Earlier today, Sony posted a story trailer for Concrete Genie, their new game about being a kid and creating life using wall graffiti. This time around, the trailer focused a lot more on story and the artstyle, resembling a kind of Laika-style movie such as Kubo and the Two Strings. Or maybe not, that's just what it looks like to me.
During today's State of Play stream, Sony revealed the newest trailer for Mortal Kombat 11, this time focusing heavily on the game's story mode. This one in particular focuses on the time-travel aspect of the game, bringing together the characters from the 1990s with their modern versions. Zombie Liu Kang is not really a fan of old school Raiden it turns out and Kung Lao learns the hard lesson that just because you cut off someone's head doesn't mean they're gone for good.
Much as we ride roller coasters because we like to be frightened, we solve puzzles because we like to be challenged--and the more complex the puzzle, the more satisfied we can expect to be when it's finally solved. Baba is You has a prodigious capacity for frustration. This deceptively simple-looking indie puzzle game, by Finnish developer Arvi Teikari, swiftly approaches the heights of difficulty scaled by such vexing modern classics as Stephen’s Sausage Roll and The Witness, and shares with those games an uncompromising attitude that isn’t afraid to alienate newcomers intimidated by a challenge. It’s a puzzle game fan’s puzzle game in other words, as grueling as they come. It’s a sharper mind than mine that can make it through its later puzzles without misery. Whatever Baba is You’s shortcomings are, ease isn’t one of them.
Baba is You has an appealing conceit. The basic gameplay resembles an '80s top-down puzzle title like Sokoban or Adventures of Lolo: you control a kind of sheep or rabbit character called Baba, who moves around a fixed environment, pushes objects, and pursues a goal. But many of the rules that govern the game--including what can be traversed, what can be moved, what’s hazardous, what’s the objective, and even what’s under your command--are represented on screen as blocks of text arranged into phrases that work as commands. These blocks can be manipulated and the phrases rearranged, empowering you to eliminate restrictions, neutralize threats, and redefine the conditions of victory. In this way, the solutions for the puzzles in Baba is You are found through rewriting the terms of each problem.
Most words refer either to things (such as “wall”, “lava”, or “flag”) or to properties of things (such as “stop”, “push”, or “win”). When a thing is connected to a property with the verb “is,” that thing adopts that property, and can be modified with various conjunctions, prepositions, verbs, and adjectives, all of which follow the logic of a programming language. For example, suppose on a stage “Baba is you,” “flag is win,” and Baba and the flag are on opposite sides of a lake of lava. If “lava is hot” and “Baba is melt,” then Baba can’t pass the lava to reach the flag. But if “lava is push,” you can push the lava out of the way to reach the goal. Better yet, if “lava is you,” you can reach the flag as the lava, leaving Baba behind entirely.
Baba is You is never better than in these moments of sudden realization--when it dawns on you that you can rewrite the rules and change, get rid of, or become the obstacle in your path, allowing you to figure out what can be done to solve a challenging puzzle. Most of these moments occur early on, as you familiarize yourself with the game's mechanics and start to understand the way that it wants you to approach its puzzles. Baba is You encourages lateral thinking by the nature of its design, and after 15 or 20 stages, you begin to get a feel for its peculiar problems and the oblique strategies they require. The game’s surprises are genuinely delightful, but they are primarily front loaded.
The aesthetic is lo-fi in the extreme, though not without its charms. Its crude lines and simple blocks of color look like a child’s rendition of a NES game in crayon, every letter of the words that make up the commands scrawled in a shaky hand. In later, more complex puzzles, when instructions are crowding the screen and different objects are teeming all around you, scrutinizing this primitive style for clues can feel a bit like looking for codes in an abstract expressionist painting.
Less successful is the music, which is bland, simplistic, and incredibly repetitive. Modeled after retro game soundtracks, it sounds like a poor approximation. It had such an adverse effect on my concentration that it wasn’t long before I muted it and listened to my own music.
As the game progresses, and especially as the language involved gets more complex, words are ushered in whose meaning seems vague and whose purpose remains hazy, and that can make certain puzzles infuriatingly obscure.
Baba is You is lean, stark, and conspicuously light on instruction. New words and conditions are introduced without commentary; what things mean is never explained, and how things function is yours to learn in practice. Such hard-lined rigor makes you feel your intelligence is being respected. It also has the tendency to leave you completely bewildered and confused. The genre’s best games aspire to teach you how to solve their puzzles as they are presented to you, parceling out crucial information elegantly, and subtly, as you proceed from one challenge to the next. The ideal is a kind of unspoken guidance, acquainting you with rules and parameters in a way that feels totally intuitive and clear.
