Sekiro – 2019 GOTY Review

FromSoftware have been making games since 1994, but they’re almost certainly known for a number of franchises.

They’ve seen large commercial and critical success with their Dark Souls trilogy and the much loved PS4 exclusive Bloodborne. It’s understandable then, that people were excited for whatever they could bring us next.

Bloodborne proved that FromSoftware’s design language could be translated into other formats and styles.

Which brings us to Sekiro.

Winning the 2019 GOTY award, and many individual GOTY awards, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice sits at a mammoth 90/100 on Metacritic. The user score of 7.8/10 can even be increased, when you disregard the hilarious 0/10 scores that have been attributed to it by some er… salty players? Gotta love exaggeration.

Fact is, to a lot of people, Sekiro is a perfect video game. But why is that? That’s my task today, to try and explain WHY Sekiro won FromSoftware’s first big GOTY, and not Dark Souls, or Bloodborne…. *gulps*.

For context, I first completed Sekiro on PC. I’ll talk about my specs and experiences there in the Performance section. I have also played a decent chunk of it on Xbox One X.

Gameplay? 9/10 – Despite one hiccup, Sekiro’s gameplay is masterful.

Listen, I’ve got to be real with you here. Sekiro’s style of combat won’t suit everyone. Hell it won’t even suit all die hard FromSoftware fans, which I’ll discuss later in the review. My apologies, but this gameplay section is going to be pretty lengthy.

Each enemy has a posture bar that needs to be broken down before you get access to something called a deathblow. A deathblow is a rather magnificent finishing move accompanied by a gorgeous animation, and lot’s of blood. Posture bars can be broken down in a number of ways.

You have deflecting and blocking. These are mapped to the same button, but are different actions. Deflecting (tapping the button) requires near frame-perfect reactions, and as the name suggests, you’ll deflect the enemies attack while damaging their posture, leaving them open for a brief counter. Blocking however (holding the button) will shield you from most incoming damage, but will hurt your OWN posture bar with every enemy attack. If your own posture bar breaks, you’ll be heavily staggered, and some stronger foes will likely be able to perform their own death blow on you.

Got all that? Great! Because then you have to talk about Combat Arts, Prosthetic Tools, stealth, dodging, buffs, enemy variants, elemental debuffs… if you hadn’t guessed already, Sekiro’s combat system is deep, and varied. Much more so than you might assume if you’ve only played the first couple of hours. I’ve nearly completed the game twice, and there are still dozens of methods and techniques that I haven’t even tried.

Essentially, most 1 on 1 fights feel like a dance. A very murdery dance, but a dance nonetheless. For every action an enemy takes, there’s a very definitive set of responses, some that will be more effective than others, but all viable. I’ve heard some people liken this game to a rhythm game, like what Guitar Hero would be if it found it’s way into feudal Japan, and I honestly don’t disagree. A lot of fights, especially against tougher foes and bosses, require precise timing, and accurate recollection of each animation in the wind up to their attack. Deflect, deflect, attack, dodge, jump, deflect, deflect, attack, RUN AWAY, dodge, block… it’s hard to do it justice, but every attack and action feels so. Damn. Satisfying.

If I’m making the combat sound boring, it isn’t. It’s unlike anything I’ve attempted to play before. Some bosses might take you 30 tries to beat, a couple of them certainly took me that many attempts, and the rush that you get from beating them is the same as in Bloodborne and Dark Souls, but it’s turned up to 11 here. See, unlike in those two titles, Sekiro doesn’t offer you a way to over level or to easily increase your DPS and health. You can’t pile currency into the strength stat in Sekiro, and wield a damn ultra greatsword. The tools you get are mostly the same throughout the game. Your damage output increases every time you beat a major boss, but due to the difficulty scaling, the damage you do and take feels equal throughout the entire experience.

When you win a hard fight in Sekiro, it’s nearly always because you took the time to pay attention to your enemies actions, and the most effective way to counter them. Fluking a boss fight in Sekiro is damn near impossible, and most of them will be eager to put you in the ground, hell even some of the standard enemies were hard enough to deal with.

Some of the harder foes you’ll face don’t go down easy…

Fortunately, dying here isn’t necessarily the end for you. The nature of the game’s story is that Sekiro, and a few others, have the ability to resurrect. Doing so causes Sekiro to revive exactly where he died, in the same moment. So if you got a boss to a sliver of health, only for him to wombo combo you 6 feet under, you can bring yourself back to finish him off.

