Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not a Souls game.
That’s important because developer FromSoftware spent the last decade making games that are either proper Dark Souls games or precursors, like Demon’s Souls. Even when the developers made the PlayStation 4 exclusive Bloodborne, it was in the Dark Souls mold.
Based on my time behind closed doors playing From’s new game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice breaks that mold.
And it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s all because of that fishing reel-like attachment on your bony left arm.
If the Souls games were director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s fantastical take on medieval fantasy and Bloodborne was his take on gothic, Victorian fantasy, then Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is his take on Japanese fantasy. And from that single conceit — using a ninja instead of, say, a European knight — the gameplay that From is known for is changing dramatically.
“The reason we went with ninja as opposed to samurai this time is because samurai are a lot more grounded,” Miyazaki told Polygon at E3 2018 through a translator. “We feel like, at least from a Japanese perspective, ninja have this freedom to do anything, and to approach combat and approach situations in a multitude of ways.”
I played about 15 minutes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, jumping and grappling and fighting my way through a level built to showcase gameplay. (In other words, it’s not necessarily something you’ll see when the game is released early next year on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.) And Miyazaki’s characterization was obvious as soon as I had a controller in my hands.
I began standing on the branch of a tree, overlooking a compound. Japanese architecture was everywhere, with its telltale sloping, tiled roofs. Trees and walls dotted the landscape. Almost everything provided an opportunity to climb up and over, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice conveys grapple points with a small white circle. They fill green when you’re close enough to press the left shoulder button and throw your grappling hook.
I walked forward and jumped.
Doing something so simple as jumping wouldn’t feel remarkable in most games, but anyone who’s played a FromSoftware title in the last decade would understand that this is a significant change in gameplay. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice emphasizes mobility, and as I flew through the air, I tossed my grappling hook, connected with a nearby rock, soared above my enemies and stood perched atop a wall.
“So we have the grapple, we have the jump, you can use stealth, you can use, obviously, the katana — you know, it’s a Japanese motif — you can use the shinobi prosthetic tools, you can use a wide variety of tools at your disposal and abilities to confront in different ways,” Miyazaki said. “Of course, you can tackle things head on if you like. We felt this was very central to the ninja themes, and this is something we wanted to try with Sekiro, this concept of killing ingeniously.”
The first enemy I encountered showed me the difference between in combat, too. In Souls games, you’ve got your weapon and your shield. In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you’ve got a weapon (a katana in my case) and what Miyazaki calls a “shinobi prosthetic.” My enemy carried a large wooden sword, and my katana wouldn’t put a dent in it. But my axe would.
It’s a mechanic that’s not quite Dark Souls and not quite Bloodborne, but it’s related to both. Ipressed Y and switched out my grappling hook for an axe on my left arm. A few hits later, and my enemy’s large wooden sword exploded into shards. I switched back to my katana to finish him off.
Speaking of finishing enemies off, in Shadows Die Twice enemies die in spectacular shows of gore and blood. It’s governed by a system that isn’t quite health and isn’t quite stamina, but the goal is to winnow it away. Once that’s done, your regular attack becomes an assassination — impaling, shredding, letting loose bursts of blood that spew in fountains of red.
It was up to me to figure out how to find other enemies, and I realized again how different Shadows Die Twice was. There was no clear path to my next encounter, so I looked up, found a grapple point and zipped above the compound.
For years, FromSoftware has been turning verticality into viable design aesthetic. In its games, geographical areas often sprawl up and down, not just forward and back, quite literally adding dimensions to gameplay. Shadows Die Twice carries on this tradition in a new way.
“So obviously, creating these wide-open 3D vertical spaces is something we’ve prided ourselves on in previous titles,” Miyazaki said, “but obviously they have their limits, when you’re walking around with sword and board in these previous games, you have to use the stairs, you have to use ladders. But this time, it’s kind of like a stress relief. It allows us to do things we haven’t been able to do in these levels before, and take an entirely new approach to exploring them and traversing them. So it’s been a lot of fun. We hope players will have fun as well.”
I explored the inside of buildings, running and fighting at what felt like twice the speed of a Souls game, and ended my time with a classic FromSoftware enemy. Or, perhaps more accurately, a classic FromSoftware enemy ended my time with the demo.
It was that monstrosity that you can see about 90 seconds into the E3 gameplay trailer — at least twice my size, sporting a wooden contraption around its neck and chains around its wrists.
I attacked, and he killed me instantly. But shadows die twice, so I hit R2 and sprung back to life. I jumped, ran, strafed. I killed the enemies surrounding him. I watched for just the right moment to attack. I pressed B to dodge, but that’s a kick in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
He grabbed me. His gigantic hands squeezed my torso. I gasped. He picked me up. He held me over his head, grunting. He slammed me into the ground.
I imagine that the last thing my ninja heard was his back snapping in two. Game over.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice may not be a Souls game, but it’s definitely a FromSoftware game. You might as well prepare to die.