Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice hands-on preview – souls of the ninja

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – Dark Souls with ninjas

GameCentral gets several hours play on the latest game from the creator of Dark Souls, in what might be the ultimate ninja sim.

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Before we attended the preview event for Sekiro we were warned that review copies would not be available before release at the end of this month. That’s just about the worst warning sign you can get for a game, but we feel confident in saying that, in this case at least, it’s just the publisher being weird – and not a comment on the game’s quality. We suspected that would be the case after having played it briefly at Gamescom last year, but even without that experience knowing that this is by the creator of Dark Souls is guarantee enough of something interesting.

Not only is Sekiro by FromSoftware but the director is Hidetaka Miyazaki himself, the man responsible for the first and third Dark Souls games and PlayStation 4 exclusive Bloodborne. That is a hell of a track record and it’s pleasing to see that his next game is something relatively different and not just another sequel. Although we use the word ‘relatively’ on purpose because Sekiro is still very obviously from the same lineage as the other Soulsborne games.

FromSoftware has a long history with publishing the Tenchu games in Japan and it’s easy to see this as Miyazaki’s homage to the series. Tenchu is a game whose importance has been sadly forgotten over time, even though it helped to popularise the concept of stealth gameplay and predates Metal Gear Solid by over six months. Beyond the use of a grappling hook though the similarities with Sekrio are fairly broad, as you take control of a veteran ninja known only as Wolf.

As the game opens Wolf is given the task of rescuing the ‘divine heir’, to whom he has pledged his allegiance. This takes the form of a tutorial level where you learn to make use of stealth to avoid the gaze of enemies, listen into their conversations, and engage in platforming that, while still fairly simplistic, is a lot more involved than any previous Soulsborne game.

As you’d expect from the creator of Dark Souls, Sekiro is a very difficult game with Wolf only able to survive a few direct hits from even low-level enemies. Although arguably the biggest danger comes from the fact that the various human and supernatural enemies are a lot more competent watchmen than the average stealth game, and are able to not only spot you from a distance but don’t easily give up when they think you’re around.

Meeting the divine heir you’re finally given a sword and the chance to try out the game’s combat, which is fast and fluid and based around the principles of counters and performing a ‘deathblow’. The swordplay is relatively similar to a faster version of Dark Souls, but where the most important concern is to break the poise of your enemy. With less armoured opponents this can be achieved simply through a flurry of attacks, but in most cases you have to block their attack at the last minute or anticipate it enough to maneuverer around them and strike from a different angle.

However you do it your ultimate goal is to try to deliver a ‘shinobi deathblow’ a finishing move style attack that will kill most enemies in one go – although many of the boss and mini-boss characters will need more than one deathblow to kill them. A deathblow can come from normal combat but also stealth attacks, where you sneak up on hapless enemies from behind or jump down on them from above. Either way it’s hugely satisfying and really sells the whole idea of being a super-efficient ninja.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – the graphics are fairly low-tech but they can still impress

The tutorial level proves to be a fake out of sorts as you’re faced with an unbeatable opponent who kidnaps the divine heir and leaves you for dead. You’re found by a mysterious, possibly supernatural, carpenter who has fashioned you a prosthetic arm. Initially this is used to house a grappling hook but eventually can be upgraded to fire shuriken, fireworks (to scare animals), fire bombs, and no doubt much else. Although the ammunition for this is in fairly short supply and can only be rarely found or obtained from more powerful enemies.

The grappling hook is easy enough to use when just aiming it at a spot and climbing up automatically but whether it’s possible to swing, Spider-Man like, through the trees we’re not so sure, as we never got that proficient with it. But while the stealth is very unforgiving, given the competence of most enemies, we did find the combat in general to be a little less difficult than any of Miyazaki’s previous games.

Once you realise that the enemies are working under the same restrictions as you, including a quickly dwindling stamina bar, battles become an exhilaratingly tense test of nerves as well as skill (helped, in large part, by some excellent incidental music). Strike too early and you leave yourself open to an almost instant death but keep your cool and you can dispatch enemies with relative easy.

At one point in the preview we were skipped ahead to a later level, that features ogres and guards with shields, but impressed ourselves by not dying once. Even if a few of our victories were rather ungainly and/or relied on hiding round corners and stabbing an enemy as they ran past. That and the fact that you get a chance to resurrect yourself where you stand once per trip to the game’s main level hub.

If you do die then, just like any Soulsborne game, you lose everything and are sent back to the last bonfire equivalent (a little light-up shrine) but not only did this happen less often than we expected but a combination of stealth and use of the grappling hook means you can catch up with yourself pretty quickly.

That’s probably why you can’t just collect your items and experience by going back to where you died but there does seem to be some kind of percentage chance that your belongs can be reclaimed. It seemed to be set at around 30% though and we didn’t quite understand that element, as it was also affected by something called dragon rot – which appears to be a means to make things purposefully more difficult for your useful; a typical FromSoftware addition.

In terms of graphics it’s clear this is a fairly low budget production but there’s some striking visuals, with surprisingly expansive levels with a lot of verticality. Not being quite as hard as one of the most famously hard video games ever might not mean much but we found Sekiro’s mix of stealth and action extremely satisfying, with none of the awkward long hours of practice usually needed to become even semi-competent.

So if there are no reviews before launch don’t take that as a bad omen, because this is looking like being another FromSoftware classic and one that’s uniquely different from the ones that have come before.

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Activision
Developer: FromSoftware
Release Date: 22nd March 2019

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