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I don't generally give a damn about the corporate circle-jerk that is E3 (or any trade show for that matter). It's usually a bunch of cringe-worthy presentations of lofty promises and over-hyped trailers and tech demos that are rarely (if ever) representative of the final product. However, there is one game announcement that caught my attention this year, and that is From Software's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. That's right, it has been confirmed that the mysterious Shadows Die Twice teaser is not a sequel to Bloodborne or Dark Souls, or even to Tenchu, as many fans had speculated. It is a new IP that takes place in a feudal Japanese setting (similar to Nioh).

Sekiro does not have a firm release date, and is slated simply for "2019". So it may still be over a year away.

Perhaps I'll hold myself over with the Resident Evil 2 remake ("REmake2"? "RE2make"?), assuming that the RE4-style over-the-shoulder camera doesn't ruin it. The REmake of the first Resident Evil is, after all, quite extraordinary, and Resident Evil VII was a surprisingly-solid return to form, so I am optimistic that REmake2 will be of similarly high quality. But I digress...

As much as I love Bloodborne, I am actually pleased to see that this is a new IP rather than a sequel to Demon's Souls, Bloodborne, or Dark Souls. FromSoft always seems to thrive when introducing a new IP, even though all the Souls-Borne games share many themes, plot elements, and mechanics between them. FromSoft's track record with sequels has been ... shaky at best. Neither Dark Souls 2 nor Dark Souls 3 are "bad" games. I still sunk something like a hundred hours into each -- with no regrets. Neither of them, however, comes close to touching the brilliance that was on display with Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne.

Besides, the Lovecraftian cosmic horror nature of Bloodborne makes a direct sequel risky. A sequel would almost necessarily have to further expound upon the Old Ones, the Pthumerians, the Healing Church, and the relationships between them. The more we know about these entities, the less mysterious and unknowable they become, and the less horrific the cosmic horror becomes. A sequel that removes the mystery surrounding the Old Ones, and which further empowers the player character would not only result in a weak sequel, but would also retroactively damage the first Bloodborne by providing answers to questions that were best left -- not only unknown -- but also unknowable.

E3 Announcement trailer for From Software's new IP: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Implications from the trailer

Fortunately, a direct Bloodborne sequel is not in the works -- at least not yet. Instead, we have a samurai-inspired hack-n-slash that looks like FromSoft's direct response to Nioh (which is, itself, receiving a sequel and some additional competition soon).

Sekiro seems to put a lot of emphasis on sword play, including parrying with your sword (rather than with a shield). It's unclear if the player will have access to other types of weapons besides a katana, or if the katana will include multiple stances or combat styles similar to Nioh. In any case, I expect the swordplay in Sekiro to be much more technical and precise than in the Souls game.

Sekiro seems to use the sword for parrying, rather than a shield.

This may be a further fulfillment of the design philosophies of Bloodborne. Bloodborne focused its design around faster-paced, offensive combat, by taking away the shields that many Dark Souls players (including myself) cowered behind, and through the introduction of other mechanics such as the "regain" system. Sekiro's focus on katana swordplay may mean that there's no shield, and there may not even be a reliable dodge or dash. Players may be incentivized to stand your ground to deflect or parry enemy blows, rather than rolling or dashing around an opponent.

In addition to the katana, the player also has a mechanical arm (which was displayed in the original teaser months ago). This arm appears to have several attachments that provide different tools for the player to use. These include a grappling hook, an axe, a retractable shield, and a flame-thrower. The grappling hook has quite a few gameplay and design potentials. We could see some mechanics for rapidly closing distance to enemies or drawing enemies near (similar to Devil May Cry 4).

The use of a grappling hook as a navigational tool adds an extra element of verticality to the game's level design. The player will no longer be limited to using ladders and elevators to scale vertical distances. This could lead to fundamental changes to how shortcuts and checkpoints are designed, since shortcuts could potentially be created by the player via creative use of the grappling hook. Whether or not that will end up being an intended feature, or a sequence-breaking bug is yet to be seen.

A grappling hook opens new possibilities for combat and level traversal.

I've heard that the map design is supposed to be more open and non-linear, similar to the interweaved helix that was the Lordran map of Dark Souls. There also may not be a proper character leveling system, which (combined with the grappling hook) may result in a tremendous level of freedom for the player to explore any nook or cranny of the game world that they desire.

"Metal Gear Souls-Borne"?

