I finished my first blind playthrough of Sekiro* this past week, so I can finally post my thoughts about it. It took me two months and two days, or 76 game hours by the game’s accounting. I recorded 95 roughly 25 minute videos documenting the journey.
There might be some minor spoilers below, but nothing about the story.
Now I enter the second phase of playing every From Software game: Learning about all of the things I missed or did wrong the first time, as I finally go around reading about the game (a little bit, at least-there is still a lot I can discover about the story and different endings on my own).
In a nutshell, I struggled with it at first, but I warmed to the game in the end. I thought it was slightly inferior to the Souls games. (I have not played more than a half hour of Bloodborne yet, so I can’t draw any comparison there.) Not worse, exactly. Just smaller. It was a more limited, less open-ended experience. It was less of an RPG than any Souls game. Conversely you might say it was a more “focused” game. And what it *did* do, it did *very* well.
I’ve been waiting until I finished the game before I say anything, because I always try to play From Software games blind without any external assistance or hints, and if I post something about the game, there’s a microscopic chance somebody might post a comment with a spoiler. Playing From Software games for the first time is a rare and precious commodity in the modern gaming space that must be protected at all costs. It’s the only way I know of anymore to accurately recreate the experience of what it was like to play games back in the 80s, to sort of lock yourself in your room and pit yourself versus the computer, just your wits versus the developer’s, back before the Internet made most games cheap and easy.
First off, this is not one of those games that launched buggy, like so many others do. It was a polished experience from day one for me. From Software games have always had some quirkiness with the camera at times, but that’s the only issue I might complain about.
My first comment about Sekiro is that this is the first time I’ve played a Souls-like game with mouse and keyboard instead of a controller. I decided to commit to it from the beginning, because I knew if I tried to use a controller I would ruin my thumbs again, like I did playing Dark Souls Remastered. That was a major learning curve. The default key mappings are not very optimal, to put it charitably, so I had to spend some time re-configuring them to something more streamlined (I started that process in Dark Souls 3 before Sekiro came out).
I mentioned this briefly in my first impressions, but the combat in Sekiro is radically different from any Dark Souls game. You have to re-learn everything from scratch. The experience is very much like starting to play Dark Souls again for the first time. On the one hand, that is an experience like no other, and it’s very nice to be able to experience something similar again in another game.
On the other hand, it’s really frustrating. Most of the little tricks and tips that you learned from years of Souls games-things that are intuitively ingrained in your head and muscle memory, like blocking and dodging-don’t apply here. It’s very much like starting over again. Sekiro’s dodging mechanic, for example, is woefully pathetic compared to Souls, and it must be used more sparingly and strategically. It’s no longer the go-to “get out of jail free” mechanic it used to be. You are expected to stand in front of the enemy and deflect his blows, not dodge away from them.
I mentioned that I played the game “blind” but I admit that I did start to watch the early episodes of a couple of Let’s Play series on YouTube after I advanced far enough into the game that I didn’t think it would matter anymore (roughly the point when you bring the stone and flower back to Kuro, maybe 40-50 hours in). I learned a few tricks from that, but nothing that affected the outcome of my game. I skipped past anything that were areas or bosses or NPCs I hadn’t seen yet.
I watch Let’s Plays of Sekiro, by the way, because it’s really enjoyable to see how other people solve the same problems you dealt with. Sekiro is a game where you can invent a wide variety of solutions to get past the obstacles, and it’s interesting to see what people come up with that you might never have thought of.
The cut scenes and cinematics were very good. Stunning, even. Beautiful framing, reminiscent of classic samurai movies (which I am not at all familiar with, so I might be completely wrong about that). Every one was a joy to watch.
Narratively speaking, the story was okay. Nobody plays From Software games for the story. If that’s your main reason to play a game, this won’t be for you. It wasn’t bad, mind you, but it’s clear it’s just a simple framework to propel you through the enemies in the game zones. The story was more straightforward and understandable than any of the dark fantasy of the Souls games, but there was still an air of mystery about it that I found interesting. There are many questions left unanswered at the end of my first playthrough, and I’m invested enough to track down those answers in subsequent playthroughs. (Not to mention there are supposed to be four different story endings.)
I found that the Prosthetic tool and Combat Arts went largely unused for the majority of my first playthrough. I found it much more useful to defeat enemies by simply attacking and deflecting at the proper times. Correctly-timed deflections are by far the fastest way to defeat enemies. (Essentially, a “parry” in Souls terminology-naturally, the one thing I rarely used in Souls.) I almost never watched an enemy’s health bar go down to zero. I almost never defeated enemies by attacking and doing damage. It was almost always by deflecting-essentially a defensive action-and breaking their posture and performing deathblows.
I found the combat fairly enjoyable once I got the hang of it. It’s very fast-paced, which was a big challenge, but when the brain and the muscles are working properly and everything is clicking, sword fights and trading blows with enemies turn into an almost rhythmic dance of action and reaction, which was very satisfying.
