To say that FromSoftware has made an impression on video game culture the last ten years would probably be the definition of an understatement. With games like Demon's Souls, three Dark Souls titles, and PlayStation 4-exclusive Bloodborne, the Japanese developer has created their own genre of slightly sadomasochistic challenge bombs. Bystanders may find it hard to understand why gamers around the world crave games where the words "YOU DIED" are all too familiar but make no mistake, the reward for memorising and timing each and every move in order to take down a boss is a dopamine rush few other games can compare with. The fact that we even use the term 'Souls-like' for games with a great level of challenge, such as Cuphead, Dead Cells, and Ashen shows the cultural impact FromSoftware has made.
With such a grand reputation to live up to, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the expectations for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are exceptionally high. Bloodborne showed us that FromSoftware doesn't have to rely on the Souls setting to create immersive games that demand insane attentiveness from players, and now that the studio has moved on from the Souls series it's exciting to see which direction the developers want to take from here.
The first and most evident difference between Sekiro and its predecessors is the setting. Gone is the dark European/medieval-inspired setting from the Souls games, as is the monstrous gothic backdrop of Bloodborne. This time the studio is taking us to Japan and the Sengoku period in the 1500s, an era of constant conflict between feudal lords, their samurai armies, and nothing that even remotely resembles a centralised nationwide government (the latter only came into effect at the turn of the century after nearly 300 years of feudal strife). It is a time in Japanese folklore where warlords, soldiers, and local peasants were in constant conflict, which also makes it a perfect setting for mixing in some of the more mythical and mysterious elements of Japanese culture such as ninjas, spirits, and demons (a combination that worked out well for Nioh two years ago).
With this setting serving as the tapestry for Sekiro, it's only fitting that Japanese martial arts and combat techniques are something FromSoftware and Activision want to focus on. This was immediately evident by the fact that the preview event included a 75-minute introductory course in kendo, the Japanese martial art where the competitors use wooden swords (bokuto) to hit one another following specific criteria. The basis of kendo comes from old samurai combat techniques, and bushido, the Samurai philosophy which translates to "The Way of the Warrior", is an integral part of the martial art. The basic element in kendo is to tip your opponents off balance by using their movements against them and breaking their posture. This is one of the core mechanics in Sekiro, where combat revolves around breaking the enemies' stance with your sword and artificial arm before striking them with a death blow when their posture is broken. Souls players will find a lot of familiar gameplay when it comes to the game's focus on timing, dodging, and parrying, but the concept of breaking an enemy's posture feels more unique, refined and appropriate to the setting than anything we've experienced in the Souls series or in other Souls-like games for that matter.
After learning some of the basic teachings of kendo, it's impressive to see how the combat in Sekiro aims for a sort of realism in its way of tackling your enemies. Of course, the realistic inspiration from real-world combat techniques is combined with a solid touch of blood, gore, and violence of the dark fantasy kind, and players who strive for more realism will probably have to wait for the release of Ghost of Tsushima, the promising PlayStation 4 exclusive. Make no mistake though, the violence and gore can be quite intense in Sekiro, and combined with dark elements from Japanese mythology this is not a game for the faint of heart.