So here we are. I have sunk a lot of hours into the latest FromSoftware title and this review won’t hold back. It’s a masterpiece. Activision and FromSoftware have created a wonderful title that I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who has an interest in action games. FromSoftware has been building to this moment for a long time, something separate from their trademark Dark Souls series. Something that stands alone. Bloodborne was one step in the right direction. Sekiro is a leap.
There is a much stronger emphasis on the hero’s journey in this game. That’s ideal, it mirrors the feudal Japanese time period that the game is set in. This was a period in history where war and chaos were the only constants as brutal warlords lay waste to Japan in attempts to conquer the land for themselves. You are a Shinobi, Wolf, charged with protecting the Divine Heir Kuro. When Kuro is taken from you by a rival General (who also takes your arm through an act of dishonor) you must rescue the young Lord and restore your personal honor. The characters in Sekiro are all fantastic, be it the enigmatic Sculptor, your intimidating Foster Father or the master of medicine, Emma. Even the bosses, like the armored warrior and Guardian Ape, have wonderful back stories open to interpretation and exploration.
At the heart of Sekiro lies an action adventure game and it’s the adventure and exploration that we’ll discuss first. This is a game that absolutely rewards player curiosity. Around any corner, you might find an item vital to the plot or a hidden miniboss. You might even meet a new NPC who’ll reveal a new quest. Taking your time to seek out every secret in every nook and cranny in every new locale will really benefit you as you make your way through the world surrounding Ashina Castle. Each area is distinct enough despite sharing a theme. There are some truly excellent set pieces that take advantages of the areas, such as the Serpent fight early on or the sprint through the Gun Fort.
The more important part of the gameplay? Action. But in Sekiro it’s so much more than simply hacking and slashing through your foes. Verticality and stealth are two new mechanics that add so much to FromSoftware’s tried and true formula. If you don’t learn to jump over attacks later bosses in the game will absolutely annihilate you. If you don’t learn to utilise stealth you’ll find yourself at an instant disadvantage. If you don’t understand the importance of deflection or of the mikiri counter then some fights will be genuinely impossible. The action is fully based on a structure that doesn’t just reward risk or persistence, it rewards growth. Practice, learn and you’ll always have the ability to showcase your talents against Sekiro’s gallery of rogues.
This particular gallery of rogues is probably From’s least varied and smallest yet. However, there is a caveat to this. Sekiro is the least varied and smallest game from the legendary developer yet. You’ll beat the story in under twenty hours and your second playthrough will half that time comfortably. ‘Meh‘, some purists may scream. Actually, it works in the player’s favor. By limiting playstyle, you’re encouraged to be a master of what you have rather than a jack of all trades. It really encourages skill development, especially of key gameplay aspects like the mikiri and deflection. You can’t just ‘respec’ and try something completely different, you need to learn how to take on spear enemies, huge brutes, samurai generals and shinobi assassins with what you have.
What do you have? One arm. A sword. Lightning fast feet. Eyes that can see in the dark (didn’t make it up, it’s genuine in-game lore). That sword is incredibly vital to the moment to moment gameplay. It’s how you’ll do most of your defending and attacking. You’ll block and deflect incoming blows as well as strike down your enemies. Timing blocks to perfection will damage your enemies posture. Build up enough posture damage with deflection, attacks, and abilities to use a deathblow and end them no matter what their health bar is at. Health is an important factor. Enemies will take higher posture damage at lower health. Training yourself to focus a sustained assault on posture and ignore the health bar is just one of the tricks that Sekiro pulls on Souls veterans.
There are numerous tools that you can equip to your prosthetic arm to give you combat advantage. This includes an axe which deals high posture damage, Stealth works fantastically well. Sneak up behind an enemy and backstab them to kill them immediately. You can do this multiple times and if you get spotted you can flee the enemy and return. It even works on some bosses and mini-bosses giving you an advantage from the first seconds of the battle.
This is all brought together and enhanced by the skill trees on offer. Each skill tree works to a section of the in-game story and lore. You have shinobi skills which are quite basic. There are melee-focused skills based on the Monks in Senpou temple. There are skills based on the prosthetic arm. There are skills that use techniques from the Ashina samurai. These skills all make sense in terms of lore and allow you to adopt abilities that enemies use on you. They won’t drastically change your combat style but they’re fantastic for changing up gameplay slightly and giving you a small advantage in previously tight battles. One skill does big posture damage. It became a favorite. Other ‘Latent skills’ add permanent boosts including extra health from healing items or a higher item drop rate. Of course, there’s the vital mikiri counter.
Sekiro is a stunning game. I played on a PS4 Pro and never encountered a single frame stutter, it ran smoothly the whole time and I was constantly taken aback by the world that had been put in front of me. The sights are genuinely stunning. Character models and strong and enemies are brought to life in a wonderfully fearsome manner. Effects like fire, poison, and water all look solid. The sound is excellent. Both the Japanese and English Voice Tracks are top quality and the sound effects throughout are of a high standard. These all keep you totally immersed in the world of the One-armed Wolf.