Video Game Reviews

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – And I Died A Lot

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the most recent of the Soulsborne games from developer From Software. Though, this should come as no surprise as they are literally the guys who put both the “souls” and “borne” into the genre name.

Unlike most of the other From Software games, Sekiro actually has a protagonist, and a story that is easy-ish to follow… for the most part. You play as Wolf, a shinobi (read: ninja) who has been tasked with rescuing Kuro, the divine heir of the Hirata, after failing to protect him sometime prior to the events of the game.

Of course, it’s a From Software game, so a good deal of the story happens off-screen, in item descriptions, or has to be inferred from several cryptic interactions with a handful of NPC’s scattered across the game. 

I have to say, I was pretty skeptical of this game for a while. I’d heard that it was somehow harder than Dark Souls and Bloodborne while simultaneously somehow easier than both—though this was depending on who you asked. 

Well, after having beaten Bloodborne, I was intrigued by the premise of something harder. This is mostly because I thought Bloodborne was pretty freaking hard. Though, I won’t say it’s the hardest game I’ve ever played.

I won’t say that because I’ve actually played through Sekiro now, and it will likely hold that title until Eldin Ring pries it from Sekiro’s cold prosthetic hand. In fact, I’m just going to get this disclaimer out here:

**THIS GAME IS HARD **

Relentlessly so. And if you decide to  set this one down and walk away…

With that said, however, I would like to talk about some of the aspects of this game that were worth the headache I got from banging my head against the wall that is Sekiro.

A Deadly Dance

Hands down the best part of Sekiro is the swordplay. 

I will attribute this to two gameplay mechanics: posture and deflect.

Posture

Posture is basically how grounded your enemy’s stance is. The lower their posture gauge, the more stable their stance. This means that, conversely, the higher the gauge, the less stable it is. If you are able to break an enemy’s posture, you can perform a deathblow, which will kill most normal enemies. 

Posture is an interesting mechanic because it does not replace enemy health bars, but it is informed by them. The higher an enemy’s health, the easier it is for them to recover their posture. However, once you’ve knocked a good portion of their health away, it becomes much harder for the enemy to recover. 

You inflict posture damage on an enemy every time you attack. If the enemy blocks the attack, they still take posture damage, even if you don’t touch their health. Unfortunately, if the enemy has full health, you’ll have to keep attacking so that the posture bar doesn’t drain completely.

Breaking an enemy’s posture is, in most cases, the easiest way to kill them. Which is why we need to talk about that other mechanic…

Deflect 

Deflecting is just blocking at a precise time. If you can time your block properly, you will deflect the enemy’s attack and deal a greater amount of damage to their posture. If you mistime, this you’ll still block the attack, but then you’ll take posture damage instead….

Did I not mention that? That you also have a posture gauge? Well you do, and it can break and when it does…

Anyway, learning to deflect your enemy’s attacks is paramount if you want to “get good” at Sekiro. Most regular enemies — and every single boss — will mess you up if you try and pull some Bloodborne-style dodging. 

Anyway… combining the posture mechanic with the ability to deflect makes the game’s combat both infuriatingly difficult and oddly satisfying.

I’ve often heard Sekiro’s combat compared to a rhythm game, which is fairly accurate except that if you fail you’ll get a sword to the face instead of losing the dance-off (or whatever it is rhythm games are doing these days).

On top of the posture and deflect mechanics, there are a few other other elements of combat that get thrown in on occasion to spice things up, like:

  • Thrust attacks: which can only be deflected or countered by a move you can buy
  • Grabs: Which can only be avoided by moving out of the way
  • Sweeps: Which can only be jumped over

These “perilous attacks,” as they are called, break up the fights in interesting ways. But boy howdy are they hard to get used to. I think I didn’t really start understanding how to deal with them until about three-fourths of the way through the game.

All that being said, the fights in Sekiro, while absurdly hard, are fair. Even if I was dying to a boss for the one-thousandth time, I would still nod and say “Yeah, that was my bad. Shouldn’t have tried to deflect that.”

A Much Needed Hand

While the Dark Souls games had more than a few RPG elements, and Bloodborne streamlined those elements to a certain extent, Sekiro almost entirely eschews the idea of stats and obtaining mountains of weapons to use. 

In Sekiro, you only have one weapon: “Kusabimaru,” the sword you start with. You don’t get any other primary weapons. You can get upgraded moves and passive abilities through esoteric texts, but those don’t really change up the game in any meaningful way.

What brings a diversity of style to Sekiro is the Shinobi Prosthetic. It is a prosthetic arm that can be augmented by finding items throughout the world.

At first, these augments might seem less-than-useful, but if you experiment with them, you’ll find that most serve a purpose. And that purpose is to help you defeat enemies in a much more expeditious manner.

It’s about using the right tool for the job

I’m not going to list out the ways in which all the tools can be used, but I’ll give a couple of examples to give you an idea of what is possible. 

