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Sekiro - title

In a Nutshell


  • Highly vertical, exploratory levels
  • Multiple avenues of approach for most encounters
  • Intense, back-and-forth sword fights
  • Broader consequence to dying
  • Eavesdropping as a way of delivering lore or tips
  • Practice against a sparring partner!
  • Fountainhead Palace
  • I can pause the game!
  • Published by Activision, but no micro-transactions or loot boxes?


  • No dedicated heal button
  • Early game is exceedingly punitive
  • Removes all the clever mechanisms for setting own difficulty
  • Every early-game boss felt like walking into the Capra Demon arena
  • Poor early sign-posting
  • AI is too easy to exploit
  • Dragonrot doesn't feel as impactful as it maybe should

Overall Impression : C+
Leaves virtually zero margin for error

Sekiro - cover

FROM Software


PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)


Original release date:
22 March, 2019

action adventure

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
blood and gore, violence

single player

Official site:

I never got into Tenchu because the
demos were too hard for younger me.

Oh, boy, was this a tough game to play and review! Frequent readers should probably know that I'm a huge Souls-Borne fan -- to the point of writing strategies and lore analyses. Sekiro is a bit different, however. It's much further divorced from Dark Souls than even Bloodborne was. Despite the lack of "Souls-Borne-ness" of Sekiro, I find it very difficult to put this review in any context other than of a new Souls-Borne release.

Sekiro is, ostensibly, a stealth game. There's more of Tenchu and Metal Gear in Sekiro than of Dark Souls. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I like stealth games just fine. The Metal Gear Solid games rank among one of my favorite game series ever.

I'm not terribly familiar with Tenchu, though. I think I played a demo of a PSX Tenchu game on one of my Official PlayStation Magazine demo discs (back in the day when publishers let players play pre-release demos, for free, instead of expecting us to pay for games long before they're even released, or holding the "open beta" hostage to a pre-order). I never bought the full Tenchu game because the demo was far too hard for my little 13 or 15-year-old gamer skills to handle. This was, of course, long before I started playing more demanding games.

Sekiro is in an awkward juxtaposition between Tenchu-inspired stealth, and Dark Souls-inspired boss fights.

However, there seems to be a certain degree of juxtaposition between Sekiro's desire to be a Tenchu-like stealth game, and its desire to feature demanding boss fights in-line with what is given in Souls-Borne games. In essence, we have two games here: a stealth game about staying out of sight of enemies and picking them off one-by-one; and a melee boss gauntlet in which the stealth isn't applicable at all. The first of those is good enough. The second one is where my problems begin...

My first playthrough of Demon's Souls was spent
cowering behind a shield.

All parry, all the time

You see, this really comes down to play-style. I was never a big parry-er in my Dark Souls-playing days. I parried a lot more in Bloodborne, but a big reason for that was that the guns allowed me to do so from a relatively safe distance. Heck, my first playthrough of Demon's Souls was done as the Royalty class, starting with the mana-regen ring, stabbing out with a winged spear from behind a shield, and using Soul Spear to dispatch any enemies I wasn't comfortable fighting up close. I hardly realized the parry mechanic existed!

Of course, I've grown and matured since 2008, and parrying has become a common element of my play-style. But I've still never been particularly good at it. This is causing me a lot of trouble in Sekiro because Sekiro's combat is all parrying, all the time! The new posture mechanic (which essentially replaces stamina) also means that a single parry isn't good enough to riposte and kill your enemy. You have to parry each strike in flurries of blows. For those coming from Dark Souls, imagine having to fight a hollow undead, and needing to parry every one of its wild slashes before you can riposte, instead of just the first one. That is what Sekiro expects and requires you to do.

Sekiro requires that you parry most attacks.

If you were a master-level parry-er in Dark Souls III, then you'll probably segue right into Sekiro with no problem and wonder what all the fuss is about. But for the rest of us plebs, that isn't going to be so easy.

