Over the past decade, FromSoftware has been feted by the video game industry for a string of commercially successful and critically-praised titles. Their PlayStation 3 exclusive “Demon’s Souls” (2009) genuinely felt like a revelation when it was first released. The sword-and-sworcery game was cryptic, hard, and rife with interesting gameplay ideas. It was the kind of game made for the Internet, where you could learn about esoteric things like how to build the best character focused around high dexterity stats. “Dark Souls” (2011), a multiplatform release, gave more players a chance to discover the allure of playing a game all about overcoming what at first (or maybe for a hundredth time) seems insurmountable. Hidetaka Miyazaki, who directed both games, scored another triumph with “Bloodborne,” which switched up the Souls formula by ditching shields in favor of gameplay centered around dodging and parrying enemy attacks. Miyazaki’s latest creation, “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” tweaks the formula to such a degree that longtime Souls players may be surprised by how long it takes them to acclimate to the rhythms of the game’s combat.
In Japanese, “Sekiro” means one-armed wolf. The game’s ninja warrior receives his name after he loses his hand in combat trying to protect a boy, his master. Wolf is nursed back to health by the Sculptor, a man who in his spare time carves statues of the Buddha and ruminates over the past. The Sculptor outfits Wolf with a prosthetic arm that can be fitted with different weapons such as throwing stars, which are great for shooting airborne enemies, or firecrackers, good for startling animals.
My first ten hours with “Sekiro” reminded me of my first ten hours with “Demon’s Souls.” Its steep learning curve stared me in the face like a foreboding mountain. In “Sekiro,” deflecting is almost everything. The familiar stamina bar that appears in the upper left corner of the screen in the Souls games has been replaced by a posture bar that fills along the bottom. Fighting in “Sekiro” is focused around breaking an enemy’s posture by attacking at every opportunity and deflecting their attacks. Deflection requires tapping the block button just before an enemy lands an attack. Simply blocking an attack by holding down the block button can result in rapid posture damage, leaving one increasingly vulnerable. The speed at which you must cycle between attacking and deflecting gives the game a very different tempo from either the Souls games or “Bloodborne.” “Sekiro” feels more demanding to me than Miyazaki’s other games, but perhaps after thirty hours I’ve yet to find my sea legs.
To defeat the game’s stronger enemies you must not only drain their health meter but fill their posture bar, throwing them off balance to land a final deathblow. This means that a foe with a sliver of life can still present a formidable challenge if you allow the posture bar to go down. And some enemies, like the notorious early boss Lady Butterfly, quickly regain posture if you let up on the attacking and deflecting to run to safety and chug a health potion. Though the regular enemies one encounters in the game are fairly manageable, “Sekiro’s” mini-bosses and bosses have led me to scour the Internet for tips.
Still, knowing that the best way to defeat, say, an elite samurai is to dodge to the left, can only get you so far if you haven’t mastered the split-second timing to do so. Given how small the attack windows are, I generally doubt that all but the most committed players or those with ace gaming skills will make it to the end.
It’s vexing that a game that requires such skill on the part of players has technical issues. As with FromSoftware’s other games, you don’t have to look hard to spot enemies whose attacks pierce through walls, or notice fluctuations in framerate. To be sure, neither of these issues have sharply dampened my appreciation for “Sekiro,” but I very much hope that a patch will be released to improve the waffling framerate on consoles.
I’m slightly obsessed with “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” though I wish I wasn’t. Perfectionism is a cruel master.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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