The word “death” blares across the screen, and my fist slams against the desk for what feels like the hundredth time. Nearby, my dog growls at the sudden noise. The enemy who’s killed me for the last three hours, the source of my rage, quietly returns to their post; I am no longer a concern, the status quo maintained. This asshole, the one I’ve been wrestling with for three hours, sits at the top of a hill, clutches a massive spear and otherwise stands around looking intimidating. (He is). I climb the hill—die. I climb the hill—die. Repeat.
This is what I’m dealing with:
At this point, I am at least a dozen hours into FromSoft’s latest, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, long enough that I confidently told a friend recently I know how to play the game properly.
[insert nervous laughter from a creepy NPC] I did not.
As Austin mentioned in his piece, Sekiro is itself an upending of the Soulsborn status quo, a game that rewards players who’ve been playing FromSoft’s previous games, but one that demands as much, if not more, than when Demon’s Souls arrived on the scene. It’s an enormous mountain to climb, one that has, at times, felt borderline insurmountable, and I’ve found myself frustrated to a degree I haven’t felt since I first brushed aside these games as grossly masochistic. Maybe, I’ve thought once or twice, I don’t actually like this?
Alternatively, Sekiro is an ice bath for a feverish child, a designed shock to the system for an arrogant, cynical player. After beating Dark Souls, I was confident going into Dark Souls 2. Bloodborne was a twist on the formula, absolutely one of my favorite games of all-time, but in retrospect, it wasn’t that different. Dark Souls 3? Dark Souls 3 barely even put up a fight. Sekiro acts as a reminder of a world before the term “Souls” became a genre—nay, a trope.
All Soulsborne games have “wall” moments, where an enemy punishes the player for resorting to an ingrained (i.e. cheap) behavior, or until they learn a new lesson. Because Sekiro plays so differently, it’s understandably and necessarily filled with even more of these moments. And because Sekiro is so unrelentingly punishing, those lessons need to really stick.
In Sekiro, these often take the form of mini-bosses, enemies that look similar to the grunts littered throughout the world, but physically larger and wielding unique weapons, like a massive sword. One might teach the importance of using items, another about when to jump. (Remember, these games have never had a dedicated jump button. It’s a big change!)
From the start, Sekiro loudly communicates one of its pillars—blocking and parrying—and puts you into scenarios where executing both is key to success. Key, however, is different than required. Slowly, as I picked up new items and accessories, I found ways to fall back on old habits, a playstyle closer to my time with Dark Souls and Bloodborne than Sekiro, where I’d stay back, jump around, and slowly whittle down an enemy with a series of hits.
I know exactly where I screwed up, too—the original sin. One of the early mini-bosses walks around with a huge, menacing spear. The length of the weapon means they’re able to instantly close distance, and the size of the spear allows the enemy to sweep long and wide, eliminating your options for dodging. Around this time, I’d unlocked a counter where the player squares up with an enemy as the spear comes at them, and instead of dodging, you just stomp the spear onto the ground with the confidence of a thousand burning suns. It’s badass, useful, and because the player needs to embrace danger, requires careful timing.
I, uh, couldn’t get the timing right.
Out of frustration, I found success in a technique where the player tosses a shuriken and taps attack, dashing forward and quickly going on the offensive. It worked more often than it didn’t, and with enough patience, I was able to take them down. Success? At the time, absolutely; it meant I could move forward, and in a game that refuses to give an inch, you take victories wherever and however they arrive. But this one came with an invisible cost.
Which brings me back to the big boy on the hill, the moment when Sekiro finally asked me to pay up. In Sekiro, you cannot increase your health bar—or any stat—by defeating enemies and leveling up. Instead, you collect prayer beads, which can sometimes be found exploring the world, but are largely hidden on the corpses of mini-bosses. So, you can’t avoid them.
Now, none of my tricks were working. The enemy was too fast, too brutal, and my sword barely did any damage. This meant I would have to dodge, block, parry, and most importantly, use the counter whose timing had thrown me off earlier in the game— you know, the counter I’d gone out of my way to avoid by cheesing my way through a tough fight. It’s as though Sekiro had engineered an enemy specifically tailored to exploit my personal weakness. Goddamn.
And so, I climbed up the hill. Again. And again. And again. And again. Progress in these games can feel invisible; just because you don’t defeat an enemy doesn’t mean you haven’t better internalized how to accomplish that very feat the next time around. I started talking through the fight, calling out the attacks before I would execute them with my fingers, a way of creating a rhythm between the different parts of my body that needed to work in concert.
Of course, there's always another option:
But that was not my path.
Block. Parry. Dodge. Strike. Counter. Blockparrydodgestrikecounter. Resurrections, a mechanic that allows to come back to life after dying, aren’t about winning, they are a chance to get a few more practice shots in before doing down for the count. It’s like the training montage scene in a movie, where the character’s knocked down, seemingly defeated, only to get up, and—after spitting out some blood—they lock eyes and calmly announce “again.”
I could have moved on; there were plenty of forks in the road for me to explore in Sekiro at that point, but this was too important. If I couldn’t learn this lesson, nothing else mattered? It was clear Sekiro was trying to make a point, and finally, I was willing to listen. And so: again. Then, it happened.
Victory is not about being perfect, it’s about coming out on top. Sekiro demands something closer to perfection than anything FromSoft has produced before it, and as such, the victory tastes all the sweeter. The sense of satisfaction when everything clicks into place, the audible gasp it produced from my lungs, remind me why climbing the mountain is worth it.
It was at this point I could finally, actually say I understood Sekiro. Immediately after this, I went back to a boss who’d given me all sorts of trouble, and on first attempt, nearly ended him.
“It is wild to come back six hours later and realize he ain't shit,” I said in a private chat with Austin and Natalie, a place for the three of us to chat secrets about Sekiro.
“Hell yeah,” responded Austin.
Hell yeah. It’s been a long time—too long, it turns out—since I’ve remembered what it was like to learn how to play these games in the first place. Sekiro is a needed reminder, a risky and bold choice from a developer who could have played it safer. I'm thankful.