This game plays much faster, enemies are much more aggressive, and health is in much smaller supply. Almost everything will kill you with two hits, and many grab attacks will drop you from full health to zero. This game leaves you with virtually no margin for error! Yet the mini-bosses and bosses have ridiculously high HP and posture.

You have no option, except to "git gud" this time around

All the tools and crutches in Souls-Borne games that so brilliantly allowed the player to set their own difficulty (without the need for a menu option) have also been [quite deliberately] stripped away. If you get stuck on a boss, you can't summon another player for help. You have to take on that boss solo. Worse yet still, you can't farm or grind against grunt enemies to power level your stats to improve your attack power or vitality. You can grind for new skills, but that doesn't help you if you're having trouble with the timing of parries. Heck, there's only even the one single sword in the game, so you can't even try out a different weapon that might be more comfortable for your playstyle. Yes, there's different shinobi tools for you to experiment with, but they consume a resource to use, and you'll run out long before clearing a level or boss -- and then have to grind for more, like the blood vials of Bloodborne.

Previous FromSoft games gave players tools and options to custom-tailor the difficulty to your skill level.

True, Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne did not have an easy mode. But those games didn't need one because they found other ways to enable the player to custom-tailor the difficulty of the experience to their own skill level, patience thresholds, and playstyles. Maybe you cleared every game on your first attempt in OFFLINE mode, without the aid of player messages or summoning. Good for you! Of course, you also denied yourself the apprehension of the risk of being invaded -- which could maybe be argued is just a different kind of "easy mode". Whatever, that's how you wanted to play.

Or maybe you played Dark Souls like a co-op game, summoning help every chance you got and happily accepting the gifts of upgraded weapons that summoned allies may have dropped at your feet. Also good for you! Maybe -- like me -- you took advantage of being able to cower behind a shield and eventually grew to love Demon's Souls, as you went through the gradual process to "git gud". In any case, all those methods are were viable, and the games were designed such that you were free to chose how you wanted to play them.

Even though the marketing pushed the difficulty (Dark Souls' marketing slogan being "Prepare to Die"), and the fanboys rallied around the condescending "git gud" meme, these games were never designed for their difficulty to make them exclusionary. They were designed to be accessible. They were designed such that struggling players could find relief in "jolly cooperation". Like it or not -- accept it or not -- that is part of what made these games good, and why they resonated with so many people.

Despite their marketing, Souls-Borne games were always designed to be accessible.

Sekiro might be the first game that From has released that could possibly be described as "exclusionary" in its design. Dark Souls III flirted with this line by including enemies that attacked faster than a typical human could reasonably react to, but it still offered plenty of options for the players to find a playstyle that suited them. Best case scenario in Sekiro, you might be able to explore a different area and find a useful pick-up, another healing gourd, or shinobi tool (and most early-game bosses practically require some tool that you find elsewhere in a level). Worst case scenario, you have to just tank the rakes. Or stop playing.

Open, vertical, exploratory levels

But I don't want to stop playing. FromSoft has proven themselves to be masters at world-building and indirect narrative design. I want to explore these levels and uncover the intricate lore that FromSoft has laid out for me. I want to be able to do it for myself, rather than giving up, putting down the controller, and just watching VaatiVidya's lore videos.

Fortunately, exploration is where this game shines. Levels are generally open, vertical, and offer multiple avenues of approach for most encounters. The inclusion of a grappling hook and "jump" button means that goodies and secrets can be hidden in much more creative and hard-to-find places that require the player to be much more observant and bold. Sometimes, you just gotta take a [literal] leap of faith and hope you'll reach that grapple hook on the other side. And when you do, there's often a nice reward waiting for you -- or a whole new level that you had no idea existed.

A lot of combat can be avoided, or you can cheese the enemy A.I. by running away so they reset.

Outside of bosses, you almost always have the freedom to grapple-hook away to safety, wait for the enemies' aggro to reset, then stealth kill them from above or behind. The game's enemy A.I. is so disappointingly dumb, and their memory so short, that this "tactic" can be readily cheesed to help you clear virtually any area of the game with little-to-no resistance. This is no complicated, Rube Goldberg machine of guard patrols and interacting systems like what you might find in, say, Metal Gear Solid or Hitman.

