When it comes to the “hardcore” gaming scene, few developers stand out in the modern canon like Dark Souls franchise developer FromSoftware. Palpably atmospheric and sporting notorious levels of difficulty, the Japanese studio’s work has practically become a household name amongst gamers. Not content with coasting on the laurels of their now iconic enterprise, FromSoft boss Hidetaka Miyazaki has delivered a brand new IP, one that riffs the Souls blueprint and collectively wrecks our shit in a whole new way: SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE. We had Alec and Jon sit down with the game, one of them tangentially involved with the game’s predecessors, while the other has been been flying the Souls banner for years. Check out what a noob and a vet think of the latest game in the FromSoftware lineup!
Jon: I’ve been riding the “Soulsborne” pain-train for a decade at this point, which is honestly kind of surreal. My first encounter with FromSoft was getting thoroughly rocked by a used copy of DEMON’S SOULS I got when I was 13, and since then I’ve just been engrossed in all things SOULS: Dark Souls, BLOODBORNE, NIOH, most of the “Souls-likes”/copycats that’ve come out over the years… I love ‘em all. Needless to say, the whole “hardcore-RPG” situation FromSoft’s been responsible for has become a pretty big part of my gaming repertoire. And even if it’s a bit too early in the life-cycle to say definitively, I think SEKIRO’s arguably the most enjoyable one I’ve dealt with. It carries all the patented Soulsborne DNA many have come to expect, yet switches up the formula enough to be its own, uniquely frustrating experience.
Alec: While I’m not a complete noob, I’ll say I’ve still yet to completely beat a Souls game. Various acquaintances of mine held my hand through co-op play in the first DARK SOULS up until the Seath the Scaleless boss fight, and you can bet that other hand was holding the block button down tight. And while I played BLOODBORNE, I never really got hooked into the dour aesthetic. Plus I watched so many of my friends fruitlessly bang their heads against the jowls of some unholy monstrosity that I wimped out and hesitated in making that full commitment required for these games. I’m definitely due for a revisit, especially now that SEKIRO has won my heart.
“Eat your heart out, NIOH.”
Jon: So off the bat, I think we should mention that SEKIRO follows the FromSoft tradition of being something not made for everyone. That should be a no-brainer given the developer, but it bears repeating for posterity (Looking at you, guys saying it’s disrespectful for not being easier). The meme’s as real as ever been: you’re bound to die (a lot), get frustrated (a lot), and really can’t escape that until you adhere to the adage of “git gud.” And what’s most surprising is that the statement goes doubly for us folks who’ve dealt with this developer’s previous work for ages. But we’ll get to that.
Alec: Yeah, it goes without saying that this game is hard. And there’s already been more than enough discourse on the demanding difficulty curve, which sadly is gonna turn off some potential players. Given my stance on BLOODBORNE, I wouldn’t exactly call myself someone who actively welcomes a challenge like this. But the whole aesthetic and the sheer amount of tools at your disposal made progression and even grinding particularly enjoyable for me, even when I inevitably hit those hard skill checks early in. And I got through okay, I think. However, both noobs as well as vets of Souls games will end up receiving a crash course on the tricky nuances of gameplay. How long did it take you to get used to the game?
Jon: I don’t think I even properly got used to combat til midway through. The whole cadence of this game is completely different from the rest of Soulsborne, which made those opening hours reeeally suck for me. Honestly, I think having tons of time invested in those other games was probably more of a detriment than an advantage. I was mentally stuck in dodging toward enemies or blocking hits instead of timing deflects and focusing on breaking enemy posture, which is a huge no-no in SEKIRO. And it’s something I paid for until a certain WWE-esque mini-boss forced me to spend time grinding the old FromSoft reflexes out of my head.
Pictured: 3+ hours of Batista Bombs and guttural rage
I think the key thing returning vets should wrap their head around is how the “dance” has changed. Outside the more erratic encounters in Soulsborne, most of FromSoft’s combat functions like a waltz: you go slow, follow patterns with a small set of reliable moves, and if worst comes to worst, you rely on a partner for help. But SEKIRO’s a tapdance: it’s frantic, your go-to “method” of dealing with things is mostly just a guideline, there’s more variation and unpredictability involved with pattern recognition, and you have to rely on your own skills since you don’t have anyone else to pick up the slack.
