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Game: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Content Type: Gaming News
Date: February 2, 2021

If Sekiro is remembered in the future for one reason, it will almost certainly be the game’s punishing difficulty. The game is so notoriously hard, in fact, that at launch there were numerous game journalists calling out the game for not having difficulty settings.  While die-hard and casual fans alike rallied behind Fromsoftware’s decision to not have an easy mode, many veterans of the Souls series might have ended up relenting and turning it on, had it been available.

During the weeks following the games release, there were numerous threads on Reddit and other forums lamenting that their hard-won Dark Souls skills simply weren’t translating to Sekiro. I personally went in expecting to breeze through the early levels, only to find myself dying repeatedly to the Chained Ogre not an hour into the game. What was it about Sekiro that was so different?

The most obvious answer is that the game has a focus on stealth that was entirely absent from all the previous Soulsborne titles. While you could certainly sprint your way through most of a level without fighting enemies, neither Bloodborne nor any of the Dark Souls titles allowed for much in the way of sneaking around. Sekiro, on the other hand, has a verticality that allows for not only quite a bit of scouting, but completely bypassing large groups of enemies if you so choose. Tall grass is ubiquitous, and trees, ledges, and rooftops offer numerous routes around and behind foes.

The stealth mechanics in Sekiro are fairly straightforward, however, and mainly offer an easier path through the level rather than a serious challenge. With the exception of a few bosses that have a multitude of adds that can be stealthily dispatched, the stealth mainly seems to function as a way to get the lay of the land, more easily take out weak enemies, and get a free first health bar off of bosses. Besides the giant snake, there isn’t a section of the game that truly calls for a stealthy approach, or that forces you to die and reload if you fail your attempts at stealth.

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You can spend a lot of time on rooftops in Sekiro, if you so choose

So then what was it exactly that was causing veterans to struggle? After all, the basic Souls elements of dodge, block, and attack were all there. Shouldn’t the combat be relatively similar?

I believe the answer is twofold: first, the game lacks many of the RPG elements that were present in the previous Soulsborne titles. No longer can you farm enemies for resources, and level yourself up until you feel ready to take on a boss. Sekiro forces you down a fairly linear upgrade path, and most players will be at similar levels of strength at any given section of the game. Relying on being over-leveled is no longer an option in Sekiro. The lack of weapon variety may also play a role in the challenges some players faced; instead of being able to choose a weapon that suits your playstyle, Sekiro asks that you master the katana, and the katana only.

The pivot away from weapon diversity is not the largest change to the FromSoftware combat style present in Sekiro, however. Indeed, I would argue that it is a distant second to the fundamental change in the way combat — especially boss battles — functions in Sekiro.

While Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne were certainly faster paced than their predecessors, you could still choose to fight slow paced and methodically. Additionally, using ranged attacks, sneaking in hits from underneath huge enemies, or hiding behind a shield were all viable strategies. Sekiro is so very different because it wants you to fight only one way: fast paced, attacking and deflecting in a constant rhythm. You don’t run away, you don’t hide behind a shield, you don’t fling spells from across the arena. You stand toe to toe with your enemy and trade blows non-stop: as the final boss of the game reminds you if you die to him, “Hesitation is defeat”.

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If you aren’t attacking or blocking, you’re probably dying

While the need to learn the ebb and flow of each boss is no different than previous games, discovering exactly when to block and attack each combo is the core mechanic of Sekiro’s boss battles, whereas many of the Soulsborne bosses couldn’t be parried or blocked at all. The bosses in previous titles also required that you move your feet — there was rarely a boss that didn’t require you to dodge, or at least walk or run, in order to avoid unblockable attacks.

Sekiro, on the other hand, really doesn’t want you to move at all in boss fights.  Instead, success or defeat is determined purely by if you can time your attacks and deflects properly. This reliance on learning the attack/block pattern of each boss fight makes Sekiro fundamentally a rhythm game. Add in the fact that the perilous attacks require a different, specifically timed button press, only makes this more true.

For more proof that Sekiro is at its core a rhythm game, you need look no further than one of the many videos of players beating the game on drums, or even DK bongos. Granted, these controller setups have some ability to move on the horizontal axis in order to make navigating the game’s levels possible, but watch any of these videos and you’ll notice that very rarely are any inputs other than block, attack, jump, or dash ever utilized when fighting bosses.

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Stay calm, and focus on the rhythm

That’s what makes Sekiro ultimately play so much like a rhythm game; there’s no need to utilize the three-dimensional space of a boss arena. All you need to focus on is the rhythm of the fight. Once you accept this, the bosses become much less intimidating. You can forget about the left stick entirely, and direct all your attention towards what attack the boss is doing, and what the proper response is. Get the rhythm right, and victory will be yours.

Did you find Sekiro’s combat a challenge to adjust to? Do you like what Fromsoftware did with Sekiro, or do you wish they’d kept more RPG elements in the game? Let us know in the comments!

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