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Sekiro's Spirit Emblems Force Me to Play With a Hand Tied Behind My Back

I want to use Sekiro's nifty shinobi tools, but I keep running out of the items that let me use them, and it's a pain to get more.

by Patrick Klepek
Apr 15 2019, 4:48pm

Image courtesy of Activision

Much has been made about Sekiro’s sword-on-sword combat, the constant tug-of-war between combatants locked in an intense battle of attacks, blocks, parries, and dodges. But just as critical to success is effective use of shinobi prosthetics, a wide-ranging set of eccentric tools, which includes everything from fast firing shurikens to interrupt attacks, a flame vent to set enemies ablaze, or firecrackers that briefly blind anyone in front of you.

With that in mind, a familiar scenario: banging my head against a boss, slowly trying to internalize the rhythm of the fight. I could use shinobi prosthetics during the fight, maybe toss a firecracker to grab a few moments to breathe, but every one of those tools absolutely churns through spirit emblems, one of the game’s currencies, like candy. It’s not uncommon to fight a boss a few dozen times before you’ve cracked it, and no matter how many spirit emblems you’ve bought, it’s likely you’ll have used all of them before having bested the enemy, forcing two options: grind more spirit emblems or don’t use shinobi prosthetics.

Both of those choices suck, frankly. I usually choose option two, and so it feels like I’m fighting with one hand behind my back, afraid to lean into my extended back of tricks because the game has put up roadblocks that prevent me from embracing all my options.

Shinobi prosthetics are not a small or optional part of Sekiro’s combat—they’re core to the experience. The whole frickin’ game is framed around the main character having their hand chopped off in the first 30 minutes, and making the best of the situation with this suite of weaponized accessories. While none are explicitly required to win any single fight in Sekiro, it’s not a last second hail mary, either. Used in the right situations—say, knocking down Lady Butterfly with a well-timed shuriken—it can help tip the balance of a nasty fight in your favor.

Using a shinobi prosthetic can take anywhere from one to three spirit emblems, depending on the tool being used. You start off by holding a total of 15 spirit emblems, but it’s possible to increase that pool, and anything you collect beyond that goes into a mysterious treasure chest that’s pulled from whenever you rest. Even upgraded, you are severely constrained on how many times you can spam a tool in a fight, boss or not. That makes a lot of sense; if some are deployed right, especially the firecracker, it’s possible to essentially break the fight.

They’re also a form of creative experimentation, and I absolutely love talking to friends and finding out which shinobi prosthetic helped in a fight, one that I never thought of. Like this example, from a mid-game mini-boss:

Cool as hell, right? I didn’t pull off anything nearly as clever. But there’s a catch: each swing of the poison blade costs a single spirit emblem, which means all of your attacks need to land—and count. It’s a testament to FromSoftware’s immaculate eye for balance, even when it seems like you’ve got one up on the game. Spam this blade all you want, but don’t miss!

The problem is that most of these cool as hell moments seem to happen in videos captured on YouTube and shared on Twitter, instead of in my own game. What’s the point in experimenting with a random shinobi prosthetic over and over, when I might run out of spirit emblems? It makes more sense to spend time focusing on attacking, blocking, and parrying because I can always count on having access to those three without any fear of interruption.

I can’t know FromSoftware’s intent. Perhaps they feared players would become overly reliant on shinobi prosthetics, but since you can warp out at any time and go farm for them, that doesn’t fully hold up. Instead, it has the opposite effect: it makes me not want to use them! I can’t imagine they intended for that, either.

(Since originally writing this piece last week, I've reached the endgame of Sekiro, a point where I'm able to afford way more spirit emblems than I could ever hope to use, but it comes at a point where my approach to combat involves almost never using prosthetics, singularly relying on blocking and parrying, and only occasionally using a firework when I'm trying to finish off a boss. Tools are an afterthought.)

At least, uh, it’s not as bad as Bloodborne? Imagine a game with my complaints about spirit emblems applied to not only the ammunition for your guns, a primary form of attacking, but even worse, refilling your health. If you ran out of blood vials in Bloodborne, the one way to refill your health bar, you had to get more of them. I have such fond memories of looking up FAQs telling me where the best places to farm blood vials, while I screamed into the void.

It was a terrible way to punish people for the crime of [checks notes] learning how to play.

What’s weird is how FromSoftware has flipped and flopped over this specific design choice across various games. Demon’s Souls was entirely consumable items that players needed to buy or farm, while Dark Souls introduced the Estus Flask, an upgradeable health chalice that refilled upon resting. Dark Souls 2 split the difference, keeping the Estus Flask and bringing back health items. Dark Souls 3, then, reversed course and basically ditched health items, but with a new emphasis on magic, adding the Ashen Estus Flask, which refilled your magic meter.

Either way, it’s bad. Core items should refill, allowing you to fully incorporate them into play.

FromSoftware makes me angry all the time, but usually for the right reasons! At this point, I’ve come to trust their judgement on most matters. But after more than 20 hours with Sekiro, and hundreds spread across everything from Demon’s Souls to Bloodborne—games with different versions of this small but important design choice—I can’t wrap my head around what FromSoftware is trying to accomplish, and hope they ditch it with whatever’s next.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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