Baba is You doesn’t always do this so well. The earliest levels of its overworld map--including a preliminary stage that offers control prompts for how to navigate, undo actions, and reset--show a few simple approaches to the game’s unique brand of problem-solving. But as the game progresses, and especially as the language involved gets more complex, words are ushered in whose meaning seems vague and whose purpose remains hazy, and that can make certain puzzles infuriatingly obscure. It’s one thing to be confounded by a puzzle, and quite another to be uncertain how the puzzle works or what the puzzle wants. Often, I thought I knew what an ambiguous word did only to find that it didn’t actually do what I thought. More than once I solved a puzzle without understanding why.
For instance, every level has a “you.” Usually it’s Baba, but it can also be a wall, flag, or a little red avatar called Keke. It’s clear almost immediately that you can assume control of any number of different objects by replacing the noun in the sentence that ends “is you,” and that, what’s more, something has to be defined as you in order to continue playing at all. Less clear to me was that “you” is always a property rather than a thing. This means that, while “Baba is win” can be a condition of victory, “win is you” and “you is win” are not. So much of the vernacular of the game I picked up only in fits and starts. For example, I only know from happening upon it that “crab and Baba is you” will allow you to control both a crab and Baba despite being grammatically incorrect, while something like “Baba is you is win” doesn't work as expected.
This matters because you need some sense of why something does or doesn't work in a puzzle game in order to truly own your accomplishments. In one later puzzle, I managed to walk over a body of water unharmed by pushing a pillar into the water and stringing together the phrase “pillar on water is sink.” The property “sink” usually seems to make anything that touches the sinkable object disappear. I have no clue what happened here. Of course, I am sure this does “work out” in the technical sense, and that there is an explanation I’m simply not getting. But I shouldn't have to stumble through a fog of incomprehension in order to find the solution to a logic-based problem. Why does “box has box” clear a path through a lake of water? I couldn’t say, but I gathered it was what I had to do eventually. This feels fundamentally different than merely being stumped, and it doesn’t satisfy in remotely the same way.
A-ha moments are precious things. Their relief can feel miraculous--but only so long as you understand what you’ve done and feel you’ve earned the victory. For the most part, Baba is You’s most brutal stages do offer this balance of challenge and reward. By puzzle 50--there are 200 in all--levels are flipping upside down, rules are compounded elaborately, and sentences are sprawling out to command things like “wall and hedge and key and flag is word,” to take one real late example. It can be torture, but of course in a puzzle game such torture is fun. Baba is You is among the most seriously arduous games of its kind I’ve played, and when its rules are clear and its instructions legible, it’s gratifying in a way only hardcore suffering can be.
Atlus has been teasing something called "Persona 5 R" for some time, but their latest teaser trailer gives us a bit more info the title.
Now titled Persona 5: The Royal, it's not clear whether this is a sequel, expansion, or updated version of Persona 5, but I'd lean toward the latter. The Royal takes place in the same locale as Persona 5 and introduces a new red-headed character, who doesn't seem to be into the methods of the Phantom Thieves (according to a translation from Gematsu) and would rather solve her problems on her own. Whether they'll be an ally, foe, or (in a longshot guess here) a new playable character remains to be seen.
It isn't a ton of info to go on, but don't worry; Atlus also announced we'd be getting more info on April 24, the date of the "Persona Super Live" concert in Japan.
Marvel Strike Force, the mobile hero-collection RPG from FoxNext, is about to receive its biggest update yet. Since its launch last March, Marvel Strike Force has grown substantially, adding tens of new heroes and several new features over the course of its first year. However, it's been rare that an all-new mode has been implemented, but that's just what players can look forward to next week.
Joining an active Alliance is a critical part of getting the most out of Marvel Strike Force; completing raids and Alliance-wide milestones deliver some of the best rewards to boost your roster. However, FoxNext is ready to take the incentives to the next level with a feature that has been teased through a giant "Coming Soon" spot on the menu since launch: Alliance War.
Alliance War has been on the menu since the early days of Marvel Strike Force for a very good reason: The team created the mode the same day they drew up the concepts for the game itself. "As live-service games mature – and certainly this is what we’re trying to do in this case – you kind of think about it the way you might concept a pilot for a TV show; you don’t just think about what will happen in the pilot, you think about what will happen over the entire course of the show, hopefully running many, many seasons," FoxNext VP and GM Amir Rahimi says. "That was the approach here. We wanted to not launch with Alliance War because the game was going to be a big enough challenge to get out there, but really design the game for Alliance War and design them hand in hand."
In Alliance War, your Alliance of 24 players takes control of its own helicarrier. The goal of the mode is to attack an opposing Alliance's helicarrier while defending your own in head-to-head matches. You do this by using your ever-growing roster of heroes and villains. Battles play out much like they do in modes like Arena; you set a defense team to protect the room, but when the opposing Alliance attacks, your characters are controlled by A.I. However, you control your offensive attack like you do in any other Marvel Strike Force mode.
