I’ve changed, man. In Dark Souls‘ kingdom of Lordran I was a shield-up, spear-ready warrior. By Dark Souls 3 I was happy to run around in my loincloth. And in Bloodborne, I embraced the aggressive pest control of the quicksilver pistol. But throughout all of these die ‘em ups I have remained cautious in spirit. Slow, methodical and wary of corners. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the next difficult death simulator by From Software, set in a demonic vision of feudal Japan. And in this world of samurai (or a short demo of it at Gamescom) I finally abandoned all that ponderous hiking . Partly because I only had 25 minutes with it, but also because when you’re armed with a hookshot, everything looks like a rooftop.
Despite the brevity of the demo, I did manage to die about five times. RPS video person Matthew was with me at the time, and if he tells you that any of these deaths could be easily avoided, he’s a liar. Sekiro, like those before it, is a tough one. Although I’d need more time to discover the precise intensity of that toughness. In some ways, it feels more friendly to newcomers. In other ways, it remains a sly murderer.
Let’s start with those ninja tip-toes of yours. There’s a jump button, for one thing. An honest-to-god jump button. Not a purposefully manic double-tap of the run button, or finicky click of the thumbstick. The real McJump. You can wall jump and grab ledges and hang from roofs and leap onto bad folks to dispatch weaker enemies in a single surprise stab. It feels nimble and speedy and lightweight in a way Soulsbornes have never been. The fleet-footed movement of your leaping, slashing, star-throwing, stealth-killing shinobi is likely what made much of my usual Souls trepidation vanish. You don’t so much throw caution to the wind, you pick caution off the ground and throw it in the eyes of your enemy.
But let’s jump down from the tiled roofs and onto some evil samurai. There are sword lads, shield lads, gun lads. All sorts of lads. There was a bumbling priestly-looking lady, who I dispatched with a single volley of ninja stars and then wondered: “oh no, was she a goodie?” (don’t worry, she wasn’t). These throwing stars are one of your ninja prosthetics. Basically, these are a bunch of alternative attacks that feel similar to Bloodborne’s trick weaponry.
We got to try three of them, though I’d be surprised if there weren’t more in the final game. One was a blast of fire, another threw shuriken, and the last was a large swinging axe, a crushing blow that felt more familiar to me than any of the quick ninja incisions so far. Using any of these attacks costs a “white spirit emblem” – effectively a universal ammo dropped by defeated enemies. You can also follow up these alt attacks with normal sword strikes to perform different combos. For example, swiping your katana immediately after belching fire at someone will set the sword itself on fire.
And then there was the big fella. This was a freakishly large samurai honcho who was there to teach us about “posture”. Posture is very important, he informs us, via the medium of stabbing. Sekiro is essentially a very violent finishing school.
Posture is more or less the replacement for stamina. Both you and your foes have a posture meter. With stamina, you had to conserve energy and strike judiciously at your undead brethren. Then take a step back and catch your breath before going in for more. With posture, you have to strike repeatedly at enemies to fill up their posture bar. When it’s full, they’ve lost it. Their guard is broken and you can perform a fierce finishing move, similar to the blow you get from parrying or backstabbing enemies in Dark Souls (or the “visceral” attacks of Bloodborne).
However, the same laws of battle apply to you. A strong enemy will hack away at you with swing after swing, filling up your own posture meter, ultimately leaving you vulnerable to massive attacks. You need to use well-timed dodges and defensive parries to keep your posture intact. Back straight, chin up, head high. Watch out for that massive cleaver.
It was hard for me to adapt to the timing of this new sword-fighting style without being able to observe and understand the different swordsmen on show. It also took a moment to even realise I had no stamina meter (just one piece of Souls meat that has been ruthlessly cut away). Attack and defence must be mixed, we were told, but a deeper understanding of the blade-clashing nuance can’t come from the vague tooltips we were given between baddies. It didn’t help that the sound was banjaxed on our demo and we were stuck on the noisy show floor.
Nonetheless, I like this posturing. For years Dark Souls 3 players have been arguing about “poise”, yelling at both the developers and each other in an effort to understand what the hell this seemingly useless statistic does. The expanded posture concept in Sekiro feels like the developers finally shouting back, in the most creatively impatient way possible. YOU WANNA KNOW WHAT POISE IS, YOU UNGRACEFUL CLOWN? I’d like to believe that this was intentional, a sort of game design by pettiness, but that’s likely not the case. Still, only From Software would take a vague and pointless stat from their previous work, hide in a cave for 3 years and walk out with an entirely new game based around something similar.
On top of all the special weaponry installed in your boney Swiss army hand, you also have a hookshot that pulls you up to highlighted tree branches or rooftops. Good for quick escapes, or if you just want to zip from courtyard to courtyard without going past Mr Takahashi the posture teacher again. Stabbing unaware enemies in the back isn’t as cumbersome as in previous games. You can swiftly crouch-scuttle between foes, offing them with a clean and unseen strike (a blood-red indicator appears on their bodies to help you time this). Or you can hug the walls and wait until an enemy is passing for an equally deadly strike.
