The youngins these days associate FromSoftware with the “Soulsborne” franchises, consisting of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. But gamers like me who are closer to 40 than 20 not only remember 2009’s Demons Souls, but also FromSoftware’s first million-selling game, Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven. As the Tenchu franchise is among my top three in all of video games,* please indulge me as I trace how Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice came into existence.
Activision acquired the rights to Tenchu in 2003 from Sony Music Entertainment; the irony the verb in the previous sentence is that Acquire is the developer responsible for Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, the first game in the entire franchise, with SME serving as publisher. Activision would then almost-immediately sell FromSoftware rights to Tenchu just in time to publish Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven on behalf of developer K2 LLC (a subsidiary of Capcom). FromSoftware would continue to publish Tenchu games on PS2 and Xbox 360 through the decade, concluding with Tenchu: Shadow Assassins on the Wii in 2008-2009.
When “FromSoftware” appeared at the end of the world premiere reveal of “Shadows Die Twice,” the youngins thought in terms of Soulsborne; given my history with the company, I prayed for Tenchu. As revealed in 2018, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice began life as a Tenchu concept game, but director Hidetaka Miyazaki disclosed in the Japanese magazine Famitsu that FromSoftware decided to proceed in a different direction to avoid inadvertent imitation of prior games. Even after the total conversion, the soul of Tenchu remains in Sekiro (he he he!).
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is rated M for Mature primarily because of its sheer volume of blood gushes. Here, expect to see anime-like gallons of the red stuff from every type of injury, from standard sword slashes to punches from Shaolin monks. While optional for common enemies, defeat of major foes requires special finisher animations where they languish in the agony of the pain inflicted from the final blow. A key story and gameplay element requires that the main character suffers from a severed arm; later, a decapitation takes place.
Blood should be anticipated in a game like Sekiro, but what might come as a surprise is the heavy presence of Buddhism. Along with the candies from Buddhist monks serving as power-ups—not unlike the mints that old ladies at church pass out which help one stay conscious through a sermon—an entire temple is a major setting. Even those candies, when used, activates a somatic motion similar to casting a spell.
Well before any of this comes to bear, players will be required to pray at Buddha statues to save their games. Prayer maintains its importance throughout the game, but for purposes that would be spoilers if I disclosed them. In a confession of my ignorance on Eastern religion, those interested in learning about Buddhism in Sekiro may do so here.
Among other possible content concerns, there is a single d**n. Saki—Japanese alcohol—is a collectible item that can be shared with NPCs so that they may divulge some of the world’s lore.
On a positive note, Sekiro in its entirety demonstrates the importance of loyalty, dedication, commitment, service, and honor. It also inadvertently makes me appreciate the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. This game shows the lengths to which man will go to attain something similar; the results are tragic.
Near the conclusion of a fictional version of Sengoku-Jidai, the age of the country at war, a feudal lord by the name of Isshin Ashina wages a bloody coup to take control of the land of Ashina. Why is it necessary that he wage a war to lay claim to a land of his own namesake? I have no idea, but I am also accustomed to FromSoftware’s tendency to write stories that do not always make sense; here, I was certainly confused. At any rate, a man named Owl takes under his proverbial wing a boy orphaned by this war and trains him in the way of the Shinobi Code: obey your father first, your master second. The boy is given the name “Wolf.”
Twenty years later, Isshin Ashina has fallen ill in his old age as his enemies accumulate on his doorstep. His descendant, Genichiro Ashina, abducts a child known as the Divine Heir Kuro for reasons that were unclear to me for half the span of the game. Because Kuro is Wolf’s master, the young shinobi finds and smuggles Kuro from the Ashina estate. Genichiro intercepts them, and after a duel, severs Wolf’s hand, incapacitating him. After regaining consciousness, Wolf discovers that his arm has been replaced with a queer contraption called a Shinobi Prosthesis. Now armed (he he he!) with this multitool, Wolf sets off to liberate his master, Divine Heir Kuro, again.
Wolf does not care about Genichiro’s interest in Kuro, but it will nevertheless become (somewhat) clear in due time. While on his mission, Wolf encounters a few NPCs to assist him, such as the Sculptor and Emma; a couple of NPCs refer to Wolf directly as Sekiro (roll credits!), or one-armed wolf. But then there is still the matter of the game’s subtitle, Shadows Die Twice.In that regard is the game’s signature mechanic: resurrection. As Kuro’s liege, Wolf has been granted the power to defy death. This is not an unlimited feature; after one use, the power goes on cooldown until Wolf prays at a Buddha statue or delivers enough deathblows to common enemies or a boss. I vacillate between understanding FromSoftware’s commitment to the game’s difficulty, and frustration when I die while possessing multiple resurrection charges. Compared to this, the penalty of halfing gained experience and money, or “rot” poisoning NPCs is negligible.