Each helicarrier has 12 rooms, with each providing different benefits. For example, the Med Bay provides health buffs to attacking and defending characters, while the Armory gives global attack buffs. Others have specific bonuses for attackers or defenders, making them less valuable overall, but more valuable in specific situations.
Each room has two slots for players to work together to defend the room with their characters. Each player can leave 8 teams of characters to hold down that room for a total of up to 16 teams for the opposing Alliance to work through before it can take the room. The mode is designed to force players to use their entire rosters, something that should give players who have kept their teams well-rounded an early advantage.
Be prepared to use your whole roster when Alliance War goes live.
You must be strategic about which characters you use where and when, as each character can only be used once per war. This means that if you leave your best character behind to defend a room, they cannot be used on offense. In addition, if you use a team to attack a room once, you cannot do so a second time. If you can't fill out a room you're defending, you can either leave fewer characters to at least give some resistance, or you can leave it empty and the game will fill the room with weak, yet better-than-nothing SHIELD minions.
According Rahimi, this particular layer of strategy is among his favorite parts about the mode. "What often happens is you’ll encounter a room and you’ll do this calculation in your head about, ‘What’s the minimum team strength that I could bring in to beat this opponent?’ and that’s a very different way to think about the game than before,” he says. “You don’t have to bring five characters into a battle. Now teams of one all of a sudden become interesting. So if it’s a room full of SHIELD minions and my Crossbones is powerful enough, he becomes really interesting because his ultimate can just clear that whole room out. Or just teams of two that synergize well become interesting, like Ant-Man and Wasp synergize really well."
Certain characters also have a new "Military" trait, which means their origin stories have some involvement with or service to the military. So far, the only characters to possess this trait are Captain America, Captain Marvel, War Machine, and Winter Soldier. This means these characters possess various abilities that buff them in Alliance War. Just as some characters like Night Nurse are great in raids, these military characters will be great in Alliance War. Some characters who have military experience, like Punisher, don't have the trait yet, but FoxNext says that may change in the future.
Once the war begins, attacking Alliances must start at the top deck and work through rooms, so you can't just jump right to the bottom. Once you defeat one player in a room, you can see what room is beneath that one; if you defeat both players in a given room, that room is destroyed and all buffs and bonuses granted from it to the opposing Alliance are lost. Destroying a room also grants big point bonuses, which determines the winner of the Alliance War. If you're defeated in the room you're defending, don't worry: You can still attack with the remaining characters.
Since destroying rooms weakens the opposing team and each room has different point values, choosing which rooms to attack first adds a layer of strategy and requires coordination throughout the entire Alliance. To mix things up, Alliance leaders can reconfigure these 12 rooms however they see fit prior to a war starting. “The goal of this feature for us is to keep players playing forever and ever and ever,” Rahimi says. “That’s why we added a lot of things like moving the rooms around. A lot of the depth of complexity is in the service of infinite replayability.”
One of the chief concerns of any mode like this is that it can easily become pay-to-win. Just like every other mode in Marvel Strike Force, Alliance War operates on an energy system. Energy caps at five attacks at a time, with that regenerating over time. No outside currency can be used within Alliance War outside of Power Cores, but even then, you're capped on how many times you can refresh energy using Cores. This is done to help level the playing field. "Once the war starts, we want it to be as even of a playing field as we possibly can,” Rahimi says. “You can use your Power Cores to refresh twice, but you’re capped."
Another way FoxNext is helping level the playing field is through a sophisticated matchmaking algorithm for Alliances. Looking for Alliances with equal overall power isn't fruitful, as one powerful outlier player could throw off the entire balance. Instead, FoxNext's system looks at individual players within Alliances and matches them up based on how well individuals will face off.
Because this mode is more involved than even raids, FoxNext is limiting the number of wars that happen per week. Rather than having a war every day, players can probably expect a few wars each week. FoxNext says that even once you understand the flow of Alliance War, being a fully participating member of your team could consume up to an hour a day.
At the end of each Alliance War, both teams are awarded with Alliance War shop currency. Just as Blitz, raids, and Arena have their own shop and currency where you can buy character shards and gear, Alliance War does as well. However, the quality of Alliance War's shop is going to be more valuable to players. “The Alliance War shop will definitely be the best shop in the game in terms of value and by far the best source of orange materials,” Rahimi says. “Players are definitely going to want that currency.”
With so many moving parts and so much to learn with this new mode, players are probably going to want to get started as soon as possible. Thankfully, they don't have to wait long for that placeholder menu slot to activate; Alliance War comes to Marvel Strike Force on March 26.
