"I see you're no stranger to cruelty," observes a character later on in From Software's predictably astonishing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Hearing that, I couldn't help but reflect on how many games are strangers to their own cruelty, wilfully blind to it - exhorting you to kill and pillage while insistently styling you a do-gooder. Consider The Division, a game about massacring the dispossessed for guns and T-shirts which hails you throughout as a hero, decorously concealing the faces of your victims beneath gasmasks and goggles. Set in Sengoku period Japan, a realm of blood and fire where no field is without its crop of dropped swords, Shadows Die Twice admits no such disunity of theme. It embraces the fact that you are a malevolent presence, if not beyond redemption, and, like its spiritual forebears, Dark Souls and Bloodborne, plays this out at every level of what is probably the year's finest game.
You'll usually see the faces of the people you're slaughtering, for one thing - close enough to watch their mouths stretch wide as blade slithers under collarbone - and it's obvious from the outset that Sekiro himself is no angel. Look at that lump of frozen granite he calls a head, that shrapnel-burst of witchy white hair from sideburn to top-knot. Look at his threadbare coat tails, that dead cat of a scarf - more Fagin than Hattori Hanzo. Look, above all, at the prosthetic arm he acquires after failing to save his young employer Kuro from a rival lord - a blood-caked tangle of iron and wood you'll endow with a variety of fold-out killing instruments, switching between them with a flick of the wrist. There are poison blades for quick, corrosive strikes, firecrackers to paralyse crowds for easier dissection, and a clump of mystic raven feathers to spirit you away from a fatal blow. These aren't the weapons of a warrior - they are the tools of a murderer, albeit an outlandish one, happy to seize any advantage in a fight.
The prosthetic is literally animated by death, with abilities performed using spirit emblems reeled like fish from falling bodies. It's bestowed on Sekiro by a sculptor who spends his days obsessively carving Buddhas, each contorted by rage, reflecting a colossal karmic debt (if you're feeling curious, or kind, you can fetch him sake to hear a little of his life story). This penance will one day be your own, the sculptor warns, but in the meantime, the wrathful Buddha idols have a certain utility. They create places of respite throughout the game's mountainous landscape where you might enhance your ninja skills, top up your flask of healing waters and fast-travel, much like Dark Souls' campfires.
It's easy and, when it comes to the fighting, dangerous, to see Sekiro as one of Dark Souls' many shadows - a game that trades the latter's bleak fantasy for a historical backdrop but leaves intact the underlying framework of bossfights, upgrades, spawn points and shortcuts. The narrative is more direct than in any previous From game, with voiced cutscenes to blow away the dust kicked up by cryptic item descriptions, but it speaks much the same language of magnificence and decay.
The setting is yet another undead kingdom, rotted from within by hubris, its bloodied and mouldering fortresses draped orange and mauve by an endless sunset. Sekiro begins with a simpler objective than the protagonist of Dark Souls - he's out to rescue his abducted lord. But as in Dark Souls, his fundamental role is to cut the cords holding back this world's apocalypse, purging the great beasts, spirits and warriors who keep it in shape. That Sekiro is a shinobi (and an orphan to boot) lends this premise an intriguing undertone of class commentary. Recruited from all levels of Japanese society, the shinobi are often presented in literature as the antidote to the rigid concentration of power and status represented by the samurai. It's a fitting origin point for a character whose gift is his ability to wander, leaching through the realm's defences and scaling the heights, while his opponents must protect their little corners of it forever.
Much as the premise recalls Lordran's cast of putrefying gods and monsters, so there's a Soulsy back-and-forth during exploration - out along each branch of a secretly very open map, then back to the sculptor's temple to upgrade your prosthetic and perhaps, try out a new ability on Hanbei the Undying, an atypically chatty trainer's dummy. When not gunning for a boss or heading home to lick your wounds you'll spend a certain amount of time grinding - either for spirit emblems, which are easily used up during bossfights, or for upgrade resources and experience.
It inspires some familiar emotional peaks and troughs. There's the sag of relief when you lift the bar from a door after a close-won fight and find a sculptor's idol behind it (typically, one you've already visited - From's games are legendary for the elegant way their layouts double back on themselves). There's the anguish when you're slain after gathering a fat stack of XP; players now lose only half their gains on death, and retain any skill points they've earned by levelling up, but there's no chance of recovering that XP once lost. And there's the excitement when you slip through a crevice and discover a new region, as though falling out of a wardrobe into Narnia.
Sekiro's notionally realworld setting isn't quite as haunting as Lordran or Bloodborne's Yarnham, but it's a mournful and majestic environment - wrapped around mountains so that key landmarks are visible to one another from afar, while shortcuts often worm through the rock beneath. Sadly, the lack of online support means there's no accompanying player graffiti, no treacherous hints, jokes or oddball sentiments to cheer up the colder stretches, but it's still a place you'll relish spending time in. Pagoda roofs pile upward into the sky, kites waver over scarlet woodlands and wind licks the snow from sunken cliffsides.
