FromSoftware has closed out the decade with another masterpiece that sees the acclaimed developer step out of its comfort zone on more than one occasion. After the four previous Soulsborne entries and a whole wave of copycat releases flooding the market, Sekiro feels like a breath of fresh air and a welcomed shift in direction that was needed to prevent future titles from becoming stagnant. It's still has depth and is unapologetically difficult but it distances itself by introducing elements of stealth and a more streamlined player progression system.
Sekiro is also the studio's most narratively-driven effort to date. It unfolds in a re-imagined 16th century Japan and sees you take command of a shinobi known as Wolf who is sworn to defend the life of his master, young Lord Kuro. Early on we see Wolf face a crushing defeat where his arm is severed off and his master is carried away by his attacker. The shinobi then awakens in the glow of candlelight and finds that a lone sculptor had come to his aid and has fitted him with a wooden prosthetic that can be upgraded with new features throughout the course of the adventure. Returning from the brink of death he then sets out to be reunited with his master, facing formidable foes and tightening his shinobi skills along the way.
Coming off the back of the rapid-paced Bloodborne, it did take us a few beatings to really integrate the precise parrys and blocks into our repertoire of moves. Combat has been completely revamped and instead of slashing away to reduced a seemingly endless health bar you have to target your opponent's posture to leave them more vulnerable. This is done by precisely timing a block as your opponent's blade is just about to make contact and it demands that you study your opponent's movement pattern and act on cue. Once an opponent's posture bar has been ramped to the top you can then perform a death blow and each opponent has a set amount of these that need to be performed if you're to take them down.
The metallic clink of performing a parry felt gratifying and demanded our full attention as simply blocking would cause our own posture gauge to climb. Keeping the pressure on felt vital here as this bar will eventually regenerate and some foes even have the indecency to sneak off and recover if left unattended. The perilous attacks really kept us on our toes as they were unblockable and only gave us mere seconds to react before we were hit. The newfound posture system really helped to revitalise encounters and pushed us to get into the heads of our foes, predicting their next moves and responding with precision.
Sekiro also shook up the formula by introducing elements of stealth but fortunately these aren't the soul destroying instafail kind. Wolf can scale the walls of ancient temples using his grappling hook prosthetic, allowing you to pick off foes from below, and you can also hide in the tall grass to stalk those that patrol around you. We found being stealthy a blessing during boss fights as we could deviously sneak an easy death blow by giving them a well-planned knife to the back. It also meant that we could scope out an area and cut down the foes we faced one to one and our path to safety was always just a grappling line away.
Wolf's left arm can be fitted with other prosthetic tools that you can find when exploring the open world and these can be used in combat to exploit opponents' weaknesses. Firecrackers, for example, can cause foes to be stunned temporarily allowing you to land a few tactical slashes, and the sabimaru can inflict deadly poison damage when timed well. There isn't a point-based skill tree or different classes of weapons here but the prosthetics themselves all have their own uses and can be upgraded via a skilltree that improve aspects such as their range and damage.
It also features some of the most memorable boss encounters ever to have graced a FromSoftware title, which is a bold claim considering they are such a prominent part of the studio's previous work. The dual-staged brawl against the Guardian Ape was a particular highlight, especially during phase two when the ape picked up its own decapitated head and threatened to spook us to death with its harrowing screams. We can't forget our tussle with the lightning-wielding archer Genichiro either, as it was a real test of endurance with us narrowly surviving our way through all three of his different phases.
Coming out of the FromSoftware cannon right after one of the PS4's finest exclusives, Sekiro:Shadows Die Twice manages to stand tall as a masterpiece in its own right. The new posture system completely changed how we approached combat encounters and added elements of stealth and environmental verticality helped to keep things feeling fresh. With the Japanese developer now busy collaborating with Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin, it's likely that the book has now been closed on Sekiro, however, judging by the quality of the studio's output thus far, it seems like we have a lot to look forward to.
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