Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – Review

Japanese folklore has some terrifying things. Spiders, that when they turn 400 years old, transform into beautiful women. Skeletons fifteen times larger than a regular person that are constantly hungry, and pursue you doggedly through the night.

It is from these Japanese ghost stories that FROMSOFTWARE draws so much magic and mystery from, for their game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

It is this touch of the real world’s ancient stories that allows Sekiro to feel so real. But it’s not the only reason.

Sekiro is my first FROMSOFTWARE game, games which of course are infamous for their difficulty. So I went in fully expecting a challenge, and that’s definitely what I’ve got so far. But today, I don’t really want to focus on the difficulty of the game, I wanted to focus on the way that they actually construct and lay out the world.

Sekiro has a fairly linear world – as in, there is ultimately one path to the next boss – but one that is approachable from different angles. Each area has different pathways, entry points, and tactics you can use to approach enemies, whether they be towering ogres or just a couple of hapless bandits trying to loot the area.

You can also choose to tackle different areas in different orders – if you’re feeling like a glutton for punishment, that is. Some bosses are far easier to beat with the right tools, which makes backtracking and travelling to branches you haven’t checked out yet almost a necessity. So, now I guess you are wondering – what’s this about magic circles in the headline exactly?

It’s a fairly old concept – well, old in video game terms – in game design. The “magic circle”. This was outlined first as an idea by Johan Huizinga and then properly defined by Eric Zimmerman and Frank Lantz in 1999, and further popularized in video game design circles by Zimmerman and Katie Salen in 2003.

Essentially, when a player enters this “magic circle”, we are entering into an unspoken contract between the game and the game player. When a player engages with the game world in such a way that they are willing to play by its rules, and accept the game world despite it’s fantastic or otherworldly qualities, that is when you have entered the magic circle. 

Sekiro creates the magic circle agreement in a few different ways. The biggest, however, is the gameplay. When I am playing a game and reviewing it, one of the first questions I ask myself is, “why is this a game”? It might seem like a simple question, but it’s important to consider when reflecting on a game as a holistic experience.

If they had wanted to tell a story, there are countless other mediums they could have chosen – film, books, music, plays, the list goes on. So why is Sekiro a game?

Sekiro helps immerse us into that magic circle because we are made to be complicit with the rules and understanding of the world along with the protagonist. While the protagonist has prior history to the world, we experience the world through his eyes at a particular low point in his life.

It is through us that he becomes more powerful, and vice versa. As he rediscovers the world, we discover it for the first time. As he becomes stronger, so do we. As he is brutally slaughtered on screen, we feel a certain sense of pain too.

Sekiro’s exploration, as discussed before, is tight and satisfying. These are, as you will have ascertained, fairly generic video game reviewer buzzwords. But there’s no other way to describe the feeling of movement and flow in Sekiro. A button is bound to your grappling hook – something that more games should really have – and you can bounce effortlessly from point to point, dodging waspish musket fire and trying to stay out of the grip of a variety of beasties.

A skill lets you learn how to sprint and then slide into cover, making stealth an even more dextrous affair. Sekiro understands that a huge part of immersion comes from the way we interact with the world, and in video games that interaction is almost always to do with movement. Think of other games you really enjoyed the movement of. Most of the time, I’d wager, this movement is fast and slick, with responsive and well laid out controls.

Sluggish movement done without purpose makes a game feel infinitely worse, and is putting a block between you and the way you want to play. You can’t become immersed when you aren’t even walking the way you feel you should be. There are notable exceptions to movement not always being effortless and flowing creating exceptional games – Ice-Pick Lodge’s magnum opus Pathologic is a great example of that – but Sekiro’s responsive movement gels with its combat.

Combat is the oft-talked about ballet of button pressing and patience. Parries are acknowledged with bursts of yellow light, sparks, and a satisfying clang. Death blows are gory fountains of blood with the sound of blade meeting flesh. Getting hit is a personal experience, due to the way basic movement is expanded upon in combat. You’ll often find yourself thinking – how did I mess up that dodge?

When you are moving around without being in combat, there is an intrinsic understanding of your capabilities. You are quick, and quite often don’t have to be patient. You scramble up walls, grab ledges, and leap across impossible abysses. The grappling hook is a fine tool that adds verticality to your interactions with the game world, adding even more angles of approach. When you enter combat, things appear to slow down a little – unless you have a skill level that I imagine would take hundreds of hours of play to achieve.

The player is once again entering this tacit agreement with the game – now I’m fighting. Fighting isn’t like free movement, but it has its own set of rules as well. You have a block button, which, if you study your opponent’s actions enough, you can use to break their own guard. Your attack button can be also used in a variety of ways, slinging combos or simply performing a huge, risky thrust for large damage. Where the game becomes most interesting is, of course, when it is just you and a boss.

An early boss I rather enjoyed was General Tenzen Yamauchi, as he is not only very approachable, but is also surrounded by bandits. An enterprising player immediately assesses the scenario, and also recognizes it as a valuable way to test out a new tool you are given, a bamboo monocular. You can scope out a courtyard and assess it from a distance. There’s a good opportunity to sneak around the back by climbing up and around to the right, and I picked off Tenzen’s bodyguards until it was just me and him.

As a boss fight, Yamauchi isn’t particularly difficult. His moveset is fairly slow and leaves him broadly open to a lot of counterattack. But when you are first facing a new enemy, you don’t know this. A player, like the protagonist would, approaches a new challenge in a probing fashion.

Players who haven’t understood the “entering of the magic circle” when reaching this point, i.e. players who have refused to engage with the game by approaching it from its own terms and playing by the rules that it was broadly intended to be played with, will quickly become frustrated by attacks that deal large chunks of damage, and unblockable attacks that present people who just block with a fairly unwelcome wake up call.

But I think that Sekiro successfully engages everyone who picks it up with the understanding of what kind of game you are walking into, simply because by not playing by its rules, it chews you up and spits you back out again. If you run into fights and hammer the attack button, you might beat simple bandits in groups of one or two, but the moment you meet an enemy with a larger health bar or more devastating attacks, the game will punish sloppy play.

sekiro review

That’s not to say that a “magic circle” is only accessible through difficult or punishing games. Games like “Animal Crossing“, “Okami“, and “Fallout: New Vegas” all create immersion through a variety of different ways, but they all quickly immerse the player into a new world, showing the player rules and giving them reasons to push the boundaries of the rules to see when they bend, and when they repudiate the willfully ignorant player.

Whether that be through environmental means, storytelling means, or gameplay means, games have a great potential to immerse individuals, and in doing so improve the gameplay experience.

Sekiro doesn’t just enter a player into the world and present a compellingly detailed and graphically stunning game. Sekiro uses the medium itself to its advantage and gives every player a new challenge around every corner, which forces the player to play cautiously, whether consciously or not.

Each new obstacle overcome further reinforces a player’s successful play-style in their mind, and also increases the bond one has with the game. The game has its own rules, different from the real world, and yet it plays consistently fairly with them, allowing us to engage with it in a way that comes across far deeper than just surface level engagement.

When stuck on a boss, one leaves Sekiro wondering – what could I have done better? One wishes that the gameplay could continue on in their mind, just so you could test the limits of the world that FROMSOFTWARE have given you. Others have said it before, but Sekiro is a triumph of game design.

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