To say that FromSoftware has made an impression on video game culture the last ten years would probably be the definition of an understatement. With games like Demon's Souls, three Dark Souls titles, and PlayStation 4-exclusive Bloodborne, the Japanese developer has created their own genre of slightly sadomasochistic challenge bombs. Bystanders may find it hard to understand why gamers around the world crave games where the words "YOU DIED" are all too familiar but make no mistake, the reward for memorising and timing each and every move in order to take down a boss is a dopamine rush few other games can compare with. The fact that we even use the term 'Souls-like' for games with a great level of challenge, such as Cuphead, Dead Cells, and Ashen shows the cultural impact FromSoftware has made.
With such a grand reputation to live up to, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the expectations for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are exceptionally high. Bloodborne showed us that FromSoftware doesn't have to rely on the Souls setting to create immersive games that demand insane attentiveness from players, and now that the studio has moved on from the Souls series it's exciting to see which direction the developers want to take from here.
The first and most evident difference between Sekiro and its predecessors is the setting. Gone is the dark European/medieval-inspired setting from the Souls games, as is the monstrous gothic backdrop of Bloodborne. This time the studio is taking us to Japan and the Sengoku period in the 1500s, an era of constant conflict between feudal lords, their samurai armies, and nothing that even remotely resembles a centralised nationwide government (the latter only came into effect at the turn of the century after nearly 300 years of feudal strife). It is a time in Japanese folklore where warlords, soldiers, and local peasants were in constant conflict, which also makes it a perfect setting for mixing in some of the more mythical and mysterious elements of Japanese culture such as ninjas, spirits, and demons (a combination that worked out well for Nioh two years ago).
With this setting serving as the tapestry for Sekiro, it's only fitting that Japanese martial arts and combat techniques are something FromSoftware and Activision want to focus on. This was immediately evident by the fact that the preview event included a 75-minute introductory course in kendo, the Japanese martial art where the competitors use wooden swords (bokuto) to hit one another following specific criteria. The basis of kendo comes from old samurai combat techniques, and bushido, the Samurai philosophy which translates to "The Way of the Warrior", is an integral part of the martial art. The basic element in kendo is to tip your opponents off balance by using their movements against them and breaking their posture. This is one of the core mechanics in Sekiro, where combat revolves around breaking the enemies' stance with your sword and artificial arm before striking them with a death blow when their posture is broken. Souls players will find a lot of familiar gameplay when it comes to the game's focus on timing, dodging, and parrying, but the concept of breaking an enemy's posture feels more unique, refined and appropriate to the setting than anything we've experienced in the Souls series or in other Souls-like games for that matter.
After learning some of the basic teachings of kendo, it's impressive to see how the combat in Sekiro aims for a sort of realism in its way of tackling your enemies. Of course, the realistic inspiration from real-world combat techniques is combined with a solid touch of blood, gore, and violence of the dark fantasy kind, and players who strive for more realism will probably have to wait for the release of Ghost of Tsushima, the promising PlayStation 4 exclusive. Make no mistake though, the violence and gore can be quite intense in Sekiro, and combined with dark elements from Japanese mythology this is not a game for the faint of heart.
The faint of heart might want to think twice before delving into Sekiro anyway, for this is without a doubt a game where the player will meet immense challenges. In other words, you will die. A lot. Sekiro is unforgiving in nature, and one or two strikes from the enemy is all it takes to put you in an early grave. Fortunately, you'll have the opportunity for resurrection once, which feels like a welcome helping hand for those who struggle with the difficulty in these games, but even with the possibility of resurrection, it's still easy to be defeated and die. Death can be punishing in Sekiro, and the developers informed us that half of our experience points will be lost whenever we die (though the gods may have mercy on you), which means upgrading your skills in the game's upgrade system will take more time. Upon death, you will be brought back to the game's hub and have to retrace your steps from there, but with half your experience points gone the struggle will still be real. Strangely, though, it never feels as though we died because the game was lacking in any way, but simply because we needed more training, to calm our minds and simply remind ourselves of the old gaming proverb "git gud!"
Our one-hour session with the game took us through the opening tutorial and the following sequence. This gave us a little idea of the story and setting, though you can only learn so much from the game's first hour, especially when you're talking about a game where death comes more often than you want to admit. We follow the story of the shinobi warrior Wolf, whose task is to serve at the hand of his young master Kuro, also known as the Divine Heir. An attempt by Wolf to break Kuro free of his imprisonment ends up in failure and a duel on a moonlit field with an enemy general, who uses the opportunity to chop Wolf's left arm off. Wolf wakes up sometime later at a strange temple, which will serve as your hub during the game, and where a strange sculptor has carved Wolf a prosthetic arm. Along with the help of eccentric characters such as the lone sculptor, a doctor and an undying samurai who serves as your sparring partner, Wolf sets out to free Kuro once again.
The opening sequence in the game gives a certain vibe of the classic manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, and as the developers tell us that the game is a tale of faith and growth we almost get a sense of inspiration from last year's eminent God of War. However, since Kuro is taken back into custody at the start of the game we'll have to play more of it to see how the story turns out.
The general movement in the game can sometimes feel a little slow and sluggish, but luckily Sekiro comes with a grappling hook that can be used to grab hold of trees, rooftops and some ledges. Combined with an upgradeable arm which can be used in combat, ambushes on enemies, and an eavesdropping option, the movement and action in Sekiro has a lot of potential and possibilities. Some quality of life improvements could still be implemented to make the game slightly more accessible, such as a map or a pointer of sorts whenever we are lost in the game (which happened more than we like to admit during the preview), but given that Activision states the preview version is not final we may yet see some small changes in terms of gameplay and accessibility.
With less than three weeks left until release, we're quite certain that Souls fans will have lots of fun playing through Wolf's adventure in the Sengoku era. The challenges appear to be great and hard but also rewarding, just like the genre dictates. The big question remains if those of us who are slightly less into this genre will find the game too hard, punishing and intimidating to enjoy it fully. This question can only be answered on an individual basis, but fortunately, we can all find the answer ourselves on March 22.