First off, if you're worried about spoilers, there will be spoilers here. BUT, they'll be in the back half, and clearly contained within a marked and labeled SPOILER ZONE. Everything up to then I'll keep vague/about general game mechanics, or at most I would white out a boss's name.
I've been a fan of From Software's work for a while now. Maybe not as long as the people who played Demon's Souls back when it was new (my experience then being laughing at someone who said it wasn't that hard and then immediately died (but also Demon's Souls can be pretty easy if you know how to cheese it with magic)), but long enough. Given that, I was already pretty confident that I would enjoy Sekiro, but Sekiro still managed to, in many ways, exceed my expectations. Not every way, but enough of them that I think it's a phenomenal game, and one of my favorite From Software games yet.
More so than the Dark Souls games/Bloodborne, Sekiro is a game about dueling. It's a game about swords clashing against swords, about wearing down your opponents' strength (posture) before they can wear down yours, and it's a game about feeling like the raddest Shinobi who ever ninja'd. The very first time I deflected an enemy's attack and went straight into a deathblow, my jaw dropped. The combination of it all, the ringing clang of the swords, the sparks flying everywhere, the feeling of nailing it, and the animation of Sekiro driving his sword into that man's neck and seeing a fountain of blood (because this is a video game, where fountains of blood are good) splurt out, it told me what I needed to know about this game.
And that was: Sekiro is one of the coolest games I've ever played.
Seriously, this game evokes a feeling of dueling like few, if any other games I've ever played had. In some ways it reminds me of fighting games, where it is so much about reading your opponent, trying to identify their next move, and do whatever you can to counter it. But, for me at least, even fighting games don't really convey the feeling this game does, because I never really feel like I can get the right level of challenge from them. If I'm against the AI, I think most games have two variations there: too easy and what feels like impossibly hard. And if I'm playing against humans, then it's either getting myself destroyed by impossibly hard players online, or I'm playing against one of the few people I know in real life who plays video games, and they haven't played as much as I have, so I have to go easy on them until they can figure out how to play the game.
Maybe a better comparison point would be the other hunters in Bloodborne. They're enemies that have the same mobility as the player, and use the same weapons and abilities, which makes them tough fights. Some of my favorite in the game, because they were really challenging, but super fun duels. And they felt special because they were about the only enemies in Bloodborne that didn't respawn.
Sekiro feels like those fights, but made into an entire game. Or, close to it, because even in Sekiro there are plenty of low level enemies that can be expelled via wailing on them with sword until they can be deathblown (via filling the enemy's posture bar, thus stunning them), or they run out of health (and even then they can still often be deathblown, which is useful with the upgrade that gives health back for deathblows). But even a lot of the regular enemies, the ones that do respawn, engaging them in head on fights feels like a duel to the death. A duel where one slip up can mean them getting in a critical hit, and Sekiro being left almost, or entirely dead.
And that's before getting into the minibosses. Enemies so tough they need to be deathblown twice, with special attacks and patterns that make them even trickier and more difficult than the rank and file foes. These can, especially early in the game, feel every bit as difficult as full on bosses from previous From games. You can't just wail on them with the sword and eke out victories, you really need to strategize, and use every trick in Sekiro's bag to win.
There's a lot of tricks in that bag, and just about all of them are useful. This isn't just a game about running up on enemies and fighting. Previous From games had "stealth" in the sense that you could walk up behind enemies and get back stabs for extra damage (usually a kill for weaker ones). But Sekiro has full on stealth mechanics, like crouching, or hiding in tall grass. It's not as fleshed out as in games totally dedicated to stealth or tactical espionage, both mechanically and in the overall design of the game, as it doesn't really feel like a game that can be played entirely stealthily.
But that stealth can be the deciding factor is some of the tougher fights. Early on, I encountered a courtyard, in which was a miniboss. A big samurai general, wearing armor to look imposing, and wielding a jumbo sword to boot. He wasn't alone, as all around the courtyard were other enemies. Some with guns, some swords, and one that was just a lookout, and would bang a metal pan to alert the rest. This miniboss on his own was tough enough, but with all the rest? Possible, but early on when I was still getting a feel for the game, it felt nigh-insurmountable.
So, I used the tricks outside raw combat. I sneaked around to take down whatever enemies I could, and crucially, I opened the fight against the miniboss with a stealth-deathblow. Right off the bat, that's half of his health gone, making the fight that much more manageable. Now it was a one on one fight, and a fight where I only had to whittle him down once, rather than twice.
(For those wondering, no, you can't do a stealth-deathblow on a miniboss, run away, hide, wait for them to return to normal, then do another stealth-deathblow. Minibosses get all their health back once they exit combat/searching for you.)