The grappling hook and the increased verticality of the levels seems to also have lead to the introduction of more robust stealth mechanics. The character actually seems to have a "sneak" mode this time around, and seems to be able to shimmy along walls like Solid Snake in order to avoid detection, listen in on enemy conversations (which may be a new method of learning lore), and possibly to perform stealth kills from a distance. The grappling hook also allows him to quickly move to the roofs of buildings in order to get above the line of sight of enemies and get the literal drop on them.

Even the death and resurrection mechanic seems to play partially into the new stealth system. The player seems to be able to resurrect on the spot. In the preview, the player is killed by a boss enemy. As the enemy is walking away, the player seems to resurrect on the spot, sneak up behind the seemingly-victorious enemy, and perform a devastating critical hit while the enemy is unaware. This creates quite a few questions:

The character seems to resurrect on-the-spot, and can sneak up on the foes that defeated him.

Is this how the respawn system will work? Do we just respawn right where we die? Do the enemies respawn or return to full strength?

Are there still checkpoints equivalent to Dark Souls bonfires or Bloodborne lamps?

More interestingly: is this a player-driven resurrection (or some tricky form of "playing dead") that costs some kind of resource, and therefore plays into game strategy? The recent God of War has a mechanic in which you can buy "Resurrection Stones". If you have one in your inventory, you can push a button to chose to revive Kratos after death, or you can just let Kratos die and restart from the last checkpoint. Could Sekiro have a similar mechanic, or an extension of this idea from God of War?

Or maybe you simply get a single respawn, then it's back to the start of the level for you. Hence the name: "Shadows Die Twice".

No jolly cooperation?

Early reports are that the game has no multiplayer of any sort. This is a pretty dramatic departure for FromSoft, as they've been doing drop-in multiplayer and PvP since Demon's Souls.

I've heard rumors of leaks, however, which report that the game will have some kind of PvP component. Instead of your character invading the world of the host's character, the leaks suggest that you can instead "inhabit" an enemy that exists in the other player's world, and that enemy would then be stronger than normal while you control it. This sounds kind of like a combination of traditional Souls-Borne PvP with a concept of the Gravelord Covenant from the original Dark Souls, in that the invader is creating harder PvE enemies for the host. Except in this case, the invader takes direct control of that enemy.

The elephant in the room: Activision


The announcement was not all good news however. The entire trailer is burdened with the announcement that Sekiro is being published by Activision. This company has become infamous for misleading marketing tactics, for decreasing the amount of content at launch and increasing the cost of "season passes", for annual releases that over saturate the market and kill entire franchises (and sometimes even whole genres!), for running developers and game franchises into the ground, for releasing an HD remaster of Call of Duty Modern Warfare and then re-sold the DLC separately, for patenting a mechanism in which players are matched up against other players who possess potentially balance-altering DLC in an attempt to coerce the player into buying said DLC, and for releasing DLC for Destiny 2 that locked players out of previously-accessible base game content. Though, that last one was probably, admittedly, more a matter of incompetence rather than malice.

Activision's involvement with FromSoft puts me in a predicament. I've made it a policy the last couple years to not buy retail copies of games from major publishers (EA, Activision, Warner Bros., 2K) unless I'm very confident that the game will be very good and not feel completely derivative or burdened by an intrusive micro-transaction economy. Instead, I wait a couple weeks and buy the game used off of eBay (because I don't like patronizing Gamestop either), or I borrow a disc from someone who did buy the game. If I end up liking it, I support the publisher and developer by either recommending it to friends, buying it as a gift for friends who may like it, or I might even trade in the used copy towards the purchase of a retail copy. I think so far, I've only done that last one once, though I have come close to doing it on a couple other occasions.

Activision is skating on thin ice after patenting DLC-based matchmaking algorithms.

So how do I continue to support FromSoft, while simultaneously not lining Activision's sleazy, greedy pockets?

Hopefully, Activision will not insist that FromSoft turn this game into a "live service" or inundate it with micro-transactions, or loot boxes, or retailer-exclusive pre-order bonuses, or any of that crap. Even season passes bother me. If Activision forces those sorts of things into Sekiro, then I may have to resort to buying the game used in order to not support those business practices. If we're lucky, the Star Wars: Battlefront II fiasco has deterred publishers from pulling that crap, and my concerns will be moot. But Sekiro isn't due out for another year at least, so that's plenty of time for the loot box controvery to cool down enough for Activision to give it another try, or plenty of time for Activision to find some other ethically-questionable monetization scheme.

It could be worse though. It could be EA publishing the game...

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