First off, this review is spoiler-free, apart from the introduction. The screenshots are mostly from the first area, and I’ve tried to avoid even the tiniest reveal past the start of the game. Please go on and read without fear of something being spoiled for you. I’ve made sure of this.
I will confess it from the very beginning, I died more than twice! I have no clue how many times I died (there’s no in-game counter like in Dark Souls 2), but my death count was probably well over a hundred times. This was just my first play-through.
Sekiro Versus Past Games
Even though death is a constant, I believe the developers, FromSoftware, did a fantastic job with Sekiro. Before I discuss this modern game, let me look at at the previous games. First, note that I’ve played all the Dark Souls games (Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne too).
However, I was never a huge fan of the previous titles. I’d play them, but I wasn’t the guy who replays the games numerous times with different classes and weapons. I would usually do one ‘new game plus’ run and then move on. Below are my reasons.
Starting with the Souls games, I dislike the fact that you can play the whole games only by pressing R1 for a normal hit and O/B for rolling/evading. Plus I passionately dislike the roll mechanic. It looks so stupid while wearing armor or carrying a weapon bigger than yourself.
In the Souls games I had to adapt to the games’ limitations. I played a sword and parry-shield warrior in order to perform riposte attacks and get the wonderful gut-stab animations. Back-stabs were preferred as well.
Bloodborne is another story since they replaced the combat roll with a cool looking dash-evade, and once I realized how visceral attacks worked I was all in! I loved countering and delivering massive damage to enemies, but the lack of proper finishing animations still held back my enjoyment.
Another problem with the prior games was the very limited storytelling, and when combined with the lack of suitable counter/evade mechanics and stylish finishers, I wished for more.
I can wish no longer because by the grace of Buddha (the game’s deity) Sekiro remedies all these issues and gives me exactly what I’ve wanted. As a result, I’ve played the game twice on PC and once on PS4 Pro, having more than 150 hours in total. (I played on a console with my best bud, who is a damn master by the way, in case you are wondering why on earth I endured the poor console framerate).
FromSoftware specializes in third person action/RPG hardcore games for many years now, even the ancient Tenchu series was hard as hell, maybe not like Ninja Gaiden but still hard enough to make you unleash you rage on your favorite gamepad and regret it later at your local game store register.
The major factor of difficulty was the save system. If you died in these games you had to replay the whole map and back then combat was not great, the game focus was stealth and as a ninja your best bet for survival was to sneak around and perform stealth finishers. If I remember correctly in open combat you could actually die from one hit thus making stealth the only viable option; at least in most cases.
Story (Introduction Only)
Let me start with a little bit of story since Sekiro features a more traditional narrative style. Wolf, the main character, was an orphan until a master shinobi (a ninja of sorts) called Owl recruited and trained him to follow something called ‘the iron code.’ The game begins with Wolf protecting a young boy called the Divine Heir.
As the game goes on, you learn through various cutscenes about something called the ‘Dragon Heritage,’ linked to resurrection. Soon enough a villian emerges that wants to steal his power, and Wolf must go on a journey to find answers and protect his charge.
To say more would reveal too much. The story is not amazing or even fresh, but it works quite well in a game like this. It’s very easy to follow compared to the previous games wherein you get most of the story through item-description lore. You can still find lore through items and conversations like prior games, in case you are wondering.
Most importantly, in Sekiro I felt I had a story reason to push on–something to look forward to. Also, the different endings feel much more connected to the story.
NPCs, Voice Acting, & Audio
The NPCs are quite interesting and most of them have a back-story. It’s up to you to decide how much you’ll learn. Finally FromSoftware has added moving lips to characters. The lip-syncing is horrible, but this is still preferable to ventriloquist NPCs.
They voice acting is decent. I especially liked Wolf’s voice. There’s a option for Japanese acting with subtitles, but I didn’t try this. Some people might prefer the original language, but I’m not one to read subtitles through the whole game, no sir!
The music and sound are pretty great, which is expected of a FromSoftware game. I do appreciate the inclusion of more ambient music in Sekiro. The dead silence of the previous games drove me insane. They even implement fight music for every encounter, but I just wish there was more diversity in the tracks.
