If you follow gaming news (I don't), I expect you've heard of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The new Dark Souls game - except it's set in Japan. I recently (2019 April 14) finished it, and decided to take the opportunity to write a review that probably no one is reading instead of doing more meaningful work. I'll talk about what's different from Dark Souls from a neutral perspective first, and then get to the verdict.
First there are some significant changes to the combat system. There's no i-frames (or at least not much), and more importantly, there's no stamina. Enter the Posture mechanic.
Posture is kind of a mix between stamina and poise. Attacking someone strains their posture (fills the meter) regardless of whether they block, and when their posture is broken, they become stunned and vulnerable to a deathblow (instant kill). You can kill an enemy either by whittling down their health or by pressuring them enough to break their posture and deathblow them early. Posture recovers more slowly when your health is low, so health damage is still meaningful when going for a posture kill. The posture-kill strategy is more dangerous, but in the end saves time, and the farther you get in the game the more you realize it's essential. I can't imagine trying to beat the final boss through health damage...
There are about five different types of defensive options (besides sprinting away). Guarding, holding down the block button, is easy but you take a lot of posture damage. Deflecting, blocking with precise timing, is risky but makes you take a lot less posture damage and the enemy takes significant posture damage instead (enough to break most early-game enemies on one deflect). Step dodging is a general option that can avoid most attacks without losing posture but is harder than guarding and misses out on the opportunity to deflect. It's also required against thrust attacks (see below). Jumping is required against perilous sweeps (see below), but useless against most other attacks. Finally, there's the unlockable Mikiri Counter skill early in the Shinobi Arts tree, which allows an alternate response to thrust attacks that deals posture damage like a deflect. Mikiri counter is awesome. You need it.
The next major thing to discuss is perilous attacks - attacks that can't be blocked or deflected, but are forewarned by a flashing kanji (Japanese character) and sound. Perilous attacks have to be dodged with the correct type of dodge - thrusts require a sideways step dodge or Mikiri counter, perilous sweeps require jumping, and perilous grabs require... honestly I think you're just supposed to run straight away from the enemy against this. Jumping or step dodging may or may not work depending on the grab. One thing the tutorial misleads you about is the timing of perilous attacks: you're actually supposed to wait a second after seeing the kanji before you dodge. Dodging too quickly gets you hit.
Another thing you should know is that Dragonrot is a bluff. The game threatens you that the more you die the more the NPCs get sick with Dragonrot. It doesn't really do anything though. It just blocks their "quest progression", as if they had such a thing to begin with. From what I can tell the NPCs only progress anyway if you share sake with them, and all this entails is a tiny bit of dialogue that you're not even missing out on by getting them sick because you can just cure the Dragonrot and socialize with them later. It does have limited cures, though, so I'd advise only curing the Dragonrot if you plan to talk to someone.
Now before I get into the criticism, I want to praise the improvements From Software has made over Dark Souls with this game.
Boss treks are (mostly) gone!¶
Thank god! Most bosses have an idol (bonfire) placed very near to the arena, and where they don't it's usually a lot easier than in Dark Souls to run past everyone with your new grappling hook and stuff. A couple of early mini-bosses are exceptions since the normal enemies are too close to them. But it's a minority.
Level grinding is (mostly) gone!¶
Sekiro has basically five ways to make your character stronger:
Finding new Prosthetic Tools or Gourd Seeds to upgrade your Healing Gourd with;
Collecting Prayer Beads which increase your vitality and posture, and can only be gained from killing mini-bosses (who are treated a lot more similarly to major bosses than in Dark Souls);
Battle Memories to increase your attack power (only gained from major bosses);
Experience which buys upgrades from the skill tree and is gained from killing enemies;
Sen (money) which can be spent on items or Prosthetic Tool upgrades. Gained from killing enemies.
But honestly, Prosthetic Tools are mostly useless if you ask me. The Shuriken is great in a few situations but does almost no damage against most enemies even if heavily upgraded. The Loaded Axe is a life saver for a few specific enemies but useless against the majority. The Firecracker (which everyone says is amazing) is hard to use without getting hit and interrupted and it doesn't stun the enemies for very long. The Flame Vent is honestly completely useless in my experience except for one boss that has an artificial weakness to it. It just takes forever to use and doesn't do much damage even if you do hit with it. The Mist Raven is the one I found most useful; it gives you a way to bypass spacing and posture concerns by substituting a purely time-based dodge (Prosthetic Tools have limited uses per life so you can't spam this). Even still it magically doesn't work on the three attacks I needed it most for.
Skill upgrades less so but still not very important. Most of the active-use Combat Arts either just don't really have any advantage over normal attacks or have the same problem as the Flame Vent - they're slow and more often than not you'll be interrupted. There are a few absolutely essential skills in the tree - Mikiri Counter and the one that makes you heal on deathblow - but those are easy to afford early in the game. The main ways to get stronger only happen from progressing (or looking up where to find the Gourd Seeds and such).
Random unpredictable environmental deaths are gone!¶
No mimic chests! No ceiling slimes! Nothing like that. Even falling doesn't kill you instantly, just takes about 40% of your health and puts you back where you fell from.
So that's all well and good. Unfortunately the game was still more bullshit and frustration than fun. I finished it mostly because I kept thinking it would get better when I finally figured out the patterns to the apparent random bullshit, and so I'd be able to write this saying I actually finished it. Besides the problems of being punished for death which you just expect in a From Software game, there's a lot to hate in this game that was either not present in the original Dark Souls or not as exacerbated:
Trial and Error¶
By far my biggest criticism is still the trial and error. And it's not just the enemy attacks being un-intuitable. After playing almost 40 hours and defeating the final boss, I still don't know the rules of this game, and everything I do know I learned through trial and error after being misled by the 'tutorial'.
