The first comparison most people make when talking about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is how similar it is to the Dark Souls series. Apart from sharing the same developer, these games don’t have as much in common as some people claim. In Dark Souls, though you can play with a hyper aggressive playstyle, the combat never reaches the same heights as some of the boss battles in Sekiro: SDT. The flow of combat in Dark Souls feels almost turn-based compared to Sekiro: SDT’s high intensity battles.
By design, Sekiro: SDT’s combat is much faster than any of the entries in the Dark Souls series. In all of the Souls games, the developers had to be conscious of whether or not certain bosses may be more challenging for players using a specialised build. As a result, this inherently created limitations on how far the developers could design enemy encounters. By focusing on a predetermined character, rather than lending players the room for class customisation, From Software has been given the freedom to take their combat in an entirely new direction. Sekiro: SDT adopts some of the core mechanics of fighting games and tries to incorporate them into its own combat system to make each battle feel relentless.
In keeping with its name, Shadows Die Twice, Sekiro has two lives, as do the majority of mini-bosses and bosses. This makes each major encounter feel like a best-of-three match, just like a fighting game. In addition to a health bar, every enemy in Sekiro:SDT has a posture bar. Dark Souls allows you to chip away at the boss by slowly depleting their health. In Sekiro: SDT, you also have this option, but it’s not optimal. The best way to defeat enemies here is to build your opponent’s posture bar, creating an opportunity to land a deathblow.
Building the enemy’s posture bar is achieved by blocking and deflecting incoming attacks while seizing the opportunity to land a few attacks in between. As you progress through the game, you can unlock special abilities that can be utilised in battles. A good example of this is the Mikiri Counter: when successfully executed this inflicts a large amount of posture damage on an enemy. By perfectly timing the counter, Sekiro will step on an enemy’s weapon as they lunge towards him. If the enemy’s posture bar is high enough, this can result in a deathblow.
Most fighting games have had a system like this for decades now, usually referred to as the stun bar. In the Street Fighter series, the stun bar builds upon either player receiving consistent amounts of damage throughout a fight. Similarly to Sekiro:SDT, when your stun bar reaches its limit in a fighting game, you lose the ability to do anything leaving you vulnerable to a punishing combo. In both cases, the more damage you allow yourself to take, the more likely you are to take even more damage that is potentially going to end the round or fight.
Blocking in Sekiro: SDT is the same as blocking in a fighting game – simply hold down a button and you can stop incoming attacks. Deflecting, on the other hand, is significantly harder to pull off and carries a large risk as you can be punished severely if you mistime it. While this point does relate to the Souls series, there’s more of an emphasis on deflecting in Sekiro: SDT as a well timed deflect tends to end battles early. Performing a parry in Dark Souls enables you to deal significantly more damage than a regular attack, but it doesn’t have the capability of ending a fight.
Unlike Dark Souls, Sekiro:SDT rewards the player with upgrades for mastering the combat. Each of the Souls games allows you to upgrade your stats by farming enemies, whereas Sekiro: SDT only increases your strength and vitality through defeating bosses and mini bosses. This approach forces players to understand how the combat works if they want things to be slightly easier. As you defeat mini-bosses, both your knowledge of the combat system and the strength of Sekiro simultaneously grows.
These moments are highlighted in mini-boss fights like the battle against the Long-arm Centipede Giraffe. If you haven’t worked out how the combat works by the time you reach this mini-boss battle, you may have a hard time taking the Centipede Giraffe down. When you have learnt the combat, this battle couldn’t be easier. This fight is reminiscent of Evo Moment 37: featuring a series of parries, a well timed jump to rack up posture damage, followed up by a round-winning deathblow.
Meter management is a key component of fighting games as it teaches you how to utilise all of your available tools as efficiently as possible. From Software borrows this in the form of Spirit Emblems, a currency that allows you to perform high damaging techniques using Sekiro’s prosthetic arm. Whereas fighting games allow you to build your super meter, Sekiro: SDT only gives you a finite amount of Spirit Emblems per life. Knowing which prosthetic tool to use as well as when you should spend your Spirit Emblems is an important aspect of the combat. Similarly to fighting games where you have multiple super moves, it’s always important to know what works best against specific enemies.
Sekiro:SDT is one of the hardest games we’ve ever played, and while we expected it to be difficult in the same way the Dark Souls series is, we found it had more in common with fighting games compared to anything else. The way you approach each battle is just like you would do in a fighting game. It’s about anticipating and reacting to what your opponent is about to do, efficiently managing your meters, and knowing when and where you are able to punish mistakes. If you’ve managed to finish Sekiro:SDT and you are still longing for that satisfying combat, maybe you should consider learning how to play a fighting game. Chances are you’ll be a lot better at it than you think, as you’ve already started to learn a number of transferable skills.