Demon's Souls, Bloodborne and Dark Souls represent a holy trinity for some, a trinity which pioneered a new perception of video game difficulty and brutality, crowning the developer From Software as the unofficial king of challenging games. With Dark Souls 3 having come out more than two years ago and thanks to a growing competition from games such as Lords of the Fallen, Nioh and the anticipated Code Vein all inspired by the soulsborne formula, the time seems ripe for From Software to once again assert their dominance in the field. Enter Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (henceforth referred to as simply: Sekiro).
Originally rumoured to be the next instalment in the Sony-owned Bloodborne franchise, Sekiro ditches the dark middle-ages of Dark Souls and gothic Victorian alleyways of Bloodborne in favour of something much, much closer to home. Taking direct inspiration from their magical homeland, From Software has chosen the late Japanese Sengoku period as the chief inspiration for the project. The developer explained its general thinking behind creating a "darker, crazier and more fantastical" setting than the actual historical period could even come close to. In order to properly explain what From Software meant with its statement, the demo began.
The playthrough started with a panoramic view of the world, consisting of ancient Japanese houses against a picture-esque backdrop. A huge castle towered above the clouds in the distance, which the developers used as the perfect example to explain exactly what they meant with their fantastical interpretation of the Sengoku period since no real-world castles are located on the sides of mountains, none are guarded by giant snakes, and they aren't taller than the greatest modern constructions either. Yet, the historical inspiration and dedication to Japanese heritage is as clear as day. Despite From Software showing us a very early version of the game, the visual presentation was stunning. The beautiful cherry trees, towering castles, and snowy mountains created the perfect backdrop for all the intense and raw action. There were a few glitches here and there but they are easy to look past if the state of the game is taken into consideration.
From Software furthermore wanted to point out how Sekiro differs from its predecessors in a number of different areas, chiefly in relation to the story, movement, and weapons. Dark Souls and Bloodborne are almost devoid of any singular one-note narrative and are purely immersive experiences, completely defined by the individual player and their investment in investigating the universe. With Sekiro, From Software wants to balance the line between having a clear story and a mystical world defined through separate playthroughs, and they intend on doing this by introducing a more well-explained narrative containing a main character and different story cutscenes and then combining that with the same exploratory awe of the Souls-games.
In regards to movement and weapons, Sekiro doesn't feature an array of huge swords or axes but instead ancient katanas and a customizable arm. In the most intense moments during combat, the player can freely change the appearance of the arm into things like small axes, shields or projectiles. Being able to swiftly combine fast samurai swordplay and arm abilities is imperative to success in Sekiro, then. Everything is much faster this time around and the player has to use the environment more if they're to succeed in the many puzzles and battles. To aid in this, the main character has a grappling hook that works more like the one in Just Cause than Assassin's Creed Syndicate. The player can freely jump between treetops, roofs and mountainsides whilst still being deep in the middle combat. This was demonstrated in a boss fight where you had to jump amongst blooming cherry trees and deliver devastating blows from the air.
As Dark Souls concerned itself with defence and Bloodborne with a fast-paced offence, Sekiro marries the two in intense sword duels where timing and precision is everything. When executed correctly, the combat looks exhilarating with brutal Kill Bill old-school Samurai movie-like finishing moves. It means a lot of blood and over-the-top killing moves.
After having witnessed the first dive into Sekiro's universe and witnessed the mentality driving From Software's team, it comes off as the perfect evolution of their already heavily praised formula. With more and more competition in the same genre, Sekiro looks to be From Software's firm reassurance that they are still the kings of challenging game design.