Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review: masochistic ninja brilliance

I’m just going to be upfront with you: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is kicking my ass. I haven’t been able to spend nearly enough time with my copy in order to “git gud,” as they say, and every time I boot it up I’m met with several swift, bloody deaths in a matter of minutes. This is a brutal, brutal game that makes no apologies whatsoever for grinding your resolve into dust.

And I love it.

Sekiro is the new game from Dark Souls studio From Software and its renowned director Hidetaka Miyazaki. Comparing games to Dark Souls is a well-trodden cliche at this point, and while there’s more reason to do so with Sekiro than most, it’s the differences that make it interesting. A fantastical take on Japan’s ninja mythology, Sekiro is much more of a straightforward action game than the Souls series, giving you a predefined character, storyline, and set of tools. There’s no multiplayer element, and you can even pause.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review: masochistic ninja brilliance

The actual combat system is an even greater departure. Where Dark Souls emphasizes patience and defense, Sekiro is all about aggression. As well as a mostly traditional health bar called “vitality,” both you and your enemies have a secondary meter called “posture” that depletes upon blocking an attack or having your own deflected. Foes become vulnerable to killing blows when either bar is at zero, but posture usually runs out first; this makes for thrilling, intense combat that rewards you for taking risks and going on the offensive.

The basic structure of the game is where the similarities to Dark Souls are most apparent. You’re still progressing through an unfamiliar land with little guidance, suffering a heavy penalty when you die and resurrect at a checkpoint. But Sekiro’s full title refers to a twist on that mechanic that gives you a chance for instant revival after dying. If this sounds like a crutch, it isn’t. You will die so much that the ability to die twice in the same life actually feels stingy.

Sekiro’s level design is intricate, beautiful, and above all vertical in a way that From Software games have never been before. Aided by a grappling hook, you’re able to jump around stages with incredible fluidity. Recalling From’s PlayStation-era Tenchu series of ninja games, it’s possible to focus on a stealthy play style with Sekiro — though this is no less forgiving. You can jump off a roof to kill a soldier instantly, yes, but don’t think anyone in the area won’t notice.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice review: masochistic ninja brilliance

The path forward is often unclear. At one point, I was fighting an unusually strong enemy who backed me up so far that I fell off a cliff into a river. I thought this was yet another death, but no — I managed to swim downstream to relative safety, before almost immediately finding myself in an even more crushingly difficult boss fight. Was this the way I should have gone all along? Would I have found something useful for this battle if I’d beaten the first guy and continued on my way? I have no idea, and Sekiro revels in never telling you such things.

But From Software knows that players will persevere. It helps that with Sekiro, the studio has created not only a phenomenal combat system, but an evocative and atmospheric setting that you’ll want to learn more about. The visual design, in particular the color palette, is gorgeous and otherworldly, even if the game doesn’t break new technical ground. And Sekiro himself makes for a compelling protagonist whose story — a one-armed shinobi upgrading his physical form in an effort to save his master — is woven into the very fabric of the game itself.

I haven’t gotten far enough into Sekiro for this to really count as a full review, but I have played enough to know it’s something very special. It never feels unfair, and always inspires me to improve myself, even if that seems like an ever-distant goal. The difficulty will be off-putting to many people, but for many others it’s part of the draw. If you’ve ever yelled at a TV screen before pressing “retry” with determination, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is for you.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is available today on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.