Given it’s nearly two months since the release of Fromsoft’s Elden Ring, I reckon it’s about time I start writing about the developers best game. I’ve been playing their games since 2009 with Demon’s Souls on the PS3, and I’ve pretty much loved all of their work, including the non-souls games like Armoured Core and 3D Dot Game Heroes, which was an obscure retro kind of title on the PS3 that was overshadowed by the juggernaut that is Dark Souls. The only two games I didn’t play in their Souls arsenal however are Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne – Dark Souls 3 because I didn’t like 2 (though I’ll be revisiting it sometime down the line soon, give it another go as well as 3), and Bloodborne because I never picked up a PS4, plus it was around the time I was settling into Japan.
As for the original Dark Souls, I was patently obsessed with that game on launch and it was my most anticipated title since its original announcement. Hundreds of ridiculous hours and runs on the PS3, then when Prepare to Die edition came out on PC, I modded that shit up with DSFix and got going again. The game is a masterpiece and as I’ve mentioned in other write ups, it was the only game I scored a perfect 10 to when I was reviewing for PALGN. Called it!
Anyway, enough about my street cred for being a hardcore 69 420 gamer wolf. Let’s talk about Fromsoft’s best game and the one that finally takes the crown away from the original Dark Souls.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Wait. Hold the fuck up Frog, YOU SAID YOU HATED THAT GAME?!
And now it’s one of my favourite game’s of all time. Wh–why? What? How?
Because I was very wrong on Sekiro, but it wasn’t necessarily the fault of the game or my fault directly – though I am to blame primarily.
Explanation time, zooming back to March 2019:
I was frothing at the damn mouth for Sekiro – easily one of my most anticipated titles for years. Alongside DMC5’s release, holy balls was I keen on it. Japanese aesthetic and prime time Sengoku period mixed with dark fantasy and From Software level design? Oh god yes. Everything about it was absolutely screaming “the game” for me, and on initial start, it certainly felt that way too.
But by the end of the game, I quit out and hated it. Well, what the hell?
The TL;DR for the review on it was that I had a hard time figuring out how it was supposed to be any fun. Genichiro, Owl and a lot of minions were incredibly fun, but then there was Guardian Ape, the bull and other insane shit which felt absolutely broken beyond measure. I honestly couldn’t really explain it that well – the game felt way off when I played it. Weird tracking, parries being flimsy as fuck, movement being jank / unresponsive and camera spaz outs. The camera spaz outs still happen here and there now too, but it’s largely under control.
With all the frustration and exhausted feeling I got from it too, I couldn’t appreciate the story or aesthetic at all. The game just burnt me out and yeah – it sucked. By the time I took on Sword Saint Isshin, I was done. I left it at that and it became a bittersweet game for me – it was this close to being the game for me, but it was just a little too difficult and fucky. In contrast to DMC5 which was an absolutely phenomenal experience from start to finish, Sekiro felt like a bad aftertaste. I didn’t get why people liked it so much either.
Anyway, emotional expressions of amphibian anguish and crushed pride aside, three years later, I decide after beating Elden Ring to jump back on Sekiro, install it and see how it goes – a second chance.
Now, why would I do that given the utter fucking misery I experienced playing it back on launch? There were two reasons:
1 – I still had some desire to play more From games. I was back in the mood post Elden, and I was curious about why people still considered Sekiro to be such an amazing title. What the hell is wrong with these masochists? Why? How? Let’s try this again.
2 – This is the main reason: I sometimes play games on a projector. About a year or so back, I decided to do some couch gaming on my short throw projector with Hades, but I quickly stopped because holy shit…there was some serious input lag. I didn’t know how much, but I decided to just do a test and I was looking at 55 – 100ms of display lag on it. There was a seriously big difference of play quality on my monitor and projector, so I decided to never play fast games on the projector from there.
Now, take a guess where I played almost the entirety of Sekiro, and take a guess where I played it on initial impressions? Mostly on the projector, initially on my monitor.
Ah. Aside from the fact that I was too dumb to pick up on this glaring difference back then, I took this into consideration post-Elden, and decided to just load Sekiro and exclusively play it on my high speed, 165hz monitor.
So, in I went, loading it up and just seeing where it goes. If I don’t like it, just quit. Ez.
30 plus hours of intense binging later
I uh…yeah. Boy.
Sekiro is the game.
As I wrote in my first blog post on it, fights like Genichiro and Owl were hard but amazing fights. Fundamentally, the game has a tremendous back and forth system in play that behaves like an intense, very dangerous dance. Singular mistakes kill you. That said, it felt broke as fuck on other fights, and it wasn’t the game that caused it – it was input lag.
