While the rest of the world was calling out for Bloodborne 2 to be FromSoftware’s next big game, a select few were hoping for an entirely new and fresh idea. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was this new title, and it was immediately clear that it would be a huge departure from their past hit games such as Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls.

Sekiro is unapologetically the furthest from a typical Souls game in the best ways possible. As you might expect, the game is exceptionally difficult yet wonderfully rewarding in its combat and exploration. It bares all the trademarks of a FromSoft title but Sekiro’s biggest departure however is that it’s a character-driven story with a fairly explicit plot.

In previous titles like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, you created your own character and gave them your own backstory, justifications and drives. You would explore the world and not really know the whole overarching nuances of the bigger picture.

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Here, however, your path is clear as you assume the role of Sekiro, a skilled and fearless shinobi charged with protecting the royal heir to the throne.

It’s extremely refreshing to see FromSoft finally make something different other than their ‘Souls’ series, which had a decidedly European medieval setting, and all began with the superb Demon’s Souls released in 2009.

(FromSoftware/Activision)

Gone are the gothic castles and manors. Instead, you fight your way through a gorgeous and unforgiving Sengoku-era Japan, a time in history filled with civil unrest and bloody military campaigns.

FromSoft, a Japanese company, has always used reality as basis for their game designs. For example, a location in Dark Souls called the New Londo Ruins takes heavy inspiration from Mont Saint-Michel, an island commune in Normandy, and Sekiro is no exception.

This time, they've brought the surroundings of Japan into Sekiro and it serves to create a gorgeous atmospheric setting. Snow gently falls in the moonlight during the game's opening segment and you're treated to stunning vistas of intimidating pagodas and ornate Japanese architecture. It's easy to see the level of love and detail gone into every nook and cranny of this stunning game.

It’s not a stretch to say that by today’s standards the combat system used in all FromSoft’s Souls series is now painfully outdated. This is where Sekiro distinguishes itself greatly.

One of the most initially challenging aspects of Sekiro is understanding the combat. It features an intricate balance between ‘Vitality’ and ‘Posture’, the former being your health points and the latter being how many attacks you and enemies can guard before being left open to a fatal blow.

The now-stagnant combat system of balancing your stamina bar to defend, attack and dodge around your enemies is long gone. The game helps you to understand how their new systems work; albeit with some obtrusive pop-up tutorial windows which spam you in the beginning.

Encounters are balanced, fast-paced and exhilarating, offering a uniquely challenging and rewarding experience. You must strike a perfect equilibrium between being aggressive and being mindful of your posture. Taking these things into consideration for each fight will ultimately provide to you the best sword-fighting experience in any game to date.

(FromSoftware/Activision)

With that in mind, there’s no greater feeling in Sekiro than finally besting an enemy who kept defeating you. Death is seldom a punishment and more of a learning curve to this end. If you find you’re repeatedly being beaten by a specific enemy, then it just means you must try something new.

This lies at the core of the masterful gameplay that FromSoft are renowned for and they’ve found a way to improve on this fantastically. The game wouldn’t be complete without an enigmatic cast of characters to happen across and Sekiro is simply bursting with these memorable, well written personalities. They will offer you advice on your travels, sell you powerful items and frankly explain lore-rich details, fleshing out this grim and beautiful land.

Fans of Dark Souls will recognise the interconnected world, owing to the phenomenal level design. But now, the ability to jump and use a grappling hook to travel is the icing on the cake. This adds a whole new dynamic to the exploration of this game, making how you experience and explore your surroundings one of the most satisfying aspects of the gameplay and arguably the best seen in any game.

This is everything we expect in a FromSoft game and here it goes above and beyond. It feels like the evolution of their old formula into something new and fantastic. All of which culminates into a powerfully captivating story being presented in a world that actually feels real. Mix in some brutally challenging combat and you’ll struggle to put the game down.

The game does suffer from a lack of genuine character customisation, for example not being able to change your appearance can feel restricting, and the prosthetic arm you utilise in combat does become a bit of an afterthought.

However, as you progress through the game, you’ll find that this doesn’t really matter. The powerful cocktail of the atmospheric world begging to be explored, the stunning visual design and gorgeously illustrated characters is more than enough to keep you persevering in the face of hundreds of deaths.

All in all, Sekiro is nothing short of a masterpiece, owing largely to its renowned director Hidetaka Miyazaki. The pacing of the areas, the combat systems and the diverse, interconnected level design all work flawlessly together to create truly rewarding game which never feels unfair. Rest assured, Sekiro is one of the best gaming experiences you will ever have.

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