The landscape's beauty is no less for the relative carelessness with which you move through it. Sekiro began life as an attempt to reboot Tenchu, the ninja game that, together with Thief: The Dark Project and Metal Gear Solid, sparked off the modern stealth genre back in 1998. Hence its greatest departure from Souls, your grappling hook, which lets you corkscrew to gable ends and branches, tossing another line in mid-air to cross vast spans in a single zig-zag motion. You can only grapple onto pre-specified points, but they're plentiful and arranged in such a way that you can often get around enemies undetected - swinging along a cliffside to the rear of a fort, for example, where you can backstab or dropkill archers before tangling with the spearmen they're guarding. Where grapple points are scarce, you can also lurk in patches of vegetation or squeeze under floorboards to avoid raising the alarm.
This giddy stealth emphasis pays into a loosening of the design geography, with many bosses skippable till you feel up to the challenge; the major varieties block access to new areas, but the branching map means you at least have the choice of which to be frustrated by. The freedom is bracing, and the experience of thinning the NPC herd from the shadows, agreeably vicious - necks crunching, aortas going off like fireworks. The handling of enemy awareness states is elementary enough - an empty triangle indicates you've been seen but not identified, while yellow denotes active searching and red means you're rumbled - but there are surprises for those who take it too lightly. Some enemies are able to rouse others, bringing the whole force down on your head in seconds, and deadlier fighters, such as scythe-wielding monks, often face towards your last known position as they return to their posts.
Bosses, meanwhile, can often be ambushed but never outright assassinated, which means there's ultimately no escaping the rigours of the game's ferocious sword-fighting. I'm not sure this has a complete basis in reality, but you could summarise the journey from Souls combat to that of Sekiro as a case of mounting designer impatience with players who play defensively, circling the fight with shields raised. Bloodborne took away your block button, forcing you to dart and counter rather than hiding behind your guard, but still allowed you to win by chipping away slowly at each enemy health bar. Sekiro gives you the block button back, but also introduces a Posture system which often leaves you no option but to trade blows.
The Posture bar replaces character stamina, and fills when blocking attacks or when an opponent parries a hit. Max out your foe's Posture bar by attacking and deflecting and you'll knock them off-balance, allowing Sekiro to execute a deathblow. The problem is that enemies (and you) regain Posture when they're left alone. Bosses, especially, get their breath back in seconds, and all of them take at least two deathblows to quash. The consequence is that you have to keep up the pressure - closing the gap rather than circling out of reach, turning aside swings with shoulder-wrenching deftness and battering your opponent's guard till they can't hold a weapon upright. It means never giving anybody a moment to collect themselves, and by extension, it means swallowing your dread of adversaries who are designed to scare you witless.
There are booming giants in rattling plate whose thrusts can only be parried, and samurai lords who fling bolts of lightning, daring you to catch and throw it back. There are master fencers who strike from a sheathed stance to damage through your block, and great apes whose roars may terrify to the point of cardiac arrest. The nastier enemies are often found in smaller spaces, where to get hustled into a corner is to lose sight of anything save gnashing teeth and rusty claws - fortunately, audio cues are plentiful enough that, given enough practice, you can almost parry the onslaught in the dark. The prosthetic tools and unlockable moves add flourish to all this, but are never required to proceed. It may repay you to hurl shurikens at enemies who jump, open the proceedings with a charging stab from your telescopic spear, or whirl foes backwards with your enchanted fan. But if your parry timing is hopeless, no amount of wrist gadgetry is going to save your skin.
It's a formidable system, a gauntlet lobbed at the heads of From veterans and newcomers alike. Adding insult to injury, the lack of online means there's no summoning other players to help, and friendly NPC combatants are few and far between. But once you acclimatise to the change of emphasis, it's absolutely terrific, because it leads to a deeper engagement with the nuances of the encounter design: recovery times, boss phases and questions of terrain, the ranges at which you'll trigger an especially violent riposte, and the sheer wickedness of animations that are designed to fake you out. There's an ogre-type foe in Sekiro that's prone to comically extended wind-ups, bouncing toward you on one foot as it hefts a mallet. After a week with the game, I'm still learning to identify the point at which the mallet actually comes down.
On the many occasions when you do succumb to such tricks, the game throws you a lifeline in the shape of a resurrection system. Given enough lifeforce sucked from slaughtered foes, you can spring back to your feet after a KO, preferably once your opponent's back is turned (bosses, sadly, always notice your return). Technically, it's just a glorified Continue button, a way of preserving momentum when you come within a hair's breadth of gutting a boss, but it certainly speaks to the creeping, invasive malignancy of the protagonist. I'll try not to spoil too much, but resurrection takes its toll on the people and things around you. Your ability to cheat the reaper is as much an assault on this glorious, stagnant world as the many unspeakable things you'll do with your blade, though there are ways you might fix the damage.
The evils of immortality are a theme of the narrative, which includes a number of fascinating, oblique side stories that, as ever with From, depend on you being in the right place at the right time and often with the right items, to boot. There's also an intriguing strain of zoomorphism, which feels like a good note to end on. One character refers to a faction of undersized, behatted ninjas as rats, gaily inviting you to exterminate them, and the game's title roughly translates to “one-armed wolf”. I have no real insight to offer on the symbolism of wolves in Japanese culture and myth, but I think Sekiro may be a different beast. He's more of a cockroach, getting in everywhere and all but impossible to expunge - the kind of wondrous, abhorrent creature that will be first to the top of the rubble pile as and when civilisation comes crashing down.