And that's assuming that you even have to stealthily dispatch the enemies, since many areas can be trivially traversed by simply running along the roofs, completely bypassing every enemy. This is a handy time-saver when it comes time to make repeated boss runs, but it just further adds to the glaring disparity in challenge between playing within the levels, and fighting a boss.

Even if you're not cheesing the A.I., then you still have the freedom to survey the area, come up with a plan of attack, and then execute that plan with precision and brutality. Further, some of the encounters and boss fights create some hectic, white-knuckle, back-and-forth sword fights that are as impressive to watch as they are nerve-wracking to play. The parry and counter mechanics create this wonderful back-and-forth ebb-and-flow of longer fights that test the player's patience and technique to a level that Dark Souls and Bloodborne never managed to achieve. This system somehow manages to be blazing fast, while still maintaining the sense of precision strikes and deliberate, methodical play that made Demon's Souls work so well.

There are some very intense, back-and-forth sword fights.

Playing instead of grinding?

But then the game also loves to take these freedoms away from you. Almost every level will have at least one or two bottle-neck points where you are funneled down a corridor or up stairs and have to directly fight the guards or mini-bosses. And that's when they don't just cop out and put up a fog wall to prevent you from proceeding.

All the openness and player freedom also completely drops away when it becomes time for a boss fight. Every boss is in an arena with exactly one way in. You can't sneak up on them or bypass them. You have to fight. This is where the game becomes more like its Souls-Borne predecessors, and also where the game stumbles.

Every now and then, you'll be funneled into an encounter, or a fog gate will flat-out force a mini-boss fight.

These combat bottlenecks, and the absurd difficulty of the bosses, creates a sort-of perverse incentive to actually regularly screw up the stealth (or ignore it completely) so that you can be sure you get in some practice fighting various enemies. Otherwise, you're going to get to a boss and be completely stone-walled because you can't grapple away -- let alone summon another player to help you out. All the cheap tricks that you may have relied on earlier (and which the game readily allows and enables) don't work.

If you are stuck, you can practice. This game finally adds something that I've been asking for since Dark Souls II: an NPC sparring partner with whom I can practice moves. Outside the Dilapidated Temple, there is an undead soldier who is so bored with his immortality that he is happy to let you use him as a live practice dummy. He'll even let you perform training tutorials with each of the game's unlockable skills so that you can practice them in a live, but consequence-free environment, before having to trip over your own two feet trying to test it out in the field. He'll perform the appropriate action that will allow you to execute the given skill or technique until you've successfully executed it three times. You can also perform free combat training if you want to just spar without practicing any particular techniques.

You can spar and train against an undead soldier outside the Dilapidated Temple.

Why wasn't this in Dark Souls or Bloodborne?!

The one downside is that there's sadly no tutorials or training for the different shinobi prosthetic tools. I stopped trying to figure out the Mist Raven and basically never used it again. It sure would have been nice to have a practice tutorial for it.

Tutorials will sometimes pop up, telling you
what ability to use to defeat the boss.

If you get stuck on a boss, you probably shouldn't just throw yourself at it 30 times, shaving off a little bit more of its health each time. Instead, you should probably bank your sen and experiment with different abilities and weapons until you find something that works. If nothing you have works, then you either need to grind for experience to unlock a new skill, or you need to search the game world for a shinobi tool that you don't have yet. It's even more like Megaman than Dark Souls ever was.

On the one hand, I get the feeling that From implemented the game like this in an attempt to minimize grinding. Since you can't power-level your character, you don't need to grind for skill points. Instead, when you get stuck, you're expected to go out and play other areas of the game through to a boss to find useful tools and power-ups. You're supposed to play the game in order to get better at playing the game. That's a laudable intent!

