A Starving Wolf
It’s fair to say that From Software games are champions of astonishing difficulty in today’s gaming landscape. Regenerating health bars, adaptive difficulty, and guided paths have no place in their titles. However, as anyone who’s finished even one of their games will tell you, the difficulty is more than manageable once you absorb, and metamorphose, the punishment From Software so willingly and eagerly dish out in the early hours. Still, many gamers will likely never reach the point where their hardships begin to pay off, which leaves games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice stuck in a sort of limbo between “easy” and “too difficult”.
So which is it? Is Sekiro too difficult? Is it, like everyone on the internet keeps saying, easy and we just need to “git gud”? Well, it’s both until it’s not. Let me explain…
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review
Punishable by Death
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, is a soul crushing game. It’s difficulty is extreme. So much so that it often feels unfair. Hidetaka Myazaki, the Game Director, Designer and Writer on the Souls series, claimed in an interview that he doesn’t intentionally develop his games to be difficult. However, I would absolutely argue the opposite. At some point in development there has to have been a conscious decision to make the player weaker than everything else and to give bosses 5x more health and damage output. Looking at their move sets, I find it hard to believe that somebody designed them without thinking “yeah, this should be really hard for people to overcome”. You can upgrade the protagonist, however, after a certain point your upgrades have diminishing returns. Meaning, it’s no longer worth the effort for just a 0.05% increase in damage or vitality. This is definitely an intentional choice to keep the player weak.
In most games, when you mash the attack button, you’re instantly rewarded with a clean hit and good damage output. It makes you feel like a powerful badass and nothing can take you down. It’s fair to say most games appeal to our power fantasies. Sekiro has no intent on helping you achieve that fantasy. You have to work for it. Enemies, even the lesser mobs that are littered between you and your destination, hit really hard, they hit fast, and often. It’s all too easy to underestimate a mob and have them capitalise on your mistakes by unleashing a torrent of quick attacks.
This was essentially my problem with the game. My little ADHD brain refused to let me absorb any of the tutorials beyond “ is attack” and I would just charge head first into every encounter, and naturally I would die. Until I found out about hitting to dodge, which ended up being my one and only tactic—which to be fair, worked quite well for me even during the Lady Butterfly boss fight—right up until the game’s first real difficulty spike.
Sekiro’s combat is all about blocking with or parrying by tapping the block button as the enemy’s attack connects. You should only really attack when you have an opening. Likeike all From Software games, the biggest aspect of combat is learning your enemy’s move set until you can turn it against them. Dodging is still a good option, but only for specific situations and should absolutely not be your main strategy.
Unfortunately, I had to learn all this during the Genichiro Ashina boss fight in Ashina Castle. This is essentially what I consider the first real boss fight of the game. I had faced a handful of minibosses getting here and of course I had fought General Masataka Oniwa and Lady Butterfly, but they paled in comparison to the mighty Genichiro.
I’m not ashamed to admit that because of my refusal to adapt to Sekiro’s combat style, I was severely unprepared and lacking in skill to face Genichiro and so I spent about 5 hours learning how to perfect my parrying and Mikiri Counters. During these hellish 5 hours, I had built up such a rage that when I finally managed to obtain competence and defeat Genichiro, I didn’t get that highly coveted feeling of accomplishment that every Soulsborne fan talks about so much.
I was convinced that From Software games just weren’t for me. I had minimal interest in the story, and I had yet to feel like I was worthy of overcoming the game’s challenges. I felt like an imposter. Thankfully, I came across a giant, white ape with a sword sticking out of his neck. This Guardian Ape, was a really challenging fight that I was definitely not looking forward to taking on. I had heard so many horror stories about him being super fast and aggressive. I’m not sure if the experience I had been subconsciously collecting up to this point started to pay off, but something definitely tipped in my brain and I started to really enjoy the fight. I mean, I died the first, second, and third time, but I was okay with it. I knew that my deaths were completely my own fault and were totally avoidable. Every time I respawned at the nearest Idol, I would just dive right back in with incredible determination and a smile on my face.