This mechanic adds a unique twist to the normal death screen found on FromSoftware titles. Some of the bosses in Sekiro, take a HELL of a beating, and then some. To the point where an over excitable player like myself might just use a lot of resources attempting to kill him/ her. Adding this resurrection mechanic gives you a choice as to whether you think that you can kill him with a second chance, therefore making the use of those resources not so pointless.

Dying in Sekiro, causes reverberations throughout the world, and the more you die and spawn at Sculptors Idols, NPCs around you will start to get sick. Using the resurrection and surviving as a result doesn’t. When an NPC is sick, their quest or conversation cannot be advanced.

It’s an interesting gambit in theory. You can resurrect and potentially waste more resources on a lost cause, or let yourself die and risk getting NPCs sick. However FromSoftware drop the ball on this mechanic.

For starters, you get the resource used to cure this ailment very early on. Secondly, despite the resource being finite, it doesn’t matter how long you leave an NPC sick. They won’t die. Meaning you can die repeatedly thousands of times and the only thing you have to worry about is your pride.

It’s a shame, because an interesting idea in concept seems to have been poorly executed.

Other than that little titbit though, the game play variety in Sekiro is genuinely astounding. The encouragement to explore is on full show most of the time. Again, different to Dark Souls and Bloodborne, there’s less focus on opening shortcuts, but instead on using stealth and mobility to your advantage. The stealth system in Sekiro is just about everything you need from a title like this. You have the chance to distract foes with throwable objects, you can stealth kill from behind, below, above, and even around corners, and with the use of a grappling hook Sekiro can just about jump to anywhere within reach.

Overall game play is fantastic, with only minor complaints about the “sickness upon death” mechanic.

Visuals? 9/10 – While not the best looking game I’ve ever seen, Sekiro is consistently beautiful.

First things first, Sekiro is gorgeous.

It’s the simplest way to describe it, there’s not a single area or cutscene in Sekiro that I recall as bad, or below par, or not up to scratch with it’s AAA peers.

Animations are all wonderfully done, as they should be when the combat so heavily relies on watching for animations. Lighting and shadow effects, on both platforms I played it on, Xbox One X and PC, looked phenomenal.

There’s one particular moment when you’re navigating a burning building, and the fire looks so damn good, a strange thing to say maybe but fire and water effects are things that games historically struggle with. Sekiro nails both in my experience.

In fact, the realistic outlook in the early game, really serves to point attention to some of the more visually impressive places you’ll be visiting in the late game. Hard to give context without spoilers, but I’ll provide a screenshot here I’m sure that will give you some idea.

Some of the views in Sekiro are stunning.

Sekiro is also the first FromSoftware Soulsborne title (a mouthful I know), to have NPCs mouth’s move. While not entirely accurate, and with some very notable mismatches, the lip syncing is actually quite good overall when played with the Japanese VO. The English VO suffers though, so this writer does not recommend unless you’re particularly against subtitles.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to critique the visuals on show in Sekiro, as everything in general just looks… good? It’s not the best looking game I’ve ever played, but it is consistently gorgeous throughout, with the right mix of reality and fantasy. The consistency gives it points here, as even games as attractive as Jedi: Fallen Order (as pointed out in my review), suffer from inconsistencies.

Audio? 10/10 – With a wonderful OST, and brilliant spacial audio, FromSoftware knocked it out of the park.

I know. A 10/10 seems mighty generous.

But the thing is, if FromSoftware can consistently do something well, it’s audio. Bloodborne had some of the most magnificent sound design going, with boss fights and guttural sound effects being chilling, yet demanding a reaction and emotion out of you. The music in Dark Souls boss fights is consistently beautiful, combining epic rises and depressing lows together in a way that perfectly mimics getting slapped around by Pontiff repeatedly.

Sekiro takes this and just keeps on keeping on, as it were.

Every boss fight includes a dedicated song from the OST, as you’d expect, and every single one brings with it the Japanese flavour. Combined with the fights themselves, and the clashing of swords, the occasional words shared amongst warriors… it’s honestly just beautiful.

From a more technical perspective, rather than an emotive one, Sekiro does a wonderful job with directional sound. Not once did I have to question which direction an attack was coming from, or where my next closest enemy was.

During a boss fight, every single audio cue I required, was there. It was just enough that I didn’t get sideswiped by an attack I didn’t see coming, but it wasn’t too much that I felt the game hand-holding me.

It’s gentle stuff. The sound effects are rarely as grating as those found in Bloodborne (not an insult, Bloodborne’s sound design is also wonderful), but instead evoke a sense of mysticism that perfectly lines up with the games material.