By restricting traditional movement and thrusting you into carefully constructed 2D mazes, simply getting around Ethereal's levels presents challenging conundrums that are deeply satisfying to overcome. Despite some uneven pacing and technical issues marring the overall experience, Ethereal is a delightful game that contrasts a soothing ambiance with intricate and challenging puzzle designs.
Ethereal's opening is mysterious, but not in the best way. Starting in a monochrome world with harsh black and white streaks across the screen, it's difficult to make sense of your surroundings and options. It's an unnecessarily confusing introduction to Ethereal, which otherwise takes care to slowly introduce new mechanics before nudging you towards increasingly complex puzzles.
Outside of its central hub, Ethereal is wonderfully colorful. Your avatar leaves inky streaks of color behind them as they move, corresponding to a limited but carefully chosen palette that paints the walls around you with bright hues. A fish-eye style lens warps each world near the edges, making it feel like you're traversing a wrapped around globe rather than an endless 2D plane set on top of a harsh white background. Ethereal's stylings are subtle but work well together, producing a distinctive look that never wears thin.
Movement in Ethereal is central to its puzzles. You're restricted to sliding across 2D planes, with carefully placed walls blocking your progress. You overcome them by hopping through the closest wall either above or below you, shifting you into an entirely new row to move across. It's slightly confusing to wrap your head around at first, but getting the hang of seamlessly moving around each stage is satisfying to learn. Identifying patterns in level layouts lets you quickly zip around each of them, allowing you to reach your objectives with ease and comfortably map a route to your exit once you're done.
Each stage tasks you with obtaining a series of color-coded shapes in sequential order. It's easy to see where most are placed as soon as you enter a level, but reaching them in the order required is rarely straightforward. Although levels are small, they are labyrinthine. They are sometimes made overly complicated, with unnecessary routes and obstacles littering the peripheral of the main stage and baiting you into considering red-herring routes. Misdirection is a core principle of well-designed puzzles, but Ethereal doesn't make it easy enough to rectify a foolish misstep. You'll typically have to redo all your previous moves in reverse to get back on track, which is more confusing than it should be. It quickly becomes frustrating, making each error feel more like a waste of time than a constructive learning experience.
Thankfully, Ethereal's 24 unique puzzles don't struggle with variety. Early ones simply rely on the freshness of the game's movement to generate complexity, but it's not long before new interactions change how you think about moving through each level. One will rotate the level by 90-degrees, for example, turning previously insurmountable walls into new points for you to hop between. Another creates a black, negative space that offers a larger range of movement, which gives you the ability to move walls and alter a level's layout.
These mechanisms are introduced intelligently too, by first appearing in the hub world that precede levels designed around them. Their simple introduction whets your appetite while the larger puzzles they're used in build upon their numerous possibilities in inventive ways. At first, each stage is centered around only one of these mechanics at a time, but puzzles get increasingly challenging as Ethereal starts combining them. The difficulty curve can feel a little steep around the half-way point, and remains a little uneven up until the end, but Ethereal rarely feels unfair, only dipping into frustration when technical issues get in the way.
There were numerous instances where, after interacting with one of the aforementioned mechanisms, a bug inexplicably transported me to another end of the level--often in a position that made movement impossible. In these instances, the only solution is to restart the level entirely, which is frustrating given how long some stages can be. Having to tediously repeat numerous movements in order to return to the same spot you were before is frustrating enough, but occasionally encountering the same bug numerous times in the same level is infuriating.
Ethereal's soothing ambient soundtrack and delightfully catchy sound effects do alleviate the frustrations to a degree, while its ever-changing aesthetic is suitably elegant and effective at keeping you engaged with its puzzles and not distracted by unnecessary visual information. The soft water colors of each stage shift with each objective you reach, eventually being diluted into a simple monochromatic theme once you've finished. It's an effective way to measure your progress through a stage and help inform you of what color shape you've just cleared from the stage without the need for a HUD. Ethereal's visual simplicity echoes its ease of control but doesn't compromise its beauty in the process.
Ethereal's 24 puzzles shouldn't take that long to complete, only overstaying their welcome when technical issues force you to repeatedly restart them. Although there are also a few uneven spikes in difficulty, the game's inviting visuals and soothing sound effects dress puzzles that are intelligently designed around your limited mobility. Ethereal is a satisfyingly challenging and unique puzzle game that serves as a delightful way to spend an afternoon.
Back in 2004, Troika Games released an uncut diamond with Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, a moody, choice-driven role-playing game set in the White Wolf pen-and-paper universe. The game released in a state of disrepair, not unlike an energy-drained vampire desperate for blood, but dedicated fans glamoured by its atmospheric world and unique premise gave it new life, rounding out the rough edges and even restoring scrapped content. The game’s reputation continued to grow while the franchise collected dust inside a coffin, but now it’s primed to emerge from the shadows.
