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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review — A Path Engraved in Originality

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Sekiro Shadows Die Twice logo art

Progression is a common theme for Dark Souls developer FromSoftware. When the Souls franchise came to an end, From needed to find its own way to move forward from the series and formula that garnered its fame. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the developer’s first real attempt at something new and takes all previous From ideas in a fresh direction. However, simply comparing Sekiro to Dark Souls or Bloodborne does a disservice to what the hardcore developer has accomplished here. This new IP is not just ‘Soulsborne’ with a fresh coat of paint—Sekiro is something better than the foundation it is built on.

Set in an alternate history, 16th century Japan, players will find themselves greeted with many familiar concepts. From’s gorgeous art direction is better than ever in a fully realized world and environmental storytelling blankets the war-torn land. Bonfire-like mechanics, a pulled back third-person camera, familiar controls, and open-ended level design all make a return in this genre reboot, but still, something feels different. The game has no character creation screen or tutorial markings on the ground. The new predetermined main character also moves swift and fierce thanks to the game’s polished sprint feature. This focused direction taken by director Hidetaka Miyazaki stands opposed to the lumbering nature of his previous work.

Sekiro gameplay screenshot

Perhaps the most shocking decision made here is the choice to not just steer away from an obtuse vision while almost fully combating inaccessibility. Sekiro has a story that certainly offers forked paths, but also remains fully digestible throughout. Players will find themselves growing attached the one-armed-wolf they are given control of, and the distinct narrative backdrop elevates the painted world. Even the tutorials completely interrupt gameplay so that players are made aware of nearly every mechanic early on, further pushing against a franchise that was famous for being esoteric. The only relic of Souls’s past that remains are vaguely described items, though even those are easy enough to figure out. Dark Souls was a welcome take on game design for its time, but Sekiro strikes the better balance in player freedom to discover. Thankfully, Miyazaki’s trademarked love for challenge remains completely uncompromised.

Protagonist Sekiro and the hordes of aggressive enemies that challenge him look at past Souls-type games in the eyes and scoff at how comfortable the genre was for the past decade. Enemy and weapon designs hold the same uniqueness found in the past and still manage to terrify. Staying on one’s toes has never been more imperative than when facing a 10-foot-tall ogre with a baseball bat. Where playing things safe with patient, planned attacks would normally yield rewarding gameplay, this new take punishes those methods with great severity. Combat is now less of a puzzle and more of a shinobi-latent tango thanks to an emphasis on a world grounded in logical encounters. Sure, the game still features the occasional giant reptile or spirit to encounter, but, for the most part, the realistic take helps free Sekiro from the chains binding the genre for so long. One other change to the live and die repetition normally found in games is the ability—or, rather, option—to literally die twice. Death brings the choice to self-revive, promoting a risk-reward aspect to systems that were otherwise growing a bit tedious. Be careful though, as dying too much can spread the disease known as Dragonrot, which can inhibit NPCs indefinitely.

Sekiro gameplay screenshot 2

At its core, the game falls into the action/stealth genre more so than the RPG genre. The game has some skill trees to take advantage of, though these aid the feeling of power more so than unique player builds. Players can sling to rooftops with the useful grappling hook and decide whether or not to go into an attack stealthily. These varied combat options play well into From’s famously interconnected level design which now benefit from the extra verticality.

Those curious on the difficulty relative to past titles will find Sekiro perches itself somewhere in the middle of the past series. Combat is cut-throat and incredibly demanding during the first few hours of play. That said, even the most hopeless will find a moment where combat clicks into understanding. Generally, the romp through 16th century Japan is not as dire as one may be used to, even if the bosses can occasionally evoke more fear and desperation than ever before. New stealth-only sections also significantly help break up the pacing that killed momentum for some in the past.