The boss music is pretty damn good; particularly the special boss music. Something I didn’t like was the sound of a few effects like the deathblow which was way too abrasive and loud. After listening to it a thousand time it becomes quite annoying.
Graphics, Controls, UI
Graphics are pretty good but nothing fancy. At least the game runs well, even better than Dark Souls 3. By adjusting a few settings I had a stable 60 FPS at all times, and if put everything on high I never dropped below 50 FPS. For a more detailed analysis please read the Sekiro Performance Analysis in case you haven’t already.
The only thing I didn’t like was the white fog covering much of the game’s environments. I was stuck with this on the PS4, but on the PC I used ReShade to sharpen the image clarity.
The controls and UI are very similar to previous titles and they work just fine. The same goes for the menus. You can even enable dynamic UI which adds to the immersion but it might kill you if you don’t pay attention.
I didn’t try to play with mouse and keyboard. I did play though with both an Xbox and a PS4 gamepad, and both performed excellently. Personally, I prefer the XB1 gamepad because of the larger L1 button, which is the most vital button in the game.
Now let’s get to the important stuff; gameplay. This has always been the heart of the previous titles. This time around the gameplay is much more focused. Combat is fast and brutal, but it can also be slow and methodical while you wait for the right opening. I find this much better, even though some players will unquestionably have a problem with the combat.
The enormous difference with the previous games is the existence of ‘posture.’ You build up posture by taking hits and blocking enemy attacks. If the posture bar fills up you get staggered, which drops your guard and gives you only a slight chance to dodge out of the way.
The exact same thing works for the enemies, but when you fill their posture bar you can perform a deadly finisher which guarantees the total demise of your enemy no matter the amount of health they have left. This only works on normal enemies since mini-bosses and bosses usually have more than one bar of health.
Fundamentally the combat is very straightforward and you will mostly use four buttons for block, attack, evade, and jump. In a sense the combat is simple, but it’s also deep and rewarding. You can guard almost every attack without losing any health as long the attacks do not feature elemental attacks or grabs.
The only downside of blocking is that you get posture damage, and if you keep your guard up your posture drops much faster. In the Souls games, guarding would regenerate your stamina much slower, but Sekiro actually doesn’t have stamina at all. You can attack and run as much as you like, which is quite liberating.
Guarding, Deflecting, Evading, No Rolling
Sekiro heavily depends on guarding and deflecting. In fact, it’s the only viable way to progress through the game. If you can’t get the precise timing down, you simply won’t survive this adventure. There is no other way.
To reiterate, the ideal way to play is not to simply block all the time. You want to press block the moment you’re attacked to deflect incoming attacks. This timing inflicts major posture damage, and as stated above leads to unique finishers.
On a more technical level, this precise blocking gameplay could very easily be a major issue for Souls and Bloodborne fans. The roll of past games is gone. There is a dash/sidestep evade, but there are no ‘iframes’ (invincibility frames) like before. This means you’ll very often get hit during evading. For me it wasn’t an issue since I avoided rolling in all the previous Souls games. I found deflecting much easier compared to the prior parrying system, actually.
Combat Tips & Strategies
In Sekiro even if you don’t time it perfectly you can still avoid damage if you keep pressing the guard button. I found holding the guard button and momentarily releasing it works better for deflection compared to tapping at the last second, at least in my experience.
Evading usually works well on larger enemies and for some un-blockable attacks. My suggestion is to forget everything you learned from the prior games and follow the game’s instructions to the letter.
Jumping is also a key feature like never before. Jumping was never a combat mechanic in prior games, but since you are a shinobi (ninja), it would be dull if you didn’t have the ability to do so. You can even do a wall jump that look pretty cool and has a couple of different animations depending where you aim.
Speaking of animations they smoothed out the walking and running animations, so you no longer see the weird ‘stutter-step’ when you walked or ran on stairs, rocks or uneven ground.
Some enemies have special heavy damage attacks which cannot be blocked. There are three different attacks: thrust, sweep, and grab.
