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“Punishment is it’s own reward,” I think to myself as Gyoubu Masataka Oniwa spears me into the frozen ground for the tenth time in an hour. I’m no masochist but Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is probably the closest I’ll ever come to enjoying pain of any sort. Still, I’m learning. I’ve just cut Gyoubu down to one health bar but as long as he breathes I will not pass the castle gate. By my fourteenth try I’ll have beaten the horse mounted boss and I’ll be cackling in victory. Sekiro gives no quarter. It doesn’t compromise and any victory comes either through sheer skill, endless trial and error or blind luck. But that’s how it’s meant to be and I’m grateful.
I played the Soulsborne games in the wrong order. Bloodborne came first and remains my favourite (for now) before I played the Dark Souls series in reverse order. A lot of games these days seek to imitate the Soulsborne series of games but few have ever come close and none have topped them. Sekiro (lit. One-Armed Wolf in Japanese) is not a Soulsborne game. It has elements pulled from its far flung cousins and it is definitely a FromSoftware game in the Hidetaka Miyazaki mold but it’s also it’s own beast.
I haven’t completed Sekiro yet, in fact I’m a long way off but I know I can get there. The road may be rocky and even frustrating at times but it is navigable. This above all else is what Sekiro teaches you. Like a patient but unforgiving martial arts instructor it teaches you how to use your skills and tools but it never holds your hand. The Souls games watch you fall down and say “Again”. Sekiro sees you try to cheese your way through the game and knocks your bowl of rice to the floor á lá Kill Bill. In Sekiro I am the master of my own fate and player character Sekiro lives and dies by my mastery.
Every fight in Sekiro is a dance and both partners know this. Sekiro dances around various enemies from the basic samurai to the Chained Ogre that launches flying kicks and power-bombs Sekiro if he gets too close. Sekiro is a skilled fighter; a shinobi (ninja) with various tricks and traps that many samurai enemies consider dishonorable to deploy. Samurai are built of iron they will break once their weak points are exploited. Shinobi are like steel. They may bend but they will never break. Sekiro, through hours of failure, teaches you to be the same. Iron shatters, steel bends.
Sekiro demands you bend to its whims. It lays out a variety of paths for you from stealth to straight-up combat to a mixture of the two. It demands you master and combine the two while constantly checking the skills you learn along the way. In Dark Souls or Bloodborne it was possible in certain areas and against certain enemies to exploit a flaw in the game design or enemy behaviour and emerge victorious. I haven’t come across an enemy or area that was easy to exploit in Sekiro yet.
Further Reading: A Needless but Definitive Ranking of the Soulsborne Games.
As steadfast as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is in its efforts to get you to play the game by its rules it’s not against improvisation. It gives you the tools and skills to improvise, adapt and eventually overcome any problem you encounter. It’s something that the Juzou the Drunkard fight would teach me again and again. After my endless head-to-head attempts left me with nothing but incremental progress and endless frustration I took a different approach. I stealthily picked off each and every one of Juzou’s minions before going after the big hairy guy. He hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. For a full two minutes I felt like God, then Sekiro went right back to kicking my ass again.
Sekiro is an interconnected game. It’s story informs its gameplay and the reverse is also true. Just like Dark Souls and Bloodborne before it FromSoftware’s latest game has a cyclical nature to it. As cyclical as death is in the game so too does Sekiro acknowledge the cycle of history and the violent cycles contained therein. Kingdoms rise and fall. Heroes live and die. Epidemics and war have come before and will come again. There are hints given by the Shinobi Sculptor – the master craftsman who made Sekiro’s prosthetic arm – that this is not even the first time we have seen the Sekiro storyline play out. Even the multiple health bars on the capital B bosses as well as mini bosses nod to a repetition inherent to the game. In the words of a great man: “I live, I die, I live again!”
It’s an endless dance but one that – once the right steps are mastered – rewards as much as it punishes. Dodging into a spear thrust rather than away will, if your timing is right, award a Mikiri counters. The move deals major posture (Sekiro’s version of stamina) damage and it looks cool as hell when Sekiro steps on the blade of the spear rather than being impaled on it. Of course these counters need to be initiated within a split second of the warning kanji appearing above Sekiro’s head. Occasionally it can be difficult to tell whether enemies are thrusting or sweeping and it’s an area that Sekiro sometimes falls down in.
Every incremental push forward in Sekiro is a well-earned victory. Every time the game pushed me back I knew I’d been taught a hard lesson. It was when I started putting these lessons into practice that I found myself being rewarded with damage to both health and posture, new knowledge on enemies and eventually a blood-gouting, sweat drenched victory. Progress is slow in Sekiro and the game suffers neither fools nor the unskilled but without this attitude it wouldn’t be the enjoyable and challenging dance it eventually reveals itself as. Death and victory go hand in hand in an everlasting, rapid fire tango in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I wouldn’t have it any other way.