  • Shuriken can be used on airborne opponents to deal increased posture damage, and knock them out of the sky. (Also, they kill dogs in one hit)
  • Firecrackers can be used to scare animal opponents and interrupt enemy attacks. 
  • The loaded axe can cleave enemy shields in half, and deal massive posture damage to shielded foes. 

While this is just a few tools, and only a couple of their uses, there are at least ten different prosthetic tools and each has at least three versions that you can eventually unlock. This plethora of available tools means that you have some agency in how you would like to approach fights despite the lack of primary weapon types.

Down the Rabbit Hole

For the first half of the game, Sekiro stays pretty grounded. Sure, there are a couple of weird things, like a giant snake or this one guy who shoots lightning at you, but for the most part things stay fairly normal.

Once you get to a certain point, however, the game starts to get weirder. 

When you start fighting monkeys with guns you might think “That’s weird, but not like the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” Then you run into some ghosts and guys who live in walls, and immortal monks with giant centipedes living in their bodies, and you’re like “All right, so this is a From Software game.

When you start running into fish people playing flutes, giant carp with human teeth, and fish-wolf hybrids, you’ll start to realize that…

What started as a thrilling adventure through feudal Japan turned into a nightmarish one.

This is usually something that pisses me off in games. I hate being forced into a stealth section of a non-stealth game. I hate having to run through a horror section in an action game (Ravenholm is the exception, but we don’t go there). And I hate when a game that starts off at least somewhat grounded in reality starts introducing supernatural elements until they take over the whole game… 

Sekiro is an exception.

Well, I grumbled about it a bit when I first played through the game, but upon reflection, it made sense if you view the story as a whole. Which, with a Soulsborne game, is really the only way to view the story. 

Outrospection

Overall, Sekiro is a magnificent game. The graphics are great and the animation is top notch. The gameplay is smooth, the combat is rewarding—if you can get into it—and while it has all the trappings of a From Software game, it manages to set itself apart in the best possible ways. 

I like that they chose to make the game a little more accessible story-wise, what with it having an actual protagonist and a narrative structure that runs throughout. However, Sekiro may have alienated more people than it included with its sheer difficulty—and I can say that as someone who died an incalculable number of times to the game’s many, seemingly insurmountable, bosses. 

Overall I’m giving Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice a noble 8.5/10.

Now, If you’ll excuse me, I have to go and finish my second playthrough of this game… because it’s not a From Software game if you don’t miss at least half of the game because of the obtuse way they handle NPC’s and side quests.

Also… I’m a glutton for punishment. 

Late to the Game Reviews, Video Game Reviews

Late To The Game: Bloodborne—Fear The Old Blood…Borne

Bloodborne is the From Software game that put the “borne” in Soulsborne. It was released in 2015 to massive critical acclaim (and the sound of every gamer in the world screaming obscenities at their televisions).

I did not play Bloodborne when it was first released… 

Actually, until recently I’d never played any From Software game. Everyone was always going on and on and on about how hard they were and how many controllers had been laid to rest as a result. So, naturally I avoided them like the plague.

Then, in early 2018, Bloodborne was one of the free Playstation games of the month, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I barely played it for a couple of hours before turning it off. I can only die to regular mobs so many times before I understand my limitations. Also, I’m not that much of a glutton for punishment…

…or I wasn’t, until I played a little game called Hollow Knight. It wasn’t From Software, but that little gem taught me what it was to hone your skills through many deaths and the feel of victory over what seemed insurmountable odds. 

Cut to a couple of weeks ago, and my dad called me and says “Hey, have you played Bloodborne.” To which I said “Yeah, for like an hour and then I shut it off.” 

Well, he’d been playing it recently and he convinced me to give it a try. 

Now that I’ve finally managed to beat it, let me give some perspective to some others who might have been a little gun shy simply because of its reputation or it’s pedigree. 

Not For Everyone

I’m going to start my review with a big old truth-bomb. This game is not for everyone. There are multiple reasons for this. 

The first would be, surprisingly, the genre and setting. You see Bloodborne is… well it’s gross, scary, unsettling, and did I say gross? Well it’s gross. I could use words like atmospheric and whatnot—which it is—but overall it’s a very stressful game because of how tension-inducing it is. People averse to body horror or jump scares should probably stay away. 

Then there is, unsurprisingly, the game’s crippling difficulty. It’s a hard game. There is no getting around that. The first mandatory boss you run into will eviscerate you more times than you can count, especially if you’ve never played a Soulsborne game before. 

This can be more than discouraging. It’s where the term “git good” comes from. While a bit derogatory, it sums up the series pretty well. You will either come to understand the game’s mechanics and acclimate accordingly, or you won’t. 

There is no shame in turning it off & walking away before THIS happens.