The problem is that the game still requires a lot of grinding. This is one area where the game is conflicted in its design. The game strictly punishes death by taking away half your money and a fraction of the points you've accumulated towards the next skill level. There's no way to recover the lost money or experience. This design seems to go against the aggressive intent, and actually encourages more conservative play (which is enabled by those stealth mechanics). I can't make soul runs after I die, so I'm much more protective of my accumulated money.

Bloodborne's "regain" mechanic (which allowed you to recover lost health by damaging an enemy) was a far better way of encouraging and rewarding aggressive play.

For example, if you beat a boss and rack up a bunch of exp, but not enough to reach the next skill level, then you're encouraged to go back and grind an earlier level to try to top off your XP bar. Otherwise, you might take two steps out into the next level, get ambushed, die, and lose that large chunk of boss XP that you worked so hard to earn, with no way to retrieve them. Repeat deaths will quickly reduce you to poverty.

This was a problem in Demon's Souls as well. I remember being so excited that I'd finally beaten the first boss (the Phalanx) and resurrected my character. I felt unstoppable and courageous. I killed the mini-Phalanxes in the next room and proceeded out onto the bridge, only to get toasted to death by a dragon. I lost my corporeal form (and thus suffered a shift towards black world tendency), but at least the XP from the Phalanx boss was still recoverable. That is not the case in Sekiro.

You lose half your un-banked money upon death,
with no way to recover it.

To be fair, skills are rarely necessary for clearing a boss. There's only a handful of skills that I think are actually worthwhile. The Mikiri Counter is critical for beating many enemies with thrust attacks. Then there's the Breath of Life skills that refill your HP upon successful deathblows. It wasn't until I unlocked these skills that I started playing the game more aggressively, since these skills (like Bloodborne's "regain" mechanic) reward the player for playing well. Other skills like the Chasing Slice, Ascending and Descending Carp, and Flowing Water skills are also really good to have. Many other skills have limited utility and aren't worth having beyond the one or two use cases that are deliberately inserted into the game.

Instead of grinding for skills, I ended up having to grind for spirit emblems and consumables. Those prosthetic tools and abilities that are necessary to beat some bosses cost a lot of spirit emblems to use. Buying consumables also costs a lot of money (if you can find a vendor who sells them). The single most useful consumable, Divine Confetti, is very rare, and isn't sold by any vendors until very late in the game. And when Divine Confetti finally became readily available, I found myself wasting time farming for Fulminated Mercury in order to unlock the top-tier weapon upgrades.

When I do find myself saving up money to purchase a new weapon, key item, or to upgrade my shinobi tools, I have to rely on going back to familiar territory to grind against enemies that I am familiar with and confident against. I can't go out exploring the level to look for a new shinobi tool and grind for money or experience at the same time. Going into unfamiliar territory is inviting death, and death will completely undo any and all grinding that I've done. And the more money I've saved up, the more I'm liable to lose if I slip up and die. This makes the grinding so much more tedious!

Cause and effect

I'd be more prone to forgive Sekiro if all these frequent deaths and loss of experience and money felt like they had some larger narrative meaning or payoff. Dark Souls pulled this off exceptionally well with its hollow mechanic and its relation to the themes and narrative of the game. Sekiro, not quite so much.

Take, for instance, the Dragonrot mechanic. This is a brilliantly devious concept: resurrecting draws the life force out of NPCs, making them sick and weak. There's a massive mechanical and story-telling opportunity space there.

Maybe they'll go the direction of Shadow of the Colossus, in that the player is forced to follow along with the protagonist's morally dubious, selfish quest, at the cost of doing potentially irreparable harm to the greater good? Or maybe it'll be used to present an anti-war message about how it's the little people (the average soldiers and the civilians caught in the crossfire) who suffer and die from the results of the decisions made by military and political leaders who are rarely (if ever) put in harm's way by the wars that they start? Or maybe this will take a page from the Demon's Souls book and present themes about how the accumulation of power corrupts even those who acquire the power for noble intents?

It's too bad that From doesn't really do much (if anything) with it.

Your resurrection power drains the life force of nearby NPCs, making them sick and weak.

