Swords clash; men cut down
A Ballet of Blade and Blood
Only one still stands
Throughout my long history with gaming, there have been many games that have tested my resolve and my patience. Whether it be defeating Shao Khan in Mortal Kombat, facing the Valkyries in God of War, or taking down Metroid Prime within the Impact Crater on Tallon VI, they have all pushed me in ways that I never expected, and oftentimes I would keep at it for hours, dying and then getting back and trying the best I could, only to die again. And while these and others were frustrating, and very often grueling, nothing compares to what I went through with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This was not my first foray into From Software, as I dredged my way through most of Dark Souls 2 (until I gave up, as the game seemed to be pitted against me, by putting boss battles so far from bonfires that I used up all my estus flasks before I got there), and I had thoroughly enjoyed my time with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which is certainly similar in combat. But nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience, as my brother had recommended this game highly to me, but had warned me that it would be a beast. And boy, was he right! The enemies hit fast and hard, enact combos and counter attacks which can blindside you, and trying to figure out how to take them down is often an exercise in patience as much as it is skill. But far from the frustration that I felt from Dark Souls 2, especially in the situation of feeling unfair, Sekiro has one of the best combat loops in gaming, and even though it was brutal and punishing, I loved my time with the game, and I would love to see its style in more games. Let me explain…
The Art of the Blade
From the start, the game emphasises perfecting your sword skills. The sword itself has weight and as you attack, the sword needs time to swing from where it was. Knowing the timing of attacks is critical, as there are times that you might be in midswing when an enemy counter attacks and connects first. It is also vital that you learn the importance of blocking attacks, and when you are skilled enough, deflecting attacks. The majority of combat, and especially boss battles, which are the best part of the game, all rely on honing your ability to both reliably attack and deflect in order to push your opponent’s posture into the red in order to get the Deathblow, all the while keeping an eye on your own health and posture. The added wrinkle is that, for both you and your opponents, the lower your health is, the slower posture recovers, presenting the interesting twofold challenge of trying to inflict health damage while also keeping posture damage up.
As the game starts, most enemies will attack slowly, with heavily telegraphed moves, giving you plenty of time to react. But soon enough you will run into your first true test of your deflection skills: Genichiro. He wields a light katana, with blindingly fast moves, with less telegraphing and more precision than his subordinates. The difference in skill and power becomes obvious the first time you fight him, which is the “No Win” fight among the Susuki grass. Given that you only started fighting in the game, and that you only know how to deflect, the battle is a one sided affair, designed to give you a taste of what is to come. When you fight him for real, you will need to be precise, quick and vigilant, as he often will launch into a flurry of light blows, none of which will destroy your posture, but will force you to go on the defensive to keep yourself from being hurt. But this is where the game begins to show you if you truly are learning the lessons it wishes to teach you. Other fights before, like with Gyoubu Oniwa and Lady Butterfly, though difficult, were more about exploiting some aspect of the fight to tip the scales in your favor, like using the Fireworks to scare Oniwa’s horse, or using your shurikens to dislodge the perched Butterfly. Posture and deflection were keys to victory, along with recognizing their patterns, but with Genichiro, the only tool that works against him is your own proficiency at swordplay. This is where the game truly diverges from what came before into something truly unique.
To contrast, let me mention how it differs from the flagship series of From Software: Dark Souls. In Dark Souls you have the opportunity to use different weapons, armor types and even magic to bring down your enemies. While the variety adds options, ultimately the battles stagnate into simply dodge rolling, waiting for your stamina to go back up and maybe getting a hit in, unless you need to roll yet again to avoid an attack, rinse and repeat. Or just pelt the boss with fireballs from afar. This gives way to combat that is ultimately a game of tag, and in many ways feels clumsy, as the enemies can pull out moves that were often almost impossible to avoid, given the limited abilities of the player. It is also frustrating as you have to choose between avoiding attacks and attacking, with no options in between. You are grounded, slow and ultimately afraid to face your opponent head on, given that blocking is an extremely risky venture, not knowing if the incoming attack will hurt you, along with taking all your stamina along with it.
With Sekiro, none of this is the case. You are agile, able to run and jump with ease, and able to attack or retreat when needed, giving you flexibility in battle. While the variety is gone in terms of weapons and armor, what is presented to you is sharpened and polished to a point that is a perfected weapon, only bound by your own skill. The back and forth of fights, especially in Genichiro fight, shows how honed this combat is, as your proficiency at deflection is shown brilliantly on how easy the fight is for you. The better you are at deflect timings, which is subtly communicated through the sound of the metal hitting (from dull clangs of poorly timed deflections to the sharp, high pitched pings of perfectly timed deflections), the better the fights go for you. Soon enough, with proper timing, the battle becomes a symphony of metal clashing as your opponent throws swing after swing at you, and you deflect it all with ease. To add to this, the perilous attacks present not only a way to enhance the battle in unique ways, but exercises in reaction time and counter strategies. See the enemy aim his sword low, and you jump and smack his head; the enemy pulls their spear or sword back, and you employ the Mikiri counter, slamming their weapon into the ground, usually opening them up to a counter attack. There are times when signals will get crossed, and you might try to jump only to find the enemy is thrusting, but recognizing the enemies’ tells are a part of the process, and I have always found that if I realized that I was the one who screwed up, and not the game being cheap, it is much easier to come back and try it again.
