Thanks to the lockdown I’ve been whittling down my backlog of games, films, books, and TV. Mostly Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Not playing Sekiro until a year after its release invariably leads to a number of questions, conclusions even: that I’m not an enthusiast gamer, or being a wee masochist I resolutely (and unnecessarily) maintain a balance when it comes to leisure activities. Finally, maybe I’m just clueless for not playing it earlier.
But the real reason for the delay is, after playing Dark Souls 3, I was hesitant to throw myself into another one of FromSoftware’s offerings. Their releases aren’t synonymous with relaxing and enjoying a sense of ease – in this climate, the prospect seemed much less appealing – they envelop you with dread inducing atmospherics, in part due to a lingering awareness that the combat’s always unforgiving and there’s no respite. Plus, their games all have a steep learning curve, which, at the start, can be aggravating, infuriating even.
To contradict that last paragraph, and to trash any attempt to absolve myself, I’ll say this – the best games are those that require some form, or forms, of application. FromSoftware’s titles, be it Bloodborne, and particularly the Dark Souls games, place a heavy demand on your reactions, composure and patience, but Sekiro ups the ante in this regard. You learn exclusively through failure that’s agonising, and, at first, comprehensive. However, I found immense gratification in seeing my incremental improvement when it’s presented this forensically. Each perfectly timed deflection and move learned and successfully anticipated greatly impacts success. The skill moves and weapons are so plentiful and their utilisation often intricate amid the velocity of the boss fights, that experimenting to find the right tactic against the right enemy is as vital as it is satisfying when you’re successful.
Maybe I’m the exception here and I don’t take the thought of failure, the agonising snatching defeat from jaws of victory variety, in a game, personally. It’s not that important if I couldn’t get past a boss by Wednesday bed time. At least that’s what I told myself during multiple attempts to defeat Isshin The Sword Saint. However, by the time I’d finally succeeded I’d learned his first and second phase moves so comprehensively that I’d completely mastered them, giving myself a better chance of succeeding in the final phase. Even in exasperating failure at the final hurdle the game’s process builds your confidence that you’ll succeed with just a bit more patience and perseverance, experimentation even.
On that point I have no sympathy for those (quite a few of them journalists) who complained it’s too difficult, or that it’s unfair or some other such shite. While this can have amusingly childish results (see below – SERENITY NOW!), it’s just mis-placed egotism. At best you lacked patience, at worst, resolve, to endure to learn, which is pathetic. Still, this is just a game, quitting it is no biggie. I mean, most people who enter Navy Seals basic training quit, mainly because, by design, it’s too physically and psychologically gruelling, and they aren’t treated with contempt or viewed with dishonour by those outside of that milieu.
And yes that’s a ridiculous comparison to make with quitting Sekiro, but I suspect the feeling of burning dis-satisfaction from quitting anything, albeit something trivial like Sekiro, will be somewhat similar. So it’s best to offer some emphatic advice – like Navy Seal training, Sekiro, isn’t for everyone, it’s for people who want to be challenged. You should know that going in, you’re going to fail, or in this case die, a lot, in exasperating, even irritating ways. Sure, you’ll waver at the start, the game mechanics, nor the right tactical approach to combat, did not come instinctively. Indeed, mastering the Mikiri Counter, and what moves it does and doesn’t work on, was a typically first world ordeal.
While there’s a way to Cheese most bosses, if you do that you’re only cheating yourself. Particularly as there’s several ways to beat each boss using the prosthetic tools you acquire and upgrade, and that you can defeat them by wiping out their health bar or breaking their posture bar is an additional mini-game/challenge. Breaking their posture requires anticipation and a defined tactical approach, and therefore is the more gratifying method. You’re a real Shinobi when you can do this to those purple ninja bastards that do the poison punches, and yes, I own these motherless fucks now.
While this game is visually spectacular, it manages to be both quaint and creepy, it’s also directly related to the weakest part of the package, the Lore. I can’t get enough of Japanese culture and its mores, particularly the supernatural mythology of the Sengoku and early Edo periods. Sekiro leans on the aforementioned in a clichéd, though not degrading, way. At worst it’s a bit geeky, an example of what most non-gamers would rubbish as stereotypically appealing to ‘sad’ blokes with no wife or girlfriend.
My main gripe is the elaborate processes for deciding some of the game’s potential endings, they were either too narrative reliant or situationally obscure, and I wouldn’t say I played this game casually, with sixty hours racked up to complete the first playthrough. For example, to activate the Purification or Dragon’s Homecoming endings you need to eavesdrop on two NPS’s by going to a corner of the room and hugging the wall, which you’d have no inclination or need to visit unless you already knew it was required. Activating the Dragon’s Homecoming ending involves the tedium of visiting the Divine Kid a million times. To fight Wolf’s father in Hirata Estate you need to speak to an NPC twice, which if you don’t at the time, you miss the chance in that playthrough.
Needless to say I needed Google to help me decide which ending to plump for and the correct sequencing to achieve it. Perhaps by doing so I fucked the experience, rather than discovering it all organically and letting the chips fall as they may. Still, that the Shura ending essentially ends the game early and locks you out of a number of bosses, is odd, but FromSoftware are backing the addictiveness of the game’s combat.
And they’re right, because there’s an ultimate challenge, you have the option to play this game without Kuro’s charm, which sees you sustain damage without perfectly timed blocks, and to ring the Demon Bell, which applies the sinister burden and makes all enemies more powerful and less susceptible to your attacks. The path of further hardships? Challenge accepted.