Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
More Hotline Miami than Dark Souls
What I would’ve tiptoed into in DarkSouls is what I sprint into in Sekiro
If Dark Souls was designed around the tension that builds over long journeys into uncharted and dangerous territory, Sekiro is designed around something much more focused: The tension that erupts when two swords clash. Enemies crowd the dense combat arenas, and the most rewarding way to rip through them is by planning a swift John Wick manoeuvre using your sword, stealth and a toolbox of deadly prosthetic arm attachments. But I am not John Wick. Death is the necessary rehearsal, softened by generous checkpoints hugging the more challenging arenas in the demo. As I look out onto the courtyard of the war-torn Ashina Castle grounds, I can see two armed guards keeping an eye on a massive troll of a man chained, shackled and moaning away. I don’t think he’ll stay there. On the fortress walls bordering the yard is another armed guard and a woman holding a bell. If she sees me, everyone will know of my presence. Another guard or two patrol the perimeter. There’s plenty of foliage for hiding and multiple grapple points for staying out of sight. I need to take out that bell lady as quickly as possible. I plan a route.
I take one guard out from the bushes and sneak my way around the perimeter. A guard on the wall spots me, but I throw enough shurikens into the bell woman to make sure she doesn’t announce my arrival. I hear the massive man rip free from his prison. Apparently the guards below saw me murder their two coworkers, and now everyone in the entire arena is on my ass. I try running, but a flurry of blades put me down. I can resurrect on the spot once and go for a stealth kill after the enemies resume their patrol, but the odds aren’t on my side, so I embrace death. It has to be clean.
A few attempts in and my odds have improved. Through close study of where I can hide, and where each enemy is, I sweep through most of the arena with ease, taking out half a dozen enemies in just over a minute. Stealth stab from the bushes, walk around back and shuriken the bell ringer, jump-stab the guard below, grapple up to the castle wall and leap down onto another. Like HotlineMiami’s similarly designed pockets of action and swift iteration, I create an optimal path.
The final test? The two guards and the troll man below. There’s no way to clear the area without taking on at least two of them at once, so I leap down and plunge my sword through one guard. The troll breaks free and comes at me with the other. He kills me twice before I take him down, but figuring him out isn’t too frustrating thanks to a nearby checkpoint.
What I would’ve tiptoed into in DarkSouls is what I sprint into in Sekiro, safe in the knowledge that I’ll only lose a few minutes of progress as opposed to ten or 15. The slow-burning tension of inching through the Undead Burg for the first time with shit armor and a broken sword has been supplanted with fiery aggression and empowerment. But it’s not any easier. You’re a glass cannon.
FromSoftware has found yet another way to make third-person lock-on combat interesting, focusing on the clash and bang intimacy of sword fights and the attrition required to win a duel. Without a traditional armor and weapon system, everyone will be playing and mastering the same playstyle, so I’m hoping the level design, enemy arrangement, and yet-to-be-revealed arm attachments allow for variability in combat beyond perfect swordplay. I’m confident in Sekiro’s ability to test me, but I really hope it’s just as willing to surprise.
It’s bleak, like any other modern FromSoftware game.