The next step in perfecting combat is the subtle art of knowing when to deflect and when not to. In the beginning, many players may be worried about whether they can deflect a massive sword swing from one of the Sumo mini bosses or the Guardian Ape’s flailing fists. Once they realize the truth, that any attack that is not a perilous attack can be deflected (and technically thrust attacks can, but Mikiris do more posture damage), they will be emboldened to try and deflect everything. However, as good a sentiment it is, and also great practice, it is also important to realize what this can do to your posture. Often the heavy sword strokes, especially against enemies that are more health battles than posture battles, it is better to let some of the strokes miss, by dodging, than to try and face them head on. In much the same way a guru might instruct his student that oftentimes it is better to be water going around a rock than try to go through it, by deflecting some attacks and dodging the heavier strokes, you can inflict enough damage that it will hurt the opponent’s posture worse in the long run.
But the most important lesson that can be learned after all of this is that you must be bold but not reckless. Many starting players will make the mistake of simply attacking as much as they can, but will often end up being counter attacked and killed. After several deaths, some players will back off and only try and deflect, hoping that their flawless defense will save them. This, however, will not work for long against the late game bosses, as they will have rapidly regenerating posture bars and no amount of deflections can save the hapless players. The next step is being cautious with their attacks, only attacking when they know they have an opening. While this is a step in the right direction, the truth is that combat hinges on the principle of giving as well as you get: attack often and defend often. By always attacking at your opponent, even when they block or deflect, you are keeping their posture damage up, and by scoring hits to their health, their ability to regenerate their posture will decrease with every blow. And the more you deflect when they are on the attack allows you to have more opportunities to counterattack.
With all these tools of Sword play under your belt, and with enough time to learn Genichiro’s tells, the battle becomes a true duel between two swordsmen, each going back and forth, to and fro, until you come out the victor. Though this is usually achieved through numerous deaths, and often when you have progressed to the next stage of the boss fight, his tactics change. This happens frequently, which always kept me on my toes, as once one health bar disappeared, I braced myself to see what would happen next. With some bosses, the next phase is similar to the first, but with others, like the Guardian Ape, the second phase is completely different and you need to develop a whole new strategy. This is what keeps the boss battles fresh, as this adds layers of complexity onto the fights, and soon enough someone as daunting as Genichiro was, will seem simple by comparison, but all the while your skill is increasing to match.
All of your skills are put to the test in the final two bosses fights: the optional “Demon of Hatred” fight (the ultimate Health Battle) and Isshin Ashina, Sword Saint (the ultimate Posture Battle). The Demon of Hatred is more akin to the traditional Dark Souls fight, except you have the full freedom to run around the massive battlefield, as it is solely focused on trying to get his health down, as his flaming arm makes deflecting a number of attacks virtually impossible. This is where the great adage invented by my brother comes in: Kiri-age-gomen (I cut you, I run away, I’m sorry). Your whole fight is running in, hitting him as much as you can and then backing out before he launches one of his many fire attacks on you. For Isshin, this is the final test of your skills of swordsmanship, as while his attacks don’t do much to your posture, they are deadly, fast and with very little warning. Relentless, and giving you no time to breath (or heal), Isshin will push you to your breaking point and beyond, to see if you really have mastered deflection and counterattacks. And while the fight is often painful and even torture at times, the hard work you put in will pay off at the end.
A Ballet of Blade and Blood
The greatest achievement of this game’s combat is this: the better you get at it, the better you feel. There is the classic meme of “Get gud” when talking about Dark Souls or other games of the genre, but never before did I ever feel that it was more relevant than here. By the time of your second playthrough, you start noticing that things are easier, not because of the numbers at play (since all the enemies have more health and deal more damage on each subsequent playthrough), but because you have gotten better. After tackling Isshin, suddenly the first fight with Genichiro is manageable, Lady Butterfly is a joke, and you can take on the Ape without breaking a sweat. In fact, I beat Genichiro on the roof without needing to drink from the healing gourd, as I effortlessly deflected and countered everything he threw at me. On my first playthrough I died dozens of times to him, Lady Butterfly, and many others. But after mastering the combat, I eagerly look forward to these battles, to show what I can do and to take them down with all my skill. There are times I would die, but it was mostly me being cocky and then coming back again with more resolve and understanding what I did wrong. This game more than any other gives me the sense that when I improve, the game itself is easier, even if the enemies are just as deadly as ever. For me it isn’t an awkward game of roll tag, it is a beautiful, deadly dance, a ballet of blade and blood, each side going back and forth, striking and deflecting, dodging and engaging, until I execute the Shinobi Deathblow and sever their immortality. I would love to see this style of combat and boss design in more games, as it is nuanced as it is savage, where only the most skilled survive, and the rest fall beneath my blade!