I swoop from the rooftop, plunging my katana into the enemy. A geyser of blood erupts as he dies. But I'm already slashing at his compatriot, who fumbles with his weapon, and he too dies. More enemies arrive and I leap back onto a nearby roof with my grappling hook before heading towards my next target, a samurai general in full battle armour.
I stab him in the back. He falls, but gets back up. He slices at me with his giant katana and hits me, as I desperately jump away. Another powerful attack and I'm down - a large Japanese kanji character for death appears on screen.
Is it game over? Not just yet - I resurrect when the enemy's back is turned. I swing my katana, but he deflects it and unleashes a flurry of blows. I evade one attack, but not the rest and this time, I'm truly dead.
This second-chance ability is the premise of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the latest action-adventure game from FromSoftware. The Japanese developer has received critical acclaim for its challenging role-playing games (RPGs) - Demon's Soul, Dark Souls series and Bloodborne - collectively dubbed by gamers as "Soulsborne games".
Released last Friday (Mar 22), Sekiro lets you play as Wolf, a ninja on a quest to rescue his lord, Kuro, from the clutches of a samurai.
Kuro has a strange gift - he can give a person, such as Wolf, the ability to come back from the dead. But there is a price to pay for cheating death. Dying repeatedly causes a disease, called Dragonrot to spread among the non-playing characters (NPCs) in the game, preventing them from progressing their storylines. Merchant NPCs for instance, would not offer additional items for players to buy. The player, too, loses experience points and money upon death.
Sekiro changes up the formula of previous FromSoftware games. For one, it is a stealthy action game rather than an RPG. You cannot customise Wolf at the start. But as you progress, you can unlock skills and upgrade his prosthetic arm.
This arm has a grappling hook, which makes it possible for Wolf to leap to rooftops to avoid pursuit or to plunge from above to kill enemies. He can hang from ledges, sneak up on enemies and eavesdrop to learn useful information. The prosthetic arm can also be outfitted with various tools that turn it into a weapon, from shooting shurikens to blasting flames.
The gameplay has been tweaked from previous Soulsborne games. In those games, your character mostly relies on using a shield to block attacks or dodge attacks by moving to the sides.
Sekiro, though, introduces a new Posture system whereby you fill up the enemy's posture bar with your attacks. Once this bar is completely filled, the enemy can be killed with a single Deathblow - a red dot will appear in the chest. Deflecting an enemy's attack with my katana quickly fills up his posture bar and the same applies for my character.
The more powerful foes (mini-bosses and bosses) can also do perilous attacks that cannot be deflected or blocked, such as grabbing your character. These attacks often require you to dodge or jump up in the air to avoid them.
Combat thus becomes a clash of blades that require good timing while knowing the right move to avoid perilous attacks. It feels almost like a rhythm game.It is also more challenging than previous Soulsborne games.
Perhaps it is the muscle memory from having played those games, but I found myself dodging when I should be deflecting attacks. A change in playstyle is required for Soulsborne veterans. Conversely, those who have never played a single Soulsborne game may actually fare better.
It helps that Sekiro is probably FromSoftware's most accessible game yet. For instance, you can actually pause the game - something not possible in previous Soulsborne games.In addition, a tutorial at the start helpfully explains gameplay mechanics, instead of letting players figure things out for themselves like in previous games. There is even an NPC that spars with you to help you master the combat.
The world feels more open than previous Soulsborne games. Early in the game, there are mutiple routes to explore, so if you are stuck at a certain boss, you can try your luck somewhere else first. As usual, the level design is excellent - the game areas are intricate yet connected together in unexpected ways.
Having spent over 20 hours, I am still less than halfway through the game. Boss fights are thrilling while even the mini-bosses can be difficult to beat. Previously, I could summon help from other players to fight bosses together, but there is no multiplayer mode in Sekiro. You cannot overlevel the character to overpower the enemy, though unlocking skills help somewhat.
In short, I have to rely on my own abilities to beat the game. This only makes it more satisfying when I finally beat a boss after numerous attempts.
Price: From $64.90 (PC; PlayStation 4, version tested; Xbox One)
Genre: Action adventure