Think of how delicate of a system Sekiro has – it requires pinpoint parry timing and good understanding/memorization of patterns in enemy movements. You really need to be focused in and on your toes, so you require no noise in that. Input lag adds 50-100ms of noise on a projector. If we’re averaging out, that’s 0.75 seconds of extra lag to compensate on parrying.
For a game like Sekiro, that is absolutely game breaking and completely destroys flow. With Genichiro and Owl, they have some very readable, telegraphed combos that move in specific ways – it’s why they felt best for me. With the animal fights, they’re much more erratic and whip around like buffoons, being animals and all, so of course they felt like shit and things felt broken – I was unable to react to them properly.
With all the noise out of the way and playing on my monitor, the game completely changed. I went from hating the game to coming back three years later and beating most bosses in two or three goes, absolutely adoring every moment of it – and Genichiro turned into an even better fight. All mistakes made were of my own accord – I either mistimed my movements, hesitated or just did something stupid. Very rarely have I actually died because the game spazzed out (although there are still moments of cameras going broke).
The game went from something which felt like work to something that felt like a rhythmic, flow like dance that I legitimately couldn’t stop playing for hours on end. Elden couldn’t even do that for me – a great game, but I actively took breaks and by the end was a bit bored by most bosses. Still great, but you snowball hard in that game.
In Sekiro, there is no snowball – there are only balls, very sturdy, strong balls that you must earn in the form of controlled aggression and without any hesitation. Each stage of the game escalates and applies new lessons with all the enemies – as you progress through Ashina Outskirts, you start to identify particular attacks and techniques that counter it – mikiri counters and jump kicks on certain perilous attacks as an example. When you move into the castle, you begin to meet enemies that employ not just what you’ve learned previously, but new movements that require different, more aggressive strategies like mid-air deathblows, use of prosthetic abilities, combat arts, etc. Exploration is also rewarded with hints as to what is coming up ahead, where in typical, fantastic Fromsoft design fashion, the items found around areas provide subtle suggestions on what your strategy ought to be.
This is how the game keeps moving from start to finish, too – with all the noise and rage accompanying that out of the way, I was able to genuinely appreciate how brilliantly designed the whole thing is. Secret shortcuts, interesting questlines, round about levels that organically connect – it’s an evolved version of the original Dark Souls, and I absolutely adore it with the new combat system, too.
It finally comes together in the end with possibly the best final boss in any video game – and I am confident in saying is the best Fromsoft boss fight in any of their games.
Sword Saint Isshin’s stage is not only a “coming full circle” moment, but one that takes all the things you’ve learned across the game and puts your knowledge and experience to the test by going all out. It also teaches you one final lesson:
“Hesitation is defeat”.
This fight is absolutely fucking terrifying on first go, not just because the final boss is one intimidating son of a bitch, but the entire storyline and build up to this point has been alluding to the fact that this guy is a legendary kensei, and you’re about to go one on one with him in his prime.
And yet with that mental nervousness, he’s actively teaching you how to beat him with every backhand he provides you: hesitation is defeat. In other words, the final boss is a lesson in not hesitating with your actions – go full force, control your aggression and trust in what you’ve learned.
After about a dozen or so goes on him, taking him out was the most exhilarating experience I’ve had in a game in years. Pulses of adrenaline were surging through my hands post-fight, and the way it all came together (alongside nailing the true “return” ending) just left me with intense glee, and an immediate second playthrough start.
I could keep going on about Sekiro now, but honestly, I’m too busy playing it through on my 3rd playthrough, working to get the Shura ending and improving my game on the gauntlet boss runs. If that isn’t a glowing recommendation, I don’t know what is.
In some ways this blog post is both an apology to one of my favourite developers across decades and an admittance to being completely off base in my original impression of the game way back when. I was definitely wrong. It wasn’t necessarily my fault entirely, but I was a bit thick and too mad to put two and two together at the time to consider that hey, maybe projectors aren’t great for gaming. False ego bad!
Elden is great – masterful even. From’s very good at what they do and they put most of the AAA industry to shame. They quell the cynicism in my cold, reptilian heart.
However, Sekiro is their magnum opus and it’s thanks to that game we also got Sloclap’s Sifu, too – with a combat system heavily influenced by Sekiro.
It took me three years to finally go back to it and see how it was always the game I actually wanted, and man I’m glad I jumped back on. Brimming with joy.
Anyway, back to Sekiro.