With Troika long since disbanded, franchise rights owner Paradox Interactive handed the resurrection duties to Hardsuit Labs, which includes Bloodlines writer Brian Mitsoda among its ranks. This makes the studio well-suited to handle the delicate work of updating the series with new hooks while maintaining the elements that have earned the original loyal fans.
Rather than pick up where the original game left off 15 years ago, Hardsuit instead chose to tell a new tale set in a city never really explored by the World of Darkness fiction – Seattle. With its pervasive cloud cover, unceasing rainstorms, and vibrant nightlife, it’s a perfect city for bloodsuckers to take residency. The setting may be new, but the politics among the various vampiric clans should be familiar to anyone who played the first game.
The story follows an innocent protagonist swept up into this supernatural subculture when a group of vampires go rogue and illicitly perform a Mass Embrace, descending on a bunch of pedestrians in Pioneer Square in the middle of the night and converting them into vampires. This action goes against the vampiric code, so the Camarilla wants to hunt down these “thinbloods” to learn what happened and put them out of their misery. As one of these targets, you must evade capture and navigate the faction wars to learn who turned you into a vampire and why.
The world of Bloodlines 2 operates much like the original, with certain parts of the city and its outskirts operating as hubs ripe for exploration and story missions. These spaces feature plenty of vertical spaces and alleys to keep your nefarious deeds in the shadows, and even a series of underground passageways and basements that were actually the ground level of the city in the mid 19th century before the Great Seattle Fire swept through and the city planners decided to build on top of the ruins.
As a fledgling vampire, you start off with a small suit of supernatural powers. Activating your heightened senses highlights points of interest like the investigation mode in Batman, which is also helpful for identifying prey when it’s feeding time. Depending on the choices you make, you can also learn how to levitate and glide through the air, control bats, manipulate objects with your mind, or even turn into a mist cloud to move through pipes to new areas. You don’t start as a member of any particular vampire clan, but as the story plays out you can align yourself with certain factions and even learn new vampire powers from them. Make certain decisions, however, and you may alienate another clan and cut off an entire progression path.
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Vampires are formidable predators, and this prowess is on display during first-person combat sequences. Much of the skirmishes are focused on hand-to-hand combat, with players taking advantage of their supernatural agility to dodge incoming attacks and close the gap between them and their opponent quickly. Guns are occasionally interjected into the mix, but most of the time you’re relying on your supernatural gifts to survive these scraps. During our demo, we saw the player pull off impressive feats like running up a wall to pounce on an enemy from above.
You can always choose to cap off your fights by feasting on the weak, but you need to be careful about how much blood you drink at any given time. If you mortally wound a person during feeding you can take on other accruing effects like madness. Over time, you could eventually compromise your humanity and make your hunger more uncontrollable. Going down this beastly path will also have implications with your dialogue choices.
After years of thinking a Bloodlines sequel was an unrequited dream, it’s nice to see the franchise get the sequel it long deserved. We hope to learn a great deal more about how Hardsuit Labs hopes to live up to its legacy in the coming months.
Agent 47 will soon be able to add a few new targets to his hit list with the release of a new Sniper Assassin map. Next week, players can a shipping yard in Singapore, with the goal of thwarting a hostage transfer.
Sniper Assassin is a separate mode in Hitman 2, in which players trade mobility for methodical, creative kills. As a sniper, players have to complete objectives – in this case, stopping the Heavenly Guard from moving hostages to a cargo ship – at long range while (hopefully) remaining undetected. This map doesn't seem to have much at all in common with the extravagant party level Hitman 2 shipped with, but it also rewards players who make use of their environment and seek out hidden objects.
While at GDC 2019, we got a chance to speak with The Red Latern game director Lindsey Rostal from Timberline Games about the narrative-survival game coming to the Nintendo Switch in the summer of 2019. “It was a pretty great way to unveil something that I've been toiling away on in the dark... of Los Angeles," Rostal says about appearing in the latest Nintendo Showcase. The game tasks players with journeying with your dog sled team across a (procedurally-generated) harsh Alaskan landscape, where you get lost while training for your first Iditarod race.
“We have a strong narrative background," Rostal says of Timberline Games. "I’ve made branching games and I wanted to find a new way to have a more dynamic narrative. Something that worked more in a streaming context and for a larger variety of audiences." You aren't racing in the game, you're struggling to survive against the wildnerness. Due to the randomization of the game's elements, your runs through the game vary wildly, but you can definitely get lucky.
