Reviewed on PC
You walk up a dark set of stairs, footsteps lightly springing from the action of your foot bouncing off the hard stone. Transitioning from the climb and into a large field of wild, wind-swaying flowers, a figure is highlighted by the unsullied nature. It’s a lone enemy, a mysterious samurai, and Sekiro’s first boss.
Bow on his back, sword in his hand, the samurai follows the same thought pattern of most Soulsborne enemies: they thirst for blood. In milliseconds, the distance between you is closed and katanas clash. The sounds of iron-on-iron, flesh ripping, blood spraying and men exerting all fill your headphones as you desperately try to keep your eyes peeled to the screen waiting for your enemy to let up. Blinking isn’t allowed, only action.
This is Sekiro. These moments of intense actions set in character-oozing arenas designed purely around bushido. You feel like a samurai, despite how many times you may find yourself dabbling in the dishonourable. It feels special just 30 minutes in and it’ll continue to grip and impress you after 30 hours. It’s distanced from its From Software brethren, drastically so, but it has a similar strong core. However, do its evolutions upon its origins actually improve upon its systems and feel?
From the offset, Sekiro sees a drastic shift from From Software’s previous games. Whereas Dark Souls and Bloodborne both saw their twisted narratives side-lined into the background, only available for those who really dig deep into item descriptions. Sekiro has changed, adapted and evolved. Cutscenes are now common, characters are frequent. A living person isn’t a rare occurrence like Solaire in the original Dark Souls, but they’re remarkably regular. It’s a world where people are alive; it’s a world where you play a character to embody.
Set within a re-imagined version of Sengoku Japan, Sekiro tasks you with venturing across the war-torn lands of Ashina in pursuit of your lord. Just like Bloodborne, the importance of blood in Sekiro is unquestionable. For starters, it’s the reason your lord is stolen in the first place as his blood has the power to resurrect. Of course, he made sure to pump your veins full of it which will come in handy as you fight through all manner of enemies standing between you and your master.
While for many the concept of resurrecting blood may be enough to fulfil the power fantasy video games usually aim to portray, Sekiro also pairs you up with a neato wooden arm to replace your rubbish fleshy one. From shuriken to axes to an armour-piercing spear to an extremely important grappling hook, you have a remarkably extensive number of tools at your disposal. Certain tools exceed in certain situations. I you’re going in for a stealth attack you may want to use your grapple to get up high; if you’re going for the thrill-kill you may feel better throwing firecrackers at your foes. Furtive or frenzy, there’s a playstyle for everyone.
Choosing when and where to use your shinobi tools is the puzzle behind every encounter. Sure, you can go into a fight with just your sword in hand, but clever usage of your trust wooden arm will provide you with a significant advantage above your enemies.
While these tools do manage to grant you a slight advantage in terms of diversity, they don’t make the game easy by any means. Sekiro is hard—bollocks hard. Bosses will turn a confident player with full health and gusto into a coward desperately trying to heal between an oppressive flurry of rampant attacks. Sekiro’s bushido-style combat emphasises the use of dodging and deflecting attacks rather than a simple block. Instead of conserving stamina and playing defensively, Sekiro always puts you on the offensive.
Not limited by stamina, fights instead have you focus on your posture to keep your guard strong throughout the constant back-and-forth battles. Having your guard broken during a standoff leads to extreme consequences, usually involving a sizable chunk of your health bar. Occasionally, you’ll see special moves, signposted by the colour red, which cannot be blocked—they’re devastating. You’ve always got to be on your toes.
Even the most basic enemies can kill you if you aren’t attentive enough. Certain enemies require the use of consumable items to overcome, but your resources are limited. Sekiro stretches you to your most extreme, to your most desperate. It’ll kick you in the teeth until you have nothing left and then dare you to come back. But you always do, less fortunate in terms of items, but powerful in terms of knowledge. You’ll come back, you’ll always come back.
It’s hard to stay away for long; with gameplay this tight and combat this satisfying, it’s the video game equivalent of an aspartame addiction. Throwing yourself at a boss ten, twenty or even thirty times in a row doesn’t feel like a chore, it feels like a challenge, and the feeling of overcoming that challenge is always worth it. With a staggering amount of replayability added in for good measure, the challenge may keep you hooked for years.
All of this is aided by the astounding interpretation of Sengoku Japan. While initially the worry of From Software creating an easy “Dark Souls in Japan” environment was creeping in my mind, Sekiro smashes them away immediately. Its world is surrounded by character and its zone variety is greater than any game that From Software has done before.
However, while the general architecture and aesthetic is drop-dead-gorgeous, it’s the details in the scenery that truly sell it. Snow falling and collecting on tiled roofs, moths gathering around open flames, plumes of smoke spiralling into the sky from a mountainside bonfire. Paired with a carefully composed authentic Japanese soundtrack composed of traditional Japanese instruments and this version of feudal Japan may be the best interpretation we’ll ever see in a video game.
Sekiro is a game that somehow exceeds the already lofty expectations set by Dark Souls and Bloodborne before it. It’s From Software evolved, a Soulsborne that feels polished beyond anything we’ve seen before. It’s something you shouldn’t miss, despite the game’s now notorious difficulty. Hardships are worth overcoming here. After all, do you really want to miss what could be the best game released this year?