I finally understood the game. Every boss fight is like a puzzle. You have to go in blind without any idea of what to expect. Your only goal for the first few attempts is to study your enemy and their attacks. Then you have to take what you know, develop a strategy, and put it into practise. Of course, you’re still likely to fail a few times, but that’s completely fine because all you have to do is build up your experience and eventually you come out on top. With this little bit of knowledge, I was able to really enjoy every single boss fight from the guardian Ape onwards. I even managed to really enjoy the last boss fight against Sword Saint Isshin, which is possibly the hardest boss fight I’ve faced in recent memory.
I used to get really agitated when I saw people online claiming that Sekiro was “easy” and all I had to do was “git gud”, but I get it now. Sekiro, at first, is insanely hard, however, with a little perseverance and understanding it really does become easy. I’m not at the point where I can do a “no-damage” run or even kill every boss first try, but I certainly feel like it’s much easier than those first few hours where my stubbornness kept me from enjoying it.
Esoteric Storytelling & Mechanics
In Sekiro, you play as a shinobi called, well Sekiro. He’s also sometimes referred to as “wolf”. Mr. Sekiro serves a young lord called Kuro who happens to have dragon blood or something to that effect. This special blood lets him grant people immortality and because of that, people around Kuro generally seem to be corrupted by this power and plot against him. This is pretty much the whole story. You have to rescue Kuro. Of course, once you get to him you’re then tasked with running a few errands until he gets kidnapped again. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t really interested in the story beyond the inciting incident. Maybe it’s because I played it with Japanese voice overs or because you’re delivered most of the story through lines of dialogue that you can skip by pressing and if I can skip things then my ADHD is gonna smash that skip button a thousand times a second.
I don’t regard this as a negative per se, I know that From Software tends to take a more hands-off approach to story-telling in their games. I came across several plot points that I really liked. Like the Sculptor for example, the NPC who lets you upgrade your prosthetic tools. He too was missing an arm like Mr. Sekiro, alluding to a sort of cycle of one armed shinobi becoming the Sculptor and serving the next shinobi to come along. I also really liked the whole immortal centipede theme that popped up at several moments in the game. I’m not sure if there’s some old Japanese folklore featuring immortal insects or if it’s something entirely made up for Sekiro, but I wanted to know more about them. There’s also a location called Fountainhead Palace, which I’m guessing was a place of faith at some point, but now it’s infested with fish-like enemies who seem to be obsessed with gaining immortality.
Immortality pops up a lot which isn’t too crazy when the game is called “Shadows Die Twice”, but it’s more than just a plot gimmick. Every time you die and revive at an Idol, there’s a small chance of an NPC being afflicted with “Dragonrot”. This seems like a super scary mechanic that makes you feel bad for dying so much, but really I don’t think anything happens. The only thing that I noticed was that NPC’s became unable to communicate with you, except merchants, which prevents you from progressing that NPCs sidequest. However, aside from one or two NPCs, you really don’t need to bother talking to many people which makes this whole Dragonrot mechanic feel utterly useless.
Similarly, there’s a mechanic called “Unseen Aid”. Essentially, it has a base 30% chance of triggering upon death and when it triggers it prevents you from losing XP and Sen (money). However, it was my experience that it didn’t trigger at all at 30%, but would trigger 4 times in a row at 9%. It always seemed to trigger when I had 0 XP and 1 Sen, which made it an absolutely useless mechanic. I much preferred the lost echoes mechanic from Bloodborne. It adds an extra level of strategy to your playing. If you know you’re gonna die, then you can choose to be killed by an easier enemy at an easier location. In sekiro, you just die and ignore the coughs of NPCs until you need to speak to one and then you can use an item to cure everybody. Pretty useless, if you ask me.
Ultimately, I think From Software manages to create a delicate balance between restrictive gameplay, narrative, and a deep engaging experience. The beauty of it is that it’s entirely up to the individual player. You can go into a From Software game and only care about the extreme challenge and that’s perfectly fine. Conversely, you can absorb every bit of information that’s sprinkled along the way and Sekiro embodies this ideology perfectly.