Thrust attacks can be deflected or countered with the Mikiri counter in which Wolf performs a unique animation by dodging into the attack and inflicting major posture damage (if performed correctly).
The sweep attack cannot be parried or evaded, you can only jump over it, and if you time it right you can jump towards the enemy and do a jump kick in the face which also inflicts major posture damage.
Grab attacks usually require quick side-stepping or backing up. Some trial and error is required.
Speaking of various counter-skills, these counters are essential for survival. If you don’t master them you’ll ultimately hit a wall, making the rest of the game a headache (or impossible). My suggestion is practice – practice – practice until you feel confident you can easily execute these counters.
Something else you might want to keep in mind is the ability to run while having an enemy locked, without losing the ability to deflect, guard or hit, it only adds a slight delay to each action. This can be very useful when you battle large enemies and you need some space for a breather or simply a hit & run approach. You can even run and slide underneath enemy attacks.
Last but not least, the posture bar is tied to your health, meaning that if you are at max health your posture bar will be larger and will drop faster. On the other hand, if your health is at 50%, the bar will be smaller and will drop at a slower pace. In Sekiro, it’s very important to be fully healed before facing your enemies and I also recommend doing some damage to your opponents first before start deflecting and countering (in order to avoid wasting posture damage).
Not an RPG, Pausing
Sekiro features no classes, armors, weapons, or anything of the kind. There is only one armor and one sword which you will use through the whole game, and there are only two stats: vitality/posture and attack power. These stats are leveled up mostly by defeating bosses.
Therefore, this is not an RPG. This is a clear-cut third-person action/adventure game. However, there is still much to explore, secrets to find, and items to collect.
A bit random, but since Sekiro is strictly single-player, there is pause –actual pause. No more dying because someone is calling or ringing the door bell or trying to chat with you. Thank you FromSoftware, very much appreciated.
Experience Points, Skill Trees, Prosthetics
Experience points still exist, which you get from killing enemies and spend on skills points. You start with two skill trees, the shinobi and the prosthetic. Several more skill trees unlock as you play. Some skills require more than one XP point and many skills must be unlocked sequentially.
All skill trees have an ultimate skill. I personally feel these are not worth it. The passive skills provide much more constant help. Active skills are called combat arts and you can only have one active, but you can switch at any time.
The shinobi prosthetic is Wolf’s new tool that will lend him a…hand (sorry, I couldn’t resist) to overcome the difficulties of his epic journey. The prosthetic can be fitted with different offensive and defensive tools. You start with the grappling hook which you can always use at anytime as long there is a grappling point somewhere nearby. You can equip up to three different prosthetic tools, and can always change at anytime from the pause menu.
They only limitation to the tools are the available uses. Every tool (except the grappling hook) uses spirit emblems which you can buy with gold, loot from dead enemies, or even find in the open. Some tools use only one emblem while others might use even more. Also keep in mind that some combat arts also use spirit emblems, so make sure you’re prepared before fights.
You can upgrade all the prosthetic tools giving them different abilities. In order to upgrade them you will need gold and materials. Most of the these are pretty common while others are very rare and have a specific number in each play-through.
Impressive Level Design & Enemies
The level design is pretty damn impressive, even if it’s not so interconnected like prior games. You will still find shortcuts, hidden pathways, and special rooms. Most of the areas are quite different from each other and feature unique enemies that fit the theme.
As always, you are free to explore. There are many hidden surprises, and it will take some effort to find them all since it easy to even miss whole areas, like past games. You can even find hidden bosses.
There are loads of enemies in the game, from overfed lizards, which you can skateboard, to big angry roosters! I prefer to fight humanoid enemies, and the majority of enemies are indeed of a humanoid nature. Although, they are usually larger than you.
Also note this is a “mano a mano” combat system, you will not be able to fight a group of enemies efficiently. What I like most about combat is you will eventually be given the chance to perform a glorious and utterly satisfying finisher that feels so damn good after a difficult battle.
There are many mini-bosses (some might say too many) with only a few re-appearing with a different colored textures. The mini-bosses range from easy to quite impossible at first, especially if they have more than one bar of health.
