E3 2019It’s time for the biggest gaming show of the year. We’ve got articles, videos, podcasts and maybe even a GIF or two.
Game of Thrones and Dark Souls are colliding. A trailer for a new From Software game called Elden Ring was shown at E3 2019’s Microsoft press conference today. The catch: it’s set in a fictional world designed by Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki and best-selling author George R.R. Martin.
Elden Ring’s announcement isn’t a complete surprise, as it was included in a massive leak of Bandai-Namco games that was made public this Friday. A security flaw on the publisher’s website led to the early discovery of games like Elden Ring, a Ni No Kuni remaster, and a new entry in the Tales JRPG series.
The trailer was appropriately vague, talking about a magical Elden Ring that was broken years ago and showing some gnarly fantasy folks living in the resulting dark age. There was no release date attached to the trailer.
Hello! E3 is here, basically, and these past few days have been filled with a bunch of leaks and news. Plus, a giant ladybug invasion and Sega Rally X Simpsons.
I know a lot of people who are very excited about these games.
This isn’t what I wanted from these folks, but I also think this could end up being cool. I assume we will see more very soon.
Ahh, you know it’s E3 when we get the annual Ubisoft leak. Like Old Faithful, you can set your watch to the yearly Ubi leak.
“Cook, Play, Eat!!!” is not the correct order. I would cook, then eat then play. Otherwise, my food might get cold.
I’d play this.
You know on my list of “Things That Might Destroy The World” I didn’t have ladybugs. It is always the enemy you least expect you surprises you.
There has been so much news and info this week that I’ve cut the comments section. Sorry!
Trailers & Videos You May Have Missed
Now you can fail over and over at the raid without a console!
Get hyped, as the kids say.
Ohhh, this looks cool. Didn’t even know about it until a few minutes ago.
I’m always ready for a new game from Remedy.
This is uh… certainly a way to announce this game.
Morning Checkpoint is all about catching you up on the past week, getting you ready for the next week, answering some questions, sharing stories and having a good time. You can email me anything you want or drop a comment below. Suggest tweets, comments, ideas, new sections and more for next week and thanks for reading!
E3 2019It’s time for the biggest gaming show of the year. We’ve got articles, videos, podcasts and maybe even a GIF or two.
A security flaw on publisher Bandai Namco’s website has led to a major new E3 leak that reveals three new games: the rumored From Software-George R.R. Martin collaboration, a new Tales game, and Ni no Kuni remastered.
The leak came through a publicly available link on Bandai Namco’s website, per the website Gematsu (which has full descriptions of each game). Via various posters on ResetEra, the leaks are:
Elden Ring, for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, a new game from the makers of Dark Souls and Sekiro in collaboration with Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin. Turns out all those rumors were indeed true.
There are plenty of tough bosses in Sekiro, from rival swordsmen to dangerous undead monsters. One of the best bosses sounds at first like it would be the silliest: a shit-throwing giant ape. But closer examination of this battle reveals a crash course on how to make a reactive and thematically interesting boss fight. It’s FromSoftware’s speciality on full display.
Sekiro tells the story of a shinobi (named Sekiro) and his quest to protect his lord Kuro. Kuro is also known as the Divine Heir, due to him having a blood connection to an ancient dragon that happens to grant him immortality. He shares this immortality with Sekiro, allowing the shinobi to fight through the nation of Ashina to rescue his lord. Eventually, Kuro asks Sekiro to help him sever the ties of his immortality. To do this, Sekiro needs a special flower that can be found deep in the Sunken Valley. The Sunken Valley also happens to be home to the aforementioned amazing boss fights, a clash against the giant Guardian Ape. They’re a tough, rampaging monster that can give players a lot of trouble. There are a lot of different tactics that can work well against this boss, though.
