'Sekiro' Transforms the Dark Souls Formula into Something New and Risky

As blades clash and ninjas disappear into puffs of smoke, FromSoftware has once again found something fresh and exciting.

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Mar 21 2019, 1:00pm

About ten hours into Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware’s latest entry in the pseudo-franchise comprising Bloodborne and the Souls games, I found myself in a familiar enough place: stuck.

I’d made it through the opening hours without much problem. As the titular shinobi, Sekiro, I was on a quest to rescue the young noble lord to whom I had sworn fealty. To do that, I’d snuck through the outskirts of a feudal Japanese castle town, quietly assassinating enemies I could isolate and using the ones I couldn’t as living whet stones, on which I could hone my parrying skills and to try out the various “shinobi tools” that Sekiro can equip to his prosthetic arm.

But eventually, with both main and secondary paths either exhausted or turned into dead ends of difficulty, I found myself facing off against a boss whose circumstances seemed to mark the end of the “early” game. An hour of losing later, I’d burned through most of my consumable resources, like the special candies which buffed my defense or the piles of ash which I could temporarily use to knock him out of his long combo strings. Now all I had my sword, my trusty healing gourd, and my patience. As in the FromSoft games that came before it, Sekiro demanded that I actually knuckle down and learn how to win.

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And if this feeling is all you’re hoping for from Sekiro, then based on my 20+ hours with it, I can confidently say that yes, it’s here. But hopefully you want more than that, because it’s in what “winning” looked and felt like—and the path that brought me to that fight—that Sekiro separates itself from Dark Souls and Bloodborne.

Waypoint’s Natalie Watson, Patrick Klepek, and I dig into what exactly those differences are, along with our feelings about things like the game’s focus on item usage, the lack of traditional RPG stats, and all of the very big animals in today’s special two-hour long Sekiro podcast, which you can hear below (or, which you can download by clicking here).

But in the hours since recording that episode, I’ve been trying to put to words a feeling that’s core to Sekiro but which I couldn’t quite name during the recording. And here’s where I’ve landed: From the game’s combat design, to its traversal and stealth mechanics, and through its narrative themes, this is a game about clashing. Said differently, Sekiro demands you come into risky contact with the people and world around you.

It may be hard to recognize that as a departure: After all, the Souls games have all been filled with difficult combat encounters and environments that punished reckless exploration. But in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, the solution to these challenges was, as often as not, simply “playing safe.” When the monster swings its massive claws, back away, wait for an opening, get a few hits in, and repeat. In Sekiro, that’s just not an option.

This is largely due to “posture,” a new resource that you need to manage during every fight in the game. Posture is represented by a bar that fills up as you or your foe are thrown off balance—your own bar is at the bottom of the screen, and your target’s is either above their head (along with their overall HP) or at the very top of the screen if they’re a boss.

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Whether you’re attacking a low ranking guard or a named boss, many of your slices will be turned away by your enemy’s blade. But with each swing they need to block, you drive your enemy’s posture bar up further and further. If you happen to catch them slipping and sneak a hit in, you’ll do real damage, which makes it harder for them to recover their stamina. And, importantly, you’ll push that bar even higher if you land a perfectly timed block, parrying their sword away (though not necessarily stopping the incoming flow of attacks).

Get the posture bar filled all the way, and they stagger, allowing you to perform a “deathblow,” which ends their life with a flashy (but never overlong) attack. That is, unless they’re one of the game’s many boss characters, whose health bars will display multiple deathblow icons, indicating the number of times you need to break their guard and deliver one of these powerful attacks to finish them off for good.

Posture replaces stamina from past games—which means that neither you nor your foes need to hold back on attacks or dodges. Because of this, Sekiro is very rarely a case of “waiting for openings.” Instead, you trade blows back and forth, trying to learn any given enemy’s attack patterns and unique vitality and posture characteristics so that you can maximize your number of hits and parries. Oh, and I should mention, since permanent health increases are tied to rare items you only gain through exploration and boss encounters, there's no way to brute force your way through these fights. When you mess up, you really feel it.

I know that unfolding all of these mechanical details may seem excessive, but: 1. I've actually left out some key stuff that we cover in the podcast. 2. I’m trying to get to the heart of something, which is that Sekiro has a dangerous rhythm that feels altogether new to FromSoft’s suite of action RPGs. These systems combine with the game’s aesthetics to create a sense of peril I haven’t felt since the first few hours of Bloodborne.

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Even when you’re in complete control of a fight, you face the sound of steel hitting steel, the sight of blades clashing, and if you slip up, you may die on the spot. Every new enemy type is a snarling, fang-filled puzzle: Do you need to land low-damage attacks to their vitality so that posture damage will stack up more easily, or should you focus on withstanding an endless series of blows, or should you be looking into your bag of tricks for a special technique or item to spin things in your favor. Maybe toss a shuriken to keep a foe at distance from recovering their posture, or drop a firecracker to scare an incoming animal long enough that you can actually land hits directly to their vitality bar.

The result is a game where success no longer looks like slicing away at a monster’s ankles while they swing haplessly at the space you used to be. Instead, success in Sekiro feels like opening a stuck jar lid or like winning a game of tug of war: resistance builds tension, until finally the pressure gives way and you find relief.

