Sekiro is the new video game from FromSoft. In many ways it’s a lot like the other titles in the “Soulsborne” series. But in most ways it’s really it’s own thing. As always, this overview will tell you things that you could have already learned from other places on the Internet weeks or months ago. And there will be spoilers.
The Big Picture
If you enjoy the FromSoft style, this is great stuff.
The FromSoft games have always been a mix of a great combat engine, an interesting (usually desolate) environment to explore, and a back story that moves you from area to area in the game but mostly stays out the way. This formula is in tact in Sekiro but the relative weights of the different components have been shifted around.
While the heavy emphasis on the combat engine is definitely still evident, I would say that Sekiro has the most expansive game environment and explicit narrative of any FromSoft title to date. It felt as big and long to me as Bloodborne with the DLC already tacked on. In addition, while the Souls games have always been built around corrupted and decaying game worlds Sekiro offers a couple of the most beautiful and colorful areas that have ever appeared in video games, much less video games from FromSoft. And also a bunch of decaying stuff on fire. You have to do what you know.
Here is an example from a late temple area. Let the spoilers begin!
Anyway. The summary of the game is as follows: you play as Sekiro (there is no character builder, although on the PC there are mods that change the main character’s model around) a ninja/samurai type warrior for hire who, as per usual for these games, dies in the tutorial and then comes back for the rest of the game. You are protecting a small boy, there is a war going on, there are a lot of random enemies and hard bosses to kill.
The game takes place around some castle grounds in an old Japanese kingdom (“Ashina” … Land of Ash?). There are four or five other side areas … mountains, valleys, lakes, poison swamps. The usual stuff. There are also two temple areas, which are my personal favorites. A few of the main areas get recycled as the game goes on. The map stays the same but the enemies change, and things get set on fire. There is a lot of fire in this game. The fire is mostly inconsequential. Although I did accidentally cheese a mini-boss with it:
I didn’t even know those boxes had explosives in them, or that you could set them on fire, or that the fat guy had done it by accident while I was healing.
I’ve remarked before that the evolution of combat in FromSoft games, and especially in Bloodborne as compared to Souls, has been towards encouraging a more aggressive style against enemies that have gotten progressively faster and more deadly. Sekiro continues this evolution. On the other hand it’s completely different too.
A more extensive stealth system is a new thing. The stealth kills are super fun. For once in a ninja game you get to do real ninja shit like land on someone from 50 feet in the air and stab them in the neck:
The rest of the stealth system is fine. They have not worked too hard to make it “realistic”. You can stealth backstab people from the side, sometimes almost from right in front of their face. It’s also easy to manipulate the aggro state of enemies or just reset it to your advantage in various ways. Reseting aggro to get a backstab on a mini-boss is a bread and butter tactic through the early part of the game.
There are three tiers of enemies. Mobs, mini-bosses and bosses. Mobs and bosses work like before. Mini-bosses are harder enemies that you fight in the world at large rather than in special arenas. Most bosses and mini-bosses have multiple health bars indicated by dots above their regular health indicator. This helpfully tells you how many phases there will be in every fight (mostly). The dots play into the resurrection mechanic, which you the player get to play with too.
Your character gets two (or later three) resurrection circles that let you continue a fight after you die. One of these is refilled every time you rest at a checkpoint. The other two need to be refilled over time if you use them. You refill them by backstabbing people. This means I spent a lot of time uselessly farming backstabs to get my bubbles back. Brilliant.
For the most part the enemies in the game are faster and more aggressive than similar enemies in the Souls games. This is especially true of the bosses, mini-bosses and late mobs. You can observe this in some of the videos below.
To defend yourself you get a single katana, a variety of utility weapons that hang off of your “prosthetic” left arm (long story), and various other combat skills that you gain by putting points into one of four or five skill trees. Like all skill trees the ones in Sekiro give you the illusion of choice, when the truth is you have to eventually buy everything to get the useful ones. More on this later.
