One of E3's highlights so far is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the next game by From Software, makers of Bloodborne and Dark Souls. With Souls-style combat and a grappling hook that lets the player zip around like a goddamned ninja, this game looks impressive so far.
In an Activision hotel suite on Sunday, I watched a From developer play through an extended demo of Sekiro. Short version: It combines light stealth, brutal sword-fighting, vertical leaps, and the Souls bosses that have charmed us all over the years.
It's set in a fictional take on 1500s Japan - the Sengoku period. Your hero, a ninja who serves a master called The Young Lord (who he now has to rescue), loses his left arm and replaces it with a prosthetic that can be rigged with all sorts of tools.
"In your right arm you're holding a katana, your left arm has tools, and you use them together to take on really tough enemies," said the developer.
One of those tools is the grappling hook, which allows you to leap around from rooftop to rooftop, sneaking up on enemies and taking them out one at a time. "The level design has actually been done with a lot of verticality in mind."
The demo we saw took place near a castle, full of beautiful autumnal vistas and nasty patrolling samurai. We watched the developer scope out the scene, then take out a couple of enemies from stealth, killing them instantly.
"While this is definitely an action game, stealth does come into play," he said. "It's also used to get yourself the advantage before a big encounter."
Those big encounters, which we also saw unfold, are all about swordfighting. As you're clashing with an enemy, you'll have to parry their attacks. Each good block will drain your opponent's "posture" meter, and if you take it down far enough, you can deliver a deathblow, killing them instantly. Their attacks and parries will also drain your own posture meter.
Death is also a mechanic in Sekiro, the developers explained. If you die during combat, you can use an ability called Bloodsmoke to pop right back up.
It isn't clear what the limitations are, but producer Robert Conkey said that dying "can be used as an opportunity in some ways", which may sound like one hell of a twist to Dark Souls fans. Imagine this: Enemies are overwhelming you, so rather than try to take them all out, you just die. Then, once they have all let their guard down, you pop back up and sneak around, killing them one by one.
The demo ended with a rad boss fight against a skeletal samurai with supernatural powers and a terrifying attack that let him cover the battlefield in smoke, then appear as multiple illusions around you. We watched him kill the player, which was a fitting end note.
A few other stray observations:
- This is not a Tenchu game, but it's heavily inspired by From's old action series.
- Why is From publishing this game with Activision, of all publishers? "We were looking to work with a Western publisher. We had a lot of options. We thought Activision could be a really good partner, in terms of support they could offer, in terms of them seeing our vision... We really appreciate the way they were able to help us in things we wanted help on. For example, data-driven stuff, to have users come in, identify stuff like people getting lost in a level... In terms of just getting player understanding, it's been a huge help."
- One fixture of the demo is a giant snake who will definitely insta-kill you if it spots you.
- At one point, we watched the player run into an old lady. "She's part of an evil cult, and will call everyone if she spots you," said Conkey. That's why they murdered her.
- The demo hinted at a lot of secrets and hidden passages, such as a "Shinobi door" that allowed the player access to a new area. "There are a lot of secret passages and areas intended for ninjas to use," said Conkey.
- You can throw shurikens with your left arm, among other tools.
- One final note: "There are gonna be a lot of really hard bosses in this game."