When From Software teased “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” at the 2017 Game Awards, Bloodborne fans hoped for a return to the fictional city of Yharnam. Instead, the studio behind the Dark Souls franchise is taking us to its own version of 16th century Japan’s Sengoku (warring states) period in “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.”
“This is not a historical game,” says From Software’s Tasohiro Kitao. “The idea is that this is a theme-setter.”
As for the title, Sekiro is not the hero’s name. In fact, Kitao didn’t share the character’s name.
“There is an old Japanese term for someone who is missing a limb, which is sekiwan,” says producer Robert Conkey. “‘Seki’ is from that word. ‘Ro’ means wolf. It translates to ‘one-armed wolf,’ which is not the hero’s name per se, but it describes him.”
Players are on the hunt for a noble known as “The Young Lord,” who was taken from the hero’s care. During the kidnapping, the hero’s arm is cut off and later replaced with a prosthetic limb.
In a hands-off demo, Kitao shared how director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s latest is both similar and distinct from his recent games. From Software is known for its methodical, exacting combat. And while “Shadows Die Twice” does demand quite a lot from players, it does so in a more graceful way.
Players are given more options when approaching enemies through a wider use of vertical space. A grappling hook built into the “shinobi prosthetic” that replaces the hero’s left arm allows players to navigate the environment. This can only be used to latch onto specific points in the environment rather.
If you manage to find yourself above an enemy, you can drop in for an instant kill on weaker enemies or significant damage on larger foes. Once in battle, players can also jump, making combat a bit more dynamic. It’s the sword fights that truly set “Shadows Die Twice” apart from previous From Software titles, though.
Both the player and enemies have a “posture” meter. You can block enemy attacks, but to expose them to brutal death blows, you’ll need to parry by precisely timing your block. This creates a different type of tension than rolling or sidestepping in From’s other games.
Unlike Dark Souls and Bloodborne, director Hidetaka Miyazaki has opted to focus on a single-player experience in “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.” That means no character customization and, more importantly, no multiplayer. You’ll still be up against massive bosses, but you’ll have to suffer them on your own.
“When you design a single-player game and a multiplayer game, it’s very different,” Kitao explains. “The concept this time around, we wanted to focus on a single-player experience and not have any of those limitations when you’re designing a game that is meant as multiplayer. That was the focus and the decision.”
To compensate, death is less of an obstacle in “Shadows Die Twice.” Players won’t see the all too familiar “You Died” screen in quite the same way, thanks to a resurrection power. But if dying can simply be undone, the stakes don’t seem nearly as high as losing all your souls or blood echoes. From Software has thought of that, too.
“While dying does seem strong, there are certainly limitations as to how many times you can do it,” Conkey says. “Rest assured that the tension you’ve come to expect from a From Software game will be present.”
With that in mind, dying can be a handy tool (provided you haven’t exhausted your resurrections). Enemies become complacent after your death. You can get the drop on them again if you wait to come back to life until their backs are turned.
The shinobi prosthetic also allows you to adapt to various situations. It can be equipped with an axe to break wooden shields and shuriken to disrupt ranged enemies, allowing you to get in closer for the kill.
There are also powerful abilities that can imbue your sword with fire. One particularly useful skill lets you assassinate enemies and turn their blood into a choking smoke.
Aside from combat, “Shadows Die Twice” throws you into stealth encounters with enormous monsters. In the demo, the hero avoids being seen by a gargantuan snake.
“One of the things we’re really excited about players experiencing are these tense cat-and-mouse sequences with these larger-than-life enemies,” Conkey says.
The demo concludes with what he calls a “From Software Boss,” in this case, the Corrupted Monk. The large creature is an imposing sight, and will test players’ ability to react quickly as it clones itself and attacks from all angles.
“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is a brand new intellectual property, but it isn’t the only ninja franchise From Software owns. The studio also controls the “Tenchu” franchise. However, From Software didn’t develop that series. It published it on behalf of Acquire.
“Internally, there was a desire to make a game based on Japan,” Kitao says. “From Software owns the Tenchu IP. They were looking at a lot of places for inspiration, and that was one of the ones they looked at. The game is its own IP. It stands on its own, but Tenchu was an inspiration.”
“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” will be out in early 2019 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.