Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Hands-On gameplay preview from a Dark Souls Veteran

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This week I visited Cologne to attend Gamescom. I got to play a lot of video games, ranging from the biggest of the AAA landscape to the most exciting upcoming indies. Activision was kind enough to invite me to go hands-on with the legendary From Software’s next title; Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. So what did I think?

I’ll cut to the chase. Sekiro is downright incredible. From Software fans will not be disappointed here. The game takes Dark Souls deliberate slow combat and blends it with Bloodborne’s faster, more visceral gameplay, making something brand new and fresh but also wonderfully familiar. It is also beautiful. Truly beautiful; the world really feels alive and the environmental design will capture your attention immediately. The biggest two changes? No player stats and the grappling hook. Without player stats, the game is all about skill, and you’ll need plenty of this. The famous From Software difficulty is out in force here. The grappling hook throws whole new and unique elements into gameplay. You’ll fly around arenas akin to Batman: Arkham Asylum while decimating enemies. It brings a lot more options to fights and makes rooms with multiple enemies more manageable as you tactically slice through them with momentum.

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In Sekiro you play as a Ninja. Your objective is to save the Lord whom you swore to protect and enact revenge on his kidnapper who chopped off your arm. It’s a premise that is very familiar to the genre, but this quickly evolves into a much more From Software world filled with incredible fantasy elements. As you are a Ninja, it’s only fitting that the combat reflects this. Using a sidestep to dodge and your sword to deflect attacks you can move through enemies with pace and precision. Keep the enemies chasing you and missing you and eventually, their stamina will run out allowing you to execute a brutal special attack. This opens up tougher enemies to more damage and finishes off weaker foes altogether.

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An aspect of the gameplay that is totally fresh is stealth. From the half hour plus that I played, it seems that stealth is going to be vital to the moment to moment gameplay. I managed to avoid full areas of enemies, just by using the grappling hook and hiding in tall grass. In the same area, I managed to kill everything except a mini boss, featured in the video, just by moving through them one at a time executing them with stealth attacks. It’s a really fresh take on this style of game that adds all new risk/reward elements to an already famous risk/reward system. Get caught trying to stealthily remove enemies in a highly populated area? Be ready to be heavily outnumbered. Fleeing isn’t always easy either, even with the movement options provided by the grapple. Enemies with muskets will gun you down as you try to make your escape.

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Two of the most important elements of From Software’s recent titles have been exploration and boss fights. First, we’ll look at the boss fights. I managed to encounter two during my demo, both of them were amazing. The first seemed to be optional and missed by a lot of other players according to the Activision rep I was with. I’m almost proud to say it annihilated me. In an absolutely one sided fight where I struggled to get to grips with not only the boss arena but the mechanics of the fight itself, I was destroyed. I returned. Did I win? Nope. Destroyed again. But the second time I learned. I damaged my foe, used the layered arena to my advantage and knew that without the restraints of a demo, I could crack this fight. I got what I wanted though, confirmation that ‘fight, die, learn, try again‘ gameplay loop is vital to Sekiro. From there I moved on to the critical path. Well, the Activision rep encouraged me back to the main path as time was fleeting.

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We’ll get to the journey to the boss battle soon, but first, let’s talk about the Monk. The incredibly aggressive, tricky Monk. The battle takes place on a narrow bridge with tree branches nearby to add verticality. This allows you to quickly zip in and out of range and maneuver around your foe. However, the Monk’s long reach and weapon will ensure that even if you are high above him, he’ll bring you crashing down. Your tactical aptitude is as necessary as your weapon skill. As usual, you’ll learn patterns, dodge through attacks at the perfect moment, block and parry as you diminish the boss’ health bar. Once you’ve done this you have two options. One is to fully diminish the health bar, the other is to break the Monk’s stamina to deliver one of the aforementioned special moves. This doesn’t end your enemy. It triggers the next phase; here comes the fantasy elements and the difficulty ramps up again as the Monk turns into a shadow and reaches new levels of speed. I grappled from branch to branch desperately here, waiting for the opportune moment to strike and break the Monk out of this phase. I won’t say any more, there will hopefully be a beta opportunity like Bloodborne to bring this epic fight to more people. What’s important here? The boss battles are epic. They’re intense. I was literally sweating. Sure it could have been the heat of the booth, but the sheer intensity of the game was what I attributed it to. These battles are totally engrossing, I had drawn a small crowd while I was playing. These were people who had limited time to play this amazing game and they noticed how intense the boss fight was and were drawn to watch.

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Remember the reveal trailer? Well, I got to meet this guy. He got to eat me. Win-win. Exploration is going to be amazing in Sekiro if the ten minutes I ran around the world is an indication. You have to stealthily use the environment to avoid this creature as you make your way towards the Monk. You’ll use ledges at different heights with the grapple as well as patches of grass and just sheer speed. I can’t describe how terrified I was when the snake got incredibly close to the patch I was hiding in, it could tell I was there. So I ran. I jumped. It got me. I died. Alongside the grapple hook, you can also grab onto ledges. This adds new platforming mechanics that really open up levels. You had to utilize this to reach the aforementioned optional boss. Environmental clues are back as well. The reason you had to use platforming to reach the boss is because the stairwell path around the mountain was destroyed. To keep people from stumbling open something perhaps?

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This is a From Software game. This has the potential to be From Software’s best game. I can’t say much more about it. In a way, I don’t want to say much more about it. It’s an experience that I was totally wowed by. I haven’t had enough good things to say about it. Both Activision reps loved me so much because of the sheer positivity radiating from me afterwards. This is so familiar but yet fresh. It feels like a total evolution of the Souls formula that has so many new mechanics, taking clear inspiration from the likes of Tenchu and even Metal Gear Solid. This is a game that is going to set the world alight when it releases.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice launches March 22nd 2019 on PS4, Xbox One and PC!

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We’re going to have a ton of content on Sekiro in the lead up to release. I don’t see how I’ll ever stop talking about it. In this preview alone I’ve missed elements such as the prosthetic and the regenerate mechanic. There’ll be plenty of time to bring it up, if you have any questions then hit me up at @AdamAbysswalker on Twitter and I’ll answer them all. Stick to thelootgaming.com for all of this and more.