"It’s a fun way to write. You don’t know what’s really going to happen. There’s likelihoods and there’s relationships between animals in the environments and everything like that," Rostal says. "But things are changing all the time. The unexpected nature of the world is really exciting. You’re like, 'This is likely to happen, but [then again] this squirrel might murder me... It can happen."
Rostal describes the tone of the game as "darkly comedic". While there's the tension ice might break beneath you, you're running low on med packs, and a moose might stomp on you, she says a lot of the game's lighter moments come from the narration. The main character (voiced by Horizon Zero Dawn's, Ashly Burch) will be editorializing the world and contextualizing situations like the tension between a squirrel and your team of dogs. “It’ll probably be an entertaining and weird game," Rostal says about the fact that the character will be talking for their dogs in a lot of situations.
The announcement trailer for the game ends with a bear attacking a sled dog, which was shockingly grim for a Nintendo Showcase. "The horrible thing is I don’t think I realized that it was as dark as it was… I probably should have put a trigger warning on the trailer," Rostal says. "We wanted to set the stakes. When you're going up there to change your life and you're setting out to do something that’s a little naïve and a little crazy."
The small team at Timberline games have fallen in love with their game's environments, saying they joked about creating a “screensaver zen mode" to let players soak in the scenery while using the gyro controls when the Nintendo Switch is in handheld mode. When bringing up the idea of creating a version of the game compatible with Labo VR Rostal says "You never know! If they give me a parka version I’m in."
While Bloodborne tweaked the combat dynamics of Dark Souls to encourage aggression, Sekiro rewrites the rules of engagement. The building blocks of its combat are recognisable, but this only serves to lure Soulsborne veterans into a false sense of security. Sekiro's combat is incredibly demanding, asking you to study your opponent, find the perfect moment to engage, and execute a split-second follow-up that, if done right, will end the battle in a matter of moments--or if done wrong will end you just as fast.
This might sound akin to what every other From Software game asks of you, but Sekiro pushes these demands further than Dark Souls and Bloodborne ever did. Over the years, From Software fans have become accustomed to the language of Soulsborne games; we recognise scenarios and are wise to the tricks, we can identify viable strategies more quickly, and since the skills are transferable, we can execute these strategies with a measure of confidence. But Sekiro challenges this expertise. It invites you to try and then shows you how little you're actually capable of. Sekiro is affirmation that From Software hasn't lost its bite; that its games can make you feel vulnerable and strike fear in a way few others can. It's a heart-pounding, palm-sweating, and nerve-wracking gameplay experience that instills tension the likes of which I haven't felt since first playing Demon's Souls.
Souls players predominantly hide behind shields and adopt a hit and run approach to combat, and Bloodborne's attack-focused dynamic was a response to this. Similarly, the crux of Sekiro's combat has its origins in Dark Souls. The Poise stat was used to govern how resistant a player was to being staggered or stun-locked by an attack. Sekiro reworks this into a defensive attribute called Posture and uses it to underpin its engagements. Attacks chip away at Posture and will eventually break through the defense, leaving an enemy open to a Deathblow or to having their health attacked directly, which in turn makes their Posture slower to recover. However, this is a very laborious way to wear enemies down, and they will often defiantly counterattack to deal big damage to you. Instead the goal is to deflect an attack the moment before it hits you, which wears down Posture considerably faster.
For low-level enemies it takes just a few encounters to get into the rhythm of it, but as more foes are introduced, it becomes much trickier. Each one has a variety of attacks that have specific tells and counter timings, so spending the time to learn how they all behave and how you should react is vital. Thematically, this style of combat is also coherent with the subject matter of the game in a way that I really appreciate. Battles are measured--a ballet of back and forth movements, the outcome decided by a deadly flourish--swift and precise, as any contest between swordsmen should be.
However, the true test is when you're faced with Sekiro's boss enemies. Calling these encounters "challenging" would be a severe understatement. The attacks these enemies unleash are deadly, to the point where just a single blow can often be enough to kill you. Their moves can be as erratic as they are diverse, and for some of them parrying is simply not an option. Occasionally a red kanji symbol will briefly appear to signal that an unblockable attack is on its way, and in this situation the options are to either jump, dodge to the side, or hope you can sprint away fast enough. In a single second you'll need to identify the attack and execute the appropriate action to save yourself. Bosses have the most Posture and usually require you to land multiple Deathblows on them before they fall, so attempting to simply chip away only draws the battle out. The longer you spend in the battle, the more mentally taxing it becomes. The stress of repeatedly nailing split-second counters begins to mount and just a single slip-up is all it takes to lose everything. As a consequence, these boss battles feel designed to force you to engage with the enemy, to take the fight to them and hope that you've got what it takes. In the moment it can feel unbearably frustrating to keep banging your head up against the challenge, but that frustration pales in comparison to the sheer exhilaration of finally breaking through. After almost every boss battle I completed, I was so overwhelmed by the adrenaline that I had to put the controller down and give myself the time to settle.
