Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (Xbox One Review)
There’s always an industry buzz around new FromSoftware games. Players and writers alike are desperate to find a new portmanteau to slap on top and pretend that the Action RPG genre just doesn’t exist, there’s even some room to talk about how hard it is compared to whatever the most recent Dark Souls/Bloodborne entry is. Sekiro: shadows Die Twice is no different. Sekiro gives way to both, providing writers with the term “Soulborneros” and mechanics so well refined that the thickest of belly button fluff wouldn’t deter them from endless navel gazing.
Even though Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is definitely a FromSoftware title, it’s a different beast in terms of story. The story is no longer buried in text or hidden throughout the world, it’s shared over toasts of sake and directly laid out in front you as a cohesive whole. Where that story takes you is more enthralling as you’ll face down, dragons, demons, and immortals as you pursue the enemies that kidnapped Kuro, the Divine Heir, at the start of the game. Having a story completely relayed to you and a lot of explicit detail accompanying it is a much needed break from the typical “piece it together yourself” approach that the Souls games rely upon.
And the world hasn’t suffered with this direction either. All of the pagodas, fields, valleys, forests, and castles are intricately woven. It’s an expectation that FromSoftware create these maze like worlds for players to get lost in, but it never fails to impress and there are always small moments of genius that never fail to stun. One moment you’ll be exploring a castle and find a human shaped smudge on a wall only to reveal a secret exit that leads to an area you’d long forgotten. How Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice manages to blend all of the different zones with ease while maintaining a definitive style is brilliant and each and every area is scenic.
It’s within this beautifully crafted world that you’ll learn to hold a sword and adjust to life as a shinobi with a mechanical prosthetic. This is the fork in the road where Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and the other Souls title split. Sekrio’s focus is purely linear, there are no builds. You will live and die by your sword and shinobi tools, some of which appearing to be infinitely more useful and deadly than others. Fights are longer and the need to deflect and memorise every opponent’s attacks is critical. There’s little room for error. Some battles can be made easier with the addition of buffs in the form of sugars or a few sparing weapon buffs, like Divine Confetti. The only real deviation in combat will be your use of Shinobi Tools and some of the skills you can unlocking through various skill trees. Sekiro’s Shinobi Tools can be found hidden throughout the different environments and allow him to throw firecrackers in the face of his enemies, charm animals to fight for him, toss spinning shurikens, and even revealing a hidden poisonous sword. The combat exists in a paradox in which is both exceedingly exciting and horribly frustrating. There are just as many moments where you’ll fist pump a victory as you will repeatedly cry in anguish thanks to the marginal room for error in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
The frustration is magnified through Sekrio: Shadows Die Twice’s poor performance on some consoles. The Xbox One X’s frame rate will erratically dip and dive between a questionably inconsistent high point to a juddering and quite jarring low point. As a result there are a few areas that input timings are off and some attacks are lost between the stuttering and stammering. There also some clear visual disparities too. When running on a 4K TV and Xbox One X, the picture is never quite as crisp as it should be. While most other games offer the ability to favour performance over visuals and vice versa, Sekiro forces a poor experience upon those with the newer models and it suffers greatly from it. Consistency is key and the fact that Sekiro can’t offer consistent performance is unbelievably disheartening.
For a game that heavily relies upon its user’s input to be precise, meticulously executing perfect blocks on reaction to enemy animations, it’s sorely disappointing to see such variance in performance across the board. There are no longer builds typical of the RPGs Dark Souls have made, so there isn’t even scope to find new ways. In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice there is only one way and that way is the much loathed chant of a thousand Twitter Eggs echoing “git gud”.
I tried to love Sekiro and there are moments that prove that FromSoftware have so much more to offer, but I couldn’t quite embrace it fully. The boss battles are exquisite, perhaps the best yet, with climatic ends and there’s a true sense of grandeur to the score and areas is provides accompaniment. For the first time ever I haven’t had to look up obscure wikis to truly understand what on earth is going on. It should all fit together, but performance is the tie that binds. We have forgiven Blighttown and the performance of Dark Souls Remastered on the Switch, but I think I am done making excuses for some shoddy oversights that ultimately dampen what’s otherwise FromSoftware’s greatest work, even with a horrible reliance on the deflection mechanic.