Sekiro’s combat encounters operate on a similar level to the ones in Mega Man, where using the right tool for each boss can turn them into pushovers. Firecrackers can scare both the Blazing Bull and Sakura Bull of the Palace and make them start running into walls, which will stun them and allow for a one-hit kill. The ghostly version of the Corrupted Monk can be stunlocked by using Snap Seeds, which also drains the Monk’s health. Other bosses are weak to certain techniques, like how Genichiro Ashina crumbles when you turn his lightning attacks against him. The Guardian Ape doesn’t have just one neat weakness. Instead, there are numerous ways to gain an advantage. Firecrackers can scare them into a frenzy, while oil and fire can burn them alight. While other bosses have more of a lock-and-key design, the Guardian Ape rewards player creativity by reacting in different ways to a variety of tactics.
It’s also a playful fight, particularly in how it transitions from the first to the second phase. Most bosses in Sekiro have two health bars that you need to clear. The Guardian Ape only has one at first. If you deplete this bar, you perform a shinobi execution and cut off the ape’s head. After a moment, the ape rises again as a headless, sword-carrying monstrosity. It’s a cheeky subversion of expectations that takes many players unaware.
Once the Ape loses their head, different tactics become more effective. In the second phase, Phoenix’s Lilac Umbrellacan negate the ape’s massive scream attack. (This attack can build up the ‘terror’ status effect and instantly kill players.) If you stab at the boss with the loaded spear, you can pull out the centipede infesting the body. Between the raw challenge of the Ape, their tricky resurrection, and the way the boss reacts to so many different tools, this is one really well-designed fight.
The Guardian Ape is also a strong example of FromSoft’s storytelling prowess. Sekiro has many boss fights and encounters that aren’t always given much context. For every standoff against a fleshed-out characters like the dangerous general Genichiro Ashina, there are plenty of random battles against fire-horned bulls and dark magicians like the Shicimen Warrior. The Guardian Ape seems arbitrary at first, but over time, items and events connect this boss back to individual character storylines and Sekiro’s broader themes. Like many things in a FromSoft title, there’s a greater context.
Ultimately, the Guardian Ape connects to the story of the Sculptor. At the start of the game, after Sekrio is defeated and loses an arm, the Sculptor provides a replacement. Over time, particularly if the player shares sake with him, we learn more about the Sculptor’s past. Specifically, we learn about his time as a masterless shinobi called Orangutan. He and his partner would train in the Sunken Valley among the apes. His partner had a fondness for whistling with his fingers. When you defeat the Guardian Ape, you find the Finger Whistle shinobi tool. Presenting it to the Sculptor prompts a nostalgic response. Later on, an upgraded version of the finger whistle called the Malcontent can be used while fighting the optional Demon of Hatred boss fight. The demon turns out to actually be the Sculptor, transformed by rage into a large, almost ape-like form. The Guardian Ape helps round out the world by having a connection to the Sculptor—the Ape is either a warped, transformed version of the Sculptor’s partner, or simply ate him—and providing something of a counterpart to the Sculptor, who ends up taking on a demonic, unnatural form. The Ape is a natural beast kept alive by a literal parasite. The Demon of Hatred is a man warped into a similarly raging best due to different kinds of parasites: greed and anger.
Sekiro focuses on questions of immortality and power. Sekiro’s lord Kuro wants to undo their immortal bloodline. Genichiro Ashina feeds on Rejuvenating Waters to rise from a fatal blow after his boss fight. Parasites infect the Guardian Ape and Corrupted Monk, granting them a twisted eternal life. The monks in Senpou Temple abandon their duties in search of immortality. Sekiro himself cannot truly die either. This lack of death is a bad thing. Sekiro is explicitly a Buddhist text. Buddhists believe in the concept of Saṃsāra, the repeated process of birth, death, and rebirth. All life is suffering, and this cycle only ends when one achieves vimutti, an escape from this cycle of suffering. Characters in Sekiro exist outside of the traditional cycle of rebirth, either by a deliberate pursuit of immortality or accidental twist of fate.
The Guardian Ape ties into this larger theme. Ashina is not simply a war-torn nation, it’s also a place where nature itself is twisted and misaligned with the cosmic order. If the goal of living creatures is to achieve Nirvana and exist in a state where there’s no more rebirth, characters like Sekiro and the Guardian Ape have achieved a twisted, tragic version of this ideal. No more rebirth. The catch is there’s still plenty of suffering.