I found the main bosses; with some exceptions, easier compared to some mini-bosses, but of course there are a couple of bosses that will most definitely give you a fight to remember. One of the main bosses gave me the beating of my life, but when I finally won I’m pretty sure the whole neighborhood heard my winning roar!
Overall, I enjoyed most the boss fights (especially the unconventional ones) because you don’t usually fight big monsters where you chop their feet until they drop dead.
The Difficulty Question
So about the question I have been seeing everywhere…”is it difficult?” Absolutely! Is it impossible? No, absolutely not. For me this game was easier compared to the previous FromSoftware games. This is because of my play-style, so if you were a parry shield player you might find this game very feasible.
Now if you are a hardcore rolling player then you are out of luck. This game will be very difficult for you unless you forget everything you already know. Trust me; you will not survive by evading even if you find a mod that replaces the dash with a roll. There is a guy in the starting area which can help you train and train you must, young shinobi!
To repeat myself, there is no stamina and your posture drops way faster while blocking, so the game is trying to make you realize that you must play a certain way in order to survive.
There are some nice features that make the game easier. With the help of the grappling hook you can disengage from combat at anytime and heal in safety (except boss fights). There are several passives skills tied to health. Falling damage is minimized, and the game has a sort of sticky movement system on some cliffs and tree branches.
The checkpoints are usually very close to each other, and even if you die to a boss you can easily use you enhanced mobility to rush through the enemies and face the boss again in some seconds. So this is nice.
Another huge feature is the resurrection system. You can immediately resurrect at your spot of death, although there’s a cool-down of sorts on this feature. Did I mention the most important thing though? Stealth.
A Robust Stealth System
What kind of shinobi (ninja) would you be if you couldn’t sneak around and stab people in the back, from above, or even from below? You can crouch and limit your visibility up to a point. The enemy AI is very simple and brainless. This is intended in order to make stealth more useful. Of course, you are free to play how you choose, but stealth makes the game much easier in parts.
Stealth is incorporated into nearly the entire game. You can perform stealth finishers on almost every enemy apart from some mini-bosses and main bosses. Stealth is the best tool to easily clear areas.
Other Points & Problems
Some bosses are surrounded by annoying enemies. Some might find this a bit excessive since boss fights are generally challenging enough without extra enemies.
Some ranged enemies do “auto-aim” with their attacks. This can be aggravating when a throwing star magically curves and chases you down. Not all ranged attacks behave like this, though.
The camera has some issues in closed spaces and with larger enemies. Most of the top tier skills are sort of rubbish. Enemy AI is plain stupid, but as I mention before I believe this is intended.
A few bosses feel like a chore, and some of them are stupid hard, not because of their difficulty but because of their number of health bars.
You cannot sheath your sword for some reason. The regular deathblow animations need more variety. The requirements for one of the endings are just ludicrous. No one would ever think of doing what is needed in the right order on their own.
The new game plus mode is fine but I don’t see any reason to give it a go more than once since there are no major changes to enemies or loot.
The combat can be a bad thing for some people as well. It’s a very focused combat that some will find fatiguing.
Conclusion: I Loved It!
All in all I had so much fun with this game. I’ve been waiting for a good triple-A ninja game since Tenchu. Sekiro delivers intense sword-clashing combat and the feeling of being a real bad-ass ninja.
Combat never felt so rewarding for me, and almost every new encounter has taught me something new that helped me along the way. I find this reward of personal growth more satisfying than some sword or trinket I might not ever use.
This game is without a doubt not for everyone. The lack of classes, armor, weapons, and online play will keep some people away. However, if you’re open to something new and have much patience for precision-timing games, your efforts will be rewarded.
- Fitting music
- Diverse areas
- Precision combat
- Good exploration
- Creative enemies
- Great PC performance
- Some dumb AI
- Camera issues
- Dull new game plus
- Weak ultimate skills
- Couple of chore like Boss-fights
Playtime: 150+ hours total. Two PC play-throughs. Once on PS4 Pro.
Computer Specs: CPU: i5 4440, GPU: MSI 960GTX 4GB, RAM: G.Skill Ripjaws X 8GB HDD: Crucial 275GB MX300, OS: Win7, 1080p