Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Note: this write-up is NOT spoiler free.

Sekiro was a game I was greatly looking forward to playing after it was announced. It ticked all the right notes for me: dark fantasy infused with Japanese mythology and an ‘alternate’ history, fast paced and challenging combat, interesting story elements mixed with gameplay and developed by a well known, quality developer – From Software. It was a day one purchase, and through the benevolence of good friends, it was bought for me as a gift.

Unfortunately, I ended up disliking the game for a number of reasons. It was a surprise to me really, as I’m usually very receptive towards From’s work (barring the dreadful Dark Souls II), as they tend to deliver on interesting world building elements, fantastic level design and engaging gameplay. The first Dark Souls was actually the only game that I had given a perfect score to when it was first released. I predicted it would be a ‘trend-setter’ title, and it was, given that many games are considered ‘soulslike’.

Sekiro did not do it for me though. A major issue I recognized with the game from the get-go is that I was having a hard time distinguishing how it is designed to be a fun experience, and how it is also a challenge. I found a significant dichotomy between these two aspects. Sekiro had mechanical systems in place that were very enjoyable, but its tuning on difficulty was so stacked up that I was unable to fully employ those ‘fun’ elements.

The swordplay in the game is spectacular in motion – I found the parry and poise system to be a very fresh experience, and when engaged in combat it ends up being a very rhythmical kind of play, where you’re working to time strikes and parries alongside specific maneuvers against special moves such as a thrust, which can be countered with a mikiri counter. There’s also jumping over sweeps to then kick down on an enemy doing poise damage, and there’s also your prosthetic arm, which has several different uses for different situations. It’s pretty fun to use.

However, the game falls apart for me because it is paced in such a way that the challenge is amplified the further you go in. Minions are not the issue here; once their movesets are memorized, they become a part of the ‘flow state’ of moving quickly through a level. The mini bosses and some of the primary bosses are where my issues come up, primarily because it is so inconsistent in its difficulty and quality.

An Unsatisfying Challenge

For example, early on in the game you fight Tenzen – a nodachi wielding samurai who crushes you from the get-go. However, the fight is clearly understood from the beginning – you recognize his movements, attacks and indicators that you need to watch for. You focus in and work to break his poise and whittle his health down for deathblows. There’s a dance here that is very, very hard, but it’s extremely enjoyable, too. You can use many of the prosthetic tools, too, but it’s not necessary and the fight feels very balanced. You melt if you make minor mistakes, but if you focus and play it right you’ll be fine. There’s a clear method to beat Tenzen and it’s a satisfying fight, especially because it is on an even playing ground.

Now contrast this fight with the Blazing Bull, which is a flailing, giant bull that runs around, thrashing its head and wiping you out in one or two hits. Care must be taken, but the problem here is that the tracking, camera and movement does not mesh very well with this fight, especially because it is in such a small area. The bull is beatable, and can be trivialized with firecrackers (if you have them). The issue though is its challenge aspect feels arbitrarily placed in the damage you take. The fundamental mechanics you learn from the start are thrown out the window in this fight – here, it is utter chaos and the most effective means to dispatch the bull is to spam it with firecrackers, stab it once or twice then sprint around, waiting for it to get stuck in a wall again. Rinse, repeat.

I found this and many other fights in Sekiro very frustrating. They were challenging, but they were not satisfying or fun. This is the dichotomy, and it’s something that pops its head up in the game in so many areas, that I was genuinely surprised to see so much praise for the game, as if it were not without flaws. A few others fights to mention would be the centipede in the fort, which is a fight inside a tiny room with a giant creature that almost never stops attacking – trivialized once you time its attacks with parries into a deathblow, but it was extremely stupid and unsatisfying. I didn’t understand what the point of the fight was, nor could I see what was really going on, given the cameras issues in small areas.

Then there is the Guardian Ape – a fight which was thankfully in a large area, but rife with inconsistent hitboxes and tracking. Beatable, and in some parts enjoyable, but not at all a satisfying fight. Again, animals in this game hate firecrackers, but those end up being very inconsistent as well, as sometimes a direct hit in front of the ape triggers a stun, other times it does not (though I grant that the game was clever enough to not allow perma-stunlocking, as there was clearly an invisible ‘immunity’ window after one stun).