Sounds across the board, is fantastic.

Story? 7/10 – While written well, the mystery found in previous titles is somewhat lost in Sekiro.

So this might be an unpopular opinion, but in terms of delivering an up front story, FromSoftware do not do a good job in general, across the entirety of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. It’s deliberate on their part, the ambiguity is part of the greater interest in these games, but personally it’s always something that’s annoyed me. I’d rather get my story up front and in an order that makes sense, rather than find stuff out from someone on YouTube who’s spent dozens of hours collating material on the lore and pieced it all together.

As such then, you’d think Sekiro would score far higher for me in the story department, but sadly not.

Sekiro’s story isn’t bad by any means, it’s actually pretty damn good, I won’t go into it, as part of the charm of FromSoftware games is in discovering it for yourself. But in making the main narrative more accessible for your casual player, they’ve also lost some of what made Dark Souls and Bloodborne titles so unique. I’m an honest man, I can admit when I’m wrong.

It feels like FromSoftware actually went too far the other way in terms of making the story accessible.

See, the characters throughout Sekiro tell you what’s happening, what’s happened in the past, and where the story is going. In fact, you find a lot of this out in the first five hours of the game, and the NPCs remind you. Constantly.

Your goal rarely changes in Sekiro, the characters you work with almost never change, and for the most part, these characters also don’t develop very far or at all, even Sekiro himself.

It sounds like I’m being harsh I know, but what I wanted from Sekiro was the middle ground between Dark Souls, and your standard story driven video game. I wanted a story I could follow, with motivations that I understood, but in a world that was left for me to understand and break down.

Now it’s not all bad, as you can tell by the 7/10. Most of the NPCs actually have very interesting back stories that you can explore at your leisure, by err… getting them drunk. Not joking either. You can gift Sake to various crucial NPCs around the world and they’ll open up to you a bit about themselves. I like this a lot. The up front story is enough for a lot of people to get by, but with this system there’s a very well defined method to get more info should you want it.

Each item you pick up, in typical FromSoftware fashion, has a story even if it’s a short one. Every enemy faction you face in the game came from somewhere, and you can find out more about them by eavesdropping or paying close attention to offhand comments and conversations.

Certain enemy types, bosses, and areas don’t get explained at all, which are left for you to work out for yourself, or you can do what I did and watch YouTube videos on it. There’s even environmental storytelling on show that works remarkably well.

This all comes together rather nicely, in general far more cleanly and easier to understand than previous titles, which I like. It’s just a shame that a lot of the mystery was lost in the process.

Acting? 8/10 – Good across the board, but hindered by some cheesy performances and minimal dialogue from Sekiro.

Thankfully, the acting in Sekiro is pretty consistently good, especially in the Japanese VO. All main characters are done justice, and some of the bosses get some epic lines themselves, which of course means they’ve been memed pretty hard by now.

My only complaint regarding acting, to get it out of the way, is that the character you play, Sekiro, isn’t really a talkative fellow. Which leads to some awkward (but admittedly hilarious) interactions with other characters. It is however, a far cry from, and a big improvement on the silent protagonists of FromSoftware’s previous entries.

Actually on second thoughts, I do have another complaint. Some of the acting from the antagonists comes across as a little.. cheesy I suppose? Especially from the main bad guy Genichiro, lots of monologues.

Other than that though, there are some mighty fine performances, especially from Isshin, Emma, and the Sculptor.

Not a lot more to say here, it’s a FromSoftware game, so characters get minimal time to shine but when they do, it’s definitely above the average. Especially in boss fights.

Writing? 7/10 – Cheesy and cringy in parts, but still acceptable in most circumstances.

Interestingly, this section struggles with the same issues as the last, but because the writing is to blame for the previous section in part, it scores lower.

Fact is, the writing is cheesy. A lot of the time. It’s thankfully saved by the aforementioned performances, but is nonetheless a little cringy at times, even in Japanese. I can’t imagine how some of it comes across in English.

The other issue is again, the fact that Sekiro doesn’t talk much, and a lot of it is just repeating what someone literally said to him 10 seconds earlier.

Other than that though the writing isn’t bad. A lot of the conversations between Sekiro and other characters flows pretty well, especially seeing as FromSoftware barely bothered at all in previous titles similar to this. Some of it comes across as emotive enough to remind you of a characters history, and Sekiro’s relationship with that person, which is great.

Performance? 9/10 – Flawless on PC, but a little disappointing on the X in terms of frames.

