Is Sekiro Good?
Is Sekiro good? It took me 62 hours to finish my first playthrough. A day or so later, I started a new game on a fresh save. And I’m still not sure I have an answer to this question.
I can very clearly remember my first evening spent with Sekiro. I reached General Kawarada, a mini-boss, and the game’s first real test. In addition to the standard collection of sword swings, he has two unblockable moves--a sweep and a grab. Jump over the sweep, dodge away from the grab. On paper, it’s simple. But I couldn’t see the difference between these two moves to save my life (literally, in Sekiro’s case.) I also hadn’t realized yet that you could sneak around mini-bosses to backstab them and cut the fight instantly in half. I died and died and died. Kawarada is optional; you can run right past him, but if I was struggling this hard on an early mini-boss, how would I be able to get past the game’s real challenges?
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to play this game,” I said and went to bed, defeated.
When I first played Bloodborne, I had a similar experience. The opening of Bloodborne is brutal in its own way. You don’t get the ability to level up your character until you get your first Insight (one of the game’s special currencies), typically by reaching the game’s first boss. The game doesn’t explain this. The first test is your ability to even reach that first boss, following a path full of literal torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mobs. I spent four hours trying to get through this area, unable to even find the first boss.
Bloodborne went on to be one of my favorite games of all time. Its difficulty demands that you be patient and overcome your fear. Look for your opportunities to attack and take advantage of them, but back off before you run out of stamina. Even so, as I was struggling through Sekiro’s early challenges, I found myself asking “Why am I doing this again?”
The answer to that question is in what comes after you finally beat a boss, when you open up a new area to explore and start picking your way through it, uncovering its secrets. Sekiro’s explorable spaces aren’t quite as intricate as earlier Soulsborne games, but exploring them is a rich experience all the same because of the game’s embrace of verticality and stealth. Dashing past enemies across rooftops, leaping off ledges and grappling a far away tree branch at the last minute, leaping onto enemies and stabbing them from the air--it all feels great.
General Yamauchi. Another mini-boss. This one is surrounded by six or seven regular enemies. Taking them all on at once is suicide. This is the stealth test. Take out the regular enemies without the general getting pulled into the battle and then you can face him one on one. The problem is, he kicks my ass every time. And every time I want another go, I have to deal with the other enemies first. The constant shift in focus makes it harder. I can’t internalize the boss’s patterns when every attempt is separated not just by time but by different activity. Sekiro is terrible, I’m convinced. It’s like trying to learn a Bach concerto on piano, but having to stop and play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in between every attempt.
Then I take on my first real boss, a spear-wielding rider on horseback. It takes me a few tries, but he’s not surrounded by other enemies and the run back to him is quick. I can learn his patterns, and it doesn’t take long to beat him. The world opens up, offering more avenues for exploration. I start to get into a rhythm. It’s good. Sekiro is very good. I’m getting better at it, too.
I spend hours learning to the final boss of the early game, Genichiro Ashina. I’m not getting any better at this game. Every new fight I have to learn all over again, from the ground up. But then I do get better. I start to understand his patterns. I win. The resulting battle looks like a dance to which I know all the moves. It’s--and I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a boss fight in a game ever--beautiful. A sublime and deadly dance.
When the game came out, a lot of people talked about the difficulty and often discussion of difficulty was entwined with discussion of accessibility. Can a game be good if many people can’t even play it? Can it deliver a singular experience while making concessions to the ability levels of different gamers? The truth is that there is no singular experience of Sekiro. It’s too many things. So to say that creating an easy mode, or better still, a customizable set of accessibility options would fundamentally change Sekiro’s singular vision is to defend something that does not truly exist.
What is Sekiro? It’s a fighting game in the clothes of an action RPG. It demands that you recognize combos, bait enemies into making certain moves and then punishing them with the correct counter. It demands that you read the wind-ups like second nature and respond accordingly. I am terrible at fighting games. I don’t know how to read or perform the combos and I’m not willing to invest the time necessary into learning them. Sekiro doesn’t require complex inputs for combos, and it offered me just enough carrot that I began to learn, however begrudgingly, how to read what enemies were doing.
It’s a story--the best storytelling work in any of the Souls games, in my opinion, because it manages to hold on to the mystery of its world while also giving the player’s character a clear reason to be there and to keep going.
It’s an exploration of cycles of violence, power, and the high cost the quest for immortality among the powerful exacts on the less powerful. It’s a stealth game--not a particularly deep one, but gratifying all the same. And it’s a Soulslike, a game built around the idea that failure encourages repetition and repetition is the path to mastery.
It’s a game about balletic sword duels, in which two equally-matched partners dance with each other until one of them misses a step and dies.
At one point, I fight a giant ape. After a few attempts, I triumphantly land the final hit. The words “Shinobi Execution” flash up on the screen as they always do when you finish off a boss. I look away, and then suddenly charging at me is that same ape, only I’ve chopped its head off and now it slides around the arena like a marionette with a snake for a puppeteer, swinging a massive sword at me wildly. I defeat it again, only to encounter this same headless immortal monstrosity yet again in a later part of the game. I know its moves now. I take it out, and its body lays there, twitching. I am terrified to look away, but it doesn’t get up. A little while later I get my hands on a sword that can hurt even immortals. I return to the ape’s twitching corpse and kill it for good. Sekiro is the work of a mad genius.
Waypoint’s Austin Walker says he beat the final boss of Sekiro in a couple of hours one evening. I have no reason to doubt him. It took me at least 8 hours over a week of trying, often for hours at a time. I didn’t count, but I’m certain it was over a hundred attempts. Which one of these was the vision Sekiro’s creators had?
I “got gud.” I did the work. I don’t decry the fact that I had to learn this fight. But here’s the thing about learning. There are good ways to do it and stupid ways to do it. I’ve learned how to play Bach on piano. You don’t start at the beginning of the piece and play it to the end at full speed on your first attempt. Not when you’re still learning. You start slow and speed up. You take sections that you are struggling with and work on the muscle memory. It’s not that Sekiro asks you to learn to do something difficult that’s the problem. It’s that it’s such a poor teacher.
I started a fresh game save a couple days after I finally beat the boss. Poor teacher or not, I wanted to see if I’d really learned anything. It seems I have. Kawarada fell in one go. So did Yamauchi after him. Then the first real boss also. There’s a disease that NPCs get in the game when you die too much, and no one in my second play-through has been afflicted with it yet. My only death so far has been from falling off a cliff.
Is Sekiro good? I don’t know. It taught me to keep pace with a dizzying, terrifying ballet--to pull off sword fights that are sure to make the combat systems in other third-person action games feel dull and low-stakes by comparison. And of all the games I’ve played so far this year, it seems like the one I’m most likely to still be thinking about years from now. Maybe by then I’ll have an answer.