Every duel begins with jitters. A nervous stepping back and forth, a careful circling of my opponent. I, as Wolf, the protagonist of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, raise my sword, and my opponent raises their own weapon, whether it be a sword, a stave, or something stranger. Eventually, one of us strikes, and we clash—a wild burst of shining metal, flying sparks, blocks and parries and attacks—until one of us backs away, or one of us makes an error. Usually, the error is mine, but I'm not easy to beat. I'm usually the weaker fighter, but I'm also usually the most determined. That kind of thing goes farther than you think.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a game about the drama of confrontation. Much of its runtime is spent in a series of unforgiving and tightly designed boss fights, forcing you into face-off after face-off against a small army of champions, monsters, and tragic heroes who want you dead. Beating them requires tenacity and a willingness to be direct. Fights in Sekiro, the big, hard fights, aren't won by hiding, or dodging, or trickery. They're won through relentless, decisive action. In Sekiro's feudal Japan, you fight because fighting is the only—the only—way forward.
For developers From Software, who have spent much of their recent history designing games that reward avoiding enemies, that encourage never, ever getting hit by an opponent's attack, this is a distinctive adjustment. Sekiro is decidedly not a Dark Souls game—that needs to be said at the outset—but it does feel in dialogue with From's earlier action games, and seems to build off of the knowledge about players learned from those games to craft a more tonally controlled challenge.
To put it simply, Dark Souls and Bloodborne showed that, given the opportunity, most players will play things as safe as possible, waiting for openings to attack their opponents. The higher the challenge presented, the more careful players will be. Sekiro, then, is an answer to a design problem: How do you get players to play aggressively, to take risks, even when the challenge is as intense as possible? The answer, of course, is to give them no other choice.
Sekiro is a game designed around the feeling you have right before the big confrontation—the moment when only the hero and villain remain, sizing each other up, perparing. You play as Wolf, a shinobi endowed with supernatural powers from his master, a young boy whose blood can resurrect the dead. With that power, you can never permanently die, and each death comes with a chance to immediately rise up at least once more to try again. With that power comes a dogged determination: to save your master from the enemies who have taken him. You are alone, with nothing but your strength and an unyielding oath, and you will not stop until your master is safe.
Sekiro is an answer to a design problem: How do you get players to play aggressively, to take risks, even when the challenge is as intense as possible? The answer, of course, is to give them no other choice.
Your battlefields are idyllic, quiet pieces of feudal Japan. A regal lord's manor, rising up from the mountains. Deep valleys haunted by spirits. Bamboo forests and snowy fields. Lands that are placid and scenic, yet full of tension and dread, until you arrive and start spilling blood, turning that dread from subtext to the truth.
Bosses, in this game, are mostly just littered around the environment in plain sight. Generals among their soldiers, monsters among lesser beasts. A lord atop his tower. As a shinobi, Wolf has tricks to deal with the small fry. You can sneak in this game, picking off opponents from on high, and a grappling hook embedded into your prosthetic arm lets you flank or outright avoid many lesser enemies.
While the emphasis on trickery does extend to some boss fights—a few enemies here and there are pretty vulnerable to some of your equipment, and sneak attacks work on some—the primary use of these abilities is to clear the field for the big encounters. There's deep satisfaction in sneaking around a battlefield, eliminating all of the lesser enemies in the tall grass, before standing and showing yourself to a boss who now has to face you with all of his soldiers dead.
Then comes the clash. To encourage direct action—either with a forward assault or well-timed guards that deflect an enemy's attacks—From Software has introduced an extra meter alongside an opponent's health. Called posture, it fills up every time an opponent is injured or their attack is deflected. If it fills up all the way, they stagger, and you can hit them with a single, punishing strike, a deathblow. Each boss requires at least one deathblow, if not several, to kill. You also have posture, which renders you vulnerable to equally devastating attacks if filled up.
It's possible to fight these enemies in a standard, more careful style, dodging and getting your licks in when you can. But the game is exceptionally punishing to play this way. Instead, From Software wants you to learn when and how to effectively deflect attacks, which lends the fights the drama that they want. A good fight in Sekiro is fast and dizzying, suffuse with action-movie cool, just as compelling as any good samurai flick. The system serves to accomplish precisely what those movies do, the tension turning the fight from something dramatic into something mythic.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is certainly not for everyone. For a certain type of player, it will undoubtedly feel like the most difficult game From Software has ever produced. But it's also enthrallingly atmospheric, its combat and setting contributing to a palpable, engaging sense of mood. It's a game of powerful imagery, of swords crossed in the morning mist. The challenge of Sekiro exists to create that mood, and to answer a design problem in From's earlier games. That's not the point, exactly. But to enjoy Sekiro, you have to accept it anyway.