The Guardian Ape boss fight can be frustrating at times, with irregular attack patterns and the ability to absorb a lot of damage. Hell, even after you defeat them here, you’ll still have to face them again later on in the game. That resilience and annoying persistence comes paired with a consideration for player’s various tools and a broader connection to Sekiro’s themes. It’s an intense challenge that rewards ingenuity while also tying into the rest of the game’s story. It’s still an ape throwing shit at you. But it turns out that the shit is actually pretty deep.
Sekiro makes it a point to push back at players. From difficult bosses to winding world design, there’s friction that players need to fight against. Speedrunners and glitch hunters buck that trend. Last night while playing it, I broke out of bounds and it was a reminder of how even the most tightly composed game worlds hide beauty behind the scenes.
It started when I watched speedrunner Elajjaz skip the boss fight against the Blazing Bull by jumping off a tree in the Ashina Outskirts, hopping on a wall, and traveling around the boss arena. As someone who likes to recreate the glitches I see other players perform, I did the trick in my New Game Plus playthrough. The timing takes a few attempts to get right but after a few minutes there I was, looking out over a massive void, standing where players were never meant to go.
I’ve said before that I enjoy broken games. Seeing the cracks and seams is an oddly intimate affair. Breaking out of bounds in Sekiro is both a chance to see the world for what it is, and to assert a different kind of freedom and expression beyond learning boss attack patterns.
From Software games depend on a very particular form of deliberate design. You progress from one area to another, clashing against enemies in a tricky but gradual curve upwards in difficulty. Areas circle around on themselves, containing shortcuts and set piece locations that players are meant to hit in a loosely guided order. It’s possible to go elsewhere—for instance, you can go to Dark Souls’ Blighttown before reaching the Undead Parish that you’re arguably meant to reach first—but there tends to be an invisible hand guiding you from one boss encounter to the next.
Breaking out of bounds or skipping a boss shatters that intentionality. It’s a sort of transgression, a vaguely criminal act where the player places themselves and their agency over both the designer’s intention and the “reality” of the game world. In Sekiro, that’s particularly liberating.
It’s also beautiful. When you break out of bounds in modern games, you usually get to see the world in an incomplete state. This is because games “cull” necessary geometry to save on data. Breaking out of bounds makes it difficult for games to detect where you are, which means you’re treated to images that can be strangely, accidentally evocative. Tangled trees hang in the void, soldiers stand guard in front of gates that don’t exist, bridges cross impossible gaps, and glowing items twinkle in emptiness like stars.
In some ways, you learn what things are more important. What does Sekiro draw in first? Enemies and items usually, but also trees and mountains. It saves buildings and their facets for last, assembling them piecemeal. Sekiro is partially about the fall of the nation of Ashina and the degradation of man-made structures compared to the immutability of nature. There’s the majesty of heavenly spaces and the harshness of reality, which is always on the razor’s edge of crumbling. That theme is made even more obvious when you’re outside Ashina’s boundaries. It’s not intentional, but when I see Ashina Castle broken into fragments it makes me even more aware of how precarious the nation-state’s situation is.
Glitches achieve a lot of different things all at once. They’re an intimate peek behind the scenes, they’re sneaky little game-crimes against designer intent, and they’re a chance to see the world from a new perspective. For Sekiro, breaking the game’s structure calls to mind the fall of Ashina and declining dynasty. Also, it looks really cool.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice often boils down to intense sword fights between stern warriors, but a little trickery never hurt. One shinobi tool stands out with defensive capabilities that make difficult encounters much more manageable. It can turn even undead monsters and literal demons into pushovers. It’s also a humble umbrella.
When I played through Sekiro, I didn’t use that many prosthetic arm upgrades besides the Firecrackers. The little explosives stun enemies and interrupt attacks, buying time to escape or land extra hits.As I prepared for my second playthrough and cleared out some remaining side bosses, I decided to experiment with my ninja gadgets. The Loaded Umbrella, Sekiro’s version of a shield, didn’t seem particularly remarkable at first. But it turns out that its upgrades, which resist everything ranging from hellfire to ghostly energy beams, are worth investing in.