I have no clue in hell what causes stagger (a stance your character enters that looks like being posture-broken but happens when your posture is fine) or what determines whether you can dodge out of it, despite that this happened to me about a hundred times.
I don't know how to deflect lightning. The game told me to press R1 before hitting the ground, but that's demonstrably not all there is to it.
I don't know why sometimes you can cancel an attack to block and sometimes you can't. Another player told me that you can do this as long as you didn't press the attack button again, but I'm pretty sure that's not it based on experience. Other players have told me you can always block if you're not in the middle of attacking or another animation, and if the implication is that you can never cancel an attack to block, that's definitely also not true.
I don't know why it seems like most of the time you can't block after you've been hit, but sometimes you can; it doesn't seem to be about the weight of the attack or the time spacing or guarding versus deflecting.
I don't know why sometimes step dodging can dodge a perilous sweep but not usually; is it i-frames? I've never seen any in-game evidence for i-frames in any other situation.
The game tells you early on about the difference between guarding and deflecting (posture damage), which obviously implies that what it tells you is the only difference. It's not. Some attacks deal damage anyway if you block them, but not if you deflect them. Apparently you're expected to guess this and try deflecting after finding out that guarding doesn't work.
There are some attacks (Guardian Ape throw) that sometimes deal damage through a guard and sometimes don't. For the many dozen tries I spent at that fight, I have no idea what the pattern is.
Surprise health refills¶
So bosses usually take more than one deathblow to kill. In the tutorial, you're taught that you can see how many by the red circles above their health bar. But some bosses have more than it shows you. You defeat the two visible phases, and surprise: a cutscene and a third phase. You have no reward for completing the stated task.
It's even worse in the Guardian Ape fight; after you kill it and do the Shinobi Execution - a special deathblow animation for the last phase of a major boss - not only does it give you the Shinobi Execution blue kanji flash on the screen, but the boss waits about twenty seconds before getting up. There is no possible motive for this except to disappoint the player. It's absurd. Sadistic. And people think it makes the game more "hardcore" or "challenging" and "fun".
Surprise boss fights¶
Bosses in Dark Souls at least always had fog gates so you had some chance to be prepared. But in Sekiro many boss arenas aren't telegraphed whatsoever; you just walk into a room and the fog gate appears behind you. (And you can't Homeward Idol out because that takes like 30 seconds of not being attacked.)
Allowing stealth attacks on mini-bosses¶
All mini-bosses I can think of have two deathblow markers, meaning you have to empty their health bar twice. If you get a stealth attack on them (which can do a deathblow regardless of posture) it does the same thing a normal deathblow would do: take one health bar. My criticism is that the game shouldn't have allowed this for mini-bosses, because it's such a big advantage that there's no reason to try to fight one without it if you don't have to. It just led to boring and degenerate gameplay where I would go clear out the normal enemies, run away until the boss lost me, then go sneak up and if he saw me I'd run away again and wait for him to lose me again, and then finally I'd get the deathblow and the actual try would begin.
They only allow this for the early game - later mini-bosses autodetect you when you're close - but I wish they hadn't allowed it at all and just weakened those mini-bosses to compensate. It just made the early game less enjoyable and trained me to expect something I wasn't going to get.
The stealth mechanics in Sekiro are exactly those of Assassin's Creed. Enemies have "detection meters" that take several seconds to fill, they don't have ears, they don't react when they see a dead body and... you get the picture. Honestly, it's quite easy to clear out entire areas of Sekiro without doing any fighting.
As if that's even something you want. You'd just be missing the practice you need to fight the bosses, and the normal enemies were never the hard part anyway. If you can't clear out all the normal enemies in an area without stealth then you haven't the slightest chance at the boss, so you're not doing yourself any favors by clearing them out without fighting. Stealth doesn't even save you time, because unlike Dark Souls it's easy to run past everybody anyway.
This is hard to believe from a From Software game, but I found it dissatifying the way the game frequently rewarded me for button mashing. Due to the way the deflect mechanic works, it often seemed optimal when I knew an attack was coming to mash the block button, since there's basically no penalty for trying to deflect too early if you do this.
I've heard some people say on the subreddit that doing this shrinks the window for actually deflecting, but I'm skeptical of that as I had loads of experiences doing this and deflecting the majority of a long flurry.
Story? What story?¶
Sekiro makes it seem at first like they're going to have an actual story with an actual character driving it. The player character has voice acting and the game has dialogue in the beginning making at least the tiniest effort to explain what the story is and why you should care. But no. The rest of the 'plot' is just excuses for gameplay; the vast majority of the bosses have no place in anything, there's still never a question of talking to anyone before you kill them even though most of the enemies in the game are normal humans, they still have the Dark Souls problem that your infinite lives have an in-universe explanation instead of rewinding time but for some reason none of the enemies or bosses think anything of it when you come back for a second fight, and all the big decisions you make are completely blind. I don't know anything about the immortality curse or whatever that's the center of the plot; I don't know if my character does or not but I know other characters do and the game won't let me ask them.
I'm not surprised or particularly bothered that a From Software game has a laughable vestige of a story. I just kind of wish they hadn't bothered at all. I would respect a game company for releasing an action RPG in 2019 in full admission that it doesn't have a story.