The world of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is noticeably smaller than those seen in previous Fromsoftware’s Souls games. Dark Souls was a tower of levels stacked on top of each with paths and elevators and secret connecting them all. Dark Souls 2 started in Majula and branched out from there, with branches coming off those branches and so on. Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 are a combination of the previous games and are like webs with areas spreading out and folding on top of each other while being interconnected throughout. But while Sekiro’s world is not as large or as interconnected as those other games, it does something genius with its central point, Ashina Castle.
The first part of Sekiro is very linear. You have to make your way from the Dilapidated Temple through Ashina Outskirts and the valley until you reach Ashina Castle. Ashina Castle sits in the middle of the game’s world and works as the trunk of the tree that the rest of the game spreads out. From the castle, you can go to the Sunken Valley from the shrine, Senpou Temple from the dungeons, Ashina Depths from the bottomless pit, or stay and explore the interior of the castle. During my first playthrough, I completely missed the window to enter the castle. So I actually went and explored all the other areas until I hit dead ends before going back and fighting the boss in the castle to progress the story. The young lord tasks you with retrieving a few items from the other areas. But once the items are collected and you try to warp back to Ashina Castle, you’ll discover something surprising: you can’t.
This is because Ashine Castle is under attack. When you go back to Ashina (I used the Abandon Dungeon idol and climbed over the gate), you’ll find it under siege with bamboo ladders reaching to the rooftops and new enemies slaughtering the Ashina soldiers. You find yourself in the middle of a war. The soldiers of the opposing factions will attack other enemies and yourself upon sight. This helps give the ascension up Ashina Castle have a different feel than before. The battles with enemies are more chaotic and dangerous while sleath has a new option of luring different enemies into each other and slipping away in the confusion.
Sekiro does these moments of revisiting previous areas so well. A lot of games don’t change anything in levels you need to revisit, leading you to fight early game enemies with late game equipment, skills, and stats. This can help the player feel the growth the character has undergone throughout the game’s journey, but it also often leads to these sections to feel uninteresting or boring. Like in their other Souls games, Fromsoft never wants the player to feel overpowered in Sekiro.
I loved playing through Sekiro because I was still learning things about the game and the combat mechanics up until and during the final boss. It’s amazing having a game that feels like there is still so much more to master even after you’ve beat it, especially one where a large chunk of the game is revisiting the same areas multiple times. Sekrio keeps its difficulty cranked high when revisiting Ashina Castle by introducing new, tougher enemies or by having enemies that were mini bosses now being basic mobs. The interior ninjas and Ashina generals were early game mini bosses while the Red Guard are some of the toughest enemies in the game with tricky attack patterns and guns that shoot fireworks.
The game stays challenging when revisiting Ashina Castle, but it also manages to feel fresh when exploring. There are new routes through around the castle. First time revisiting it, there are bamboo ladders all over the castle, making for new grapple points and new ways to ascend. During the second revisit, you start from the top of the castle and have to fight your way down. It’s a small thing, but it goes miles to prevent revisits feeling samey. The castle itself will also look different, be it from the ladders scaling the rooftops or from everything being engulfed in flames when you have to make your way down during the games final section.
During the final third of the game, you also have the option of revisiting both Hirata Estate and Ashina Outskirts in new ways and both these areas are also burning, almost seemingly to the ground. Fire works as a wonderful theme in the last moments of the game representing the war and destruction the world is set in. Hirata Estate you revisit through Owl’s memory of that night instead of your own and it’s pretty much the same with tougher enemies and much harder mini boss encounters. Revisiting Ashina Outskirts, however, is what solidified my appreciation for the reuse of previous areas in Sekiro.
When you go back through Ashina Outskirts, you do it in reverse. You start from the castle and make you way over a bridge where you see Ashina’s defenses being slaughter by the Red Guards. After this point, is all Red Guards and fire. I went through Ashina Outskirts so many times on my way to the castle in the beginning of the game that I had a set route through it so I could stealth kill all the enemies in the way. Upon revisiting Ashina Outskirts, I didn’t have that route so I have to think quick about stealth, had to pay closer attention to my surroundings, and I had to fight hard or find an escape route when I fell into a nasty fight. Everything looks different when you go through the outskirts again in the same way that a road might look different if your driving through it in the opposite direction you usually do. At the end of the trek through Ashina Outskirts, after seeing all the fire and destruction suffered to the area, you find yourself up against the cause of all of the damage: the Demon of Hatred
This ferocious, tragic, pain in the ass boss is a strange creature in the world of Sekiro, belonging more in the worlds of Dark Souls and Bloodborne both in design and boss battle. It is huge and beastlike, with one arm composed entirely of flame. His fight relies more on attacking his vitality instead of his posture which runs counter intuitively to the rest of the boss fight in the game. But it is a good fight after you learn its patterns and it all takes place in the battle field before Ashina Castle gates. The world of Sekiro comes full circle as one of the final bosses in the game has the exact same arena as one of the very first bosses.