Sekiro: Shadows Plat Once
You can absolutely plat Sekiro by achieving all 4 endings in their own playthroughs, but I don’t have all the time in the world. There are other games I need to play. So I decided to get the platinum in 2 playthroughs. The first one will be my collectible run and the 3 “good” endings.
For this, I needed to be careful to collect everything before I fought the Guardian Ape and Corrupted Monk. To be clear, I could kill them, but I couldn’t collect the story items they were guarding because once I do, a bunch of minibosses disappear which makes gathering the collectibles impossible. These collectibles are Prayer Beads, which increase health and posture, Gourd Seeds, which increases the uses of your healing gourd, Prosthetic Tools, which you can then affix to your prosthetic arm, and lastly Combat Styles, which give you access to more moves.
After defeating the two bosses mentioned above, I could then go face the Owl—and fight a really difficult boss—before preparing for the 3 endings. I needed to collect 2 Serpent viscera, which was actually a really cool moment as one of them had to be collected from a living giant snake. The other thing I needed to collect was an Aromatic Flower from the Owl, but a different version in Hirata Estate (a sort of memory section). Once I had those 3 items (I had to do a few more things with the snake viscera), I could go and defeat the poor Divine Dragon, who I assumed was just trying to protect himself and wasn’t trying to kill me out of hate or anger. However, before I could do that I had to hunt down several Treasure Carp so I could take their scales and trade them for Lapis Lazuli, which are used in Prosthetic Tool upgrades. I needed 10, but only 6 are available per playthrough.
With the end in sight, I was teleported back to Kuro’s room only to be told he was kidnapped again and I had to fight the final boss to get him back. Sword Saint Isshin, a name that sends shivers down my spine. Luckily, or I guess not so luckily, I had one last stop before I fought him. I had to get a Lapis Lazuli from the Demon of Hatred. There isn’t much I can say about him. He was insanely tough and I almost cried a few times before I beat him. I am not confident that I could ever beat him again. I’m pretty sure I got lucky.
It was time to fight Sword Saint Isshin. At first, he seemed manageable. He had basic attacks that were easy to block and parry, however, his second phase was crazy. He picks up a long spear and runs around at mach 3. It was almost impossible for me to deal with him and before long I had resorted to running in giant circles away from him. From Software seemed to anticipate people doing this because every now and then he would leap towards me and deal two very large and fast attacks. I can’t say how long I was stuck on this fight, probably something like 2 hours, but it felt like a lifetime. I’m not even sure how I managed to beat him in the end. I was just in the zone, I guess.
Still, I had defeated him and I enjoyed the fight overall, but now it’s time to get those 3 endings via save scumming and start my NG+.
This playthrough would be much quicker than the last. I had collected everything except the last 4 Lapis Lazuli and all I needed to do was make it to the Owl again so I could choose a different ending. Oh, and of course I had to defeat Isshin again, but this time he had powerful fire AoE attacks. His move set seemed to be much harder to pin down this time and I didn’t have a huge area to get away from him so I had to be just as, if not more, aggressive than he was. Still, I managed to overcome him and got my Shura ending.
One save reload later, and I was back at the Owl. This time I had to refuse his offer again so I could make it all the way to the late game (you can’t find Lapis Lazuli in the Shura ending). Luckily, the first 4 Lapis Lazuli are the easiest to acquire so I wouldn’t be fighting the Demon of Hatred this time around. I would however, have to spend the next 5 hours farming for XP and Fulminated Mercury so I could fully upgrade my skills and Prosthetic Tools.
I almost forgot I was even doing any of this to get a platinum and was caught by surprise when I bought the last skill and it popped.
1st playthrough & Collectibles
NG+ Shura Ending
Grinding XP and Materials
If you’d like to take on Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, then make sure you check out our Trophy Guide which includes individual collectible guides, but most importantly, a progress path for each phase so you never find yourself asking “where am I supposed to go?” or “what do I need to do now?”.
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