From Software and players have a unique relationship within the industry. Over the past decade, From has developed many titles, but it was the Dark Souls series that brought them into the spotlight. With the release Demon Souls, the Dark Souls Trilogy, and Bloodborne, they cemented themselves as a legendary developer while gaining notoriety for developing games that could be impossible to complete for a percentage of the community. Sekiro, a new IP, looked to capitalize on the love for the Souls series (and Bloodborne) while presenting an environment and story that was markedly different.
While it’s clear that a similar engine has been used thus giving it a familiar look and feel as other From titles, the gameplay is certainly faster. Gone is the familiar stamina meter, replaced by a “posture” meter for both you and enemies. Attacking enemies to break their posture requires a notably more aggressive playstyle, while the ability to grapple and sneak add a dose of variety to both the level design and how you engage enemies. These design changes are the largest difference when comparing Sekiro to its peers. However, while the movement and combat have taken a step forward, sadly Sekiro has regressed in other meaningful areas.
First, let me be clear that Sekiro absolutely nails the feeling of sword combat; possibly more than any game before it. When you get in rhythm against an enemy, hit every parry, and finish the deathblow, it can be an exhilarating feeling and one that Sekiro provides the player repeatedly. But these new mechanics come with a cost. Gone are the iFrames you know and love, and despite the title giving you a dodge button that feels familiar, it doesn’t function in the same way. Many enemies are able to adjust angles of attack during their motion and grabs will seemingly capture you from impossible directions at times. The game is designed to force you into a particular style of combat so while a dose of variety is added through limited use of your prosthetic tools, overwhelmingly you are still expected to attack and parry with your sword until you are able to deathblow. This is especially true of the mini-bosses and main bosses. While “Kill Ingeniously” is one of the catch phrases used by From to describe Sekiro, I’d argue that the choice given the player is actually more limited through the majority of the game than past From titles.
The new sneaking and aerial mechanics are a mixed bag as well. While performing a deathblow from a sneaking state is fun, and air dropping deathblows is quite frankly, brilliant, they demonstrate the dated design elements that have been injected into Sekiro. The sneaking mechanics will be familiar to anyone who has played a game with stealth over the past few generations in that enemies can spot you, become aware of you (and thus search for you), and actively hunt you down. But there is no intelligence to the enemies in any regard. Simply running to a prior location or grappling out of sight will reset the enemies and they will return to their originating location none the wiser. In most cases, they will even return to the exact same posture to which you can instantly return and deathblow them. Worse yet, tethering is very noticeable and in several cases I was able to identify a line that enemies, including mini-bosses, could not cross. When confronted with this, often times they would slowly retreat without any awareness of the player whatsoever. While some appreciate the lack of intelligence as it makes it easier to “cheese” areas of the game, I feel I have to call out the deficiency particularly for a AAA game in 2019.
But let’s speak about the elephant in the room. Is Sekiro an easier, or more forgiving title, than the prior ones referenced? While in some ways it’s more accessible, the honest answer is – not really. While some mechanics and design elements may assist players in areas, the core of the game will push players to their limits just as you would expect with a From Software title. And in many cases, I would argue that Sekiro is more difficult at times. The reasons for this difficulty however are primarily due to two reasons. One would be what I’ve already touched on in that the game expects you to face combat in a particular manner and that manner can be exceedingly difficult at times, particularly with the mini-bosses and main bosses as noted. And second, the only way you can increase your vitality, posture, or attack power in Sekiro is by killing those bosses. And that’s the crux of the issue. Whereas in past From titles, you could farm basic enemies and level up your character and weapons to assist you with progression, that is not an option in Sekiro and it will leave many players looking for a path through the game that doesn’t exist. While you can farm skill points and sen (currency) which allow you to unlock more talents and eventually upgrade your prosthetics, your core vitality and power won’t progress without prayer beads and memories earned from eliminating bosses.
It’s worth mentioning that in the late game there is an item you can acquire that allows you to level attack power through skill points, but by then you’re near the end of the game and it’s certainly not efficient. It’s more of a thought for new game plus.
There are two aspects of prior From titles that have always impressed me thoroughly and sadly it’s these two aspects in which Sekiro has notably regressed. First, the sense of discovery and variation in the game world, from enemies to landscapes, were incredible in titles like Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne. Not only are the landscapes more limited in Sekiro (though there are some beautiful vistas), but enemy variety as well. In fact, there are only a total of ten major boss fights in Sekiro and a couple of them are gimics. There are also some mini-bosses that by the end you will have encountered three separate times with very minor differences. The second aspect is the lack of character and weaponry customization. While I understand From wanting to write a character based narrative in Sekiro, learning the nuances of tens of different weapons, and experimenting with them, has been one of the staples of From games. Learning different skills simply doesn’t replace that feeling. Regrettably, these two issues compound one another as well. While you still pick up items around the environment often, because there are no weapons, armors, or customization pieces, it also feels less meaningful.
If it sounds as though I’m being rather harsh on Sekiro, I am. As the latest IP developed by From Software and led by Miyazaki, I certainly expected more. While it still has some From charm and the combat is brilliant at times, overall it is a step backwards in multiple areas. While a character driven narrative was attempted, the familiar game design elements were re-used but missing aspects that made the other titles timeless. In this way, I feel Sekiro missed the mark. With that said, it is still a very good game and I’m certain that fans will appreciate it to some degree. It still provides the initial sense of dread when confronted by a boss as well as the memorable sense of accomplishment when overcoming a challenge that initially seemed impossible. But personally, I continue to await Bloodborne 2.
Tune into Bitcast 54 for our review discussion on Sekiro this week!
Final Verdict : 8
Fun Factor : 6
Technical Prowess : 6
Time Investment : 20-40 hours (more with NG+)
Replayability : 5
I couldn’t leave out the fact that as of this posting (April 21st and thus a month since Sekiro launched) less than 7% of players on Xbox have finished the title. So while many have played Sekiro with over 2 million copies sold, it’s clear that as usual players are struggling to get through it.