Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice- Now with four old people to kill

Even in the earliest of Souls games, active defense was more optimally achieved by the dodge roll. It universally costed the same amount of stamina for a roll than it would be to block an attack and 100% reduction shields or specific attacks would require a bit more effort to find and upgrade than simply rolling through enemy attacks. Certain bosses would be way too much on the stamina drain for a proper offense to be mounted ala Fume Knight so by Dark Souls II, the message was for players to start rolling more often. Out comes Bloodborne that did away with shields all together, even making fun of the idea, and added quick-step dodges when locked on. The emphasis on aggression, offensively parrying with firearms, lack of equipment weight and rolling penalties, and even healing HP lost with the rally mechanic all pointed towards a refinement given to the combat system. Dark Souls 3 kept some of this design philosophy with an increased invulnerability to the rolls, a mechanic that’s a far cry from Dark Souls 2’s rolling invulnerability tied to the Adaptability and Agility stat. 

So how does Sekiro push the envelope in its design philosophy?

Sekiro to me was announced at a time where I thought medieval Japanese period games were on the rise again. I forget between the E3’s of 2016-2018 where both Sekiro and Ghost of Tsushima were announced and I was admittedly skeptical of them. What I think of Ghost of Tsushima we’ll go over another time but as far as Sekiro went, I forget exactly what my misgivings about it were to not be excited for it and not buy it on release. It was most likely my time away from serious games and just about the time I started getting back into them that had me less concerned about the state of the videogame sphere for a while. Maybe it had just been a long time since my last Souls game or I was burnt out on the first Nioh at that point?

Whatever the case was, I was spurred on by my brother to try out Sekiro and while the start of it was rough, it really did deliver to me some good-ass combat and boss fights, the staples of the From games.

Sekiro’s plot and world are, for better or for worse for some, a lot more focused and less ambiguous than the stories of gods and shady institutions of the Souls and Bloodborne type and is squarely set in a rather realistic setting of feudal Japan, presumably in the Warring States period and judging from Mt. Kongou’s location, somewhere around the middle-south of Japan. In the chaos, the province of Ashina is freed from imperial rule by the leadership of Isshin Ashina. In the immediate aftermath of the bloody coup led by Isshin, aged shinobi Owl founds a starving teenager wandering the battlefield gathering swords from the corpses and he takes him under his wing to be trained as a shinobi as well. 20 years later, the boy now known as the Wolf, is a master Shinobi and is given the task of becoming the personal guard to a boy named Kuro. Something goes wrong however and the game begins with Wolf sitting alone in a hole and he is prompted by the news that Kuro is alive and he is spurred to action as he sneaks his way into the building Kuro is kept in. The two reunite, Wolf is given his blade back, and they make their way to a secret exit to leave the province, only to be stopped by Genichiro Ashina, who is adamant in keeping Kuro within the family castle for some purpose we do not know of. Wolf is defeated, either by underhanded means or for real, and he loses his left arm in the process and is left to die once more. Days later, Wolf reawakens to find himself at a dilapidated temple where an old and ragged sculptor explains that he dragged Wolf here and also outfitted him with a prosthetic arm. After he is told that Kuro is still alive, Wolf heads out to once again save his master.

What ends up happening later on is that Kuro is revealed to be a Divine Heir whose blood and those contracted to it are rendered immortal, explaining how Wolf can keep coming back from the dead but also negatively affect those who are connected to him by Dragonrot each time he comes back. Kuro not only does not wish for Wolf to suffer in his stead but also wishes for no one else to have this power, which comes into conflict with Genichiro who wishes to enter into Kuro’s service as to protect Ashina from invading forces. Wolf joins Kuro in trying to find the means to sever their immortality which leads into four potential endings.

