The esteemed Hidetaka Miyazaki, father of tough-but-fair and purveyor of masochistic game design, returns on March 22nd with the next instalment in his illustrious portfolio, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Departing from the medieval fantasy of Dark Souls and the gothic, lovecraftian Bloodborne, Sekiro takes place in Sengoku-era Japan, and follows a ferocious and yet silent shinobi, whom we have the pleasure of controlling.
So who - or what - is Sekiro? Why does our ninja have a wooden arm? What kind of world can we expect to delve into, and will it even come close to the majesty of Dark Souls and Bloodborne?
Better still, is Miyazaki's immaculate world-building pulling any of its plot points from real life mythologies?
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is set in the closing years of the Sengoku Era, when real-world Japan was consumed by perpetual conflict. The name ‘Sekiro’, although not actually the protagonist’s real name, roughly translates to ‘One-Armed Wolf’. Derived from "sekiwan", which means “one-armed”, and ro, which means “wolf”, our fallen hero is often referred to as The Wolf.
The Sengoku period was a time of social upheaval, political intrigue, and nearly constant military conflict that took place between the 15th-17th centuries, and it is during this time, that shinobi are thought to have originated (shinobi being the Japanese word for a male ninja).
A ninja or a shinobi was a skilled warrior; an expert in espionage, infiltration and assassination, who operated as mercenaries for hire for protection or assassinations in feudal Japan.
Although their methods were deemed dishonourable by the samurai, the shinobi were in great demand as mercenaries and spies for hire during the times of such great unrest. They were particularly prominent around the Iga Province, and around the village of Koga.
In the world of Shadows Die Twice, we first meet our future playable character at a very young age.
Little Sekiro is found on a deserted battlefield, looting weapons in the aftermath of a great battle. A great warrior, covered in a feathered cloak, approaches the young boy and cuts him on the face. When the child gives little to no reaction, the gentle giant is instantly enamoured with him. He invites the young “starving wolf” to join him, and Sekiro clutches the tip of the man’s sword in agreement. This old warrior is known as ‘The Owl’, he is the one who has rescued Sekiro and has raised him as both an apprentice, and a son.
Years later, the Wolf, as is the shinobi way, works as a protector for his employer, and stands charge over his young lord. Meanwhile, the Ashina clan, founded by the legendary Ashina Isshin, who conquered the realm and founded the land of Ashina, have resorted to desperate measures to protect their way of life and it is here that they cross paths with The Wolf.
Now, the Ashina Clan is another aspect of the game that has its roots in real world history. Their name came from the area called Ashina in the city of Yokosuka in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Greater Tokyo. They were a Japanese clan that emerged during the Sengoku period. The game's Ashina Isshin may be fictional, but his family name is as real as the rising sun.
In Shadows Die Twice, Ashina Isshin’s grandson, and the Ashina Clan’s Commander, kidnaps the young lord whom Sekiro fails to protect, and the commander slices off The Wolf’s arm, mortally wounding him.
But death is not his fate just yet.
Sekiro is reborn, some time later, and learns that while his young master still lives, he has precious little time to recover him before the Ashina clan will undoubtedly decide to harm him.
This is where The Wolf meets the Busshi, a skilled Japanese sculptor specializing in Buddha statues - yet another real-world implementation. The statues he creates serve as valuable checkpoints and warp points for Sekiro.
Busshi found the dying Sekiro and fitted a prosthetic limb in place of his lost arm. This prosthetic gives Sekiro the ability to fit various useful tools to aid him in his quest to recover his lost lord. From grappling hooks and firey torches, to shurikens and shield-smashing axes, Sekiro now has a menagerie of assorted weapons alongside his sharp katana sword to help avenge his Lord's capture, and return him to safety.
All those years ago, when Sekiro was taken from the battlefield, starving and alone, he had The Owl to look up to, as a mentor and as a Father, and now, even as a highly skilled shinobi, he has failed to deliver that same protection to his young Lord. Now he's driven not just by duty, but by an incredibly deep sense of honour and loyalty, and will rescue the boy by any means necessary.
Even if that means dying.
And die he shall, again and again, however, not everything in this world is as it seems, and Sekiro is bound by a strange mystical force that continues to resurrect him so that he may complete his task.
However, that does not mean that dying is without consequence. With every death, a contagious disease known as Dragonrot spreads throughout the land’s inhabitants, and in order to cure it, Sekiro will need to make a sacrifice of his own.
The roots of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are steeped in real life ancient Japanese folklore, and mix with another remarkably clever fantasy that Miyazaki and Fromsoftware are well known for. A Sengoku-era shinobi wasn’t just a normal warrior, they would use literally everything at their disposal to win, not just sticking to one fighting style, and they always look for their enemy’s weakness to exploit - much like the way we all play FromSoftware's games, and particularly Dark Souls.
The intermingling of real-world history inspiring a fantasy game has created a very immersive, believable world, comprising a deep and meaningful story that I absolutely cannot wait to get stuck into.
'Stuck' being the key word here, because damn, this game is difficult.