The other wrinkle in the combat system is the “posture” meter. Posture damage is like stagger damage in the other games (think poise in DS1). But while poise and its related mechanics were invisible, in Sekiro posture is now like a second health bar. When you block attacks or get hit, your posture meter fills. If it gets full you get staggered and can take a critical hit, although most enemies are for some reason too dumb to take advantage.
This works for enemies too. You can do posture damage to them in various ways:
Hit them for damage.
Block or parry their attacks. Parries (deflects in the nomenclature of the game) do more posture damage.
Certain special attacks do a lot of posture damage (Ichimonji for the win!).
Certain other kinds of counter attacks do a lot of posture damage (Mikiri counter for the win!).
If you fill the enemy’s posture bar, you get a one hit kill afterwards. If you take their vitality to zero you also get a critical to kill them. Mob enemies will fall over dead at zero health, but with the bosses and mini-bosses you generally have to explicitly finish them off.
Enemies regenerate posture quickly at high health and more slowly at low health. So, every fight presents you with a choice about whether to concentrate on health damage or to concentrate on posture. In general the fastest way to kill most of the bosses in the game is to stagger them to death.
To beat the harder enemies in Sekiro the name of the game is aggression. You want to be in their face and either hitting them for damage or posture, or countering them with moves that also hit them for posture damage. For older, slower Souls veterans with bad twitch reflexes and timing this is probably the hardest aspect of the combat to get used to. In this fight, note how I spend most of the time running away from the speed the way you would against a Souls boss. But doing this does me no good because there aren’t any windows to hit him.
At the end I finally get up in his face and get some posture damage mostly with lucky deflects and one super lucky counter.
There are other ways that Sekiro undermines your previous Souls muscle memory. The most obvious one is how it punishes you for roll and dash dodging. Well timed dodges are a staple of your basic strategy against the harder Souls (and especially Bloodborne) bosses. You dash in, get a hit, and dash out again. This sort of tactic is often ineffective in Sekiro because:
You don’t hit hard enough to kill most bosses fast enough with just vitality damage. The game wants you to do the posture thing.
Many bosses have wide sweeping attacks that murder you when you dash, because the i-frame windows are not long enough.
I spent hours dying this way to a couple of hard mid-game bosses before slowly getting better at remembering not dodge away, but to stand in there and then block and parry instead. In fact often the move is to force the action by swinging with an R1 when you might normally back off in Souls. Attacking forces the enemy to counter, and this is often in a more predictable rhythm than if you stood back and waited for any random attack to come out. That sort of move might get your murdered in Souls because of the stamina bar … but there is no stamina bar in this game. So R1-away.
To summarize: combat in Sekiro favors the aggressive player with good timing and reflexes. The fights often have a dance-like rhythm to them, leading some to complain that the game is really a rhythm game rather than an action RPG. The game rewards both speed and precision … skills I am sadly lacking. So I lose a lot. On the other hand, when you get the rhythm of a fight right, it’s beautiful and satisfying.
As mentioned above an important component of the combat system in Sekiro is counters. Often you will be fighting something and there will appear a little red symbol above your head. This is the sign that there is an unblockable trust or sweep attack coming. This is also the signal to panic and start mashing dodge or jump before you can parse what’s going on on the screen and as a result get murdered.
As you gain enlightenment about how combat works you realize that what the symbol really means is “here is an opportunity for punishing the enemy and doing some great posture damage”.
Here is five minutes of me not gaining enlightenment:
The major counter moves in the game are as follows:
Mikiri Counter. You get this skill early and boy howdy should you learn how to use it. I sucked at this through my entire first playthrough and I probably still suck at it. But it’s arguably the single most important combat move in the game. Here’s how it works.