I, myself, was defeated by pretty much every boss several times. Every time a new boss would stomp me into the ground before I could even blink, I would immediately get melodramatic and think to myself “I’ll never beat this boss” or “I’m going to be stuck here forever,” but a few tries later I would start to understand what it took to survive. 

Finally, I will cite the game’s lack of hand-holding as a barrier for entry. 

Did I say lack of hand-holding? I meant to cite the Spartan way it kicks you out into the shit and smiles and waves as a werewolf rips out your intestines. 

Sure, there are notes you can read in the Hunter’s Dream, but there are things I’m still learning about this game after having beaten it that would have made my playthrough easier.

The Unseen Story

The story of Bloodborne is largely unimportant to the gameplay. So much so that you could play through the entire game and realize that you have no clue what the hell just happened. I’m still trying to piece it together, though thanks to some well-made Youtube videos, I’ve gotten the gist of it. 

Basically what I’m saying is that if you are looking for a narrative-driven game, look elsewhere. However, if you like to earn your story, this is definitely the game for you.

To fully understand the scope of Bloodborne’s story, you’ll need to read every item description, find every message, fight every boss, and fully explore every area (including the completely optional chalice dungeons). Even then, you may find yourself turning to the internet to fill in the blanks. 

TMW you don’t understand the first YouTube video you find…

I will say that locating the story is totally worth it. Bloodborne is basically one of the most epic Lovecraftian stories ever told. 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know that if all you did was hack your way through the game without taking a look around. Then, the game feels like a bunch of unrelated cutscenes held together by little more than monster guts. 

Weapon of Choice

One of my favorite features of the game is the way they handled weapons. 

You can use any weapon you want, and it’s a legitimate choice. Did you like one of the starting weapons? Well then, keep it. 

Every weapon is upgradable to the same degree. Your +5 Hunter’s Axe that you’ve had since the beginning is just as viable as a +5 Blade of Mercy. It all depends on how you want to play. 

I, myself, was a Blade of Mercy wielder. I liked how fast they struck, and how their damage scaled with the skill stat. Sure, they didn’t hit nearly as hard as other weapons, but once you started a combo, most enemies were dead by the end and had little opportunity to defend themselves from the chainsaw I had become.

The other nice thing about the weapons in Bloodborne is that each and every one has two distinct modes. Simply press L1 and your saw could become an ax, or your short sword could be pulled into two smaller daggers. This gives you a ton of flexibility in a fight, especially since you can carry two melee weapons at a time (giving you four styles to choose from).

Me, with my chosen weapons in hand

If that wasn’t enough for you, then you can also use L1 in the middle of an attack to change the weapon’s form and attack in the same motion. This allows for some interesting combos, and makes it so that you can deal damage without having to slow down your assault.

Obtuse By Orders of Magnitude

One of my least favorite things about Bloodborne was how hard it was to figure anything out. There are a lot of things that the players of this game just take for granted these days, since basically everything can be found online pretty easily. 

I’ll be honest and say that this was the first game in a long time that had me looking up things almost constantly. 

Of course, I’d see a video of someone with an amazing looking weapon and go “How do I get that?”

Well it turns out you had to talk to someone that you didn’t know you could talk to, then get an item that’s so hidden that you have to basically break the game to get to it, then you have to talk to another person at a very specific time, and finally you have to have already done something you didn’t do, so you can’t get it this playthrough. 

I made some of that up… but it’s not far from the mark. Most things in this game felt willfully obtuse, and I applaud the original gamers who found these things out and then shared them with the world. 

I mean, there’s something wrong with those guys, but I thank them anyway.

Tips For New Hunters

I’m just going to list some things I wish I’d known starting out.

  • The more insight you have the harder the game becomes
  • If you do a charged R2 attack directly behind an enemy, you can stagger them and use a visceral attack 
  • If you shoot someone as they are attacking, you can stagger them and do a visceral attack
  • Fire works exceptionally well against beast type enemies 
  • Your weapons degrade over time, but are very cheap to repair
  • Dodging away from an enemy is likely to get you killed. Dodge to the side or forward past them 
  • You can fall quite far without taking fatal amounts of damage
  • Guns do more damage to dogs

There are plenty of other things, but these were the ones that really would have helped. 

The Beckoning Bell

Overall, Bloodborne is a very solid game, albeit hidden behind an exclusionary difficulty wall that many may not be able to overcome. The combat is fluid, once you understand how it works, and is insanely hard but actually pretty fair most of the time… 

…Some of the time. 

The story is amazing, if you can find it, and the atmosphere is relentless to the point that ir starts to get into your head. In other words, it’s a From Software game.

I’m giving Bloodborne a belated 8.5/10. While it’s not my favorite Soulsborne game, it was an experience that will be hard to forget. So if you were on the fence about it, I recommend giving it a try if you have the time and don’t mind dying to the first boss an inordinate number of times. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to go play something bright and colorful to get the sound of squelching blood out of my brain.