Sekiro does give you a safety valve to this tension in the form of its resurrection mechanic, which lets you get back on your feet a couple of times before needing to recharge by taking out enemies or visiting one of the bonfire-like statues placed around the world. But, without spoiling how, I can say that even resurrection feels risky in this world because of both mechanical and narrative effects.

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Like Bloodborne and the Souls games before it, Sekiro is critically curious about the ideas it introduces via its supernatural elements. In this case, FromSoft wonders what it might mean to be resurrected endlessly in the service of someone else, expanding on a question that has lingered throughout this long series of games about undeath. In a particularly smart early game twist, it even uses the resurrection mechanic as a vehicle for a metaphor about the ways those in power offload the costs of maintaining their status to those below them in the social hierarchy.

Beyond magical ninja resurrection, Sekiro plays with a lot of familiar FromSoft tropes in narrative and environment design. Within my 20 or so hours, I’ve encountered a sickness terrorizing the land, magical deceivers, and dark truths buried (literally) beneath a civilization that dares not face them.

Yet even these feel distinct, and return to this idea of risk-taking and “clashing.” One example: While very careful navigation might let you pass through some of the world’s more poisonous areas without being infected, in one area, that just seemed impossible. Which was frustrating, because I could see items and side paths in the distance. Then, looking through my inventory for an antidote, I found Contact Medicine, a consumable I’d picked up hours ago. What’s contact medicine? Well, it’s a fast-acting poison. One dose, and I started taking a tiny bit of damage over time… but because you can only have one “poison” status at a time, this meant I was inoculated to the much more harmful toxic of this particular swamp. Risky contact.

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There is also the fact that, unlike the post-apocalyptic fantasy worlds of the Souls games or Bloodborne’s decrepit and ruined Yharnam, you visit the Ashina clan territory in the moment of its decline. Soldiers have conversations with each other on guard duty. Parents worry to you about their children. Everyone remembers the last war, and worries about the next one. It’s a narrative replication of that same push-and-pull rhythm core to the game’s combat: The world is caught in a fight for its life, wavering between being health and illness, between war and peace, between banality and divinity. And there you are.

Playing Sekiro, I feel less like a fantasy disaster tourist than I did in past FromSoft games, and much more like an active force in the world. Sure, the Dark Souls games may ask you whether or not to extend the final days of a once bright era, but that world’s glory days are long gone. In Sekiro, there’s a real sense that things could be improved, which only (again) ups that feeling of risk and presence.

There are so many other ways that Sekiro plays on and leverages on this sense: The striking way that some of the game’s many animals are animated. The way its more traditional, humanoid enemies slowly give way to more and more varied and frightening foes. A handful of genuine set pieces, two of which (so far) led me to shout, startled by what I saw on my TV. In fact, there are too many to list here, and with only 20 or so hours in the game, I’m eager to see how it surprises me next, and whether this feeling of “risky contact” continues.

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Which, I suspect, is about as high praise as I can offer in an "early" impressions piece like this: I’m already beyond “do I like this” and onto “what is this game saying?” Whatever skepticism I had as a long time FromSoft fan, however much I miss “fashion Souls,” whatever my angst over losing detailed item descriptions, those concerns have been pushed aside by my excitement about what feels genuinely new here.

Ahead of our podcast recording, I put a call out for questions about the game. One that we received, in one form or another, was whether Sekiro would ever escape the gravity of FromSoft’s previous games. Could we ever talk about it on its own terms, without reference to what came before? And my flippant, quick response is no. For all of the Tenchu comparisons, Sekiro’s Souls heritage is too obvious, in such a way that even deviations call attention to the history. As both a player and critic, I’m compelled to think about the games I play in their contexts, and I’m not eager to leave that behind for a thought experiment.

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A better answer, though, might be “No, and I’m not sure FromSoft wants us to.” Sekiro is itself a parried blow, an attempt to engage with the criticism that Dark Souls III, while a fine ending to the trilogy, felt staid. Demon’s Souls, after all, came out a full decade ago, and Dark Souls followed suit only two years after that. It has been years of estus flasks and bonfires and red health bars at the bottom of the screen, of item descriptions and arcane multiplayer systems and "YOU DIED" game over screens. All of the venom has been drained from the series’ once fiendish fangs, and for as much as Bloodborne felt like a violent departure years ago, Sekiro brings into relief the many ways in which it was only a new branch of the same tree. Which is why Sekiro needed to also be a counter-attack, a thrust of new ideas entered into the melee. Its shifts in systems and storytelling aren’t full breaks from what came before, but they are extension, variation, and remedy.

All of this, too, is “risky contact.” These shifts work for me, a series devotee who plays through each game once, writes a review or some tweets, and moves on. But I am not the only sort of player. I cannot help but wonder how many will attempt to hop into FromSoft’s ouvre with Sekiro only to be turned away by its difficulty (which, unlike those previous games, cannot be mitigated by calling in a co-op partner). Alternatively, with less of a focus on subtle, environmental storytelling, and without traditional stat builds, armor sets, or PVP, it’s not clear if the long-term Souls and Bloodborne communities will find similar love for Sekiro.

In the long run, I suspect both of these groups will be better off for Sekiro’s experimental nature. Yes, FromSoft could have shipped another game that more cleanly fits one of their successful molds, another Souls, another Bloodborne. Instead, they radically iterated and came away with something that feels genuinely new to play. Which is appropriate: Like one of their own protagonists, FromSoft faced a choice between sustaining the past and charging into the unknown, and they chose the latter.

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