That feeling upon completing a tough fight like that, that feeling when I watch the final deathblow animation, and I feel myself exhale as I let the tension go, cleanse myself of the battle high, is just fantastic. It's a game built on fights like that, and it stayed thrilling and exciting throughout.
Stealth isn't the only trick, of course, because there's also the Shinobi Tools in Sekiro's prosthetic. Of course, any good video game prosthetic has to not only be as functional as an organic arm, it also needs cool gadgets, and Sekiro is no different. (I do think it's a bit of an odd trope, but if anyone knows of any games with realistic depictions of prosthetics (especially for player characters), let me know).
Anyway, some of the gadgets are very basic stuff, like throwing shuriken. Useful against certain enemies (they one-hit kill wolves and most other small-ish non-humans), or certain circumstances (knocking leaping enemies out of the air), but still straightforward. Some are still straightforward, but perhaps a bit comical conceptually, like a metal umbrella stored in his arm that can be extended and used as a huge shield. When I say huge, I mean he's literally crouching around holding up this umbrella that is about six feet in diameter, and it blocks all incoming attacks (except sweeps as it is an umbrella, after all).
Some get a little more fantastical (and feel free to skip over the whited out section if you don't want Shinobi tool SPOILERS). Like the Mist-Raven Feathers, which put Sekiro in a stance that allows him to warp away when getting hit, or the other magic feather one that can be used to turn enemies around mid fight (leaving them unaware of where you are, and thus making them stealth-killable again), or in some cases just makes them disappear altogether?? The game refers to that as "spiriting them away," which I guess must be a thing. I'd only ever heard of it from that movie (Spirited Away), which I've never actually seen.
But the important part is that from regular enemies to full on bosses, the Shinobi Tools are useful, and often feel like a vital key to success. In some cases there's an almost Megaman-style "weakness" that the fights are clearly designed around. One example (again, jump over if you're leary of having anythingspoiled) is the bull miniboss. It's huge (even bigger than bigh cow),and charges around so fast that the other enemies in the enclosed space don't stand a chance against it. But with the firecrackers, which are specifically stated to have strong effects against animals, it makes the fight much more doable.
There's plenty of upgrades to get, some of which felt vital to me (like one that extends the time the firecrackers crackle), and some of which change fundamental aspects of the tools themselves. Like the spear (which I didn't use that much), its charge attack can completely change based on the upgrade, and I think that's really cool, especially given that there isn't that much room for play style customization otherwise.
Though, the Shinobi Tools do lead me to one of my (few) complaints with the game. They run on Spirit Emblems, which is fine, and I think overall that usually feels well balanced. Some are around the world to be picked up, and enemies occasionally drop them on death. The issue is that unlike the healing Gourd, it's possible to just run out, and that doesn't feel like a great addition to the game. You can buy more from the Idols (this game's Bonfire equivalent), and early on that's not too bad, but the price keeps going up, until eventually it peaks at 50 Sen (they start at 10), and it just feels like a needless money sink. I think the game would've been better if they refilled like the Gourd does. Just a little less time spent grinding for Emblems/money.
And the last major trick in the game's metaphorical bag (there's other moves and stuff that can be equipped, but that's just basic video game stuff) is resurrection. Shadows Die Twice, after all. Dying does not necessarily mean sitting through a load screen (thankfully Sekiro's are a lot shorter than say, Bloodborne's, or Dark Souls II's, which were long), and restarting at the last Idol. Upon death, except for death by falling (though falling isn't auto-death, it just does damage and resets you, unless that would be fatal damage), two options are presented. L1 to die, or R1 to resurrect. Resurrection uses up a charge, and gets Sekiro back on his feat, with half health, and ready to fight.
It's a neat addition, and it's balanced well enough that it can't just be used to brute force through the game (though I wouldn't be opposed to the game having an alternate option that expanded the resurrection uses, for example. I'm far from an expert on these things, but the game's difficulty/accessibility have been on The Discourse lately). It's there to give second chances, which is handy because most people are going to need them. I did. Frequently. There's also story ramifications behind resurrecting, but I'll save that for the SPOILER ZONE.
However, I think this game's inclusion of it, and seeing video of DOOM Eternal having straight up "extra lives" as power ups got me thinking about this. Lives are, in some cases, returning to video games, and I think that's interesting. Used to be, way back in the day, you started a game with a set amount of lives, and if you ran out, it was game over. Sometimes there would be Continues, but even then, some games you could run out of those too, and that would mean starting the entire game from the beginning. Of course, that's also come back in the form of rogue-like-light-likes, but that's a whole other discussion.
