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Pop CultureMarch 27, 2019

Two infuriating days attempting to master Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

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The latest game by FromSoftware is out, and it’s as difficult as you’d expect. Is the juice worth the squeeze?

Way back 30 years ago in 2015 I wrote a piece on The Spinoff about Bloodborne, a Lovecraftian horror game created by Japanese developers FromSoftware. Bloodborne, modelled after FromSoftware’s award-winning Dark Souls trilogy, is fiendishly bloody difficult, and at the time I considered this as a good and desirable thing. While my erstwhile colleague Hayden Donnell was balancing a marriage and a Dark Souls addiction, my relationship to Bloodborne was something naughty and fun. Well, like the inexorable melting of the polar caps back into the briny sea, my descent into adulthood has begun in earnest: 10 hours into FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which is something like Dark Souls with Samurai, I’m just…tired. And that’s despite it being a very, very good game.

If Samurai-Dark Souls as a concept sounds familiar, it’s because 2017’s Nioh was very much something like that. But Nioh had a feeling of the arcade about it; a maddening loot system alongside repetitive enemies and a more cartoony aesthetic meant it never reached the same heights as a ‘Soulsborne’ game, particularly not narratively. Sekiro surpasses all that.

The Soulsborne games all follow a similar gameplay loop. Players explore interlinked fantasy worlds, deep with mystery and light on explanation, fighting enemies, collecting experience and activating checkpoints enroute to spectacular boss fights.

You’re expected to die, and die, and die again. Dark Souls had an expansion pack called simply ‘Prepare to Die’. Hardcore fans of the series will tell you that deaths are never unfair, and are an indication of your lack of skill, not an overpowered or broken game design. That may be true, but it still feels unfair – at least, until you get good.

And that means reflecting on what you expect from a game. Old hands at the Soulsborne games know what they’re in for, and it’s a recipe that has elevated the games of one studio into a genre of their own. For recent entrants, however, and especially those with limited time to sit down and play, it’s worth assessing the best use of your resources.

Because for at least the first six or so hours of Sekiro, I wasn’t having fun. That’s not to say the game isn’t fun, or that you’d have the exact same experience, but the learning curve was so steep, and the frustration so visceral, that there just wasn’t anything overly enjoyable about it. The set-pieces are lush and gorgeous, the story drip-fed but tantalisingly so. The gameplay is smooth and satisfying. It’s just that I couldn’t go five bloody minutes without getting my ass handed back to me on the end of a katana. I might not be able to beat some asshole samurai but I can sure as hell give this controller the hands.

But, of course, it’s in overcoming that very conviction that games like this shine, and Sekiro does it best. Unlike other entries in the series, your base weapons remain mostly the same the game through, and there is little in the way of levelling up or character building in a traditional sense. Sure, exploration nets you new gadgets, some hugely impactful, but your kit is far more limited here than in, say, Dark Souls 2. That means the majority of the time, if it’s getting easier, it’s because you’re getting better.

Games like Sekiro are rewarding because they’re like working out, or mastering any other skill. It never gets any easier moment-to-moment, you’re always being pushed, and so it’s only when you go back to earlier levels, or start again without your accumulated in-game skills and weapons, that you realise it’s at a mechanical level you’ve become more proficient. The reward is there, but it necessitates hefty investment, especially if you want to finish every game back-to-back without taking a lick of damage like this definitely sane guy. How bad do you want it?

Keep going!