To get the Loaded Umbrella, you need to buy the Iron Fortress material from Blackhat Badger in Ashina Castle. After that, you’re able to unlock the Loaded Umbrella and craft through the tool tree to get special variations. This can take some work. For instance, if you want the undead-resisting Phoenix’s Lilac Umbrella, you first need to craft the Mountain Echo whistle and Loaded Umbrella – Magnet variation. It’s worth it, though. All those pesky Headless who were hounding you throughout the game? The ones you really needed to use the stat-boosting Divine Confetti item to stand a chance against? The Lilac Umbrella turns them into a nonfactor, especially if you have the Projected Force skills from the Prosthetic Arts tree. It allows you to attack out of your umbrella’s defensive stance, imbuing your sword with the same attribute the umbrella has. Here I am using it against an annoying Shichimen Warrior, whose projectiles can cause instant death.
I almost feel a little bad for using the umbrella. There’s a part of me that wants to do it the tricky way, but Sekiro’s shinobi tools take the adaptability of Bloodborne’s trick weapons and add a little Mega Man lock-and-key design to the combat. Sekiro is an action game, and I’ve loved playing it as one, but using the Lilac Umbrella to defeat undead foes makes it clear that Sekiro is also functioning a bit like a puzzle game.
For instance, bringing Suzaku’s Lotus Umbrella radically changed my fight against the Demon of Hatred. They’re one of the toughest bosses in the game, a rampaging beast who looks like the long-lost cousin of Manus from Dark Souls. One of their attacks is to leap into the air and slam down, creating a massive wave of fire. It’s hard to dodge, but using the right umbrella negates a majority of the damage. In a game where you’re mostly at a constant disadvantage, having any kind of leg up on the enemy is appreciated.
The umbrella has me eager to experiment with more options on my second playthrough. Used wisely, the prosthetic upgrades capture the ninja fantasy of using brains as much as brawn to survive. Think smart and plan ahead, and if you have the right tools, you can thrive in even the most dire situations. That’s exciting, doubly so when it can allow you to stand tall against the game’s toughest bosses.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
I finished Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice earlier this week and had a fantastic time learning its combat and tackling challenging bosses. I’m eager to play more and if I want to, I could start right over with New Game Plus. Taking that plunge, however, has me wondering about the experience I’ll have. If the joy of Sekiro comes from overcoming challenges, will I have the same satisfaction now that I know what lays in store?
Sekiro’s one of the best games I’ve played in a long time, each new pathway revealing interesting secrets or leading me toward exciting swordfights. Even though I chimed in on the comments of my Kotaku colleague Joshua Rivera’s article yesterday about easy modes to say that I think it would be fine for Sekiro to have one, it’s also the case that, for me personally, the appeal of a FromSoftware game has always come from stumbling against difficult challenges and eventually overcoming them. I clashed against the final boss for a little over a day before I finally beat it. I even streamed some of my attempts live on Kotaku’s Twitch channel. When I finally overcame the challenge and finished the game, the feeling was euphoric. So euphoric that I can’t wait to play again. But as I sat down at the sculptor’s idol in the Dilapidated Temple, I paused.
This is partly because there are still some lingering tasks left for me in the world. My initial playthrough was comprehensive—I got the somewhat hidden “Return” ending—but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for me to wrap up. I still need to talk with Hanbei again and put an end to his story. There are a handful of items and upgrades that I could buy and carry into my new playthrough. And although I already took down a majority of the bosses, I know there are some rogue Headless and mini-bosses out there in the world that I could hunt down. It might be nice to head into a new playthrough only after gathering some of their prayer beads and upgrading my stats, even if FromSoft’s New Game Plus experience scales enemies to keep things difficult.
Still, as I sit here, looking at the game on my TV, I keep thinking about what made Sekiro and, by extension, all FromSoftware games appealing to me. There’s some lightning that I can’t put back into the bottle—the excitement of discovering the game’s challenges for the very first time. Part of what I really loved about Sekiro was learning to grasp its combat system. It’s not too complicated, especially now that I understand it, but in my first time playing through the game, I experienced the satisfying process of going from newbie shinobi to veritable parry-queen. That learning experience is part of what made Sekiro so intoxicating to me. Going into a new game having already flexed those muscles means that a certain degree of challenge will be gone, as will the learning experience I loved from before. I’m excited to tackle old challenges with the benefit of my improved skill, but it definitely won’t be the same.
