FromSoftware has renounced the RPG roots of its Soulsborne genre with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which is a challenging game indeed, even by the standards of a Japanese developer known for crafting difficult gameplay (a fact we talk about in our review). It is imperative that you master the game's mechanics because there is no way around this challenge. Farming levels and stats in hope to use stronger equipment in upcoming boss encounters is not an option in Sekiro and online players will not be able to help you in combat. Your own set of skills is all you have at your disposal to overcome FromSofware's latest challenge and in this article, we explain some of the key mechanics and rules to help you.
Keep your cool
Those who have experience with the previous FromSoftware titles should know some of the basic combat tactics already. However, Sekiro plays much faster and is way more aggressive, which is why many encounters from the earlier Soulsborne games appear almost relaxing in comparison. In combat, your goal is to break your opponent's stance in order to find the perfect weak point in which you can land that final killing blow. To get there you can either deal damage with light strikes or reflect enemy attacks. The very special shinobi, however, block most of our attacks effortlessly and lets you strike back whenever the opportunity arises (indicated by a sword clank and some sparks flying). You must acclimatise yourself to this struggle, defend and evade accordingly while finding your own rhythm of when to attack in the short intervals between enemy actions.
Don't give your opponent a chance to breathe
Sekiro has an interesting interdependency between the posture of a fighter and his remaining stamina (or life energy). The better the physical condition of an adversary, the faster his posture regenerates. When your enemy is at high health you'll be forced to cancel his or her sword dance before it gets deadly and if you pause to heal or use another item, you basically restart the fight, since the posture of our opponent passively regenerates very quickly. Fortunately, most of our enemies' remaining energy can be decimated bit by bit with follow-up attacks after successful dodges, slowly breaking their stance while ultimately helping us overcome the enemy's posture.
Learn to read your opponents
During combat, you will constantly be confronted with attacks that are initiated with a red Japanese character. You have to read these unblockable attacks and learn how to use that knowledge to your advantage - there is no way around it. Nasty grab attempts, floor sweeps and spear stabbing attacks cause tremendous damage that can easily kill you (at least when you're not at full health), but they are also some of the safest options for counterattacks. For example, Mikiri counters may seem unthinkable to many new players, but it is undoubtedly the strongest move in the game. In late-game boss fights, the high risk/high reward Mikiri counter (which has you lunge into an opponent's stab attack with the reward being massive damage dealt to the posture of your opponent while remaining unscathed) is something you do not want to miss by any means. But if you miss the counter you will, without a doubt, catch the attack coming at you with your fragile face. With the undead samurai Hanbai in the shrine, you can practice these and many other techniques, but it is something else completely to get those attacks down in the wild.
Hit and run
If you can't seem to defeat an enemy, perhaps it's time for the most cowardly strategy, proven by many beginners of the Dark Souls series; running around the opponent in a circle and provoking a favourable series of attacks that expose the defence of your opponent. Find the right timing, land one or two hits, return to a safer location and try again. It's a time-consuming strategy, but it's relatively safe (if you keep a steady eye on your surroundings and make sure the camera doesn't lose track of you) and it helped us internalise some straight-up evil attack patterns. Most enemies are vulnerable for a few seconds right after they've landed massive jump attacks, and players who end up staring at the vulnerable back of an adversary will get a larger attack window before an enemy reboots its parade. Of course, if you're playing defensively, you have to be very patient, but the alternative requires excellent reaction speeds, plus high skill and knowledge of the game or the games that came before.