Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not a Souls game.
That’s important because developer FromSoftware spent the last decade making games that are either proper Dark Souls games or precursors, like Demon’s Souls. Even when the developers made the PlayStation 4 exclusive Bloodborne, it was in the Dark Souls mold.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice breaks that mold. Mostly.
And it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s all because of that fishing reel-like attachment on your bony left arm.
If the Souls games were director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s fantastical take on medieval fantasy and Bloodborne was his take on gothic, Victorian fantasy, then Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is his take on Japanese fantasy. And from that single conceit — using a ninja instead of, say, a European knight — the gameplay that From is known for is changing dramatically.
“The reason we went with ninja as opposed to samurai this time is because samurai are a lot more grounded,” Miyazaki told Polygon at E3 2018 through a translator. “We feel like, at least from a Japanese perspective, ninja have this freedom to do anything, and to approach combat and approach situations in a multitude of ways.”
Doing something so simple as jumping wouldn’t feel remarkable in most games, but anyone who’s played a FromSoftware title in the last decade would understand that this is a significant change in gameplay. Unlike FromSoftware‘s Souls games, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice emphasizes mobility.
“So we have the grapple, we have the jump, you can use stealth, you can use, obviously, the katana — you know, it’s a Japanese motif — you can use the shinobi prosthetic tools, you can use a wide variety of tools at your disposal and abilities to confront in different ways,” Miyazaki said. “Of course, you can tackle things head on if you like. We felt this was very central to the ninja themes, and this is something we wanted to try with Sekiro, this concept of killing ingeniously.”
In Souls games, you’ve got your weapon and your shield. In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you’ve got a weapon (a katana) and what Miyazaki calls a “shinobi prosthetic.” The main character uses a mix of swordplay and his prosthetic, grappling enemies and cleaving them with an ax.
In Shadows Die Twice enemies die in spectacular shows of gore and blood. It’s governed by a system that isn’t quite health and isn’t quite stamina, but the goal is to winnow it away. Once that’s done, your regular attack becomes an assassination — impaling, shredding, letting loose bursts of blood that spew in fountains of red.
For years, FromSoftware has been turning verticality into viable design aesthetic. In its games, geographical areas often sprawl up and down, not just forward and back, quite literally adding dimensions to gameplay. Shadows Die Twice carries on this tradition in a new way.
“So obviously, creating these wide-open 3D vertical spaces is something we’ve prided ourselves on in previous titles,” Miyazaki said, “but obviously they have their limits, when you’re walking around with sword and board in these previous games, you have to use the stairs, you have to use ladders. But this time, it’s kind of like a stress relief. It allows us to do things we haven’t been able to do in these levels before, and take an entirely new approach to exploring them and traversing them. So it’s been a lot of fun. We hope players will have fun as well.”
From’s famous verticality also plays into the ninja aesthetic in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice as seen in the trailer.
“The other thing we wanted to convey is, obviously we are a shinobi protagonist this time around, and so along with the 3D spaces — the vertical maps we talked about earlier — we want people to feel like they have a lot of tools, a lot of abilities at their disposal, and they have a lot of ways they can approach and throw down the gauntlet with each situation,” Miyazaki said. ”Not just going in toe-to-toe, sword and board, but they really have to make use of everything in their arsenal to combat these different situations. So that was part of the ninja motif.”
And there’s one more departure from the Souls formula that the trailer (which publisher Activision created, not FromSoftware) subtly conveyed. The trailer for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice begins with a mosaic of characters who are important to the game’s story in a way that characters aren't in Souls games — including the protagonist.
It seems, in short, that you may not begin by creating a character from scratch like you would in Dark Souls or Bloodborne. Instead, in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you’ll take on the role of an established character.
“So the one thing you may have noticed is that we had — especially at the start of the trailer — introducing these new characters,” Miyazaki said, “they each have a face. These characters each have a background. They each have a story to them. We want to explore the relationships between these characters this time, and that’s going to be quite different to how we’ve told the story. Quite different to the narrative you may have seen so far.
“It’s not going to be a thickly story-driven affair, but we think it’ll be a nice change of pace from what you’ve seen so far.”
Update: This story has been edited to include additional detail and quotes from Miyazaki.