Last week I was invited to attend the Sekiro Sword School at North Sydney Aikido. The day was split in two with the first half focusing on the art of aikido and crafting of katanas.
The second half was spent playing Sekiro Shadows Die Twice.
While I was initially impatient to get my hands on the game, after the presentation by the Senseis at North Sydney Aikido, I had a much deeper understanding of not just the combat, but the theory behind it.
Sekiro Shadows Die Twice Preview
The core of aikido combat is to remain calm and centred. Meditation is one of the most important skills a samurai must learn which also rings true of not just Sekiro, but also Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Remember the first moments you had playing any of those games; the panic and frantic button mashing?
Now think about when you successfully cut down every enemy in your path and took down bosses without even taking damage. Those latter moments came when you had mastered the art of remaining calm.
In Sekiro Shadows Die Twice, using meditative skills to stay calm and centred while you play is doubly important. While sharing the basic DNA of Soulsborne games, Sekiro Shadows Die Twice is much faster paced. Its combat mechanics also mean that you’ll need to keep your head about you, lest you want to lose it altogether.
As you likely know, in Sekiro, both the protagonist and enemies have a health bar and a poise/balance bar. When fighting, you’ll first need to chip away at the balance bar. Once it’s depleted, the enemy is open for a killing blow. And the same is true of you. If you’re not careful to deflect and dodge attacks, you’ll be left wide open to devastating damage.
When you perform a killing blow, you are uninterruptable. Multiple times I was finishing off one enemy while another slashed wildly at me, but his sword did no damage. This makes sense because all of Sekiro’s combat leads to these killing moments. They’re what you’re fighting for and how you make your way through the dozens of enemies.
Whilst we were being shown the various methods of attack and defence of Iaidō, we learned that there are four katas (or forms) for each sequence. The third kata of each sequence is always Chiburui, which can be translated as ‘shaking off the blood.’
I asked both Roger Sensei and Bill Sensei about Chiburui and whether it had some other intention. To my mind, a simple flick wasn’t going to be enough to remove blood and guts and I assumed there must be more to it.
I was right.
Both Senseis told me that Chiburui was more about recentring oneself after an encounter. More importantly, it’s used to invoke the ‘killing spirit’ and remain in the headspace where you’re able to kill and continue killing.
This stayed in my mind as I went hands-on with Sekiro Shadows Die Twice and it certainly informed my preview session. Moments of respite are few and far between in Sekiro, so staying calm, while invoking the killing spirit is paramount. You must always be ready to fight and ready to kill while staying calm.
It’s an incredibly delicate balancing act, but one that makes for an intensely satisfying gameplay loop. It’s similar to Dark Souls, but it features so many differences that Sekiro doesn’t simply feel like Ninja Souls.
The first thing I noticed is the speed and degree of control. In Dark Souls, you may as well be a plodding tortoise for all your grace and agility. Bloodborne made you somewhat more athletic, but not much.
Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne put the emphasis on counter-attacking rather than being offensive. This is still true in Sekiro, just much less so. The Wolf is so agile, so speedy and so easily controllable that at first I was shocked by how responsive everything was.
And it only gets more so.
The prosthetic arm opens the game world up vertically and this is Sekiro’s biggest point of difference. You’re not limited to where the ground takes you, nor ramps or ladders. You actually have a jump button, which in and of itself is a huge deal. The Wolf can wall jump and hang from ledges.
He can jump while in combat and slash from the air and best of all he can jump, then use the Shinobi Arm’s grappling hook to escape combat. Never before have you been able to so quickly and easily escape and survive.
It also vastly changes the way you explore the game world. In Dark Souls and Bloodborne, you’d eventually find yourself in this labyrinthine, Ouroborosesque overworld. While this may remain so in Sekiro (I didn’t play enough to find out) the grappling hook allows you to basically go wherever you want right away.
See something shiny up on a ledge? Hook onto that tree branch and up you go. Need to jump across a gorge? Hookshot your way over and avoid the dreaded “You Died” screen. It really is a massive shakeup to the established formula and along with the Balance/Poise mechanic makes Sekiro a vastly different beast than its forefathers.
Story & Character
Another major point of difference in Sekiro is the way in which the story is told. Dark Souls and Bloodborne both have in-depth and interesting narratives, however, they’re not at the forefront. In Sekiro, you play as a ‘character.’ Not a blank-faced mannequin you get to create, The Wolf is a creation by From Software and has his own personality and motivations.
The narrative in Sekiro is front and centre too, so the reason you’re killing is established right away. There are, of course, hidden plot threads and secrets to uncover, but for the first time From Software has made the story an equal part of the experience. It makes Sekiro feel like the natural next step in the evolution of the genre.
The characters you encounter during Sekiro still feel a little underdone, much the same as Dark Souls, but there are exceptions to this. The Sculptor, for instance, is a mysterious helper who upgrades your Shinobi Arm and provides some context to your quest.
But not much.
Having only played a few hours, I didn’t get a great deal of the story, but the opening of the game sets the tone and your goals are clear throughout.
The Killing Spirit
The time I had with Sekiro Shadows Die Twice was over far too quickly, but at the same time, I was glad. I was increasingly drawn into the story and the world and if I’d played too much more the wait until March 22 would have been agonising.
Not that it’s all that easy a wait as it is.
After I’d walked away from my hands-on I was left feeling impressed by just how different Sekiro felt. I was always concerned that it was going to be Dark Souls with a ninja skin, but I’m happy to report it’s not that at all.
Sekiro has a definite identity all its own. It’s far more accessible than Dark Souls and Bloodborne, though it’s definitely not any easier. It walks the line between accessibility and difficulty that Dark Souls never quite nailed. And while it eventually was mainstream, Sekiro has the potential to be even more widely played and enjoyed.
That being said, those who don’t remain calm, centred and able to invoke the killing spirit are the ones who’ll not reach the conclusion of The Wolf’s story.
I, for one, couldn’t be more excited to see what the rest of Sekiro Shadows Die Twice has in store.
Leo Stevenson attended an event in Sydney as a guest of Activision for this preview. Travel costs were covered by Activision.