Unfortunately sometimes the bosses required different strategies from just trading blows with swords, and I didn’t like those as much (the Shichimen Warrior comes to mind, and the Demon of Hatred). It was as if the game trained me to sword fight, and then threw enemies at me that I had to beat without sword fighting. It wasn’t cool.
Since there are no items in the game per se-no weapons or armor to find and manage-a large part of exploration and discovery is nullified. In the Souls games, there was a great sense of satisfaction in seeing an item in the distance and figuring out how to get to it, because it might be a brand new weapon or nice set of armor to wear. Regardless there would probably be an interesting story to read in the item’s description.
But there’s nothing like that in Sekiro. You use the same sword and armor (none) from start to finish. There are still items in the distance to find, but they are almost always consumables. In Sekiro, items are largely placed as bread crumbs to lead you to find paths on the map. They have little other purpose. Over a short period of time, I became numb to them. There wasn’t much thrill in finding items toward the end of the game, and that was a bummer.
How long did it take me to get the hang of Sekiro with mouse and keyboard? I would say that in the first 30 hours or so, I felt like a complete newbie, died constantly, and couldn’t beat anything without struggling. I ran into hard road blocks with minibosses everywhere. It was very frustrating.
Between hours 30 and 50, I started to feel like I was finally learning how to play the game. I finally beat Genichiro Ashina, for example, after about 40 hours had elapsed. I died 45 times to him (not counting resurrections) and it took a total of about 2 hours. I hit another hard road block a few hours later at the Guardian Ape, which took me a cumulative total of about 3 hours and 41 deaths to beat, over the course of about 2 1/2 weeks. (Admittedly during that time, I was not much in the mood for gaming.) After that, the game started to open up to me a bit more.
I would say that after about 50 hours, I started to feel moderately competent at playing the game. By the time I reached Fountainhead Palace, I felt like I had reached a level of understanding of the game mechanics roughly where I started in Dark Souls 2 and 3.
The bosses (and minibosses) came fast and furious in Sekiro. That’s a change from the Souls games. In Souls, there are longer stretches of “regular” gameplay and exploration punctuated by bosses. In Sekiro, there are short stretches of “regular” gameplay separated by tough minibosses and even tougher bosses. Sometimes you can skip them, but sometimes you can’t. The point is, it feels like you spend a lot more time on the difficult bosses in Sekiro than it ever did in Souls.
Here are some of the things I consistently failed to do on my first playthrough:
- Use consumables like Dowsing Powder or Antidote Powder.
- Use buffs like the Sugars.
- Use prosthetic items. Eventually I started to use the Firecrackers, but only after I happened to see a YouTuber use them and tracked down where to find them, because I completely missed them passing through Ashina Outskirts the first time. I also missed the prosthetic axe my first time through Hirata Estate and did not go back to find it until after I had gotten the Mortal Blade. (Update: I used umbrellas at the very end of the game.)
- Use combat arts. I used the Ichimonji Double almost exclusively, and only incorporated into my basic combat rotations toward the very end of the game. I found them finicky and quite often would accidentally trigger the combat art without meaning to.
I played most of the game with extremely vanilla combat techniques. I didn’t exactly do it intentionally, but I had no particular desire to race through the game and one-shot every boss, so I took my time and learned every boss’s normal patterns through repetitious trial and error, without trying to take any fancy shortcuts that didn’t immediately present themselves. I found that I could make progress on every boss by simple combinations of attacking, deflecting, and dodging, so I never felt any compelling need try anything more. (I am now aware that there are huge, huge shortcuts available though and I will definitely be using them going forward.)
For example, I beat the first Shichimen Warrior without Divine Confetti or the purple umbrella. I had no idea that Divine Confetti was so useful because the description said it was for hitting “apparition-type” enemies, which I took to mean ghosts, as in Dark Souls ghosts. I never encountered any, so it never occurred to me to try it until very late in the game, after I had seen a YouTuber mention it. I had to defeat the Shichimen Warrior the first time in a really long drawn-out fight where I had to dodge every single one of those blue glowing balls and wait for the right opportunities to strike.
I’m worried about Sekiro replay value. The Souls games have virtually unlimited replay value because there are infinite possibilities for how to build your character. I’m not sure the same is true in Sekiro. It feels like your character will be much the same in every playthrough. I might be wrong though. I’ll test that theory someday. I want to go through NG+ at least once to see what the differences are, and rampage through the early areas that I once struggled with. Then I want to play the game again from scratch at least once to see if I can build a different type of character.
So I guess I’ll quit rambling for now. Overall, despite finding it a bit more limited than the Souls games, and struggling to warm up to it for the first 30 hours or so, it’s the best game of the year so far. From Software continues to be a master of game design, and the complicated balance of risk versus reward. For me, it will undoubtedly win my coveted Game of the Year award for 2019, because there’s a good chance it might be the only game I buy at launch time in 2019. I’m not aware of any other games on the horizon for the remainder of the year that I’m interested in.
P. S. I deleted a lot of words about “the difficulty controversy.” You’re welcome.