over my roughly 60 hours playing Sekiro, my feelings about it changed a lot. at times, i was ranting to anyone who would listen that Sekiro was actually as much a soulsborne game as Dark Souls 2, at other times i was considering the effect of the departures from the formula that set it apart from the rest of the Fromsoft catalogue. at times i felt it was brutally difficult, other times i felt the mechanics open up before me and i could feel Wolf as an extension of myself in the way i’m certain he feels his katana is of him. i got mad that there was no multiplayer, and then i got extremely happy that i didn’t have to worry about multiplayer.

for those who’ve avoided it, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is Fromsoft’s 2019 release, put out between Dark Souls 3 and Elden Ring, and it was number two on my list of games to finish this year, after Fire Emblem: Three Houses. it follows Wolf, a shinobi, who initially is driven to rescue the child he has been sworn to serve. it is missing a lot of what folks like in a soulsborne game – the game forgoes medieval fantasy and sets itself in Sengoku period Japan, it has no character creation and places you in the role of a specific character with a specific backstory, personality, and goals, and there is no equipment system with a variety of weapons and armor and the point-based attribute system that accompany it – Wolf wields one weapon throughout the game. magic in the souls games is replaced with Wolf’s shinobi prosthetic, whose attachments do a decent job of imitating spells. the core combat will feel familiar though – attacks have weight and follow-through that punishes mis-timings or bad reads of an enemy – and a lot of the pace of the game is similar. Wolf moves from checkpoint to checkpoint, resting at Sculptor’s Idols in the way the Chosen Undead finds bonfires, and Wolf’s Healing Gourd is basically an Estus Flask (functioning a lot like it does in Dark Souls 2, with additional charges coming from items scattered throughout the world). past this point i get a little more spoiler-y, so this is your warning if you haven’t played yet.

there’s some stuff that’s really core to the game that truly set it apart though. firstly, this is a stealth game. Wolf is capable of performing death blows on unaware enemies, one-shot killing anything that isn’t a boss and skipping a healthbar on mini-bosses, and very few things in his toolkit are capable of taking on large crowds so strategically engaging or picking off enemies in a given area is key. one of the biggest lessons i had to learn very early is that sometimes disengaging and resetting enemy knowledge of my presence was helpful or necessary for properly separating enemies. the detection system enemies use against the player is… fine. it’s just fine. i had a few really frustrating moments with it but most of the time it was actually fairly generous to the player.

one of the other fairly large departures is the existence of posture as a combat mechanic and the reinforcing of deflections and counters. every entity in the game, player included, have a posture bar that starts empty and fills as you guard against attacks or take damage. if Wolf’s posture bar fills up, he staggers and almost certainly eats shit from whatever filled his bar, which punishes players from blindly guarding against attacks. if an enemy’s posture bar fills, they become open to death blow – which again, kills them early if they aren’t bosses. bosses normally take multiple deathblows to kill, but i had many instances where i was unable to take a boss’s health to zero, but i was able to break their posture to make the health bar irrelevant. the complication to the system is the way deflecting attacks by guarding just before the hit lands interacts with posture. a deflected attack blocks incoming damage, negates the posture damage that would’ve been infliced from a regular guard, and inflicts damage back on the enemy’s posture. many of the fights in the game come down to not only learning where and how to dodge attacks but also learning the timing on what attacks can be deflected and how. i have, both in memes and from friends, heard the joke that Sekiro is a rhythm game, and honestly i can’t really argue with that. each encounter has a kind of tempo to it that’s reinforced by the pacing of Wolf’s attacks. i had several nights where i went to sleep after a few hours playing with rhythm of Wolf’s swings following me in my dreams. and the animations and sound effects that play when you properly deflect some of the attacks in the game are just so perfect and so satisfying to experience.

taken together, the stealth-posture-health combination of killing creates a situation where every path between idols is a puzzle with one of those pillars unlocking different angles or aspects of the fight. you can use your prosthetic to whittle down enemy health and ignore the subtleties of combat, you can meticulously learn the layout of the level and sneak around killing enemies slowly, or you can walk into combat and turn enemies’ swords against them (or more likely, mix and match to taste). and that brings up the biggest thing for me – the levels in Sekiro are intricate. the component of Wolf’s prosthetic that are always with him is a grappling hook, and everything about this game is built around where and how Wolf can gain a height advantage on his enemies. there are so many levels where scaling walls or leaping from perch to perch between or during combat become as important as what tools you use or learning specific animations.

the cumulative effect of the additions and subtractions to the formula is undeniable – controlling Wolf feels fucking fantastic. this game really sells you hard on playing as a ninja, in an extremely Fromsoft way.

i thoroughly enjoyed the story too – Wolf’s journey seems simple, but what starts out as a simple rescue mission spirals quickly into a larger discussion about power, avarice, and autonomy. the world of Sekiro is old and strains under the weight of it’s history, and the characters are dealing with the repercussions of the decisions made by their forbearers. while the central plot has Wolf as an extremely active, if single-minded actor, and the story of the game is fairly clear with it’s progression, the game doesn’t skimp on the worldbuilding either. there is a lot to discover about the specifics of the setting you are dropped into through the usual Fromsoft paths of exploration and description. honestly, the game is a treat to look at too. there’s a wide variety of visual palettes for the levels in the game, and i particularly enjoyed this kind of historical fantasy but drawing from Japanese history and folklore for inspiration.

i won’t lie – i had a couple false starts with this game before a game system rubbed me the wrong way or i got frustrated by the inability to call a friend to bail me out, but once i got a few hours in solidly this game had me hooked and lived deep in my brain while i played through it. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a challenging, rewarding game, and i definitely encourage fans of Fromsoft especially not to overlook this one.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – 9/10