At first, I thought the Dragonrot would only happen if I explicitly used my resurrection charge. When I realized that the Dragonrot that I was accumulating was making NPCs and other characters sick, I thought "Ooh, this is a potentially neat mechanic. I should probably be careful about how I use this.". Originally, I assumed that the game was making other characters sick as a consequence of my decision to resurrect. The resurrection wasn't free, nor was it consuming any items or souls that I had accumulated; instead, it was taking the lifeforce directly from NPCs who I had met. Excessive resurrection [I assumed] might therefore cause those NPCs to die, leaving me without vendors or quest-givers later in the game.

Tying Dragonrot into resurrection would have been a good idea mechanically as well, as it would provide one of those dynamic difficulty-adjustment mechanisms that the game otherwise lacks. Learning players would be able to resurrect in order to progress the game, but at the cost of spreading Dragonrot and not being able to progress certain NPC questlines (at least temporarily). More skilled or practiced players could avoid using the resurrection powers, would spread less Dragonrot, and would have priority access to NPC questlines and their applicable rewards. That could have been a cool system!

It seemed like it would be a more diegetic, further development of Demon's Souls most under-developed and under-utilized mechanic: World Tendency. Unfortunately, this isn't the way it works.

I had assumed Dragonrot was tied to whether or not I chose to resurrect...

Yes, the Dragonrot is more diegetic, but it's actually shallower than Demon's Souls' equivalent Tendency mechanic. Dragonrot doesn't accumulate as a consequence of you choosing to resurrect; it accumulates regardless of whether you chose to resurrect or just let yourself die. And its accumulation seems to be tied to certain progress milestones in the levels. I would get no Dragonrot for large stretches of exploring (and dying) in levels, but then I would die to a boss or mini-boss once, and suddenly I'd get burdened with multiple Dragonrot on every NPC I'd met.

... but it seems to accumulate (usually in chunks at a time) whether I resurrect or not.

Worse yet, Dragonrot has no effect on the larger world. It doesn't spawn harder enemies, grant access to previously-inaccessible areas, or restrict access to previously-accessible areas. All it does is reduce the likelihood that you receive "Unseen Aid" (which reduces the amount of experience and money you lose when dying). As far as I can tell, accumulating too much Dragonrot does not kill any NPCs or quest-givers.

Bad intel

FromSoft's games are infamous for being esoteric and obtuse in providing the player with explanations or early guidance, but Sekiro may take it one step further in some ways. While Dark Souls and Demon's Souls provided adequate early-game guidance, the lack of such guidance was one of my biggest criticisms of Bloodborne. While Bloodborne was ambiguous, I feel like Sekiro flat-out misleads its players.

Eavesdropping on enemy conversations can provide lore dumps or tips on how to progress.

There is a new "eavesdrop" feature that allows you to listen to conversations between enemy troops. This is an effective way of providing the player with lore dumps or tips on how to progress. That is, when they aren't misleading or ambiguous.

For example, there's an early mini-boss encounters with the Chained Ogre at the steps of the Ashina Castle Wall. You can eavesdrop on enemies at the foot of the stairs to learn that the ogre is afraid of fire, and fire can be used to control him. Well, "Lucky me!", I thought, as there happened to be rows of lit braziers, as well as a giant bonfire right next to the steps. I spent over an hour (and numerous deaths) trying to lure him into smashing the braziers, not to mention wasting quite a few of my Oil Pot consumables -- to no effect. I tried hopping over the wall onto a platform with the raging bonfire, with the expectation that the ogre would be afraid to approach the bonfire, or that I could somehow use the bonfire to attack the ogre. Again, no luck.

Despite being told that I could use fire against this enemy, and despite there being plenty of fire in the vicinity, that wasn't what the game wanted me to do. I had to go to the wiki and look up that I was supposed to go to a completely different level to find a flame weapon that I could attach to my Shinobi Prosthetic. That weapon was hidden in an area that I thought I had already cleared. The weapon was hidden within a bonfire! Which is a place that I never would have thought to look for an item pick-up.