I’ll also have greater knowledge of the world’s layout and won’t get to enjoy the process of getting lost and stumbling into new surprises. I’ll be able to explore more confidently, and Sekiro’s world has enough branching paths that I won’t completely recreate my journey from before. Still, though, I won’t be as surprised by vistas or baffled by new enemies. Once you know a thing, some of the initial magic is lost. And while I am sure I’ll still love playing Sekiro, it’s definitely going to lose some of that mysterious luster.
All that said, I’ll almost certainly start my second playthrough this week, but I can’t help but notice my hesitation to hit the X button on my controller and simply go for it. Sekiro’s different now. In a game built around learning and exploration, having knowledge radically alters the experience. Still fun, still sure to challenge me from time to time, but different. That’s fine, but maybe I’ll take a little break before starting things up again.
In video games, easy is a dirty word, even when it shouldn’t be. There’s something about the word “easy” that rubs some players as condescending, something that we should maybe leave behind—except where we shouldn’t. Like in FromSoftware games and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a game that finds itself plagued by a debate that is, by now, familiar: Should it have an easy mode?
Despite Sekiro’s departure from many of the gameplay elements that made FromSoft series Dark Souls and Bloodborne infamously difficult, many players have the same takeaway about the game: it’s hard. Some say it’s too hard, and that it should have an easy mode. Since FromSoftware has spent the last decade crafting games that notably exclude easy modes, the notion that they might suddenly be introduced feels borderline heretical.
Like pledging a fraternity, a From game becomes a little bit more than a game when everyone who’s finished it has had to endure the same litany of absurd, theatrical challenges. Finish a From game, and you belong to an exclusive club full of other people who get it. Furthermore, Sekiro removes one of the biggest options that previous From games provided to players stymied by difficulty: the ability to summon other players for help. As a result, talking about Sekiro can easily shift to talking about you, all the things you did to beat its many challenges, and your personal case for why you earned your spot in Club Sekiro.
To some, difficulty is fundamental to the FromSoftware experience. It informs every aspect of the company’s design philosophy. From’s spare style of storytelling, largely conveyed through cryptic item descriptions and subtle environmental clues, works better when you are forced to go through levels again and again. The stories these games tell often carry themes that revolve around decay or the loss of humanity. Failure allows you to both grasp the story and directly engage with it, completing the circuit. In Sekiro, these ideas are brought into focus in an unusually clear manner for FromSoftware; dying and resurrection are an explicit mechanic with which you interact, and the game’s story plainly contemplates what that might cost. This all makes for a compelling case that Sekiromust be difficult, because difficulty is the point.
Part of the trouble is that “difficulty” can mean so many different things.
There are myriad ways video games can turn the dials on various systems to change our assessment of how “hard” they seem, and many developers have done as much without compromising the quality or integrity of their games.Consider Halo in the Bungie era. One of the understandings between the developers and the players was that Heroic difficulty was Halo as the studio intended it to be played, with entirely different enemy behaviors and placement. Easy and Normal were there to welcome anyone who needed it, and even if it required less from you, you might’ve still found yourself engaged by the game’s story.
Devil May Cry 5 clearly wants you to play stylishly, and the combination of the recommended “Devil Hunter” difficulty and the way the game scores every combat encounter reminds you of that. But bumping down the difficulty and cheesing demons with clumsy combos doesn’t ruin the game, either. Adding an easy mode has never ruined a game.
Some of the people arguing for an easy mode in Sekiro aren’t just doing it because they refuse to unlearn or adjust their normal play habits. As frequent Kotaku contributor GB “Doc” Burford has written, players who suffer from chronic pain or significant physical disability can find the skill threshold in From games wholly insurmountable. “With my chronic pain and fatigue issues,” Burford writes, “rapidly mashing buttons in games like Bayonetta or God of War can be physically draining,” and the die-and-repeat rhythm that FromSoft bosses like Bloodborne’s Father Gasciogne demand causes tremendous pain to accrue in his hand.