Moving from limited lives to infinite lives, and just restarting at checkpoints felt like such a freeing thing back when it started happening, but now it's going the other way again. Second lives as power ups, second chances, opportunities to keep the fight going, is a really interesting take on it, I think, and I wonder if games like Sekiro and DOOM Eternal (should the final game have it like in the footage shown thus far) might be a first wave of this becoming a bigger thing.
Either way, it's interesting.
Now, back to Sekiro, rather than my musings. Level design! Overall, I do like the layout of the levels, and I think their verticality work really well with the grappling hook. Sure, it's a lot more limited than something like Marvel's Spider-Man, or Just Cause, but compared to Dark Souls, it's incredibly freeing. But the issue is that I miss the shortcuts of games like Dark Souls I and Bloodborne. Sekiro is more the style of just placing lots of Idols throughout the world. Which I understand, that's certainly more convenient, but it doesn't have as many of the "oh wow this connects back to HERE" moments of those games. But there's still a couple of them, so I'd still put it above Dark Souls II in that regard, and the world does feel pretty cohesive, and well realized.
But probably my biggest issue with the game is the story. Not that it's bad, but I do think it suffers for being a bit more straightforward than previous From games. Or, rather, that what is gained isn't more interesting to me than the mysterious nature of them. Specifically it's the characters, I don't think most of them are really that interesting. There's some stuff that's neat, but that's really relegated more to the overarching lore than the specific characters or their motivations.
I think that's about all I can say about the story without getting into specifics, so mayhap this is time to go into FULL SPOILER MODE. If you're still playing the game, or haven't played it yet, don't click on the SPOILER thingy. I think I've made it clear that I really love the game, and it has some truly astonishing moments in it. One in particular, that may very well be Moment of the Year worthy, I'll get to in the SPOILERS below, because it's something I wouldn't dare even hint at, and potentially ruin for anyone. Just trust me, it's real good. And, if you still weren't sold on my loving the game, then know I love it enough that I plan on getting the Platinum. Nothing in there seems exceptionally difficult, or even difficult on the same level as something like Bloodborne's (curse that Defiled Dungeon). Just a little grindy to unlock all those skills and upgrades.
It's a great game, and I highly recommend it.
Now be prepared to enter...
THE SPOILER ZONE.
Broadly, Sekiro is a game about immortality, and the cost of that immortality. In terms of raw mechanics, this is where the Dragonrot comes in. When it first happened, and the Sculptor was infected, I was freaking out. Given From's history, I fully expected this to be a serious thing I would be fretting over the entire game, as I managed my resurrection, only using it when really necessary, and trying to halt the spread of the disease. Then it spread to someone else, and another character found a way to cure it, using an item that I thought would be super rare, and then that was how it'd be managed.
Turns out it wasn't nearly as much of an issue as I feared, which I think ended up being a disappointment. Based on my experience in the game, after I accidentally wasted my first of the Dragonrot healing item, and found NPCs that sold it, I never had any trouble managing it. On top of that, so far as I can tell, Dragonrot can't even kill. I feel terrible talking to NPCs who have it, hearing them wheeze and cough, and apparently it prevents quests from completing, but it's always just one use of that item away from healing anyone and everyone with the Dragonrot.
I think, and I wish so much more could have been done with this. I get not wanting to inundate people with it, and maybe if it'd been too harsh all it would have done was just stop people from resurrecting (though I think regular dying can spread it too). It certainly got me to not resurrect a lot early on, which meant a lot of XP and money thrown away when I didn't get that Buddha dice roll to aid me. But as I played, I eventually realized the Dragonrot wasn't anything I seriously needed to worry about, and I think that undermines the game's story, which is very much about the Dragonrot being something to worry about.
Because the whole game is about the cost of immortality. The cost of Sekiro's is the Dragonrot spreading to those he interacts with. The cost of the Senpou Temple's immortality was killing a bunch of kids in the process of figuring it out, then having an awful/creepy giant centipede inside them. The cost of the Sacred Waters of the Ashina clan is...um...having your grandfather climb out of you and be the actual final boss fight? Okay, so maybe the game does still have some of that trademark From Software unclearness after all.
But also it has things like a single note mentioning a Second Mortal Blade, which at the time felt like a Big Deal, only to have that not be mentioned anywhere else, until Genichiro has it for the final fight against him. Maybe there's more about that elsewhere in the game, because I know there's other endings that will have more story stuff in them, and I'll do that along my path to the Platinum. But so far as the main path through the story goes, stuff like that felt underdeveloped. And not like the good, "ooh From games are mysterious." It felt like something tacked on just to explain why Genichiro had a special sword.
