In every entry in From Software’s lauded “Dark Souls” series, after a few hours of hard-won progress, there’s a moment where everything finally clicks into place, where you finally understand its grand, unified design. Past that clarification, the sharp spikes of difficulty don’t seem to sting so badly, and you begin to fathom the flaws in the game’s armor, and the odds start to even up. Whether it’s swinging an overpowered weapon, boosting your stats, or simply mastering a boss’s moves through attempt after attempt, the sense of achievement you get from brandishing its own cruel logic against it is what keeps devotees like me coming back for more and more punishment. But after scouring the sakura-soaked mythical Japan of their latest game for forty-plus hours, I’ve come to terms with the fact that that moment never quite comes in “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.”
Let’s dispense with the pleasantries: by every measure, “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is an exquisite action game worthy of your time and money. Unfortunately, it’s also is a deeply unfair and punitive experience, one that seems tailored to those whose eyes begin to turn a crimson hue when anyone suggests the concept of an “easy mode.” Fans of the cerebral, considered swordplay of the studio’s signature series need to adjust their expectations before they dive in. “Sekiro” offers few of the shortcuts that most veterans of the “Souls” series have come to rely on; you can’t simply bash on harmless mooks for hours to strengthen yourself, or scamper around looking for a sharper sword. As Wolf, the sworn shinobi granted the gift (or perhaps curse) of immortality, you’re charged with rescuing the heir to the house you serve against overwhelming odds, and it’s simply your trusty blade and a few ninja toys versus a thousand samurai, all of whom want to slice you into ribbons.
In the one-on-one battles that FromSoft has become famous for – often against minibosses that provide as stout a challenge as anything in the developer’s back catalog – “Sekiro” truly sings. Unlike the more passive block-then-hit of its medieval fantasy cousin, this game is more about applying constant pressure to your opponent than deftly dodging their every attack. Though you can chip down a foe’s health bar with enough patience, it’s more effective to deflect their attacks and slice into their guard, which will eventually break their “posture,” allowing you to perform a gory “deathblow” that usually kills in one hit. But since it’s difficult to guard and strike against two foes at once, the direct approach often leaves you at a massive disadvantage against an armored general and his retinue of archers. “Sekiro” thus encourages you to pick your battles by leveraging your sneaky shinobi skills to cut away the chaff, picking off targets with silent efficiency.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work, at least. In practice, it can leave a lot to be desired, particularly when you’re forced to slit the throats of a half-dozen bodyguards to get another shot at the souped-up spear-wielder who keeps slaying you in one blow. Your shinobi’s prosthetic arm can grapple onto almost any surface, which grants you a great deal of mobility around the battlefield, but whether or not you actually stay hidden seems more based on the game’s whims than your strategy or position. (Embark on the same sneaky route a dozen or so times – which you will since you’ll die early and often – and it’s not uncommon to get wildly varying results.) Mix in the fact that all the guards seem eerily aware of your position the instant you get spotted, and it all adds up to a somewhat inconsistent experience that leaves you little alternative than hoping the roulette wheel that governs the AI spins your way for a change.
As the game progresses, your Wolf receives ninjutsu techniques that help leaven some of the tedium of the constant stealth, and the focus of the game tightens more on the pinpoint swordplay that helps it stand apart from its competitors. Yet even as you gain in strength, the game never lets up on the difficulty, with several encounters that take the concept of balance and break it over a knee. Vanquishing a terrible foe after dozens of attempts only to find an even more exacting version of that fight a few hours later might appeal to the masochist that lurks inside every FromSoft fan, but the frustration will leave those with less time or patience turning off their consoles in protest, unlikely to return soon for another hour of humiliation.
Though we often talk about “easy” and “hard” games as if they’re some objective measure handed down by the gaming gods, the truth is that difficulty varies from person to person. Whether or not the fearsome Genichiro Ashina and the rest of “Sekiro’s” cast of shuriken-throwing cronies will provide more of a challenge than famous FromSoft roadblocks like Lady Maria or Fume Knight ultimately depends on your own perspective. Though I personally struggled more with the late-game bosses than I ever have in his other games – with the optional secret boss taking an entire afternoon by itself – this game simply has more in common with the frenetic action milieu of “Ninja Gaiden” or “Devil May Cry” than the subgenre his studio pioneered, and my relative inexperience with that genre had an impact on my performance. That said, there’s no denying the fact that “Sekiro” is the least forgiving entry in creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s catalog. Its lack of RPG elements and player options means that you cannot force the game to bend to your playstyle – instead, you must master its own elusive combat arts. That makes it hard to recommend to those who aren’t already knee-deep in the dead.
For those who heed the call, “Sekiro” is another beautiful peak worth scaling, its paths marked with the same expertly-balanced barbs and bear-traps of its heritage. It boasts many of the classic elements that mark the work of Hidetaka Miyazaki – allusive storytelling and obtuse yet brilliant mechanics, all which tie into an enigmatic, alluring world. Yet as you scale it bare-handed, admiring the well-wrought design and losing progress all the way, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s someone up there laughing at you, occasionally dropping eggs on your head. When you finally get to the top and admire the view it becomes clear that for willing players, “Sekiro” offers one of the best action experiences in gaming.
For those who lack the time or the inclination or the dexterity or the capabilities, Miyazaki’s insistence on perching his finely-wrought combat systems on a sheer cliff-face of difficulty seems more and more indefensible with every masterpiece he cranks out. Even as we admire his handiwork, it’s hard to shake the feeling that if he traded in some of his stubborn design cruelty for just a touch of empathy, it would be all the greater.