I myself deal with occasional chronic pain that’s only alleviated by a brace. When I put it on, I am ten percent clumsier with a controller, making Sekiro ten percent harder. Can I rise to meet that extra ten percent? Maybe. Should I be expected to? That’s a different question. Some people with disabilities may not need adjustments, but that’s exactly the point: “Hard” means different things to different people.
An easy mode can also offer an entirely different but equally desirable experience. To some, it could be the secret to making a game like Wolfenstein: The New Colossus go from “hardcore old-school shooter” that turns them off to “ridiculously apt Terror-Billy simulator” that brings them along for the ride. A concession on difficulty can lead to you discovering all sorts of things you might not otherwise appreciate in a game.
Sekiro and other From Software games aren’t necessarily about being “hard” in the first place—not specifically, at least. They are, as FromSoftware director Hidetaka Miyazaki said, about letting “players experience a sense of accomplishment through overcoming difficulties.” As accessibility expert Ian Hamilton noted on Twitter, there are many ways this could be accomplished.
Would this mean that some players might miss whatever point the game is trying to make? Sure. Movies with closed captioning for the hearing impaired are making a concession, tacitly acknowledging that a fundamental part of the experience will not be appreciated. It’s also possible, as an able-bodied, neurotypical human being, to completely miss the point of a film and believe yourself to be right. Games, like just about every other art form, don’t always explain their creator’s intent. Not all of it. That’s for us to sort out. And there’s nothing wrong with letting more of us try.
In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the thread between life and death is tenuous. As the One-Armed Wolf, a loyal shinobi seeking to save a young noble with a cursed bloodline, you traverse a feudal Japan so saturated with the remnants of war that the idea of mortality becomes fickle: dead bodies blending in with the local flora and fauna, so many wounded soldiers sharing their last words that you could create a compendium of the lost. This is all underscored by a cruel and ultimately grueling irony—you cannot die.
Sekiro plays often with its sense of tone. The earnest solemnity of a samurai film is undercut by darkly absurd and comically bleak moments. There’s a training section offered to you by a man who exists only to die for you over and over, and he’s kind of chill about it. “Hey man,” he might as well say. “Wanna mess around and kill me a little more for practice?” Having an understandable existential crisis stemming from his inability to die, he asks you to murder him with the same casual listlessness of a lonely friend asking you over to watch the game for the third time this week. Death is kind of a joke, and it’s that exact sentiment that’s plunged the game’s world into utter chaos.
The player quickly becomes the butt of that joke, as Sekiro is punishingly difficult. (This should be shocking to roughly no one, given that it’s made by From Software, developer of the infamously challenging Souls games and Bloodborne.) The combat requires real attention to detail and a willingness to drill down on a few sets of possible reactions. Boss and mid-boss battles are a furious interplay of choreographed patterns mixed with improvisation. First you learn an enemy’s moves; then, maybe five or 10 deaths later, the real battle begins. Learning the early boss Lady Butterfly’s attack patterns is that much more satisfying because the presentation is excellent. She moves like a dancer, and her attack animations tell a story.
I found myself deeply immersed in the way these battles worked, obsessing over each animation, every cue, every possible breakaway combination that could happen as a result of my own reactions. Combat in Sekiro is like a dance, but it’s also like a series of the fastest-ever choose-your-own-adventure branches: Parrying this leads to a thrust. Not blocking leads to a sweep. With the addition of shinobi prosthetics and skills, all of which can be upgraded via skill trees, the options open up immensely. As stubborn as Sekiro is in forcing players to learn how each enemy telegraphs its moves, there are still lots of ways to approach each encounter.
For example, there’s this one tough boss fight in a poison pit. Enormous statues of Buddha protrude from the sickly seaweed-colored lake, their palms outstretched for you to land in as a Snake-Eyes gunner’s shots explode in a firecracker flare of twining lights. You can dodge and dash and soar through the air and ultimately clash with her, or you can bait her into the poison pool and sit atop a cliff face while her health slowly, slowly, painfully slowly drains. The game had just given me a tip about enemies in poisonous areas having a higher poison resistance—I couldn’t tell whether it was warning me not to use the poison or coaxing me into it. I took my win and kept it moving all the same, quietly deciding that maybe that was the only cheese strategy I wanted to use during this playthrough. Generally, that worked out well. As I fought and fought and fought, I found often that playing and dying a lot, resting, and coming back actually made things—this word comes up often in discussions about FromSoftware games—click.
