I’m convinced that somewhere out there, the perfect Sekiro player must exist. A sword-swinging demigod trapped in a world of hapless chuds, this mythical beast’s reaction times are eminently exquisite, their sense of when to strike superb. In their day-to-day life, milquetoast millions walk past them, unaware that a shinobi mastermind moves in their midst, brain and hands perfectly equipped to bring down a horde of evil samurai with a series of perfectly timed parries and strikes.
I am not this person. When it comes to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice—the latest exercise in compulsive frustration from From Software, the same team that brought you such controller-crushing masterpieces as that bit with the goddamn ghost archers from Dark Souls III—I, to put it bluntly, absolutely fucking suck.
This is not a novel feeling when subjecting oneself to From’s output, especially in the early going. These are, after all, the people who made Dark Souls, the game that more-or-less single-handedly redefined a lot of people’s expectations of what a “hard” video game should be. (And then continued to tweak that expectation upward with each subsequent title.) Each of the company’s action-RPG epics (Dark Souls and its various sequels, plus Victorian-Lovecraftian werewolf delight Bloodborne) have come with a mandatory re-calibration period, forcing players to get in tune with the particular flow of each game’s combat. But Sekiro doesn’t just ask that you get on-board with its peculiar rhythms, rooted as they are in breaking your opponent’s balance with relentless but well-timed strikes. (This might be the most metal video game about posture ever made.) No, it absolutely demands it, with a rigor that borders on, and often outright bleeds into, the territory of maddening frustration.
What’s funny about these friction points is that they only really kick in when the game demands a fair fight, which it—blessedly—almost never does. Rather than the plodding knights and wizards of From’s earlier games, Sekiro drops you into the tabi of one of those historical masters of the dirty trick, a disgraced Japanese ninja by the name of Wolf. Instead of cautiously advancing down a series of corridors, shield in hand, waiting for the next skeleton to come spinning out of the darkness, Wolf takes the initiative and, he’s kind of a dick about it. His arsenal of nastiness includes sprinting up walls, tossing sand in his enemies’ eyes, and shanking the hell out of anybody dumb enough to let him get close to their back. Not even (most of) the game’s bosses are immune to his Nixonian bag of tricks; the majority of Sekiro’s boss arenas are set up for skulking, allowing you to get the drop on an enemy general and immediately shave off fully half their life bar in one riotous shower of blood. Between these stealth elements, and the unprecedented freedom of movement on display—my jaw dropped when an enemy knocked me into water, and, instead of sinking like a rock with a bitterly mocking “You Died,” I simply started swimming, of all things—Sekiro is at its most infectious as it encourages you to find your own path through its sprawling, vertiginous levels.
Every now and then, though, a choke point closes in, forcing you into a vicious one-on-one battle with an equal opponent, and it’s here that…
Okay. It’s not that Sekiro gets bad, exactly, when it narrows in on these big, dramatic set-piece fights. It’s just that a game where you can literally run gleefully past 95 percent of enemies—bouncing across rooftops, sneaking through underbrush, and gleefully humming “shank, shank, shank senora” to yourself as you go—suddenly turns into that one teacher you had in middle school, the one who didn’t get mad when you forgot to do the reading for an assignment—just disappointed. It’s these fights where Sekiro’s Souls DNA manifests in the ugliest of ways, provoking the kind of “80th time’s a charm” death spirals that can turn a fun evening into a sweat- and anxiety-soaked nightmare. (It doesn’t help that the studio hasn’t lost its taste for multi-phase bosses with secret extra sequences tacked on at the end, turning an initial moment of triumph into “Jesus Christ, there’s more?!”) For that hypothetical perfect player—tapped directly into the game’s elaborate system of blocks, ripostes, and counter-attacks—these fights against solemn generals and knife-wielding old ninja women are probably highlights, thrilling duels as cinematic as they are simple to complete. For me, it just felt like I was spinning a roulette wheel, waiting for the boss AI to luck into a less lethal pattern that I could exploit to finally eke out an asterisk-laden win.
The truth is, 12 hours into my time with the game, that I think I just plain suck at Sekiro—my hands and eyes simply aren’t fast enough to pick up everything the game is putting down. But to be fair, it also feels like an eminently easy game to suck at. By removing things like leveling-up stats, choosing different weapons to try to master, or summoning friends to help you out of a jam, From has removed most of the ways players of its earlier games found to get past whichever boss became their personal Achilles’ heel. As is, most of the game’s stat upgrades come from killing bosses, which becomes a whole “open crate with crowbar inside crate” sort of problem. It leaves frustrated players with nothing to do but memorize move patterns, try like hell to figure out proper blocking rhythms, and give in to the meme-lords and their hateful “Git gud” mantra. (Or “git lucky,” as the case may be.)
Again, these sticking point boss fights represent only a tiny fraction of the game’s overall mass (although their impact on play time can be quite a bit more severe). When Sekiro soars—sending you flying across the battlefield like a medieval, Japanese, and extremely blood-drenched Batman—it finds a beautiful sweet spot between Dark Souls’ cautious, technical combat, and the backstab-heavy joys of something like Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. There’s a simple genius in the studio inverting its tried-and-true formula by making Wolf the most mobile creature on the battlefield for once, running circles around his lumbering opponents. It’s only when the pleasures of those movements are denied to you, in favor of a “straighter fight,” that the game makes you realize how far you are from being the perfect player it’s apparently seeking.
And that, to put it bluntly, sucks.