There’s also lot more ledge-leaping. There are even mossy crags embedded in cliffsides for you to grab and traverse the mountainous landscapes, like some sort of Shinobi Nathan Drake. None of this stuff would be notable in any other Activision-published blockbuster, but these are the folks who made Blighttown, now indulging in Uncharted style platforming. These are the people who made the Bed of bloody Chaos. And most surprisingly: it feels… good? If it weren’t for the tough enemies and barely-explained sword-fighting, it could pass as an action-heavy remake of Tenchu, made palatable for we beasts of 2018 (it’s not surprising to learn that it began life as exactly that).
But then the Souls bits seep in. That elemental style which is both weird and familiar at the same time. You throw ash to distract people. You drink from a gourd to replenish your health. Cross-legged idols act as checkpoints. Doorways open to reveal tricky shortcuts. There is a poison-filled molar to crunch on, should you wish to kill yourself. Yeah. We couldn’t figure that one out, but it probably has something to do with the reworking of death, and the ability to resurrect yourself after a bad case of the disembowelies.
How death works was hard to understand, and it wasn’t precisely explained in the demo. But From have said elsewhere that you can’t just Lazarus yourself whenever you like. When you croak it, you can choose to come back to life, yes, but you will have to defeat an enemy to regain that ability. Let’s say you get crushed by an ogre, for example. You resurrect yourself but then get re-crushed by that same ugly gigantoman. Whoops. In this case, you won’t be able to pull yourself back together a second time. Instead, it’s back to the last idol. You die twice, see? It turns out the clue is in the name.
But even one chance to self-Jesus is useful. Enemies will often walk away after killing you, so you can resurrect yourself, sneak up on them and stab them from behind. Or you can get up and sprint away, leaping onto the rooftops to consider another approach. One thing you won’t worry about though, is losing anything. There are no Souls or Blood Echoes or equivalent spiritual currency to bank or to retrieve from that pit of snakes you fell into a few minutes ago. There are no numbers going up in the heat of a bonfire. That might alienate the stat-munching, body-building Souls fans among us. And it might explain why much of my hesitation and caution seems to be gone. After all, what’s to fear if I won’t lose anything to death but a couple of minutes re-treading old ground?
That’s not the only massive difference. There is no multiplayer phantomry either. That’s something I didn’t expect. No notes from ghostly strangers, no jolly co-operation, no forests full of well-armed PvP spirit guardians. It’s just you and the twisty-faced samurai. A single player story of a Shinobi and the boy master he must find and protect.
Both those omissions – the currency and the co-op – might be divisive. Bloodborne proved that the developers are not afraid to throw out ideas that felt safe and strong (bye bye shields). But these features are arguably the keystone to Dark Souls’ haunted bridge. The otherworldly ghost money, for example, is something everyone takes for granted. But perhaps that’s the reason From have thrown it away. I’ll need more time trading scars with these ultravoilent swordsmen to decide if these changes remove some vital element from the Souls ‘em up. But from the fast-paced slash-fest of the demo, I suspect it simply transforms this into a different type of game altogether. A hard, stylish stealth-action adventure, rather than a hard, grim-faced combat RPG.
And yes, that transformation will likely water down the difficulty. At one point I died from leaping off a ledge, but the game just faded to black and plonked me back on the edge of the offending precipice, rather than respawning me back at the last crossed-knee idol. I’m not sure if this leniency was for the sake of the demo or if the final game really is going that easy on clumsy-footed players like myself. But it is a touch of mercy that might hint at an easier time. There’s also no fall damage at all, which I found weird until Matthew told me: “Uh, you’re a ninja.” Ah, yes. That’d be why.
As for the enemies whose throats I was slashing, it felt like the best were being held in reserve. But we did meet an ogre capable of a marvellous dropkick. I haven’t seen a dropkick I’ve enjoyed more since King from Tekken. And then there was the “headless one”. To be fair, a note warned me about this charming killer. “Turn back if you value your life,” it read. Well joke’s on you, note. I have no respect for my own life or anyone else’s. As it turns out, the headless one lives in a pit. A hole of greasy miasma that slows you right down, similar to the waist high sludge of certain Soulslands. The headless one slammed me to death. I didn’t resurrect this time. After all, I’d just be stuck in a hole with him. I chose to go back to the altar, which made all the other minor baddies reappear.
But just as I went exploring the cliffsides once more, the demo ended. It wasn’t enough time. For every gimmick I figured out, another one raised its head. I didn’t get to decipher many of the rules of this world for myself. Nor did I taste the satisfaction of killing the headless one. I didn’t even get to bite down on that cyanide tooth. I could find all this stuff out right now, just by googling around (or by reading Dave’s guide on everything we know about Sekiro) but it is a testament to From’s ninja revisionism that I don’t want to. I’d rather wait and explore the Shinobi customs of nightmare Japan for myself. And given all the jumping, hookshotting and speedfreakery, I’ll likely be seeing it from the rooftops, not from behind a shield.
Sekiro is out on Steam on March 22 2019 for £49.99/€59.99/$59.99.