Sekiro’s combat relies on two stats called Vitality, which is health, and Posture, represented by a meter that builds as you’re essentially knocked off balance. Your enemy has the same meters. The higher the Posture meter gets, the less poised you become. The lower your Vitality gets, the faster your Posture meter rises. If your Posture meter maxes out, you’re susceptible to any attack from an opponent, which often results in a substantial punish. If you max out your opponent’s Posture bar, you’re able to perform a deathblow and either kill them or remove a full bar of their health. Generally, this system rewards aggressive gameplay and strategically applying pressure. It’s hectic and can be an absolute blast.
What wasn’t a blast was the feeling that I was repeating myself. Sekiro’s winding world is full of near-duplicate mini-boss fights, and I often found myself asking why. I’m guessing the developers of the game were trying to coax the player into reconsidering their approaches to boss fights, but I found that I wasn’t really forced to do that in several of these repeat encounters, nor did I even really feel the satisfaction of being able to curb stomp an enemy that had previously led me to struggle. Fortunately, most of these encounters are optional, and while they are necessary for a completionist run (and to be fair, not that much of a time sink), I found myself thankful that I could just pass on them.
You do a lot of passing in Sekiro, which is as much a game about stealth as it is about swordplay and shinobi arts. The game’s stealth started off exciting. It was thrilling and fun to discover new enemy patterns and layouts, dig into how my tools and items worked, and quickly face-plant into the consequences of failure. But as the game progressed, I found myself tired of dodging around random mooks who I could easily kill one-on-one or even one-on-two, even when they were eventually flanked by stronger ninja and new, more disciplined samurai types. That was compounded by the fact that enemies’ intelligence didn’t appear to grow any more complex and seemed to differ mostly in range of vision, hearing, and how long enemies would stare in your general direction after spotting you. Most of the stealth sections felt interchangeable.
But then there are stealth moments that Sekiro gets really, really right. In addition to a couple unique chase sequences that I won’t spoil, there’s a particularly striking boss encounter in the late mid-game that has stuck with me. It’s more of a hunt than a fight, meaning stealth is key, and there’s a very light puzzle element that makes the change of pace from normal combat deeply refreshing. Mounting pressure from a growing wave of surrounding enemies escalates the difficulty, creating a totally different challenge from what I’d already seen. It’s really, really good. There’s also a stealth portion in the endgame that’s so punishing it skirts the line of being interesting, but I still found myself largely over that aspect by the time the game was done and feeling like it could have gone so much farther.
The music, mostly sparse, works well when it does show up. Atmospheric touches go a long way to give the string-laden tracks depth and dimension. The encounter music in a monastery area, for example, is underscored by the deep rumble of throat chanting, highlighting the atmospheric differences from other areas you’ve been in and underscoring the underlying theme: These monks have strayed from enlightenment. A normally meditative and harmonious sound is used to creepy, otherworldly effect, highlighting something the mid- and late-game locales completely nail: The line between life and death is blurred, and with it, death creeps into the mortal world in horrifying ways.
That theme is also served in interesting ways by the non-linearity of Sekiro’s world. I explored areas I didn’t yet need to visit before progressing the story, and by the time it pivoted even further into the themes of decay and immortality, I had seen for myself parts of the world warped into grotesque and eldritch forms by the quest for eternal life, which made my foray into the next parts of the game that much more poignant. I also felt a sense of accomplishment and was thrilled to realize that I had already nearly completed certain quest objectives, adding to the sense I already had that the world folded in on itself in interesting and rewarding ways. I finally came to understand the way that immortality really figured into the story.