Sekiro gameplay screenshot 3

A finer balance of accessibility can be found in the game, but that does not mean the game lacks a few issues that come with these new design choices. As mentioned earlier, tutorials and item descriptions plague Sekiro’s fluid combat. In general, the drawn-out explanations go a bit too far. Some items trigger a pop-up window that completely halt combat, regardless of player intention. Cutscenes are also one of the drawbacks of a more involved story, as players who have a tough time with a particular boss have to deal with a bit too much wasted time thanks to cutscenes that beg skipping. Another problem that has managed to creep its way in due to the nature of the perspective is the egregious camera. Sekiro is so fast paced that its camera cannot keep up with the action. Fairness is an essential factor to consider in a game like this, and the camera is a flaw that puts cracks in the gameplay’s fundamentals. Most third-person action games will suffer from camera issues, but Sekiro seems to stutter in this regard more than most.

These issues are blemishes on a title that is otherwise an evolution in every conceivable way. This does not mean previous From games are obsolete by any means, only that Sekiro is aiming for a completely different mountain to grapple. From is owed immense praise for creating a beautiful world brimming with life that still oppresses in every conceivable way without falling under the Dark Souls umbrella. Challenge, character, and the primal need to keep moving forward are still key features in FromSoftware’s design arsenal that has inspired for 10 years. Creators could learn from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’s uncompromising focus and freshness for years to come, even if its roots are planted in familiarity.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

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Review

ZED Review — A Boring Walk

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ZED Review Screenshot 1

Players intrigued by the premise of ZED will have to look elsewhere for a game that delivers on the promise of an emotional journey set amidst surreal landscapes. Although the game does have fascinating visuals, the lack of any real gameplay makes the entire experience dull and uninspiring. However, despite being an altogether terrible experience, the ending is still somehow emotional.

ZED tells the story of an ageing artist suffering with dementia who must recover his lost memories  to create one final artwork for his granddaughter. The player assumes the role of the artist, stuck in his own twisted mind, to collect important objects from the course of his life and bring him peace.

Gameplay entirely consists of two things: walking around to find objects and solving basic puzzles. In all of the game’s areas, only four objects are to be found. Finding the objects is an incredibly simple task in most levels as the design is linear and leads the player along a path or through a small collection of rooms to find these items. Occasionally, one of the objects will be placed in a ridiculous location. Breaking the linearity in this way is incredibly frustrating and forces the player to backtrack and find hidden paths that are not immediately obvious. As for the puzzles, they take seconds to complete even without searching for the striking blue solutions on the walls of the level. Such a simplistic and unoriginal gameplay loop makes the incredibly short game boring to play through.

The environments are genuinely fun to look at and do a brilliant job of capturing the mayhem inside the mind of a man whose memory is failing him. Disappointingly, the game has no interactive elements within the environments beyond the key items, toilets, and plush toys. Even then, interacting with these objects requires specific mouse placement, which is almost impossible to predict as a cursor has been omitted for the sake of immersion. The game has many quirky assets, yet the lack of interactivity makes them feel worthless.

Eagre Games tries to create an immersive experience, though falls flat for a number of reasons, the most annoying of which is the load screens. The player progresses the story by unlocking doorways to reveal the next scene. However, after getting this glimpse of art, the player is thrust into a brief black loading screen which ruins the point of revealing anything at all.

The narrative is told through voice-overs that belong to the protagonist’s daughter and two different sides of his deteriorating mind. Subtitles are turned off by default, yet, without them, the player has no way of knowing that the artist’s voice is represented as a dual identity. What is being said makes little sense as is, let alone without the context of a warring ego and id.

By the end of the game, the player just wants to see the result of this painful object search and, surprisingly, the conclusion is overwhelmingly touching. Against all odds, ZED somehow manages to finish on a high that acts as a reminder that anything is possible if you chase your dreams.

The ending is the only redeeming feature of this boring experience. ZED is short, uninspired, and disappointing. For a game that sounded so promising, weak gameplay prevents it from having any real emotional impact. Hopefully, the strong development team at Eagre Games will learn from its mistakes to create something that is as fun to play as it is to look at.

OnlySP Review Score 1 Fail

Reviewed on PC.

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