Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the newest and most punishing title in From Software’s legacy of challenging games, born from the studios desire to better explore their ideas for a multi-layered environment and a more involved battle system. Its setting, a supernatural reflection of Japan’s Sengoku Period, is reminiscent of the peculiar Japanese horror of Onimusha: Warlords, whose difficulty and cryptic story left an impression on me as young boy. Now as a veteran of From Software’s action RPG games I found Sekiro to be a game I eagerly anticipated, and ardently consumed having started my playthrough the minute of its digital release, relishing in its unapologetic difficulty and arcane setting. The game has found popularity, and with-it contention, from fans of From Software’s previous work for diverging from established formula and those new to the studio’s games for its lack of an easy mode. I aim to address some of these complaints as well as my own concern about the studio’s creative direction.
Sekiro isn’t Dark Souls in a Japanese Setting, it’s Better
Sekiro was not born in a vacuum, immediately drawing comparisons to From’s Flagship Dark Souls trilogy and the critically acclaimed Bloodborne. The initial realisation that Sekiro would have no character customisation, no choice in weapon, armour, or magic left many fans crestfallen, a pattern feared since Bloodborne’s relatively small pool of item variety compared to Dark Souls before it.
To decry Sekiro for its lack of player choice, however, is to be naive. Unlike its predecessors Sekiro allows for greater freedom in player approach, starting from the moment our Shinobi acquires his signature prosthetic arm. Armed with a hidden grappling hook the prosthetic allows for verticality to come into play, and when used in a stealth system reminiscent of the old Tenchu series, players can choose how, when, and from where to initiate the fight. The prosthetic can also be armed with upgradable Shinobi Tools ranging from shuriken, a flamethrower, a shield-breaking axe, and a fan-like folding iron shield. These Shinobi tools allow the player to utilise particular interactions with enemies, including shuriken knocking, jumping enemies off balance, to the flamethrower warding off the savage, red-eyed enemies whose otherwise non-stop berserk style of fighting can otherwise proves frustratingly indefensible.
At the core of the combat system, and thus Sekiro as whole, lies the Posture, existing as a separate metre to health and proving to distinguish Sekiro from other titles more than any other single mechanic. In Sekiro, your attacks against foes will rarely draw blood as most enemies, (Many being veteran Samurai, Ninja, and Shinobi) are equally as canny with their blades as our own Shinobi, blocking and deflecting attacks taking ‘damage’ to their posture instead of health. Filling a foes posture gauge will allow for a fatal “Shinobi Deathblow” instantly killing regular foes, with stronger opponents and bosses requiring multiple deathblows. Especially unlike Dark Souls and Bloodborne combat involving posture can be won through a tight defence as successful blocking, and the art of perfectly timed blocks (called deflects) will lower an opponent’s posture. This places a strong emphasis on competently balancing an aggressive offence, complemented by myriad Shinobi tools, and an adroit defence with the blocking/deflecting of opponent’s attacks and other defensive skills learnt throughout the game. This creates a system of battle that at first glance seems narrower in scope but ultimately requires a deeper understanding of available techniques and enemy behaviour than other titles.
Sekiro is Too Hard!
The depth of combat, mixed with the oppressive setting has created a game environment intimidatingly difficult and unforgiving to newcomers and casual players alike, recreating the same cries for “easy modes” that were heard upon the release of Dark Souls 3. These cries are, again, unfounded. Dark Souls carried themes about persisting even under complete impossibility, themes that were reflecting in its gameplay and Sekiro behaves similarly, with themes of struggling and sacrificing everything to complete one’s duty, as well as some philosophical implications on the effects of immortality and repeated deaths on one’s humanity. You are meant to struggle in Sekiro, you are meant to frustratingly lose time and time again until you finally let go of trying to play it how you believe it should be played and adopt better strategies. In a game where bosses are as punishing as they are, some taking upwards of fifteen minutes in a fight where they can annihilate your efforts in the blink of an eye, there is immense satisfaction in victory, in overcoming the odds and forging yourself into a better player, the meaning of which would be completely lost if there was an easy mode option for struggling players.
Hidetaka Miyazaki and From Software’s Enduring Love of Berserk, An Over-Reliance on One’s Muse?
Many will already be aware of the effect Kentaro Miura’s gritty dark fantasy manga Berserk has had on From Software’s work. Dark Souls owes much of its cryptic medieval atmosphere to Berserk, mimicking the themes of hardship and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, and there are even some directly inspired enemy designs ranging from the ever annoying Skeleton Wheels to Artorias, a knight with a broken arm cursed to fight against the darkness with giant sword in hand, a mirror to Berserk’s protagonist Guts. While Bloodborne eased off Berserk’s dark fantasy to explore Lovecraftian themes the game still featured at least one direct reference in the horse-beast-knight monstrosity of a boss Ludwig the Accursed alluding to a certain infamous horse-demon from the manga. Miyazaki’s passion for berserk is more present than ever in Sekiro with our protagonist being identified by a scarred face, a notch of white in otherwise raven-black hair, and an amputated arm replaced by a weaponised prosthetic. In describing our Shinobi, I have offered an exact description of Guts, minus Gut’s giant demon slaying sword. I love Berserk and From Software, but Bloodborne being so free of the themes and settings so prevalent in From’s other game sets it apart from its cousins, and gives it a place in my heart as my favourite game, and even favourite creative work of all, and seeing the studio continue to hold Berserk as its primary inspiration is concerning. All in all, a minor complaint really, and more for fear of the studios future than of the game itself.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the loving creation of a studio famous, or infamous, for the challenge of its titles. In having less character variety, Sekiro fits the trend of From Software creating systems of combat where less is more, from the massive arsenal of equipment and magic in Darks Souls, to the comparatively smaller, but more significantly varied, offering of trick weapons and hunter tools in Bloodborne. Now we have but the single katana, but it is the prosthetic arm of Sekiro; rich in its critically useful Shinobi tools, that enables players with more truly useful options than before. The standard combat itself now more engaging accentuated by the rhythm of battle found in its unique posture system, Sekiro, in its depth, can be frustratingly difficult and this is exactly intended by From Software. The difficulty does not exist for the sake of elitism or bragging rights, it is the source of satisfaction and air of accomplishment that surrounds progress made. Sekiro is a game that is the result of a studio that has been tweaking its formula for adversity since a decade ago when they released Demon Souls, the predecessor to Dark Souls. This a game that is built on some the greatest foundations of understanding how and why to challenge a player. Sekiro and its predecessors were all moulded from a love for a ruthless manga, defined by the immense strife and struggle of its protagonist and should not be resented for your inability to play it. You should learn from its rich heritage of difficulty, learn to accept that the frustration of defeat is a result of your approach, that there is no value in a mindless victory, and that an accomplishment is all the sweeter when you’ve struggled for it.
Words by Jacob Meredith-Bell