Guitar Hero III is a critically-acclaimed rhythm game published by Activision for the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360 and PC in 2007. In it, the player uses a guitar controller to play along with hit songs from the great guitar-music cannon from the mid-20th Century up to the modern day. I used to be pretty good at Guitar Hero III. This will become relevant later.
Over a decade later, Activision has used its expertise in the genre in a partnership with Action-RPG developer gods FromSoftware. The result is a game that is as much a spiritual successor to the Guitar Hero series as to From’s universally adored ‘Soulsborne’ series of games.
And Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice truly is a rhythm game at its core. Only here, instead of notes, the onslaught is of swords, spears and arrows, the baying audience replaced by a cast of hostile creatures from the human to the horrifying (and sometimes, monkeys).
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice arrives with very big shoes to fill, coming as it does on the back of ten years of FromSoftware at its peak. The Soulsborne games – brainchildren of director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who returns to lend his name to this latest effort – have inspired countless clones and racked up billions of player deaths within their unforgiving worlds. It makes sense, then, that much of the public discourse about Sekiro has been framed by comparisons to its predecessors.
Unfortunately, hundreds of past hours spent strumming a plastic guitar was not enough for me to breeze through this game. It’s hard (if not quite as much as the studio’s past efforts) and you’ll likely find yourself dying a whole lot more than twice. But in keeping with the tried-and-tested formula, the process of dying is still fun as each death brings you closer to the mastery you seek. You grow with the character, celebrating their victories and mourning their losses.
Visually, the game is a cut above previous From games. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice brings a handful of things not before seen in a From game, such as HDR support, which drastically improves contrast between light and dark for people with compatible TVs, and visual upgrades on the more powerful console variants.
I played the game on PS4 Pro with HDR enabled and it looks great, immersing you in the setting of feudal Japan. In many cases you can see for miles ahead, glimpsing environments you’ll later travel to, which lends the world a real sense of cohesion. I particularly like the effort put into the underwater sections, which (with one notable exception) don’t need to be visited to progress the game but are still expansive and well thought-out.
World- and level-design here in general is carefully considered, with a range of interconnected areas offering their own unique visuals and challenges to keep you on your toes. Absent are the detailed maps, markers and waypoints that have plagued open world games from other big devs. There is a map, of sorts, squirrelled away in the pause menu, but it mostly serves to illustrate how the different areas fit together at a high level. Ultimately, you’ll need to use intuition and memory as you explore the secrets spread throughout the game.
A decent orchestral score with a heavy Japanese focus is the soundtrack to your lonely progress through the world. From the contemplative notes as you push into uncharted territory, to thunderous anthems as you face off against the cast of fearsome bosses, the music is appropriately epic as you move through your quest. Overall, I don’t think the score is as memorable and varied as in other, similar games. But that is a very high bar to meet.
The most outstanding work here is in the mechanics, which are as polished as anything FromSoftware has ever produced. Where its other games tend to favour a slow, deliberate approach, here you’re rewarded for putting relentless pressure on your foes. Both you and your opponents have a posture meter, which fills up as damage is taken or blocked. When someone’s posture meter is filled, they stagger, leaving them open to a fatal blow – although more powerful enemies can sustain more than one of these before dying.
Taking pressure off an enemy gives them the opportunity to regain their posture, and killing an enemy by depleting their health is generally harder and more time-consuming, so you’re rewarded for staying on the attack. Well-timed blocks of enemy attacks cause additional posture damage to your enemy, but you risk taking damage yourself if you mistime your move.
All this comes together to give a very real feeling of clashing swords in true shinobi fashion, which makes for a really engaging experience. As the game progresses, the rhythm of your strikes, blocks, jumps and dodges turns combat into a dance that feels incredibly satisfying when you pull off a long combo.
Aside from your trusty katana, your arsenal is fleshed out with weird and wonderful prosthetic weapons. After your character loses his hand in a battle, a mysterious man fits a prosthetic that can be used to shoot projectiles, smash enemy shields and much more as you progress and find upgrades in the world. Most bosses are weak to at least one of your prosthetics in an intuitive way, rewarding the more careful, strategic players who are prepared to analyse for potential weaknesses.
As you explore, you can generally use stealth to scope out areas and silently take down enemies one at a time. While there’s nothing stopping you rushing into an area with your sword held high, there is a lot to be gained from a careful approach as powerful minibosses are often found amongst weaker troops that a cautious player could eliminate before facing the leader one-on-one.
The joy of a FromSoftware game is often found in its discovery, so I don’t want to say too much that gives away the game’s secrets. I will say that the narrative here is much less obtuse than in the Dark Souls series in general. This is helped by having a fixed protagonist, which I know is a disappointment for some who love character creation and widely varied playstyles from other games. Regardless, your purpose here is much more apparent, which some will enjoy.
The big fights throw you against a cast of increasingly powerful monsters with a big range of challenges on offer. Having reflected on my playthrough, I think Sekiro might have the most consistent difficulty curve of all the developer’s recent games. This is definitely a good thing and kept me suitably challenged right up to the game’s final deathblow.
There’s no online play this time around, so no hope of the jolly co-operation that has kept the communities of other From games alive way past their release date. However, replayability can still be found in the new game plus option, which gives you a chance to run the game again with your skills and experience intact, but with enemies who hit harder and stay standing for longer.
All in all, Sekiro is a fantastic experience that shouldn’t be missed by Soulsborne fans and series newbies alike. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the other great ARPGs of the era, and is well worth spending hours mastering.
Featured Image Credit: FromSoftware