Dale Gribble would be proud
Alec: I totally agree. Playing as the titular “one-armed wolf” gives you so many options to handle every situation. Aside from basic swordplay or the rock-paper-scissors style of defending yourself with jumping, dodging, and deflecting, there’s a wide variety of ninja tools, combat arts, and magic to take advantage of. I can’t list how many times I ended up spamming the firecracker prosthetic to make space between me and a boss, or using the “puppeteer” ninjutsu to have an enemy help clear an area. Sekiro even has the ability to resurrect himself at least once before dying “for real,” so there’s enough room for fatal mistakes or even using death in your favor as a stealth tactic.
The game encouraged me to try anything and everything when facing its diverse gallery of baddies. Fighting gets as deep as a four-button combat system can be, but there’s a spectrum of aggression offered to players where frequent experimentation is a must if you wanna find and exploit enemies’ weaknesses. And if players need to take a breather and heal, those roles can be reversed on you to keep the pressure high. It’s actually pretty revolutionary and furthers the point (which I’m sure has already been said) that SEKIRO is at its core a glorified rhythm game. Especially given the notions you made of learning “the dance.”
Jon: I can see where you’re coming from with that. There’s definitely an artistic quality to how fluid the combat is, which is something I think most people would expect from a game centered around shinobis and samurai.
Speaking of which, I live for this game’s aesthetic. I mean the whole Sengoku/Medieval Japan historic backdrop being mixed with mythology is definitely something most of us have seen in the medium before. But the way FromSoft works in their staple dark-fantasy thing to this setting we’ve become accustomed to in gaming, and giving it a dense, almost authentic atmosphere that felt lacking in NIOH makes me infinitely happy. Plus it’s got that over-the-top disgust factor and morbid sense of humor from BLOODBORNE to keep things unsettling. Only with FromSoftware will you get rotting, headless kappa creatures trying to rip your literal soul out through your ass mid-battle, and I totally approve.
The squelching sounds still haunt my dreams
Alec: The whole feel is bizarre, even by Japanese standards. It may have lured me in with its pretty cherry blossoms and other Hokusai-esque scenery, but SEKIRO is actually just as terrifying as BLOODBORNE, if not more so. As war rages throughout SEKIRO over the “sacred dragon’s blood” and apparent immortality, the pursuit of it has corrupted many throughout the setting beyond recognition. You’ll fight monks who’ve strayed from Buddha’s teachings by inserting giant, horrifying centipedes in themselves in order to live forever, more grotesque squid-human hybrids, and just a slew of other twisted things. “Terror” even serves as a debilitating status effect (both in-game and for me personally).
But when not scared the bejesus out of, there’s constant intrigue regarding the overarching story. All this does a good job of really hammering home the themes of the narrative, like what one would do for everlasting life. Having played the game all the way through, was the story’s conclusion satisfying for you? How does it stack up to FromSoft’s previous efforts?
Jon: I’d say the conclusion I got, and the whole story in general, is par for the course with FromSoft. The whole story for SEKIRO and the transfer of information is a lot more straightforward than stuff like SOULS or BLOODBORNE though, which at least for me is kind of a shame.
There’s still plenty of cryptic lore for the sleuths out there, but the whole experience is definitely more streamlined for the average consumer: you know who you are, what you’re doing, and the course of events plays out mostly neat and tidy. The whole thematic element is basically that same song and dance FromSoft’s been hung up on for years… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.
“IS THAT A DARK SOULS REFERENCE?” — the FromSoft fanbase, probably
Ultimately, I’d say I can appreciate how the game makes itself more approachable with how concise the storytelling is, but I’m still a fan of the older game’s more purposefully obscured storytelling. And hey, I only got through one ending. That still leaves another few runs to see if my tune changes.
Alec: From my experience with it, I personally can’t wait to unturn every stone this game has left for me to discover. Inevitable hardship included. And even as a noob, I can say that the outcry over the difficulty is overblown and shouldn’t lead others to ignoring an otherwise beautiful game. If you’re a fan of From, you must play it. If you’re a newcomer, even better.