Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the next upcoming game from developer FromSoftware Games, made famous for their development of the Dark Souls Series. And, for those who have never heard of those titles, they are a punishingly difficult series of third-person character action titles that emphasize memorization, repetition, skillful play and slow progression.
When the first footage of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was revealed at the E3 2018 Sony Press Conference, it appeared to represent a wholly new direction for FromSoftware. The game bore a closer resemblance to titles such as the Batman: Arkham series, a third-person adventure series with a much lighter difficulty curve than the Souls games, and one that emphasizes high player mobility and stealth takedowns. In contrast, Dark Souls had used a restrictive stamina system and weighty movements to restrict player mobility to a bare minimum, which was one aspect the game used to push its high difficulty.
Long story short, the initial trailer led many fans to believe this new title would be much easier than those that came before it.
And long story shorter, the latest footage shows the opposite.
Two days ago, Gamescom footage of the game dropped, and since then many well-known reporters (aka not me) have gotten their hands on the title. All of them were allowed to record some of their own footage, so there are many videos showcasing this particular segment of the game.
And due to the footage being so widely available, I’m going to skim past talking about what we can see from the footage – No need to re-state what you can simply see for yourself. In short: The game gives the player a very high level of mobility, the movement is fairly quick, and the player does have access to death-from-above and death-from-behind style stealth finishers.
But during sword combat, the pace slows to a crawl, as the player duels against opponents in a tactical flurry of well-timed blocks and strikes. The yellow bars on the screen at this time are called “stance” bars – In Shekiro, you win battles less by depleting an enemy’s health and more by filling their stance (Done through perfect parries and landing hits). When their stance maxes, you’re given a high-damage attack that will either outright kill or critically wound your foe. But this forces you to keep up the pressure and manage the flow of combat, as opponents can not only whittle down your HP in the traditional way but also max your stance bar and do the same to you. Stance depletes very quickly when pressure is not being applied.
Now, onto the under-the-surface stuff: What makes this harder than Souls? Although you wouldn’t expect it, it’s actually due to all the freedom Sekiro gives the player. Normally, player freedom is given to add power, but here it gives the developers more power to take it away.
For example: The abovementioned stamina system from the Souls games is gone. Those familiar with the Souls games will see this as a crazy advantage: Rolling in Souls gave you a small period of invulnerability, and was one of the main ways to dodge attacks, balanced by a stamina bar that could run out and disable rolling for a short time.
Initially, you’d see this as an advantage, but the devs take it in the other direction. With no stamina bar, there’s no need for level designers to test and customize every combat encounter to make sure players have just enough stamina to make it through. Now, they can throw whatever they want in there, and leave it up to the player to find out how to deal with it. There’s no game mechanics protecting you anymore.
What’s more: The Souls games were RPG games. If you wanted more stamina, you could build around that. And, as in most RPGs, there were options that were generally more powerful than others, which could lead to players breezing through most of the game with minimal difficulty. Sekiro doesn’t have that. There’s no level ups, no power growth, there aren’t even multiple weapons – It’s the same Katana the whole way through. So now, the devs have a razor’s edge to balance the game around. They know EXACTLY how strong you’ll be at every moment, so they know EXACTLY how had to make it.
And they also know to make it just hard enough so that, if you’re good, you won’t die three times. Because the first two times you die, you have a revive option: Get right back up and keep going. These lives are refreshed every time the player hits a checkpoint.
Get it? Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice? Because you can die twice and keep going?
But the big thing that comes from this is it means cheap options – like traps and instant-kill strikes – are totally on the table. So long as they don’t fool me thrice, I can keep moving.
Honestly though, I don’t expect to keep moving for long. What we saw today was a demo, and demos are typically tailored to be pretty easy – A frustrating experience doesn’t give journalists a good look at the game. In other words, we aint’ seen nuthin yet. And I’m very excited to see more.
Featured Image Via Flickr / steamXO