I couldn't use fires in the level to beat Chained Ogre. I had to find a deviously-hidden weapon in a different level!

Yes, there are hints as to the Flame Barrel's whereabouts. Even so, this is just terrible sing-posting, and it completely eroded my trust in the game's ability to communicate information to me. If you're going to tell me that an enemy is weak to a fire weapon, then you should specify that I need a weapon. If you're going to leave it at saying that the enemy is weak to fire, then do not litter the arena with sources of fire that have no effect and then expect me to make the leap of logic of looking in an entirely different level for a weapon!

The worst that Bloodborne ever did was tell me to go "south" despite not bothering to give me a compass.

Longer learning curve

Regardless of whether the game is actually "harder" than the Souls-Borne games, or whether it's "too hard", I do find myself becoming much more frustrated with the game much sooner than in FROM's previous releases. As FROM's games keep getting faster and more aggressive, it's getting harder to overlook all the little problems that have been present since day one, and a lot of the little problems keep adding up and compounding on one another.

From has put transparency filters on some obstacles in its games,
but the camera still gets stuck on walls or obscured by geometry.

For example, I'm still having problems with the camera and the lock-on system. The interior spaces in this game are much more confined than in earlier games (when you're not out in the open scaling castle and temple walls). The game expects you to hold your ground and stay in the face of the enemy, but I still found myself having to move around a lot. All that movement would push my back up against a wall, which would cause the camera to freak out, and I couldn't see what was going on. Sometimes, the game would drop my target lock if I moved around, backed up to far, or backed into a wall, which would lead to me exposing myself and taking cheap hits. All this would happen in earlier games too, but with Sekiro's decreased health and more aggressive enemies, it's much more intolerable than ever.

Why can't FROM apply a transparency filter to walls and obstacles that get between the camera and the character?! They did it for one wall in Dark Souls II, and I see it from time to time in Sekiro as well, yet it never seems to be applied to surfaces that actually get in the way of the camera.

Also, why did they remove the dedicated heal button that was added by Bloodborne? This was one of the best changes that Bloodborne made to the formula! And it isn't like they were out of buttons. The DOWN directional button could have been assigned to healing instead of evesdropping, and eavesdropping could have been handled by the SELECT button or by clicking the PS4 trackpad. That would eliminate a lot of the fumbling through the quick inventory, which is something that keeps getting harder and harder to do as these games get faster and faster.

I miss the dedicated "heal" button that was present in Bloodborne.

Granted, you can actually pause the game now, so being able to efficiently access items in your quick inventory isn't as important -- and I've actually gotten into the habit of leaving only my Healing Gourd in my quick inventory and pausing the game for everything else. But pausing the game several times in a fight to throw a consumable or apply a buff only serves to slow down the game, and might even pull the player out of "the zone".

I definitely don't want FromSoft to get the wrong idea. I didn't like Sekiro as much as Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, or Bloodborne, but that doesn't mean that I want FROM to just keep making Dark Souls sequels. In fact, I actually oppose the idea of a sequel to Bloodborne! I want From to experiment with new game ideas like Sekiro. The problem is that Sekiro stays too conservative. It doesn't fully embrace modern stealth game design, and its boss fights ignore stealth entirely for the sake of giving us more Souls-style bosses.

In many ways, I feel Sekiro pushes its bad ideas a bit too far, but doesn't push its good ideas quite far enough.

All the negativity aside, I played through Sekiro to completion. Well, almost to completion. I'm in the last area of the game as I publish this. At the end of the day, FromSoft was allowed to release a big-budget, mass-marketed game, based on a new I.P., published by Activision no less, that was not inundated with unnecessary micro-transactions, pay-to-win gambling, and other manipulative bullshit, and which actually feels finished and polished without having to wait for the 12-month roadmap of post-release updates and fixes. In this day and age, that feels like a miracle in and of itself, and should be celebrated.

So yes, please do play Sekiro. But do so with the knowledge that it's going to be a rough ride.

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05/25/2022 08:08:12 #

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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