Release Date: March 22, 2019
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PC
I expected Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to be difficult, but my first hours weren’t too bad. Sure, I died a few times learning the ins and outs of the game’s stealth and combat systems, which emphasizes parrying and staggering opponents, but I expected a challenge out of FromSoftware’s latest. After all, the developer has built a reputation for making relentlessly difficult games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne. But Sekiro seemed more reasonable at first.
And then I met the Chained Ogre, the first mini-boss and real challenge you’ll encounter in Sekiro, and he’s like a brick wall smack dab in the middle of a racetrack. I must have died at least 50 times to the ogre’s flurry of kicks. Or his damn grab attacks, which either wiped out my health or sent me flying over the edge of a cliff into a bottomless pit. The Chained Ogre is a real bastard.
But finally, after learning his patterns and picking up a helpful new weapon in another area, the Chained Ogre went down for the count. Then, after a few encounters with lesser enemies that were easily dispatched, I ran into the real boss of the area, a spear-wielding samurai atop a lightning-fast black steed. And the whole process began again.
The Souls games were hard, but 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. On more than one occasion, I came back from death only to find myself on the receiving end of another enemy attack which put me down for good and sent me 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 did eventually make me feel like a better player, but as I gained more abilities and fought more battles, Sekiro never felt easy or even approached something like the “normal” difficulty of most action games. While I’ll take the blame for most of my deaths, for not recognizing patterns or being too greedy with my offense, a good number of deaths just felt cheap, like the aforementioned resurrecting into fatal attacks.
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, I’d press the button to land a major attack with either my katana or prosthetic 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 because From has crafted a beautiful fantasy vision of feudal Japan. 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.
Generally, I felt pushed to try a boss fight one more time because I felt like victory was within reach and I wanted to see the next area, but I can’t say that the process was 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.
As a game, I just wish it was a little more forgiving.
Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.