Sekiro is a game by the creators of Dark Souls. I gave it a try because Roarke said it fixed my complaints with Dark Souls. I would say it mostly does, but it also has problems of its own.
The first, and possibly weirdest, thing is that if I didn’t know anything about the creators I would have assumed this was by a Western studio with an embarrassingly surface-level understanding of Japanese culture. The main character is ostensibly a ninja, but he behaves and fights like a samurai and is garbage at actual ninja stuff as basic as climbing. The combat system is based around flynning, which is absurd given the fragility of Japanese swords. The whole thing feels like it’s emulating anime and movie sword fights more than anything historical, which, okay, sure, that probably works better for a video game, but was medieval Japan really the best choice for a game centered around smacking swords together?
I also get the impression that the reason there wasn’t much plot in Dark Souls is because they’re just not very good at writing. The opening shows the player character getting captured and thrown in a pit, where he proceeds to decide to lie down and die even though his master is imprisoned practically right around the corner. Once he find the motivation to escape, he does so trivially because there are no guards or restraints, which is then pointed out in dialogue only for the explanation to be “eh, we didn’t bother because we’re pretty sure he’s too depressed to do anything” — why didn’t you just kill him then? Then more guards helpfully explain that there’s a giant hole in the prison wall that they haven’t bothered to fix because they’re lazy. Then you rescue your lord through said hole and he tells you to escape through a secret passage, at which point you walk out the front door and murder the entire encampment, because you’re such a stealthy ninja.
I feel this would all make more sense if our character was a samurai with some ninja training rather than an actual ninja, which would also have the bonus of explaining why people keep underestimating him. Instead we’re made to believe this guy who’s awesome at sword duels and terrible at stealth is totally a ninja.
Anyway, next you get ambushed by an unbeatable boss who chops your arm off, at which point instead of dying from blood loss a deus-ex-machina NPC shows up out of nowhere to give you a magic prosthetic that is never explicitly mentioned to be magical despite clearly being so. Then you meet the tutorial NPC, who is an unkillable zombie that lets you practice your killing techniques on him but won’t fight your enemies for you, because [not found]. Then you go through tons of effort to rescue your lord again from the evil villain (who, uh… wants to save his country from being conquered by invaders), at which point the ungrateful brat says “Actually, I think immortality sucks, so I’m going to reward your loyal service by turning you mortal and destroying my immortality powers so no one can use them ever again, because immortality is such a curse,” and you have to help him do this or else you become an evil warlord who massacres thousands of people for no reason (as opposed to all the killing you do in normal gameplay, which is fine). Why is so much media written by death cultists?
Speaking of which, one of the things I did like about Dark Souls was how diegetic all the gameplay elements were — the corpse run mechanic was a part of the lore. Here, they can’t seem to decide whether it’s diegetic or not. We are told that your lord’s blessing makes you immortal… which is represented by an ability that lets you resurrect immediately after death, but only once, after which you seemingly die for real and get sent back to the last checkpoint. Except we are later told that there is an in-universe effect from you dying this way, which implies you are resurrecting in-universe when you respawn, except cutscenes always play exactly the same on a respawn, implying this is a standard “that never happened” type of video game death. It’s all very confusing.
Even more egregiously, you have to kill bosses multiple times (with extremely gruesome, definitely fatal “deathblow” attacks) for them to die for real, with no in-universe explanation for this. They don’t even visibly resurrect like you do, you stab them through the heart and they barely even flinch. They could have easily tossed out a line explaining this! There are even enemies you fight later who have multiple lives in-universe and have to be killed with a special anti-immortal sword! But no. Sometimes multiple lives are diegetic and sometimes they’re not, inexplicably.
Oh, and also there are heretical Buddhists doing horribly immoral things to become immortal, because only evil people could ever want immortality. I must be missing some important cultural context, because I am baffled why a Buddhist would want to be immortal. Are they so certain they’ll go to turbohell that they think infesting themselves with centipede demons is a better idea?
The whole story feels really incoherent and like there were two separate narratives competing for attention. The core story is about helping your whiny death cultist lord die, which is an extremely narrow and philosophical narrative about a few characters’ personal beliefs, but it’s against a backdrop of the much more realistic story of a country getting ravaged by civil war and people getting murdered constantly, which really ought to be way more important. The two only interact by the normies begging the lord to save them, which he refuses because he’s a whiny death cultist who thinks not wanting you and everyone you love to die horribly ~corrupts the hearts of men~. The soldiers and civilians slaughtered by the thousands (some by your own hand) don’t matter, only whiny lordlings are people.