I first completed Sekiro on PC. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, so basically just wanted the best graphical performance I could get my hands on.

My gaming PC is set ups as follows:

  • 16GB RAM
  • 1060 6GB GPU
  • I7 7700K CPU
  • 1080P G-sync monitor.

Which is the medium-high tier range of gaming PC now, not top tier by any stretch of the imagination.

Having said that, Sekiro performed wonderfully. It’s capped at 60fps on PC and Xbox One X/ PS4 Pro, and on my PC it hardly ever dropped below that. Even with the somewhat middling setup I’ve got, it handled max settings at 1080p 60fps with no issues whatsoever, and the g-sync display helped keep things buttery smooth the few times there was a drop.

I had zero noticeable artefacts, no texture loading issues, and no crashes whatsoever throughout the entire experience.

With the Xbox One X, where I’ve currently played approximately half the game, the story is very similar with one caveat. For whatever reason, the frames on Xbox One X do not consistently meet 60fps, with noticeable stutter on the 4K 60hz TV I was playing it on. I thought maybe I was the isolated case of this, but with some quick research through a variety of articles written by people more intelligent than me, it seems not. In fact oddly enough (although I can’t speak toward this myself), the PS4 Pro seems to deliver more consistently stable FPS than the One X.

Given how the X normally outperforms the PS4 Pro for most third parties, this is an odd development, and is probably the cause of some optimisation issues between platforms. That being said, occasional frame issues aside, Sekiro also looks consistently fantastic on the Xbox One X, very comparable to max settings on my PC, which is good.

I’m also glad to report that I’ve had zero crashes on Xbox, the same as PC, so at least the stability is consistent.

Overall no major complaints on performance, it’s just a shame the game doesn’t seem to hold up on Xbox One X in terms of FPS.

Fun Factor? 10/10While certainly for a niche audience, Sekiro is mercilessly satisfying.

Sekiro isn’t for everyone. It’s relentlessly challenging, even if it is consistently fair.

In fact, as I mentioned above, I’m unsure on how regular die hard fans of Dark Souls and Bloodborne would react to Sekiro. It follows the same mantra, but it’s delivered in an entirely different way.

I’d even wager, that for people who’ve played loads of those two titles, Sekiro might be much harder for them, than to people who are fresh to the genre. I myself didn’t struggle too greatly with the majority of Sekiro, but Dark Souls (and Bloodborne to a lesser extent) kicked my ass. But our other writer Kyle, struggled immensely with Sekiro at times, despite beating Dark Souls and Bloodborne multiple times.

If you enjoy and appreciate what Sekiro has to offer, you’ll love it. If you don’t, you won’t. There’s not many games as polarising as that, but at this point that’s what we’ve come to expect of FromSoftware.

Myself? I adored it. It’s an experience I won’t ever forget, and I’m truly glad I stuck it out through some of the more harrowing boss experiences.

Value? 8/10 – The lack of replayability when compared to other similar titles might put people off, but it’s absolutely worth the entry fee.

Sekiro is worth the original entry fee of £55. Absolutely no question.

However, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t address replayability. Sekiro is a very deep game, with multiple options to approach each encounter, but while I appreciated the lack of the RPG systems that you might find in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, the absence of these elements do hurt repeated visits.

The second thing is, that once you’ve died to a boss 30 times, and have his attack set on lock, the randomness is lost. I died to a certain boss 30-40 times in my first playthrough. In my second I beat him first try. Exactly the same encounter, but because I had remembered his move set and how to counter them, I whaled on him effortlessly.

So while yes, full price is worth it here, and you can run NG+ essentially endlessly, it pays to be aware that there might be less incentive to do so than in other Soulsborne titles.

How Much Did This Reviewer Enjoy it? 10/10 – Getting my vote for GOTY 2019, I was elated when other people agreed with me. It’s a fantastic title.

As mentioned above, I adored Sekiro. It gave me everything that I appreciate about Soulsborne entries, the bosses, the challenge, the exploration, the interesting story. But it added in a combat system that came down to so much more than just i-framing my way through encounters, or whaling on the backside of a monster till it died.

Sekiro demanded that I learnt everything it wanted me to, and refused to let me progress until I did, and I’ll be thankful that it did for the rest of my gaming life.

GOTY 2019 was tough for me, as I wanted Sekiro and Control to win, as I loved them both almost equally. But Sekiro found perfection in it’s combat and gameplay loop, that is almost unmatched by anything else I’ve played. It would be wrong of me to dismiss that.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review
By Zack Daniels

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