You see the symbol of doom. Through hours of punishing trial and error, you notice that this enemy will now do a thrust attack. The millisecond that you see the thrust starting (you might not even get this chance, sometimes) you hit the circle/B button (which is normally for dash) while at the same time making sure that you have let go of the fucking left stick, which you never have. If all goes well, you dash forward and step on the incoming weapon like a ninja and murder his posture bar. It’s great when it works.
When you miss you dash into the thrust and get murdered. Or sometimes if you did not let go of the fucking left stick, you dash to the side and get murdered. Or if you get lucky you dash to the side and dodge the hit. Or sometimes you realize too late that it wasn’t a thrust attack and you dash into the sweep and get murdered.
I spent most of my first playthrough completely unable to read when I should be doing this move. Mostly this resulted in my character standing in place and getting murdered while trying to block and unblockable attack. Sad.
Lucky Deflect. You can parry trust attacks too. I don’t remember if you can parry sweeps. Here you will get the deflect and then stare at the screen dumbfounded for 1.5 seconds as the followup comes in and chops your head off.
Jump on His Head Counter. Here you jump straight up in the air and as you come down you hit jump again to hit the enemy in the head and do major posture damage. When I try this I usually forget to let go of the left stick and jump off to the side and miss the head jump. Then I curse my lack of coordination.
Lightning Reversal. This is a move you get mid game where you can catch lightning in the air and then throw it back at the enemy. Try to practice this before the final boss. This move is also great when you land it. If you miss it’s best to miss by dodging past the lightning. Otherwise you get electrocuted to death.
Most of the bosses in the game can be mostly countered to death if you know what you are doing. You might have to do a bit of health damage, and then finish them off with counters to their posture.
Here is LobosJR doing an entire run this way:
Levels and R
In a departure from the rest of the SoulsBorne world, there are multiple leveling tracks in Sekiro.
You level attack power by beating bosses and using their “memories”.
You level vitality and posture by gathering prayer beads, mostly from mini-bosses.
You level combat skills by farming XP from beating enemies.
You level the prosthetic arm devices by farming money.
For the skills and arm upgrades there are multiple trees of upgrades that are cooked up to make sure you have to buy every skill and every prosthetic upgrade to get to the good ones.
The best combat skills are: Mortal Draw, Ichimonji … that’s it.
The best prosthetics are: Firecrackers for everything. The umbrella for when you need a shield. The flame vent when you need to set things on fire. The spear for the monkey fight.
As always if you are good you don’t need to do any of this at all and you can just beat the game at base level.
There are lots of bosses. They are hard. I think my favorite fight is the final one, even though it’s a slog. It’s well designed because the fastest way to beat it is to play like the designer wanted you to play (be aggressive, deflect all the combos, counter all the counterable attacks). I managed to do this for about half the fight. For the second half I ran around in a panic and landed enough counters to win.
As is always the case with FromSoft games, the Sekiro bosses teach you things about programming:
Note how the boss is also trash talking me at the end there (“looooosserrrrrrrr”).
If you like learning how to beat FromSoft bosses (and if you don’t, why are you even here?) Sekiro will not disappoint you.
There are also two puzzle bosses. One is bullshit but easy. One is very pretty and easy. Good job.
I only have two major gripes.
The various buff items are kinda useless.
Cut scenes that play ahead of a boss fight that you are going to lose 150 times are annoying, even if you can skip them.
I kinda wish the game had told me about swimming more explicitly early on. Oh well.
The Best NPC in Video Game History
Rice is an important item in this game. Among other things, it’s the best healing item you can get, which comes in handy against the late bosses. This might be the most singularly Japanese style flourish that has ever appeared in a FromSoft game.
But also there is this woman, the best NPC in video game history.
Everything I learned above shows up in this long video of the final fight in the game (assuming you did the long ending).
This is a really well designed fight that makes you use all the tools that are in the game for you. Plus, some dude turns out to be wearing another dude as a suit (spoiler)! You can’t beat that.
I think I could do that fight better. But considering that I started here:
I guess it’s pretty good progress.