The Wolf’s own immortality comes with a price: When you die, the non-player characters you’ve met and befriended will grow infected with a plague called Dragonrot. The illness is apparently deadly, but it won’t kill anyone, and it can be cured in-game via items. You can’t access sidequests and certain lines of dialogue from ill NPCs, but the story otherwise goes unaffected. I initially found this a little anticlimactic, but now that I consider it more of a background story beat than a truly important mechanic, I feel it has a place in the game. I do wish there were more real implications of inflicting it on those around you, though. What would it look like for Dragonrot to have permanent effects on the game? Probably a lot of rage quits.
The game’s death mechanics do more for the themes than the actual gameplay, and that’s fine. You lose money and experience toward skill points when you die, which was deeply distressing in my early gameplay but ultimately became trivial as I learned to use cash-storing coin purses and keep an eye out for how much experience I might stand to lose at any given moment. I got more strategic about who to engage and when, and how to prepare for those engagements. Then there’s Unseen Aid, a blessing from on high that sometimes triggers when you die without an available resurrection, preventing you from losing your resources upon death. It starts with a 30 percent chance of activation and reduces even further when the characters are inflicted by Dragonrot. As a result, I never even thought to rely on it. But again, like the Dragonrot itself, it meshes with the game’s religious overtones, so I was able to appreciate it on some level.
Sekiro gets a whole lot right. Its themes permeate its feudal Japan in a compelling way, and for the most part, the gameplay is deeply satisfying. There are things it could do better, particularly avoiding repetition, but the notes Sekiro does hit are memorable enough that the slog doesn’t totally ruin the flow of gameplay, and the inertia into the end of the game carries strong. The challenge Sekiro presents is daunting and time-consuming. Ultimately, the question I had coming in was, “Will this be worth it?” After moving through countless cycles of life and death, tensing, raging, and finally, conquering my challenges and letting go of my anger like Buddha, I decided that it was.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
Last weekend, I tried to jump into some video games. I spent a couple of minutes with the very flawed Anthem, briefly glanced at the Tales of Vesperia remaster on my Switch, and even started a new file in Final Fantasy IX, one of my favorite classic role-playing games. All of these games had one problem in common: They weren’t Bloodborne.
Not long ago, I knew very little about From Software’s 2015 action game. I had played a few hours but gave up shortly afterward, thinking it wasn’t for me. Then, in January of this year, a lost Kotaku Splitscreen bet got me begrudgingly restarting Bloodborne from the very beginning, and now I realize I was about as ignorant as Micolash thinking he could contact the Great Ones by putting on a Mensis Cage.
Bloodborne is incredible. It’s mind-blowingly good. From the terror of a surprise Hunter attack robbing thousands of your blood echoes to the glorious satisfaction of killing Martyr Logarius after 50-something tries, Bloodborne is a game full of emotional moments that burrow deeply inside of your brain and never come out. This is a masterpiece, a game that’s dripping with lore and texture, one that’s always challenging but never cheap or insurmountable.
I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly what makes Bloodborne feel so special, and I don’t know if that’s really possible. It’s a combination of everything—the way it feels to swing a giant axe down on the head of a squishy monster, the way it rewards careful exploration and play, the way its story takes work to uncover and then is all the more satisfying when it finally clicks. The way you can read online that everyone thinks Ludwig is one of the game’s most difficult bosses, then defeat him in just a couple of tries. (Eat it, Ludwig.)
And it’s ruining other games for me. I’m currently in the thick of Bloodborne’s downloadable content, having already beaten most of the game’s normal bosses, and I don’t know what I’m going to do when it’s all over. What’s going to compare to reaching the Nightmare Frontier for the first time? What could surpass my feeling when I finally realized that the way to beat Vicar Amelia was to turn off target locking? What other game has the weight of Bloodborne’s sword swings and the thrill of its Visceral attacks?
It’s gotten to the point where when I’m not playing Bloodborne, I’m watching Bloodborne lore videos and reading Bloodborne wikipedia pages to try to wrap my head around the story of Master Willem and crew. Obsession might be an understatement.
My next boss is the lovely Maria, and I’ve heard I’ll be in for one hell of a ride when I get to Laurence and the Orphan of Kos. But I’m already dreading what’ll happen after that. I’ll feel hollow inside, like nothing else can compare. At least there’s New Game Plus.