But on the other end, Genichiro and Owl were both spectacular fights. I’ve read that many people found Genichiro to be a tremendous wall of difficulty – on the contrary, it took less than 10 tries for me to beat him. Owl on the other hand was a nightmare – but it was a beatable and satisfying nightmare. These two fights illustrated when the game was at its absolute best – they were focused on the fundamental mechanics, they were toe to toe and they were very stacked against you, but with focus and patience you can beat it. They were satisfying.

This doesn’t save the game though – I found the whole thing up to the end a mostly unsatisfying and miserable experience. It’s a game about overcoming challenges and learning to play better as you progress, but I found that I was unable to really enjoy the fruits of my labor, such as new tools or abilities, because the game constantly slammed you into the pavement and upped the ante in some way, but not in a good way. I don’t know what the game wants to be – on one hand, it’s a rhythmical dance in combat with a bunch of ninja trickery up your sleeve that encourages creativity and fundamental mastery; but on the other, it’s a game that devolves into fights that involve you breaking AI patterns or abusing certain abilities to get free hits in, then back off and rinse repeat. The latter is not enjoyable at all, it is in fact a detriment to an otherwise interesting and well made game.

What I think helped illuminate this bizarre imbalance in the game is the fact that prior to playing Sekiro, I had jumped off the back of Devil May Cry 5 – a spectacular action game that played well across all its difficulties. There is not a single boss in DMC5 that felt imbalanced; there were clear strengths and weaknesses, and it never felt annoying to play. It is a different beast in many respects as it is more a spectacle fighter, but doing well in DMC5 in Dante Must Die is absolutely a challenge – but it’s incredibly fun and well balanced. Sekiro is not.

But finally, this isn’t my main issue with the game. My main issue is that it lacks the world building and staying power that previous From Software games had, and focuses more on a ‘challenge’ rather than those aspects.

World Building And The “Hard” Meme

A meme that I despise is the “Soulslike games are hard” meme. Since the explosion of popularity in 2011, the Souls games, once having a small but passionate community, became the new trend series, where every second-handed validation seeker looked for their next hit of views. Reaction videos, ‘death’ counters and streamers all vying for the attention of people for donations – it is utterly pathetic. There is a clear ‘me too’ attitude to it, where people simply jump on the train without thinking, because it’s the new hip thing or ‘it’s hard and I can beat it’. It reminds me of the Star Wars fanbase – I don’t think I need to get into that here (see: Red Letter Media, they go into that much better than I could).

Sans this nonsense, the Souls games were never, legitimately that hard. What made the games good was their ability to tell a story through the world and add on top a decent challenge that gave it a sense of weight. That challenge became next to nothing once you leveled your characters, and anyone who has played the Souls games knows this fact. Challenge was secondary to the primary goal of those titles, and that goal was world building. If you really wanted to, you could make the game much harder for yourself – I did so myself by beating the Four Kings at Soul Level 12. It was ridiculous, but after over a hundred hours it was a fun challenge for myself. But it was an option.

In Sekiro, challenge is not an option, it is the primary, and world building becomes secondary to this. I think this is really what drove me to dislike the game, because From are better world builders than they are gameplay designers. I really can’t remember much about its locations or story, they were quite dull and forgettable. I can give you vague descriptions of areas I really liked, such as the monk temple and the…divine area? Otherwise, I really can’t say much about its world. It is based in the Sengoku period of Japan and the Ashina was a real, but minor clan; but that’s about it. It frustrates me that this is the case, too, as if you have played Nioh or have an interest in Japanese history such as I do, you’d know that there is a lot they can do with it and establish some interesting world building.

A Challenging Job

Overall, I don’t think Sekiro deserves the praise it gets, and I strongly suspect that it is riding off the hype of From’s previous works and its reputation. I don’t think it’s a bad game – on the contrary, there is a lot that I really like about it. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as some people suggest it is, and while the game is challenging, it isn’t very fun. I often ask myself when I play certain games whether I am having fun with it or not, and why.

With Sekiro, I didn’t have much fun, and it was because it never really gave me the time to. That and really, it felt like work. I’m a busy person and I do a lot of work outside of my hobbies – and Sekiro really just felt like another job, but without any of the survival benefits.

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