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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

SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead

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The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.

SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.

As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.

The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.

Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.

Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.

The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.

Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.

Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.

SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.

The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.

The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.

The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.

SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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