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E3 2018: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a Ninja Nightmare from the Designer of Dark Souls

From Software, the creative force behind gruelingly challenging action-RPGs Dark Souls, has been responsible for ludicrous in-game death counts and nigh-impossible boss fights — and we keep coming back for more.

So does the protagonist of their next diabolical effort, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. While the upcoming action game will undoubtedly put its ninja hero through hell, it will also let him rise again to avenge whatever ruthless demon took his life.

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Sekiro wears its influences on its sleeve. At times it looks and plays like the legendary Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, letting players sneak, stalk, and surprise baddies with devastating stealth attacks. Find yourself in the thick of things, however, and it requires precise timing, studious attacks, and a great deal of patience to overcome its brutally hard enemies.

Set in Japan’s Sengoku period in the 1500s, Sekiro stars a shinobi equipped with a prosthetic arm. Various tools and weapons can be attached to the arm, such as firecrackers that can damage and stun enemies from afar or a shield to deflect enemy attacks. The ninja wields a katana in his other hand and relies on a grappling hook to quickly navigate the world. Sekiro’s emphasizes verticality in its level design; smart players will safely zip across trees and clamber up ledges before diving into the fray.

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The core concept, says From Software president and lead designer Hidetaka Miyazaki, is to merge the intensity and tempo of Dark Souls with a ninja experience.

“We wanted to create a Japanese-inspired title and focus on the ninja as a character archetype,” he told Xbox Wire. “The player will be able to freely traverse vertical spaces, which ties in nicely to the shinobi protagonist. Being a ninja as opposed to a samurai, who perhaps fights on the ground with a single sword in his hands, the shinobi puts everything in his arsenal and must adapt to a variety of situations.”

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That also means losing a few key elements from the Dark Souls line. Sekiro isn’t a traditional RPG – outside of new goodies for your prosthetic, you don’t loot loads of weapons and gear. You don’t upgrade stats. The classic Dark Souls multiplayer has also been jettisoned, as the developers want players to experience Sekiro as a single-player game all the way through.

We experienced Sekiro’s brutal challenge in a brief hands-on session at E3 2018. Our task: infiltrate a beautiful, snowy mountain fortress guarded by a gang of extremely angry samurai. Taking to the rooftops with our hookshot, we spied a group of guards patrolling the entrance, waited for one to lag behind, and took him out in one fell swoop. Our victory was short-lived: a few dumb, noisy decisions later, we were beset by three of his evil pals.

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It’s here where we learned the importance of parrying and posture. Blocking an enemy attack at the right moment is an effective way to lower their defenses. Parry enough times in a row and you’ll break your enemy’s posture, opening them up to a quick kill. Equally important is a kick move that, when timed correctly, pushes enemies back and leaves them briefly vulnerable. Combat is tense and methodical…and hard. Really hard.

Our fight didn’t end well, though death is simply an inconvenience in Sekiro. Players can resurrect immediately (and strategically) after defeat, a concession meant to complement the ninja’s high-risk, high-intensity style. You’re not wearing samurai or knight armor here. Enemies will wander off when you’re a corpse; revive at the right moment and you can get a few insta-kills in before they knew what hit them. Death becomes an opportunity to turn the tide of battle.

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From Software was tight-lipped on the specifics, however, as they’re still working out the resource cost and other penalties mitigating the resurrection system. Fans concerned that resurrection may prove too potent can rest easy: coming back from the dead wasn’t enough to save us from utter, brutal defeat.

Besides, if the grunts don’t get you, the epic, fantastical bosses surely will. A crazed giant in bloodied, tattered clothing, a poison-breathing, troll-like samurai, and a snake roughly the size of a mountain were revealed in the game’s debut trailer. Miyazaki confirmed that his signature boss fights will once again be climactic cappers to each level.

Whatever you’re fighting, expect to die frequently – this is a Miyazaki game, after all – though in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, death is just the beginning. It’s coming to Xbox One early next year.