Once Japanese developer FromSoftware had gotten a few chapter into its fantasy-based Souls series, fans around the world started to wonder what other settings or time periods those gameplay ideas might also work in. We’d find out one example of that in Bloodborne, which eschewed knights and dragons for a more gothic Victorian world and character roster.
While that did satisfy some amount of curiosity, there was still at least one other potential concept that players were really longing to see: “Samurai Souls.” What could the team at FromSoftware do with its own country’s culture and history when captured through the studio’s dark, foreboding style? We would, in a way, find that out thanks to another developer’s efforts, Team Ninja’s Nioh.
Still, Nioh was as much its own creations as it was a take on Dark Souls, so there still existed plenty of room for FromSoftware itself to try its hand at its own interpretation of the idea. And yet, while we’re finally getting that very game in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, we also kind of aren’t. After getting a chance to see the game in much more depth behind closed doors at E3, I came away feeling like that game was both more Dark Souls than I was expecting, but also less.
The most obvious place to start in comparing Sekiro to FromSoftware’s other recent efforts is combat, and there’s some obvious influences at play here. While I didn’t go hands-on with the game myself, watching one of the development team members run through the demo, it’s clear that the mental portion of dealing with enemies won’t be hugely different versus what we’ve come to know in Souls games: engage smartly with your foes, don’t waste too much energy, don’t just swing your weapon widely hoping to hit something.
However, much like Bloodborne brought its own twists on what was being done in the Dark Souls trilogy, so too does Sekiro. While familiar elements such as parries or backstabbing are alive and well, Souls’ now infamous rolling seem nowhere to be found. Also, jumping is now an important part of not only the game but combat itself, far different from the extremely limited uses that action has had much of the time previously.
There is an idea similar to stamina here, but that element—posture–promises to play out in some very different ways, even from the small teases we’ve been given so far. Posture will be a resource you’ll need to pay careful attention to, as it’ll be what determines who has the advantage, and also disadvantage, in any duel. Things like taking damage or blocking numerous incoming attacks in a row will reduce your posture. The more you lose, the less actions you’ll be able to take and the more you’ll suffer from an enemy’s blows. However, if you can cause your foe’s posture to drop instead, you’ll gain an advantage over them. One way to get the upper hand is those parries I mentioned above, as using a well-timed parry will not only cause you to lose no posture, but it’ll also take some away from your opponent.
One place where Sekiro will differ greatly from FromSoftware’s other recent efforts is that you won’t have any option for character creation. Instead, throughout the entire game, you’ll be playing as a singular pre-set character. And, in fact, there won’t even be character classes or custom builds as you’ve come to know them at all.
FromSoftware’s Yasuhiro Kitao explained to us that the team wanted to present a singular gameplay experience in terms of the main character for all players, in part because they also decided to focus Sekiro on strictly being a story-driven single-player game. The game’s hero, Sekiro—the “one-armed wolf” as he’s known as—is a ninja, and FromSoftware is hoping to bring variety not in what he’s able to specialize in, but how he uses and upgrades the specific tools he has available to him.
In that, it’s looking possible that players might not even have a choice in what weapon Sekiro wields—but that doesn’t mean the game will be as limiting as it first sounds. After losing his left arm in combat, our hero crafts a complex prosthetic replacement that offers up a variety of tools and weapons that’ll be needed all along his adventure. For example, that arm can unleash an axe capable of breaking shields, shurikens for taking out long-range enemies or setting up combos, or even what looks to be a sort of metallic parasol that can act as a defensive shield. Sekiro will also be able to send out a grappling hook from his arm, which will let him cross normally impassable areas, reach higher places, or even close ground with bosses during intense battles. Coming off of the admittedly limited mobility—not to mention traversal care that must be taken—in the Souls games, the grappling hook alone makes Sekiro feel like a very different experience from what we’ve known. Sekiro’s arm, by the way, is also where the game’s sense of customization comes into play. While the team wasn’t able to go into details just yet, the arm will feature some sort of upgrade system, which will no doubt let players hone in on those specific uses or abilities that best serve their play styles.
The Story & World
Although the Souls series has never not had storylines in its games, that narrative has been presented in a way where players really had to work to fully appreciate both what was going on and the deeper lore behind those events. In this way, Sekiro will definitely stray from FromSoftware’s other recent work.
With Sekiro being a singular, crafted character, a more realized story has been build around him. If you’ve seen the trailer for the game, the young boy we’re introduced to is actually Sekiro’s lord. When the boy is kidnapped by rival samurai, Sekiro sets out not only to rescue his master, but also take revenge on the one who took arm. While the world of Sekiro will be filled with more narrative and character interactions than we’re used to from Souls game, the land itself will bring a number of hints of familiarity. Kitao explained that the basic world setup here will be reminiscent of the original Dark Souls, giving players numerous inter-connected areas to explore that offer multiple paths for traveling from one place to another. To help facilitate those traversal options, Sekiro will have “ninja doors” (among other potential solutions) that give access to new areas or provide a shortcut from one section of the world to another. Kitao also make a point to mention that those doors can’t be used by those not trained in the ways of the ninja, but it remains to be seen if that aspect will come into play during the game, or if was simple a world building-type comment.
One thing that really interested me, though, was what kind of inspiration FromSoftware was taking in putting together the world of Sekiro. Going in, I assumed there would be a lot of people instantly expecting straight comparisons to the Souls series from every angle, but I actually had two other names in mind that had some connection to the team: Tenchu and Kuon. Kitao told me fans might see elements of all of those games in Sekiro, but that—at least in his mind—there was at least some amount of similarity to the Souls game in terms of the world being a dark, foreboding type of place. And yet, in contrast to that, the team also wanted to explore recreating the beauty of their home country of Japan. Sekiro promises to constantly offer that duality, on one side building around real-world elements of feudal Japan, and on the other, FromSoftware’s signature concoction of strange, intimidating enemies and situations.
There’s one final way in which Sekiro both connects to and separates from its Souls cousins, and that’s in death. Like in Demons’ Souls, Bloodborne, and the Dark Souls series, death is a major factor of consideration when playing. Unlike those other games, however, dying in Sekiro does not instantly mean a mad scramble back to recover your body—and, thus, your lost goods.
While the exacts of the system aren’t ready to be revealed, in Sekiro, players will at times find themselves purposefully dying in order to help make progress. You see, our main character can at times be resurrected in order to re-engage in battle, so death can be a way to get a temporary break from a mob of enemies, mentally regroup, and then re-engage in a new way to get the upper hand. It certainly promises to be an interesting twist, and one that might initially be hard for longtime players like myself to actively feel comfortable using. I mean, after so many years of being trained to do everything in my power to avoid death, embracing it as a tactical strategy is no doubt going to feel absolutely foreign at first.
And yet, that’s a perfect example of how Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is both trademark new-era FromSoftware gameplay design and something breaking from those established norms. There’s still so much to learn and discover about what’s being put into the game, but for now, Sekiro seems like it might exist in an interesting place where it’s both perfect for hardcore Souls fans and those who haven’t cared for the games up until now.