I’m no stranger to From Software’s dark fantasy offerings. One of the first games I ever picked up for the original PlayStation in the mid-90’s was King’s Field, which was the (great?)-grandfather of Dark Souls. I remember being both enthralled by the first-person gameplay and brooding aesthetic as well as frustrated by the difficulty. This love / hate relationship would eventually lead to me not finishing the game, but planted the seeds for the future.
Fast forward 16 years and I discovered – and fell in love with – Dark Souls, the refinement of the formula that From had been brewing for years. Since then I’ve beaten all of the Souls games (including Demon’s Souls) as well as Bloodborne. When Sekiro was due for release, I was a little hesitant due to the pure non-RPG nature of the game and the combat system that focused heavily on parrying (gamer confession time: I sucked at parrying in Dark Souls and was a shield and sword turtling guy don’t judge me). But hey, katanas are cool af, right? So when Sekiro released in March 2019, I still picked it up, as a physical copy just in case I didn’t care for the game.
Things didn’t turn out so hot. I struggled with the game. Every habit you picked up in Dark Souls, and even the speedier, more dodge-oriented Bloodborne failed to translate to the new game. Sekiro was a completely different beast, where dodging was practically useless and you absolutely had to get a hang of the parry system. I say “hang” because, objectively, the parry system is pretty generous with your windows to parry and block. But the game is, in typical From Software fashion, intimidating to new comers and it takes time to master the new combat system.
I got as far as the Blazing Bull fight and tapped out. Every boss fight leading up to it had felt like a slog, felt like my progression was frustratingly glacial and not worth my time. I didn’t dislike the game, but figured, at 42, maybe I was just too old.
I returned the game, went on and did other things. But right before the COVID lockdown went into full effect almost a year later, I had started thinking about giving Sekiro another chance. I liked a lot of what I saw but had been frustrated by the combat. I started watching videos for tips on it, and when the game went on sale, I decided to give it another shot on my new Xbox One X.
Eventually the combat clicked, but it took a while. I was more keen on it, but I looked into the skill trees – something I hadn’t a ton of in my first playthrough – and looked up which ones were most useful early on. Between that and focusing on finding prayer beads to enhance vitality and posture, I began to actually progress. As a player, I evolved over the course of the game. I took the time to figure out the counters, follow-ups and tells in the game. I learned when to dodge (it’s not as useless as I thought but is very situational) but most importantly, to get my parries down. It was perhaps the purest form of what I’ve often read when describing games like Monster Hunter and Dark Souls. That your character doesn’t level up; you level up.
I had to take breaks on occasion. I had to realize that I was going to hit walls, and that stepping away is okay. Sekiro is the hardest game I’ve ever played (in a modern context; I’m not referring to Battletoads or other games of that era), but there was a certain satisfaction in taking down each boss, conquering each roadblock. And by the time I had downed the final boss (and yes, I even took down the secret Hirata Estate boss), it was a relief and an accomplishment to have made it that far.
Maybe this old gamer still had life in his old thumbs yet.
In terms of design, Sekiro is an interesting departure from the dark fantasy aesthetic of previous titles. The game looks gorgeous on the Xbox One X, and the design flow of the world is reminiscent of the original Dark Souls, though not quite as iconic. The 16th century Japanese setting is wonderfully realized, and playing as a shinboi with an assortment of tools, weapons and resurrection power does feel badass. The atmosphere of mostly human enemies with the occasional eerie and supernatural Japanese monsters is well-balanced. Most boss battles are tough but fair, forcing you to use the tools and techniques at hand to advance. While it may seem impossible to get your head around the combat system, sticking with it leads you to that moment where it “clicks” – and suddenly things get easier because you got better. It’s a part of the brilliant design of the game.
That isn’t to say there aren’t a few complaints about that can levied against Sekiro. Character side quests – and there are a few – can be very obscure. This is not the first or third game where From Software does this, but it’s a part of their formula that I wish they would change. In Sekiro I found it particularly more obtuse to find, never mind finish, what was required for some of the NPCs. I feel that it’s an antiquated part of their approach that needs to be heavily tweaked.
The other is that, despite most of the boss fights being fair, there is some bullshit to be found. In particular, the final boss fight. All boss fights can have a few stages to them, at most three. However, the final boss fight (of 3 out of 4 ending routes) has four stages. The first stage is one boss that you fought earlier, and the final 3 are the tough as nails final final boss. The problem here is that if you die at some point during the encounter, and you have to repeat the entire process again, including the boss you already defeated. This felt artificial and tiresome and is just bad design. It just drags out the ability to learn the final boss’ stages and moves, and in a game that is already highly difficult, this felt a bit sadistic.
In the end, though, Sekiro is quite the gaming experience, and if you’re a fan of From Software’s previous games, you owe it to yourself to experience Sekiro. It’s the best and most engaging stealth game I have ever played in genre I am not a particularly big fan, which says something.
Now if only we could get some more information on Elden Ring…