It’s become a bit of a meme within the world of video games that certain games are destined to be described by lazy writers as “the Dark Souls of X” to get their point across.
Indeed, From Software’s seminal RPG has become so influential, thanks to its meticulous design and grueling combat, that it’s hard not to feel its decaying undead hand in most modern releases, from Breath of the Wild and Dead Cells to Nioh and Hollow Knight.
As such, comparisons to Dark Souls are all but inevitable now that its time to share hands on impressions of a preview build of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the latest game to spring from From Software.
So the question now becomes; what is Sekiro the Dark Souls of? This is still unmistakably a From Software game with all its hallmarks, including a moody, atmospheric world with a decaying aesthetic, grisly monsters, and incredibly punishing combat, but there are also so many new ideas on the table. To say this is another Soulsbourne game would be to do it a disservice.
If anything, a more suitable comparison would be drawn to the excellent Tenchu series. From had reportedly considered making Sekiro a new entry in the brutal stealth series at one point, so if we have to call Sekiro the Dark Souls of anything, let’s go ahead and call it the Dark Souls of Tenchu games. Happy?
What immediately sets Sekiro apart from previous From games is that the story seems to be a hell of a lot clearer and a great deal more straightforward, at least based on the first hour or so I played.
Set during a slightly re-imagined take on Sengoku Era Japan, we’re thrown into a world ravaged by vicious war. It is, on the surface of it, a fairly faithful recreation of this period in history, but From Software has naturally thrown in a bunch of its own touches, as evidenced by the strange, twisted creatures and distorted looking humans.
You’ll play as a noble master Shinobi warrior known only as the Wolf. Tasked with protecting the young heir to an ancient and pure bloodline, it’s not a spoiler to say that the game’s opening sees the Wolf getting beat down pretty hard, losing an arm and the boy he was tasked to protect.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, as we’re soon fitted with a handy dandy Shinobi prosthetic for our troubles, a replacement arm that comes with all manner of gizmos and attachments. It’s basically a medieval iPhone, except instead of costing an arm and a leg, it only sets you back the one limb.
The Shinobi prosthetic initially only comes equipped with a grappling hook, but in my time with the game I got to use a couple of cool add-ons for it, including shuriken, a mini flamethrower, and one very cool extension that deploys firecrackers to confuse enemies.
After waking up and having my new arm explained to me, I decided to briefly knock about the game’s hub – an area which essentially works in the same way as the Hunter’s Dream or the Firelink Shrine in that you chat to NPCs, upgrade your gear and equipment, and fashion new attachments for your arm.
My personal favourite hub NPC was the warrior who literally cannot die, so decides he might as well help you out by letting you test new gear and techniques whenever you can. It’s classic From Software, blending the macabre with the humourous in such a distinct way.
Despite the war torn aesthetic, what I will say right now is that Sekiro is probably From Software’s best looking game yet. Always masters of world building and immersion, here the studio has deftly blended reality with myth, creating a world of true wonder that’s very much grounded in reality – sometimes terrifyingly so.
For every human foe I clashed blades with, there was always something inhuman waiting around the corner to surprise me. I won’t soon forget tearing through a temple of relatively easy to kill monks before some absolute unit of a monster stepped out from the shadows and murdered me good and dead.
While my first twenty or so minutes were pretty heavy on cutscenes and setup, the rest of my time with Sekiro was pretty much all about the gameplay. As such, all I can really say on the story for now is that it sets up some intriguing threads, and the characters you do meet who aren’t trying to kill you clearly have their own secrets and agendas.
While an intriguing story is all well and good, it doesn’t really mean squat if it’s no fun to play. Luckily, Sekiro is every bit as challenging, rewarding, and thrilling to play as games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls.
It’s hard for me to really quantify it right now since I’ve got hundreds of hours invested in Dark Souls compared to the handful I’ve put into Sekiro, but elements of this game do feel a hell of a lot more punishing. There seems to be less opportunity to “cheese” tough foes, and the enemy AI certainly came off as a hell of a lot smarter.
What I will say is that if you were never any good at parrying in Dark Souls, you are gonna have to “git gud” fast. Combat focuses on knowing exactly when to back off, and when to apply the pressure. Parrying is absolutely key in this respect, as you’ll need to keep at an enemy until they’ll vulnerable for a death blow.
These death blows feel about as satisfying to pull of as you’d expect by the way. They sound absolutely brutal, usually involved a ton of blood, and are beautifully animated. Parrying a foe before shoving a katana through his face is not a thing I’ll get tired of any time soon.
Of course, different enemies require different strategies. While some can simply be hacked at until they drop, others will need to be parried, or dodged, or will be weak to certain Shinobi attachments such as your grapple, or fire.
That’s not to say you won’t constantly find yourself being put down, though. Mistime a jump or take on more enemies than you can handle at a time and you’ll immediately find yourself in trouble. Thankfully, there’s an incredible stealth element to the game that, when coupled with the resurrection mechanic, creates a system quite unlike any I’ve ever seen before.
As you’ll probably have seen from earlier trailers and gameplay footage, there’s a sense of verticality and agility that we’ve never seen in a Dark Souls game before. The Wolf can quickly grapple between buildings before leaping down on enemies for a stealth kill, or lurk in tall grass to pick off threats one by one.
Stealth is by no means mandatory, but it’s incredibly useful to get the lay of the land and see how many enemies you’re dealing with before jumping in half-cocked. I learned that when I engaged in what I thought was a one on one duel before a sniper with a cannon blew me right back to hell.
As the name of the game implies though, death isn’t always the end. If you run out of health in battle, you’ll have a small window in which you’re given the option to either revive and rejoin the battle, or die.
You can only do this once per “life”, but it can be used to mess with enemies in brilliant ways. Wait until the chap who just struck you down turns their back to walk away, and spring back to the world of the living, taking them out with the most unexpected stealth kill. It’s genius stuff, and I can’t wait to see how this system evolves throughout the game.
If you die again after your initial resurrection, you’ll just go back to the last checkpoint and will have to deal with all the enemies coming back to life, but this just gives you a chance to play around with new strategies or hone the game plan you do have.
Unlike Souls games however, which see you able to retrieve your experience points from the place you fell, Sekiro will just straight up take half of your xp upon death. Savage.
While stealth, gadgets, and sneaky resurrection mechanics can get you places though, the real key to success in Sekiro is simply working out the most efficient way to dispatch an enemy, learning their patterns, and never letting up. In that respect, it’s classic From Software.
Once you’ve discovered the best approach for each individual beast, there’s nothing more satisfying than ripping back through an area where you just died, picking off enemies quickly and efficiently, knowing beyond any doubt that this time you’ll make it to your goal.
In short, Sekiro is good. Like, really bloody good. The combat is tense, the stealth is insanely rewarding, and the Shinobi Prosthetic opens the door for all kinds of awesome gadgets and gear to keep the gameplay fresh
If the world design is as open and interconnected as Bloodborne or the first Dark Souls (which I have been told it is), then we could be looking at a real Game of the Year contender.
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Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.