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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Sekiro:  Shadows Die Twice

Played on PS4-Pro

In Sekiro, From Software boils down the combat of Dark Souls and Bloodborne to it’s most brutal and intimate – where constant engagement with the enemy – even in defence – is required to succeed.  However, much of the variety and satisfaction that is typical of From’s other Souls- like games has also be been boiled away. Partly due to the setting and theme of the game, but I fear it is also because From Software are starting to believe their own bullshit.

The commitment to sword fighting certainly gives Sekiro it’s own flavour and soul.  You defeat enemies through strict attacks, parries and deflection usually when the enemy telegraphs a specific move.  ‘Hanging Back’ or Shield/Tanking will get you murdered fast. Some encounters have large arenas but ‘giving yourself room’ will only just prolong your very certain death.  Most fights require you to waltz in uncomfortably close proximity to very intimidating people – a waltz you instinctually fight against.

Your agency as a player becomes limited once you are close enough to see the enemies nose hair – there just isn’t much else you can do other than attack, deflect/block or hop out of the way.  I know that sound like every souls game, but only if all bosses required this proximity. If this was  Dark souls for example, this would mean casters and range builds are out, you couldn’t tank attacks, or quickly break poise – you would be very limited on how creative you can be in battle.

In Sekiro this translates to reduced satisfaction – I didn’t ‘beat’ bosses so much as I responded specifically to their actions – never really feeling like I had overcome the enemy – but was only allowed pass the area after following the enemies orders.

From Software seemed to be heading towards a game that is cartoonishly brutal and Sekiro is as close to this as ever, and not in a good way.  Think of a long running series where the writers have run out of ideas so they make each character a cartoon of themselves (Friends for example).  This is Sekiro in terms in Souls-like difficulty – and it’s a bit up it’s own ass.

I expect to be frustrated by a Souls game, usually frustration born from my own bad timing or poor decisions.  Occasionally a souls game will pull some bullshit that you would never see coming or deliberately trick you for a cheap trial and error death, but these were few and far enough between that I could forgive them.

This is far more regular in Sekiro – specifically with bosses whose attack telegraphing is so subtle that it’s incredibly difficult to figure out what attack is coming in the 1 second you have to react.  You need to be very active and get toe to toe with the boss, but you absolutely cannot trade blows either because your health bar is some sort of prank for those gullible enough to think it makes any fucking difference to your survivability.  

You can increase your health bar regularly enough but bosses tend to scale up as you do, and most of their hits will either knock off 90 percent of your entire bar, our just outright kill you.  Any hit you survive will require 2 seconds to heal, an action which some bosses are programmed to leap across the arena in that very moment and immediately remove that health you just got back.

Sekiro bloody knows this too.  There is a resurrection mechanic whereby you resurrect where you died (sometimes resurrecting twice is possible depending on progress) to continue the fight.  Which tells me that the developers knew how cheap death could be and added the respawn mechanic after developing the main combat to help balance things.

 I can already hear the response that this was due to the plot thread of immortality and resurrection – but that would  work anyway from the fact that you can revive at a bonfire (called buddha ‘Idols’’) like other Souls-like games.  The resurrection mechanic feels like a development patch.

Sekiro seems to be heading towards another critical point of Souls-like in the form of ‘shared knowledge’ – where much of the content is discovered through communities/wikis.  I found this to be much less appropriate in Sekiro because it is definitely a single player game – there’s no co-op or invasions. I’m also pretty sure I would still be stuck on some of the bosses now if I hadn’t looked up solutions.

I thought about a time when I was playing games before I had the internet, and if I was playing Sekiro then there would be no fucking way I’d have figured some of this shit out.   And it’s not optional stuff either – its critical path main story progress.

The obnoxious 4 monkeys boss – which is more of a boss ‘puzzle’ than anything else has you chase 4 “hilarious” monkeys around rooftops.  I managed 3 by myself, but what seemed to be the method to catch last just wasn’t working. On looking up the solution I found that it WAS how I thought, only that I needed to jump from different ledge, one that was FURTHER away to the monkey than the one I was using – because this was the ‘proper’ one – to either trigger the AI, or because fuck you player, you have too much free time anyway.

A couple of bosses in the later game are ‘apparitions’ which requires the use of ‘Celestial Confetti’ in order to deliver any substantial damage.  Similar to the Curse effect in Dark Souls. However, you find about only 4-5 Celestial Confetti in in the entire game to this point, with a limited duration for each use.   But because this is a ‘hard-core, we must be frustrating and esoteric because we are FROM game and BLRRT *Sniff Sniff *Numm Numm that smells good’ – each of these bosses may take a dozen times or more to beat.  So the 4-5 you collected won’t last pissing time.

So back to the wiki again to find out where to get them.  They can be bought after killing a LATER boss – so in typical fashion they are provided when they are no longer needed.  But, it turns out they can also be farmed from mobs in an earlier stage – with a rare drop rate. So rare in fact they never dropped the first time I passed through that area, so I would have never known to check there.

One might argue this is just par for the course, as it was in other From games, but I never felt it to be so arbitrary and unfun and flow breaking as I do in Sekiro.  Normally these are fun things to discover (even when researched) – but with a lot of other aspects of this game, it crosses the line for the sake of it and I feel like I’m being fucked about to meet some sort of salt quota.  And yes I am aware of the salt joke in game. Just because you hang a lampshade on your head doesn’t mean you stop being an ugly fuck.