Death isn't necessarily the end, however, as Sekiro gives you the option to either submit and die to respawn at a checkpoint, or revive on the spot and continue fighting. This mechanic makes the game just a touch more forgiving by allowing you to recompose yourself and get back in the fight, but it comes at a cost. Each death and each revival has an impact on the world around you. More specifically, it has an impact on the characters you've met on your journey. To explain exactly what that is would be to spoil one of the most interesting parts of Sekiro, so I won't do that--and also, at this point I'm not completely sure what the ramifications and consequences are, such is the mysterious nature of it all. However, the fact that death has a consequence beyond making you lose experience and money is fascinating.
In battle, your character, Wolf, has his fair share of tricks. He's equipped with a prosthetic arm that is capable of having different sub-weapons grafted to it, and they're essential in giving yourself an edge in combat. There's an axe that, while slow to swing, can break through shields; a spear that allows you attack from further away, and can be used to pull weaker enemies towards you or strip armor; firecrackers which can stun enemies; or a flamethrower that can inflict burn damage.
Using these prosthetics comes at a cost, however, as they consume Spirit Tokens. These are scattered around the world and can be purchased using Sen, the in-game currency awarded for killing enemies, but you can only hold a limited quantity of them while in the field. This limitation reinforces the idea that they are to be used as part of a strategy instead of relied on as the primary way to defeat enemies. Using them unnecessarily could mean that they're not available when you need them most. Resources such as scrap, gunpowder, and wax can be found to upgrade your prosthetic arsenal and open up new ways to use them.
Wolf's own shinobi abilities can also be developed by spending experience points gained from killing enemies. Unlike previous From Software titles, there isn't a steady stream of new weaponry; the katana is your mainstay throughout, but new Combat Arts flesh out how the sword can be used, and they have a more active role in skirmishes. Whirlwind Slash, for example, lets you control space, while Ichimonji is a heavy overhead strike that has a long windup but dishes out big posture damage. Again, they're designed as an additional strategic consideration. Only one of these can be equipped at a time, so this forces you to think about what you're taking into battle and be methodical in utilizing it. Shinobi Arts, meanwhile, allow you to access skills such as mid-air deflections, vaulting over enemies to deliver backstabs, and specific counters for deadly special moves that enemies will occasionally execute. These various upgrades aren't diverse enough to support dramatically different playstyles, but they do offer just enough room to find a favourable loadout and then develop its effectiveness.
Wolf also has a suite of Innate Abilities, some of which come into play outside of combat. It's here that Sekiro really distinguishes itself from previous From Software titles by revealing itself to be a stealth action game--one that proudly wears its origins as a spiritual successor to the Tenchu series. Most areas have a heavy enemy presence so the odds are stacked against you. Engaging in open combat will draw attention to your presence, so the smarter strategy is to thin out the opposition by systematically picking them off. In previous From Software games, this would involve an awkward kiting process where you edge closer to a single enemy and use items or ranged attacks to lure it into a safer zone to do battle. However, Sekiro has mechanics to support stealth play more directly. You can use your grappling hook to take to the rooftops and scout out a location, taking a note of enemy placements and watching their patrol patterns. You can skulk around buildings, pressing yourself against surfaces to peek around corners. You can shimmy up walls and hang of ledges to reposition, leap off elevated points to plunge your katana into enemies below, or slither under raised buildings and into grass, creeping towards unsuspecting victims. Innate Abilities such as Suppress Presence will make your footsteps quieter, while the ceramic shard item can be thrown to make noise and manipulate movements to your advantage. Being effective with stealth can allow you to circumvent standard combat encounters entirely, so it's in your best interest to take it slow and steady. Enemy behaviour can be inconsistent, however. Sometimes they'll stare through you as if you're not there, and other times they become hyper aware and capable of perfectly tracking your movements during an alert phase, even when you're behind walls or hiding on roofs. They're not particularly sophisticated, but their lethality means they're not to be taken lightly.
The absence of modern stealth conveniences means you place greater scrutiny on your surroundings, and you'll notice just how thoughtfully they've been constructed
There's a simplicity to Sekiro's stealth mechanics that is refreshing. There's no Detective Mode or on-screen indicators to signify how much noise you're making, and instead you're entirely reliant on your basic senses. The absence of these modern stealth genre conveniences means you place greater scrutiny on your surroundings, and you'll notice just how thoughtfully they've been constructed.