The Japanese word for “shadow” is “kage,” and through popular culture, the terms have been used interchangeably in reference to “ninja,” which is also alternated with “shinobi.” All this means is that shadows/kages/ninja/shinobi are gonna die, and more than twice. As this is a FromSoftware game, gamers may naturally believe that Sekiro is a “git gud” kind of game. Such an assumption would be correct; however, I never felt Sekiro to be soul-crushing (he he he!). At the beginning of the game, a common samurai imposes themselves as a formidable foe, wearing down Wolf’s
poise posture meter, parrying deflecting, and delivering devastating blows that will have players sucking down the estus flask healing gourd in no time. With time and education of the game’s mechanics, such a foe becomes a mere inconvenience.
When gamers describe a Souls game as fair (they are lying), what they mean is that the game teaches players how to defeat it by encouraging other means besides brute force button-mashing like in Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. This was not my experience in Demons and Dark Souls, especially in the former where I made a holy build to self-heal as I deathmatched every boss; in the latter, I summoned over-leveled allies when I could not figure out how to beat bosses like Ornstein and Smough. Here, Sekiro is purely a single-player game, so it is imperative that one “gits gud” at deflecting attacks, which deals more damage to enemy posture than blocking attacks. This is important, because everyone has separate posture and health meters, and the former generally fills faster than the latter empties, at which point Wolf can deliver a deathblow finisher. Failure to master the art of the perfect deflection—and all blocks in this game are simply failed deflection attempts—as well as missing dodges or jumps when warned of an enemy’s unblockable attack will result in an arduous, miserable experience.
Thankfully, Sekiro is not a Souls game despite its developer’s pedigree. On the contrary, it plays like what I would expect from a fusion between Tenchu and Ninja Gaiden Black due to the rapid flow of combat, the hard-hitting enemies, the verticality granted by the grappling hook to the usable items to the skill tree to the utility of the Shinobi Prosthetic. Of course, there are also
stealth kills deathblows; the wise Shinobi thins out the ranks before engaging in the unavoidable fights!
Speed and smoothness in particular separate Sekiro from Souls. Running at a locked 60 fps (with mods that can run it up to 160 fps and expanded field of view), I realized that I could execute perfect parries with precise timing and also “fuzzy blocking” since the kind of timing a game like this requires is often inextricably tied to framerate (console versions are reasonably comparable). Sekiro is most definitely a beautiful game, but a smooth engine is what facilitates the possibility of breakneck flow once one becomes adept at the game’s mechanics, as opposed to what I feel is a slog in Souls even thirty-hours deep. Behold:
Mid-bosses and major bosses alike will put player skills to the test, but Sekiro does not leave players to rely on their skill alone. Over time, experienced gained converts into points that can be exchanged to acquire techniques such as the defensive Miriki Counter, which parries thrusting enemies for massive posture damage, or the Ichimonji (Double), a devastating overhead slash that also overwhelms posture. Other skills passively increase healing or reduce posture damage. Health and damage can be increased by collecting specific trinkets after key (mini)boss fights.
The Shinobi Prosthetic is the item that keeps things interesting despite Wolf’s commitment to a single weapon. A certain bestial enemy in the first quarter of the game was goring me with relish until I decided to use some firecrackers to scare it. Certain simian foes could be dispatched from a distance with shuriken. Sheild-bearing enemies can get sliced in half with a spring-loaded axe. A fan shield can nullify riflewomen’s dead-eye sniping. The more money Wolf farms, the better better he can augment his prosthesis. As of this writing, there are still yet-to-be-discovered ways to utilize this tool; I am sure that YouTube and Twitch will be showcasing special runs of Sekiro for some time to come.
Optional bosses included, I clocked forty-eight hours during my first run of Sekiro, and it is possible to finish the game in half that time, though not if one wants to unlock all four endings through NG+ runs. I took things slowly, pausing to relax in tranquil gardens, to appreciate the uncontrollable chaos of fire consuming a lord’s estate, or observe as the inhabitants of a village move and attack in ways similar to the Las Plagas in Resident Evil 4. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice offers plenty to do for its asking price, exceeding my expectations by offering a vastly different experience compared to FromSoftware’s Souls series. Most importantly, it is the spiritual successor to Tenchu that I thought I would never get.
The Bottom Line
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice raises the bar for action games, delivering solid gameplay and a fully-imagined aesthetic that is worth the price of admission.