This also doesn’t excuse the camera issues that resulted in many deaths too – where if you are near a wall then you can get a good look at the sky while the boss has it’s way with you while you frantically try to orientate yourself.

There is no traditional leveling of stats.  You can upgrade attack power after certain bosses (some bosses give ‘memories’ that can upgrade attack by one point),  but you cannot grind to upgrade attack power or vitality to help if your progress is bottle-necked.

Tool upgrades are a surprising waste of time. Your Prosthetic arm has a bunch of different install-able abilities, such as throwing stars, fireworks, flamethrower and so on – all of which can  be upgraded, but never once did these turn a difficult fight around and I simply forgot I had them due to how little I needed them.

In fact, the one time I encountered a boss which telegraphed the use of a tool – it just outright didn’t apply.

The specific tool was a spear that strips the armor off heavily armored foes whose armor was ‘ill fitting’ according to the tooltip.

Bam! I run into a larger boss, which has this comically overlarge armor that is slowing him greatly.  None of my attacks are dealing any damage and my death blows fail to penetrate his protection.

So I remember the tool tip, and 30 minutes later after some stealthiness and key hunting I eventually obtain and install my ‘Spear that strips heavy armor from large enemies with ill fitting gear’.  And return to this boss, who is large, and has ill fitting gear.

The fight starts, I fire the spear and it bounces off.  2 frustrating minutes later I die and following a few more attempts, I say fuck it and look up the fight.  The wiki quickly mentions the spear ‘just doesn’t work’ for this fight.

And this is one of my biggest gripes overall – the arbitrariness of it all.  The spear didn’t work because they wanted you to kill the boss by knocking him off a ledge, when everything told me to use the spear.

Stealth attacks won’t work on almost all bosses, even if you are in stealth and their back is turned because ‘ it just doesn’t work’  Or more likely because the developers decided to change the rules to make sure the fight occurred in a very specific way.

Blocking negates damage when you have poise left, except on the one boss where it doesn’t – just because.

I would counter any arguments that this isn’t meant to be a souls-like game by saying to not be so ass-kissing naive about  it. This is very much a souls-like game – never mind the fact it’s made by the company that made Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and that much of the hype and popularity of Sekiro grew from this history.

Sekrio has its own version of the estus flask, healing stones, bonfires, buff and even souls, though these are split into experience and gold – all which fly from recently killed enemies – and much is lost on death.

All the ingredients of a souls-like game are there.  Entering new areas, following paths to cross them off the list, or see if they lead to a new boss or bonfire.  The gameplay loop is virtually the same when you consider these games to be ‘encounter’ focused. Enter an arena and typically get hammered by a boss.  Each death increases frustration, but you are learning something new, even if very small each time you die. Getting familiar with the attacks that leave an opening, when to jump, where to go etc…  Competence grows each time until you succeed.

This isn’t to say the game is terrible, as it contains a lot of the positive qualities of its predecessors.

The game is gorgeous.  Set in a more grounded setting of Japan (1500’s) – though a more fantastical version.  Locations range from mountainous temples, pagodas and estates, to underground dungeons, and cliff fortresses.  This is complemented by an appropriate classic Japanese orchestral score. The characters are well designed and look and act like they belong in such a brutal world.

The plot revolves around a ‘Divine Heir’ a child that your character ‘Wolf’ is bound to protect.  This child – ‘Lord Kuro’ is of a bloodline that holds the key to immortality and the events of the game surround the different characters that desire this power, and Wolf’s duty to protect him and whether or not such a gift is a blessing or a curse.

There are about 4 key characters to the story with many side characters that flesh out the lore. The side characters would not be as interesting to me as those in the other souls-like games – though I have only played through once so there may be (and likely is) more to them.

I cannot say I didn’t enjoy Sekiro – much of the game’s basic mechanics are engaging enough and sometimes fun.  However I wouldn’t feel as resentful if it wasn’t for the Sekiro’s pedigree.  I didn’t play this game in a bubble, and do not ignore the world around it, nor the games that came before from which Sekrio has benefited from being associated.

The boss encounters got me into the circus tent and these don’t compare favorably to From‘s other games.  In Bloodborne or Souls I feel like the developers were on my side. They made the fights hard but it also felt like they wanted you to use all the tools they gave you to figure it out and find your own solutions.  So when I beat the boss I felt genuinely pleased and satisfied because ‘I’ did it.

In Sekiro some of that satisfaction is gone because ‘I’ didn’t feel like I did it – I played a weird game of Rock band where I press buttons to the exactly the developers beat.  Builds do not exist here, no magic, no ranged fighting, no different weapons, no different movement types based on weight and so on. I played Sekiro in its strict way – I didn’t ‘succeed’ I was ‘allowed’ progress once I did what I was told.

I realize some limitations have to adhere to setting –  a Shinobi is not going to be casting magic or swinging a sickle, nor dodge rolling, but they weren’t replaced by anything as substantial.  The tools and moves you learn never turn a fight around and are more illusions of options.

Seriko is not a game for everyone, and it may not be a game for fans of From’s souls games either.  The combat is engaging, but not as fun. The bosses are more difficult, but not as satisfying. It isn’t a game you conquer. You don’t just fight against bosses,  but also against the developers that are trying to push their reputation for being difficult. The game has many merits, and the area exploration and basic enemies are enjoyable enough to fight and engage with – but the game revolves around its encounters – which are it’s most intense moments.    It’s a fine line to walk when a game is frustrating but satisfying – a line on which From Software has lost some of its balance.