Other than that, I’m pleased to report that Roarke was correct, and the game fixes almost all my issues with Dark Souls! You can jump with a single button press, and you jump multiple times your height like the video game gods intended. Bottomless pits only take a chunk of health instead of killing you outright, also like the video game gods intended, and you have a grappling hook that frequently lets you save yourself from bad falls. (There are also way fewer of them.) Enemies are no longer too big for the screen. You’re explicitly notified when you can backstab enemies, and backstabs are instant kills. There’s no equipment and only two stats. Leveling up lets you progress a skill tree rather than increasing stats, which I much prefer. These are all much-appreciated changes that make the whole experience much more streamlined and coherent, and which frankly Dark Souls should have had from the beginning.
(The one problem that does carry over from Dark Souls is getting murdered by the camera all the time. Stop trying to make action games with an unfixed camera! It doesn’t work! I can’t execute split-second reaction gameplay when my camera has clipped into a wall!)
The most interesting departure from Dark Souls is the combat system. Most of the boss fights in Dark Souls were battles of attrition where you spent most of your time dodging until you found an opening, then got a single hit in and repeated the process. This isn’t actually very engaging, as it can be slow and tedious, and tends to encourage using the same strategy every time.
Sekiro‘s developers have said they wanted to do something different that better emulated the pop-culture sword duels they were so inspired by. They do this by giving characters two separate health values: One is standard health, and the other is “posture”, a measure of your ability to block attacks. Unlike health, posture regenerates over time, requiring you to press a constant offensive. When an opponent’s posture breaks, you can kill them instantly regardless of how much health they have. The game encourages you to engage with this mechanic by giving difficult enemies extremely high health but manageable posture, making it difficult and tedious to whittle them down like you would a Dark Souls boss and much more rewarding to blitz them to a posture kill through masterful offense. This made me pay attention to and engage with enemies’ attack patterns at a depth I don’t think I’ve done since Hollow Knight — certainly not in Dark Souls. Despite almost every enemy being a human swordsman, they all had unique, interesting, and well-animated fighting styles that made everything an engaging fight. I felt much more proud of my successes and responsible for my failures, as opposed to feeling like I was cheesing things when I won and unfairly screwed over when I lost.
My most substantial criticism is that your abilities are very poorly balanced. You’re given a lot of different sword techniques and subweapons to play with, but in practice, Ichimonji, the firecrackers, and the umbrella are just so good there’s no point in using anything else. It’s a shame because I really wanted to try out everything, but everything else is so situational or inferior I just never saw the point. I managed to get some use out of Nightjar Slash against some opponents, but it was still too slow for proper hit-and-run tactics, and the combat arts that cost spirit emblems were just never worth it. And I never figured out how to use the Mist Raven at all. The designers probably could have trimmed this down to focus on a few core abilities instead.
My much pettier criticism is that medieval Japan is the worst possible setting for this battle system. When I initially heard about the posture system, I thought it was meant to model the fact that real samurai duels are ended with a single direct hit. But… no, you can still land direct hits outside of deathblows that only take off a tiny sliver of health just like in other video games. Somehow this bothers me more than parrying with katanas — that I can forgive because it’s cool, but this… isn’t. It just makes my attacks feel lame and weak and my opponents superhuman, like most video game health systems do. I don’t fully begrudge it because the dual-health system does make for good gameplay and encourages diverse tactics, but it’s just so ridiculous.
Ironically enough, I think a European setting could have modeled the posture system perfectly. European swords were sturdier than Japanese swords but not as sharp, which allowed them to be used for parries but meant direct hits weren’t always fatal, especially if your opponent was well-armored. Fatal strikes in European battles were often dealt through half-swording, a difficult technique that targeted weak points in armor. Sekiro‘s system of direct hits only dealing flesh wounds with the goal being to stagger opponents long enough to perform a deathblow would make perfect sense in that setting. Alas, FromSoftware already used European settings for their last five games, so I can understand them wanting to make a change, but it’s a shame there’s such a disconnect between mechanics and setting right when they decided to change both.