Wrapped in the black treacle of mysteries of Lordran, Boletaria, and Yarnham, Demon Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne attracted masochists and weird fantasy nerds for a decade. The excruciating difficulty, contemporary approaches to storytelling through game mechanics and exploration of the world that heavily borrow from the classics of H.P. Lovecraft, Junji Ito, and Kentaro Miura’s Berserk are bemoaned and praised alike. The formula for a SoulsBorne game seemed perfected and polished – why would From Software want to change it in the next game?
Moving to the traditional Sengoku, From Software presented us with Sekiro: Shadow Die Twice.
In essence, Sekiro is a Mario game – you are a shinobi with a prosthetic arm that works like a grappling hook, your master is locked away in a faraway castle and you gotta rescue him, but with a bit more blood and a lot more talks about honor and respiratory diseases on the way.
The vertical logic of the game’s designs takes a giant leap from Dark Souls and even Bloodborne. With the grappling hook now a vital mechanic, the whole format of the souls-like gameplay goes out of the window, and for good.
This all points to the shift in the philosophy of the game design. No more constant dodging, no more Lovecraftian horrors. This is a tale of fate and katana-fighting.
Inconsequantialism of choice
If you’re a perfectionist like me, you have tried to beat the very first boss – Genichiro Ashina, the one who cuts off your left hand and takes away your master. It took a couple of restarts and a couple of years from my life but I did it. All that effort only to find that it changes nothing in the grand scope of the story – you still lose a limb, he still takes your master from you – the only difference is that Genichiro does not add insult to injury that he expected more from a shinobi.
As much agency as you get in Sekiro, the game never ceases to point out that different choice do not always lead to different results. And it stems from the fact that Sekiro is not a role-playing game in the same sense that Dark Souls is a roleplaying game – you don’t create a character, you don’t curate your naked dexterity builds. And the focus of your gameplay is not on exploring the world of the game. Instead, you don the role of shinobi, the Lone Wolf, and follow the shinobi’s path – that is the only way to play the game. In a sense, it is more of a “role-playing” game than any of the FromSoftware’s endeavours of the past.
And when you look on that minor alteration in the first defeat of Genichiro through the eyes of the shinobi – it means a whole world to him.
Accessibility vs. difficulty
Lots of people at Kotaku, IGN, and more have said that this is FromSoftware’s most difficult game citing the lack of online help from strangers that helped people survive through the merciless bosses of DS and Bloodborne, counterintuitive fighting styles for veterans of the series, and even the fact that your death punishes other characters in the game (on that later). But does it mean that the game is difficult?
Difficulty means how much effort one must put to overcome the developer-designed obstacles. A vast chunk of Dark Souls’ difficulty can be attributed to the extremely steep learning curve without explanation or training and the unbearably awful controls (to the point that it became a meme and people are now doing speedruns using driving wheels). Sekiro, on the other hand, is the most accessible of any of its predecessors.
Even before the game starts the game proposes you a revolution – to set up the key mapping that works for you. Unheard of.
Right from the start, we encounter Hanbei the Undying – the training dummy of this world. He will become your best friend, mentor, and the ultimate pinata for all your moves. This was a radical change from the ruthless and unapologetic absurdity of Dark Souls’ lack of a tutorial. And it also serves a somewhat meta-narrative function – Hanbei can be interpreted as FromSoftware themselves, ready to withstand your blows, anger, and violent criticism, until you learn how to play their goddamned game.
Cherry Thompson expands on the topic of Sekiro’s accessibility in her IGN article.
These facts in themselves make the game accessible to a vastly bigger audience and only asks one thing from the player – learn. That is exactly what that reviewer didn’t want to do – when one gets hooked on the endless dopamine loops of the microtransaction-riddled pay2win spectacles, it requires a lot of willpower to adapt to an authentic gaming experience.
For the above reasons, even grinding for money and loot is worthy of your time – it is fun, it allows you to hone your skills, just like a real shinobi would, and it is still a FromSoftware game directed by the genius Hidetaka Miyazaki – this world is worth exploring. It took me 30+ hours to know that there is a beautifully stylized map in the game.
Operating in different times of the Lone Wolf’s story we can discover what shaped his life and how he became a shinobi, and see how our actions, and especially defeats, influence the world – from immediate decisions like taking a bell from an old lady to the spread of dragon rot, you as a player and Sekiro both have to accept the price a shinobi has to pay to fulfill his duty and restore his honor. Every character, every vendor, every object, and our memories of them present a puzzle that forms the world of 16th century Japan that is riddled with political intrigue, monsters, and betrayals.
Sekiro is a place and a character worth spending hundreds of hours with. Because as much time as it requires to learn and master, this game rewards you like no other before.
Is it significant?
In a world where every game is getting a battle royal mode and microtransactions are the bane of a gamer’s existence, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a breath of fresh air. It asks of you to learn something new – no previous experience of slashers or RPGs would be helpful (maybe Just Cause could help you a bit, but not much). In return, it takes you on a tragic adventure of predetermination, betrayal, and lots and lots of swordfights.
Just like before, the only way to really lose for you and the Lone Wolf would not be death, for shadows dies at least twice. The real defeat would be to give up. And that is something Sekiro and we the players are taught not to do no matter how insurmountable the challenge seems – no wall is tall enough, no Ape is angry enough, no tragedy is heartbreaking enough to stop us. That is the weirdly positive comfort that FromSoftware is preaching, and it seems like they are right.
By Alex Khlopenko