of which of three areas you’d like to explore, but the fascinating way the game nonlinearly unfolds its linear tale is one of its most amazing aspects.

I could go on of course, but Sekiro is a game that demands to be played with its best secrets being uncovered on your own. I haven’t even spoken on the way it strips out superfluous stat building, leaving you with a much more tangible progression system in which you gain health and power on the defeat of each boss, nor have I really touched on the way that it’s slightly shorter runtime than its predecessors leaves it feeling more lean and focused, but such things are ultimately minor in the face of its myriad accomplishments. From the way that it escalates, slowly and deliberately, from historical tale to its climax with the single most epic and artistically compelling boss fight the studio has ever crafted against a divine beast in a world beyond our own, to its perfect and unsettling and simultaneously hauntingly beautiful score, to its massive and stunningly interconnected world, Sekiro is a triumph. At its heart, however, and above all else, Sekiro is a story of two people who care deeply about each other, and watching this relationship unfold and bloom amidst a sea of visceral violence and bleak imagery is what escalates Sekiro above the pack and makes it, I think, the greatest game of Miyazaki’s storied career and one of the landmark titles of a generation. It is an instant classic and from start to finish, every second of it took my breath away.

Oh, it’s also pretty hard. So, you know, be advised about that.