So, the story overall, not as good as I would have liked, but still not terrible. There were, however, things about the game that I absolutely need to mention, but were too spoilery to say above.
Like, that Guardian Ape fight. When I started the fight, I was a bit surprised that it only had one Deathblow indicator above the health bar, but I just ignored that, focused on the fight, and beat it on my first try. Which was so exhilarating, that I was just left there breathless, posing next to the Ape's body for a screenshot.
Just standing there, feeling good, when-
THE APE STOOD UP AND GRABBED ITS OWN HEAD OFF THE GROUND.
The game got me. I was so astoundingly surprised, I still just love that moment so much. The game even did the "SHINOBI EXECUTION" thing! They sold it so well, and I fell for it. Of course I died, and it took me a fair number of attempts before I was able to actually win the whole fight.
But of course that wasn't the end of it either, because down in the Ashina Depths, the beheaded body was still alive, and not only that, but it called in a second, still living ape for backup! Which was surprising all around, though I beat that one in only two attempts. This time I was prepared, and was ready for it to get up again, so I was mashing R1 for that Deathblow (but also I briefly saw the indicator before the game gave me the rewards for the fight, but I was anticipating SOMETHING either way).
A thing that surprised me about Sekiro is how relatively little supernatural stuff there is in the game. I mean, outside the resurrection. Most of the enemies are just dudes with swords (or guns), monkeys (there's SO MANY monkeys!), or monkeys with swords (or guns). I was maybe not expecting it to be like Nioh, which is bursting with mythological creatures, oni, yokai, etc, but I was expecting more than there is.
But that has the effect of making the supernatural feel more, well, supernatural when it does show up. A bigh snake feels special in a game that doesn't have much of that. As do the weird blue fish people near the end when I got to that area. What's up with them? I mean, don't actually give me an answer, this is another case where I like the more old style From approach of just plopping me into this strange area, where I'm left to try to figure out what's going on, but only get little hints of it. I think they might be the "inhuman Okami warrior women" because they were weak to the Sabimaru poison, and there's text in there somewhere about the "inhuman Okami warrior women" being driven off by that.
And even though those enemies are just people with weapons, albeit different movesets, they look and feel alien compared to the rest of the game, and I really like that. I wish there were more moments like that in Sekiro. Moments that left me wondering what on Earth was going on. There were some, but not as many as say, Bloodborne. That's still my favorite From game, because of that world, that lore, etc. Sekiro is my favorite playing of the bunch, but Bloodborne still gets the edge in my mind.
Oh, one last story moment I want to mention, is a moment where Sekiro is given a choice, but you, the player, can only actually pick one of them. Literally, because one of the choices results in a prompt appearing that says something to the effect of, "You cannot break the Iron Code." Choices where you physically cannot actually choose one of them because of story reasons is great, and I like it a lot.
Though, another thing I wish was different around that part of the game, was the general castle area itself. The objective then is to get to the top of Ashina castle, and rescue Lord Kuro. Sekiro does that, then there's the choice, but afterward Kuro and Lady Emma use the top of the tower as their base, and do so with Lord Isshin just chilling nearby (when he isn't dressing up as a Tengu anyway). So, logically, I'd think that them hanging out in this castle without any worry makes them in charge of the castle, and with Sekiro working directly for Kuro, that should mean he can come and go from the castle as he pleases.
It would have been really cool if after that part, all the enemies in the castle become non-hostile. I get why they don't, but with the game changing enemies and stuff in that area, multiple times as the story progresses, they could've done that and still had those areas have a hostile element to them. Very late in the game there are a few soldiers that just sit around, looking defeated that you can lock on to, and presumably attack, but I didn't have it in me to attack them, so there was a tiny smidge of it.
Conversely there are NPCs who ask me to back them up, but then others in their faction still attack me, so... It's not consistent. And that's a bummer.
Then that leads to the worst boss in the game, The Demon of Hatred, which is not a fun fight. I had to look up a video to figure out how to dodge a couple of his attacks, but I did eventually beat him. I'm also glad I'll never have to do that again, and that's a bad feeling to have.
END OF SPOILER ZONE.
So, I think that's about all I have to say about Sekiro. It is, again, a fantastic game. Not perfect, and it has some issues that have plagued From game's forever (frame rate stuff on console, sometimes the camera can get jumbled up), but I still loved it. It is a From Software game, but one that is different enough than Dark Souls to really stand on its own. And it's so good. From, really just, they are one of the best in the business, and Sekiro has left me incredibly excited for whatever they do next. Personally, I'm hoping for a mech game that makes me feel the same way that Sekiro does. But honestly, whatever they want to do next, I'm sure it'll be great.
Anyway, thanks for reading!