The geography of From Software's game worlds are much lauded, with praise heaped upon the way seemingly disparate locations slowly reveal themselves to be interconnected and part of a cohesive whole. That strength of world design is present in Sekrio, and the fact that it's more immediately visible within these contained locations makes taking the stealth approach even more satisfying. Buildings are placed together to encourage exploration and reconnaissance, with roofs almost touching so that you can leap between them and scope out all angles. They overhang just enough that you can take a running jump and use your grappling hook to swing up and across for better vantage points. Pathways diverge and reconnect, creating that satisfying feeling of venturing into the unknown and then emerging into the familiar. Thick tree branches protruding out from the side of mountains can be grappled to and used to sneak into the heart of an area undetected, or around it entirely. There were more than a few occasions where I spotted a temple in the distance, traced the pathway there back to where I was standing, and followed it to discover a hidden area.
Sekiro takes place in Japan, in a land known as Ashina. As a consequence, it is by and large more grounded in reality than the likes of Lordran or Yarhnam. The location remains both striking and memorable, however. Encircled by an ever-visible snowy mountain range, Ashina is built up of dilapidated temples scattered around, housing mercenary warriors and corrupted monks, among other dangerous foes. Man-made pathways dissolve into perilous valleys, where mountainsides must be scaled to reach remote forests patrolled by club-wielding ogres. Fortified castles tower above abandoned towns seized by an army. Ornate statues fill the homes of royalty, while questionable characters linger in the dungeons below. Without spoiling it, Sekiro also takes the opportunity to delve into the supernatural and pull from Japanese mythology.
That juxtaposition of the real and the fantastical is echoed in the story Sekiro tells. It begins simply, with a shinobi that is called into action to save his kidnapped master and uphold his iron oath. But beneath the surface there's more at play--Ashina is a nation on the brink of collapse, its people beset by a mysterious stagnation, and you have the power to decide its fate--familiar themes for From Software. However, the story quickly moves from the realm of warlords driven by ambition to one of mythical bloodlines, demonic monsters, and otherworldly spirits. While the story is undoubtedly told in a more direct fashion than Dark Souls and Bloodborne, there are still numerous nuances to explore, and mysteries to solve, perfect fodder for a rampant community that has built up around From Software's games to mine. Softly muttered lines from Ashina's denizens hint at turmoil from days gone, while item descriptions speak to arcane practices. Talk of far off lands colours in the world around Ashina, while vague mentions of enigmatic figures leaves you questioning what unseen forces are involved in the events that are transpiring.
The unflinching way Sekiro punishes you for missteps and the repetition of trial and error are clearly suited for people of a certain temperament and with a very specific, slightly masochistic taste in games. These are the people that are willing to endure devastating defeats for hours on end and watch as their progress is undone time and time again, just so they can have the intoxicating thrill of overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge that awaits at the end. In that respect, Sekiro is unmistakably a From Software game--but one unlike any we've had so far. When all is said and done, though, it's the combat that has left the deepest marks on me, for better and for worse.
Atop Ashina Castle I stood before a swordsman. It wasn't my first attempt at the duel; we'd been trading steel for close to six hours, and each time the swordsman ruthlessly cut me down. I became desperate. I started making bad decisions. The losses were really getting to me. But I persevered.
My plan was a familiar one, honed through years of repeated Dark Souls and Bloodborne play: observe, dodge, wait for a slow attack, and use the opening to strike--it never fails. He swung his sword and I was out of range. The recovery on the attack was slow so it was the perfect opportunity to land a blow--I'd done it hundreds of times by that point. Except, this time it was different. As I charged in, he quickly corrected himself and fired an arrow, then chased behind it to close the distance and delivered a crushing blow. I lost my composure and finally snapped.
I picked myself up off the ground and rushed at him. He began an onslaught of attacks and, after six hours of learning his style and developing the muscle memory, I just started parrying on instinct. Each one of his swings and each arrow he fired was met with a perfectly timed raise of my sword. Every unblockable attack he lunged at me with was sidestepped or hopped immaculately. I watched as his Posture deplete, edging closer to the breaking point, and at the same time I could feel my breathing become more rapid, my thumbs beginning to tremble. I wore him down and delivered a Deathblow, backed away, and did it all over again, and a third time. In that final moment when I pierced through him with my katana, I was completely overcome with emotion. After six gruelling hours of failure, the winning battle lasted just six minutes. I'm not too proud to admit that I cried, and I'd do it all over again.
Sekiro marries From Software's unique brand of gameplay with stealth action to deliver an experience that is as challenging as it is gratifying. At the time of publish I haven't completed Sekiro. While I have invested upwards of 30 hours into it, there are still a few more locations I need to explore and bosses I need to beat before the credits roll, and I'm excited to do it. This review will be finalized in the coming days.