A lot of Sekiro’s story is brought up up-front but the smaller stuff are once again found in item descriptions, primarily from Prayer Beads that drop from bosses and mini-bosses that upgrade your health. Like Bloodborne, Sekiro’s world state changes after defeating bosses and larger world states changes occur after meeting big requirements which also affects NPCs and certain items as well. Because you’re physically not allowed to draw your weapon around certain NPCs, there’s no real sequence breaking to skip ahead of certain points of the game but you are allowed to tackle the early game bosses in any order but up to a point where beating Genichiro  unlocks the Sunken Valley and getting to Ashina Castle is mandatory to start branching paths.

The combat is where the real meat of Sekiro shines. Two big changes are immediately noticeable. First, you have a jump button and the extended verticality of the game allows for stealthy gameplay where picking of enemies with stealth deathblows is encouraged to clear a path to your destination. The old mantra of Souls games still apply, you really don’t want to be engaged in more than one enemy if you can help it and it applies doubly for Sekiro. The next big change is that utter lack of a all-encompassing Stamina bar, letting you run forever or swing your sword forever but you are limited in how much you block with the introduction of the Posture gauge. Nearly every enemy, including bosses, and you have a Posture gauge that fills up when a hit lands or an attack is blocked and when the gauge fills, a clean opening presents itself for a Deathblow, instantly deleting the health bar of an enemy or in Wolf’s case, he is susceptible to a hit. Some enemies have multiple healthbars and shaving off one of their bars is crucial to winning a fight so maintaining a heavy offense is key. Parrying or Deflecting in this game is absolutely crucial if you want to survive into the later parts of the game as a Deflect negates posture damage on your end while building up Posture on the enemy while also completely negating any damage. Enemies can deflect your attacks as well which usually means your turn ends and you have to go back on the defensive. To spice this blade dance up, enemies have two Perilous Attacks, the thrust and the sweep. The Thrust is technically blockable but requires a Deflect while the Sweep is actually unblockable and requires you to jump and this keeps the fighting tense as you always have to be on the lookout for Perilous Attacks while also properly amounting a good offense to build Posture. 

Like all the games before it, the bonfire equivalent is the Sculptor’s Idol and the Estus Flasks are the Healing Gourds which you start with a limited amount but upgrade for more charges as you progress. Dying is a bit more punishing yet forgiving at the same time in Sekiro, as the shinobi of the Divine Heir, Wolf has a direct story-reasons for being immortal and while he respawns at the previously rested Sculptor’s Idol on death, you are allowed two, later three, chances to respawn where you immediately died to fight back. However, dying with no Resurrection nodes has a chance to incur a penalty as a “true” death. First, you lose half your money and then half of your experience level. You heard right, experience exists in this game that you can spend on multiple skill trees for useful abilities, passives, and techniques. The mechanic called Unseen Aid has a chance to have you lose none of these on death but those go down when you incur Dragon Rot. Around one in ten deaths has a chance to inflict this plague onto NPCs which makes it impossible to continue their quest line but to be perfectly fair, only around 3-4 of these matter so it’s not that big of a deal but you should try and cure the Sculptor of it. The methods to cure this are relatively simple but the item to cure it is limited per NG cycle. The adverse effects of Dragon Rot can be avoided by simply backing off and resting at an idol after the first resurrection node use as to avoid a true death. The side-stories aren’t all too interesting probably for this purpose as to not completely penalize beginners with Dragon Rot so a ton of the NPCs are generally vendors, the Memorial Mobs. Anayama and Koutaro were the only real NPC quest line that got something out of me.

To spice up combat and exploration, Wolf’s severed arm is outfitted with the Shinobi Prosthetic which gives him a wide arsenal of tools to assist him in his fights. The effects range from throwing simple shurikens, blasting fire, using poisoned blades, launching axes, firecrackers, and other tools to help you deal with certain enemies. The Sculptor back at the dilapidated temple turns unique items you find in the world to become new tools and you can further upgrade them for stronger and unique effects.

