Anyone who has played a FromSoftware title is likely very, very familiar with those two words. The Japanese gaming studio made a name for itself in recent years with the brutally challenging Dark Souls series, which combined light RPG elements, an interconnected explorable world and an unforgiving difficulty to become an international best-seller that even spawned its own genre: Souls-like.
Now, FromSoftware has traveled from the hellish world of Lordran to its own fantastical reimagining of 16th century Sengoku Japan in the upcoming Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The much-anticipated title is set for release on March 22, 2019, and a lucky few were able to get their hands on the game at this year’s Gamescom convention in Cologne, Germany — and an even luckier few were spared the long plane ride and got to try out the game stateside in Santa Monica.
The demo showcased at Activision Blizzard HQ gave the player control of the eponymous Sekiro, a shinobi assassin who sports a prosthetic arm and a killer instinct. Right from the start, differences between Sekiro and past FromSoftware titles are evident. While the game features a similar HUD (head-up display) to Dark Souls titles and combat that allows the player to lock on to enemies with the push of the right analog stick, the introduction of new mechanics such as jumping and an incredibly useful grappling hook make for a much more fluid gameplay experience.
What has not changed, however, is the difficulty. In fact, a member of the game’s development team assured the small group of demoers that Sekiro actually offers more of a challenge than past FromSoftware games, citing the fact that titles such as Dark Souls and Demon Souls have trained gamers to be more equipped to handle the ramped-up difficulty.
While many demos begin with a brief presentation and rundown of a game’s controls, very few open with an outright challenge and warning: “No one who has demoed this game has beaten the monk.” Based on the sample size of my own group, that fact remains true.
Still, the challenge of Sekiro (and, really, all FromSoftware titles) is the appeal of the game, and where much of its charm is derived. The demo showcased the beautiful dichotomy of the game; its stunning, imaginative recreation of feudal-era Japan a starkly contrasting backdrop for the blood-soaked, crushing challenge of its gameplay.
Being a shinobi, Sekiro is at home running along tiled rooftops to strike his enemies from above. So, too, is stealthily hiding from passersby effectively implemented in the game. Of course, the option to simply rush forth and start a battle is still available and the fighting mechanics are satisfyingly realized.
What sets Sekiro apart, even in such a short demo, from other Souls-like action games is the strategic way in which each fight must be approached. Sekiro’s prosthetic arm offers a wide range of combat options, from a heavy axe used to hew through an enemy’s thick oaken shield to a flame strike that will set your foes alight to shuriken stars that can be thrown from afar like a coward (my go-to).
While the demo centered around combat and battling different sets of enemies — such as easily dispatched sentries and the significantly more challenging samurai gate guard — the exploration aspect and stealth gameplay also factored heavily in the short run-through. Hugging walls to avoid a sentry with a bell before taking her out assassination-style helped foreshadow a much grander iteration of the same concept moments later as a snake the size of a mountain loomed overhead.
It is the game’s grappling hook, however, that truly lies at the center of the experience. Used for positioning oneself for a stealth kill, avoiding strong enemy attacks or simply for traversal of the world, the mechanic is a welcome addition to the murderous death trap worlds of FromSoftware and fits right in with the genre.
It couldn’t save me from that damned monk, though.