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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice feels like a fighting game

Timing plays a big part in FromSoftware’s latest

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is definitely not another Dark Souls. Where FromSoftware’s previous action games could feel like tense memory games, the developer’s next effort instead seems to crib from a different genre entirely: fighting games.

The Souls games and Bloodborne can be notoriously uninviting, and that’s what fuels their sense of satisfaction. By contrast, Sekiro’s appeal lies in its careful consideration. Reading your enemies, perfecting the timing on deflecting attacks and creating clever openings: These are the keys to staying alive. Precision like the kind Sekiro requires of you isn’t rare for action games, even if it feels dissimilar from FromSoftware’s most recent series. In Sekiro’s case, however, we found ourselves playing it less like an action game, and more like the kinds of fighting games that make you study your opponents before striking.

Set in Sengoku era Japan, Sekiro’s sense of calm before the storm is built into the story. The game sends you on a quest to rescue the kidnapped master you’ve sworn to protect. On your journey to find him, you’ll cross swords with a handful of enemies, from common samurai to gnarly beasts. Most of the time, you’ll be mixing it up with your sword, but you also have a prosthetic that houses your secondary weapons. These tools can be switched on the fly, giving you a lot of creative freedom in combat. But becoming skilled with items like a grappling hook also requires patience and repeated practice.

Leaping in Sekiro
FromSoftware/Activision via Polygon

Taking a breather on a rooftop before going in for the kill is one of the things that makes Sekiro much different than Souls. You could rush into every fight and dance around a group of enemies at once, or you can clear the field, giving yourself enough space to tackle tougher enemies one-on-one. These more demanding battles, whether against bigger foes or bosses, demand the kind of fine attention that I’m used to tapping into when playing fighting games. Attacks need to be studied, spacing needs to be perfect and miscalculated parries can get brutally punished.

When squaring off against beefier enemies, you’ll not only see their life bar, but an orange meter in the center of your screen. It immediately reminded me of the stun meter you’d see in games like Street Fighter 5. Fill that meter up, and your enemy will become vulnerable. Only then will you be able to land a devastating strike against them. It’s a satisfying reward and a necessary skill to master as you’ll need these attacks to whittle away the life of bigger enemies.

A big hit removes one of this enemy’s two life bars
FromSoftware/Activision via Polygon

Filling the stun gauge can be done in several ways. The simplest method is landing attacks against your enemy. The more you hit them, the more quickly you can land killing blows. It should be noted that all enemies have this stun meter, even the most common foes — but since their stun meters are much smaller, you’ll barely notice them before you finish them off. That’s never the case with the bigger guys, who are far more durable.

The best way to defeat tougher enemies is to deflect their attacks, but that’s a high-risk, high-reward process. When you’re able to perfectly parry an attack from an enemy, you’ll add a significant chunk to their stun meter while adding a small amount to yours. If you’re slightly off, you may still deflect the attack, but you’ll also add a much larger portion of stun to your meter. If you consistently fail to precisely land parries, you may actually give your opponent the chance to hit you with a heavy strike instead. Straight-up blocking also adds to your stun gauge, so mastering your timing is key to staying alive.

The subtle, but importance differences in parrying
FromSoftware/Activision via Polygon

Focusing on defending yourself while building up the power to unleash a special attack can be a complicated balance, but for those who play fighting games, it’s par for the course. There are any number of things at play in Sekiro’s combat — and while you can reduce a match to “defeat the enemy before you’re defeated,” the steps to getting to that point are more complex than they seem on the surface. Combat in Sekiro isn’t simply about dodging attacks and striking back between them, but rather understanding the spacing and timing of your enemy’s attacks.

Putting those skills to practice takes time, so expect to die a lot. Thankfully, as the game’s title suggests, you can actually die twice before being sent back to a checkpoint. After taking a fatal blow, the game will offer two options: die or resurrect. Choosing to die will set you back to a checkpoint, but resurrecting will allow you to stand back up and continue fighting.

In Sekiro, death isn’t a frustration, but another strategy: Whenever you get knocked out, your enemies, bosses included, will turn their backs on you and walk off. You can use this time to resurrect and land a surprise attack on your foes... or you can just go ahead and die and start over. It’s reminiscent of the comeback mechanics seen in fighting games. After sustaining enough damage, you are given the option to utilize something that can tip the scales back in your favor. You may not win every fight because of it, but it’s a useful tool to swing things back around.

Dying can be strategic
FromSoftware/Activision via Polygon

Combined, all of these features made each of the tougher encounters feel as nuanced as a one-on-one showdown in a fighting game. To be successful, you’ll have to do more than just swing your sword to survive. You have to completely dismantle your enemy’s fighting style. Instead of learning their attacks to dodge and counterattack, you’re understanding how an enemy fights to use their own tactics against them. It’s a surprising deviation from the Souls games, but the combat feels great once you get the hang of it.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice may challenge your expectations for FromSoftware’s next title, if you were anticipating yet another game built on repetition and stamina management. In addition to a new setting that ditches the gothic haunts of the Souls games, the game’s revamped combat is also a much needed change of pace. The new system feels great, especially if you’re familiar with fighting games. For everyone else, expect a different kind of challenging gameplay that will only get more satisfying as you acclimate to it.

We hope to find even more depth under the surface when the game launches on March 22 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.