“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 killing, 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 retainer 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 killing 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.