To die or not to die, is it really a question?
I adore Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I want to make that clear before I start smacking it on the nose for all its issues. The combat is a fierce flurry of sparks, blood and pained faces, with an emphasis on deflecting attacks instead of just blocking and dodging them. The Posture system is inspired, pushing players to keep on the attack, and it’s always a joy to wipe out half of a boss’s health bar by breaking their guard and delivering a wonderfully animated Deathblow. Prosthetic Tools and Combat Arts add an extra layer of nuance to a battle as they can uncover a fearsome foe’s weakness. Some can be grounded with a well-thrown shuriken or have their armour stripped off by a spear, while others can be slowly brought to their knees with a poisoned blade.
But what’s got my knickers in a twist is a feature that is so heavily touted that its even referenced in the title, that being the “Shadows Die Twice” part. I’m of course talking about the Resurrection power that the protagonist Wolf has, which sends you back to the land of the living if you sustain a mortal blow. When you’re killed you have the choice to fully die and go back to the last Idol you communed with, or rise up and continue the fight. What perplexes me the most about this feature is why are you given a choice at all, why wouldn’t you want to use Resurrection every time? When you revive yourself you are bestowed half of your HP back, so why not just make your health bar an extra half longer and cut Resurrection entirely, I mean what are we really losing? The one situation where dying can be preferable is when reviving for a second time, since subsequent Resurrections need to be recharged with kills. You can also play dead, giving you a chance to catch the enemy unawares, though given have fast you can scamper about, breaking the line of sight really isn’t a problem.
Using Resurrection again and again doesn’t even spread Dragonrot any quicker. For those not in the know, Dragonrot spreads when you die for good, and infects non-essential NPCs. If an NPC gets sick it puts their quest line on hold until you cure them with a consumable, but take note that they will never die and will happily wait in agony until you get them back on their feet. And that’s if you even want to, a lot of NPC quest rewards don’t exactly excite the blood, so it’s only really for those who want more slivers of plot to enjoy. So even if Resurrection did infect NPCs quicker, I really doubt many would really care.
Rewind back to Demon’s Souls and death carried a hefty price…if you were in human form. Dying in this form meant losing 50% of your life bar and pushing the World Tendency down, World Tendency dictating how strong enemies were, the lower the harder. This made the choice between human form or soul form an actual decision to think carefully about. Was human form worth the extra health and the ability to summon help? Or would you play it safe and stick in soul form, not risking dragging the World Tendency down in the process. Going all the way to the lowest level of World Tendency even summoned a unique enemy type with a unique resource, so it gave a reason for players to purposely die in human form as well. This system was far from perfect and was perhaps a little to obtuse for its own good, but I can imagine the Resurrection and Dragonrot systems being used for something similar.
Instead of Dragonrot spreading when you die, it should only spread when you revive. Dragonrot can then be a much harsher punishment since now it is within your control, so it could eventually kill NPCs if left untreated, or it could even change the environment or enemies in certain ways. NPC quests should also have far more appealing rewards, maybe unique upgrades for your Prosthetic Tools to give greater incentive for players to actually do them. Resurrection could also use some major expanding given the larger penalty to use it. Perhaps it could give you an attack boost or there could be certain moves that could only be performed after Resurrection. These changes make the decision to die or try again an actual choice to make, instead of it being a mildly irritating roadblock that had me mashing the R1 button so I could keep playing the game. Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and point out all the ways I think Sekiro could be better, any work to the game costs time and money, and given how bosses and areas are recycled, those resources definitely weren’t infinite.
As to why Resurrection couldn’t be cut, it plays a vital part in the story, meaning you couldn’t just rip it out without some extensive restructuring of the narrative. With that in mind, my hunch is that Resurrection was thought of as a story element first and then fitted into the game after. And I’m sure the team thought it was a neat idea, but the reality is that there can be a huge difference between an idea on paper and an idea put into practice. A mechanic in a game has to be tested to see how players use it. Players can be an overly focused bunch, and will usually opt for the path of least resistance if given the chance, even if that means a less exciting and fulfilling experience. Take that loot cave in Destiny for example, a whole community of players shooting enemies at a cave entrance for hours, not because it was fun, but because it got results.
FromSoft have a history of second guessing the psychology of players, and Sekiro is no exception. Take a boss fight that was situated in the middle of a group of enemies for instance. FromSoft likely wanted me to stealthily take out the surrounding threat and then deal with the boss one-on-one, but doing that over and over again just to get another attempt at the boss was an exercise in bloody tedium. So I came up with the idea of leading the boss to a doorway they could conveniently get stuck in, and then beginning the not so thrilling battle of me repeatedly whacking the boss and then leaping away to safety like the little ninja tease that I am.
While these situations annoyed me far more, Resurrection is the mechanic I have decided to rag on in particular because its inclusion is just so half-hearted. Demon’s Souls showed us a team that was willing to throw conventional thinking to the wind, and in doing so created a cult classic that love it or hate it, could never be considered unambitious. Demon’s Souls was truly the Wild West of FromSoft, but Sekiro for all its dazzling and enthralling swordplay plays it safe in some ways. The challenge is still there, that is undeniable, but perhaps mainstream success has prevented them from being truly as adventurous as they were back in the day.
So what I’m trying to say is that FromSoft have become massive cowards…but they still make damn good games.