Back when I played Nioh, I thought to myself From would need something similar to combo enders and Combat Arts seem to be the quasi-equivalent of this as they’re not technically combo enders but are physical sword abilities that Wolf can employ to varying degrees. You have attacks that restore posture, ones that jump over sweep attacks and come down attacking, ones that bypass defense, and an assortment of others. 

Now you might be thinking to yourself “what’s stopping me from spamming these things” and certainly, stronger techniques and shinobi tools all cost Spirit Emblems, a resource that you frequently gain from killing enemies and lying about in the world for you to collect that limits just how many times you can do certain attacks. Me being me, I stuck with combat arts that didn’t use these up but the ones that do are generally worth it so long as you aren’t blowing through them without a plan.

The rest of the skill tree have combo moves involving follow-up attacks to shinobi tool usage, passives that heal on kill, reduce posture build up on you, increase posture damage dealt with your sword, extra sneaking help, and one of the most crucial techniques, the Mikiri Counter, which gives you a rather cool move to counter enemy thrust attacks by dashing into them and stepping on their weapon. One other unique technique to gain after killing a boss is the ability to breathe underwater which isn’t entirely all that much aside from some traversal and collectible hunting but it’s actually an incredibly smooth underwater traversal, more than I can say for most games.

As you make your way through Ashina, you come across a ton of Mini-Bosses with the enemy equivalent of resurrection nodes/deathblow counters and some of them are honestly tougher than some of the actual bosses in the game. Special Mention in particular goes to the Seven Spear of Ashina commanders who’re tough as shit with their delayed attack windows and the Shinobi Hunter in the Hirata Estate memory. Moreso than other From games, due to the boss rush mode that’s unlocked after the first clear, I have a different appreciation to the bosses in the game compared to the other Souls games but the the clear standouts go to Owl and Isshin. I will give special mentions to Genichiro who serves as a litmus test for the game’s mechanics and Divine Dragon who really knocks it out of the park as a spectacle boss. The Folding Screen Monkeys were interesting as a concept as a puzzle boss as well. Owl’s first fight is him being a tricky son of a bitch while the optional 2nd and 3rd fights are a straight on brawl with less tricky but offense oriented techniques that I really felt like a fight between two master shinobi. Isshin acts like an even tougher Genichiro who’s a litmus test for the endgame mechanics and is an absolute blast. Souls in general usually have their best boss fights behind DLCs but Isshin straight out of the gate is an impressive fight right from the get-go. The joke in the title refers to how most of the better bosses tend to be old people in a series where a prolific amount of people end up dying and these people are still kicking. Between Isshin, Owl, Butterfly, and even the Sculptor, one of the traditional character traits for good boss fights are plentiful in this game and all they all provide a unique challenge.

A childhood growing up with Mystical Ninja made me realize that there aren’t too many high-definition, periodical ninja games. Yeah Ninja Gaiden exists but those locales are usually a bit more industrial and modern but Sekiro reminded me of the grandeur of a ninja scaling tall Japanese palaces, rooftops, and just the romantic atmosphere of ninja media while actually letting me play out those childhood fantasies, if only for a short while. I’ve heard complaints with how Ashina Outskirts, Castle and the Hirata Estate levels are reused for lategame content but I personally didn’t mind them. The only thing I did mind was that the game was really short beyond the first playthrough, a common occurrence once you figure out progression paths in games like this but because of how the aforementioned reused stages are just slightly altered, the game does feel significantly shorter. Another complaint was how builds were practically nonexistent and I found this to be valid but not all that important. Sekiro shares many similarities but is still a different piece of work compared to Souls, refined to a point where it really comes down to how good you read enemy attack timings. I am a bit unimpressed with how prosthetic upgrades make certain ones obsolete but beyond that, I have very few complaints to make.

The worry is that Sekiro’s combat is the peak of Miyazaki’s current works and how Elden Ring’s combat will return to the classic formula. While I’m willing to accept more Souls in general, I hope some changes are made to the combat to keep up with Sekiro’s rather addicting rhythm of offense and parrying.

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