Share
submit to reddit
Pin it

Last week, I put up a new YouTube video called "Regarding Accessibility: A Critique of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice". This video was the second part of a 2-part series about what I perceive to be the flaws of Sekiro. The first video was titled "Conflicted Priorities: A Critique of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice". Both videos are really about the game's conflicted design, but the second part focused more on the removal of accessibility features.

I try to make a point of emphasizing in these videos that I am not trying to say that I dislike Sekiro, or that Sekiro is a bad game. Rather, I'm pointing out what I consider to be egregious flaws in an otherwise good game. You can check out the full review to see how I feel about the game more generally.

I've embedded the first video below for those who wish to watch it. I've also included a full text transcript of my commentary within the video for those who prefer to read. I'm sorry that this post is not as well-formatted as usual. Right now, I just haven't had the time to go through and convert this wall of text into a proper blog with images and so forth. I've given myself some pretty strict deadlines for the next few projects I'm working on. I don't know when, or if I'll have time to come back to this post. In the meantime, I suggest watching the video. Enjoy! If you enjoy the video, please remember to like, share, and maybe even subscribe!

Check out my YouTube critique of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

From Software's latest release, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is getting a lot of mixed reaction -- including from myself. Over the course of my 60-plus hours so far spent with the game, I've alternated wildly between liking the game and thinking that it's combat mechanics might very well be the best that FromSoft has created, or abjectly hating the game and its obnoxiously punishing design.

A lot of the online discourse has to do with whether the game is "too hard" or if it needs an "easy" mode. I think this is kind of asking the wrong question. To me, it's not a matter of whether the game is too hard, or whether it needs an easy mode. I mean, it includes a "hard mode" that's available pretty early in the game to those players who can prove themselves by defeating perhaps the toughest non-boss enemy in the game, so the players who want a hard game are definitely covered. But that doesn't matter. To me, the question is whether or not the game is accessible, which basically comes down to whether or not Sekiro communicates the intent of its mechanics to the player, and teaches the player how to play and get good at the game.

This is where I think Sekiro fails, and why I think the game hasn't resonated with as many people in the way that Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne did. This game has some very ... conflicted priorities ... in its design and the execution of its mechanics. The individual mechanics are each good on their own, but I feel like they add up to a final product that is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

I want to start off by saying that Sekiro is a very well-made game. It's individual mechanics are mostly engaging and well-implemented. It has pretty good level design, with lots of secrets cleverly hidden in their vertical layouts. The combat mechanics facilitate intense, back-and-forth sword fights that have a genuine ebb and flow, which is something that Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne were never quite able to capture. Most importantly, Sekiro feels polished and complete, and despite being published by Activision, it isn't built around grinding in order to encourage the player to buy time-saving micro-transactions or loot boxes. In this day and age of micro-transaction-fueled economies, and games releasing as incomplete alpha builds with a 6 or 12-month roadmap of updates before the game feels worthy of an actual retail release, having a game like Sekiro that is polished and complete out-of-the-box is really refreshing.

So no, I'm not here to shit on Sekiro because I think it's a bad game. Rather, I'm pointing out what I perceive to be egregious flaws in an otherwise very good game.

CONFLICT 1: Aggressive intent

So why do I say that Sekiro has conflicting priorities? And why do those conflicting priorities make the game less accessible than previous titles?

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice really wants the player to play the game aggressively. Enemies are quick and highly aggressive, leaving you with very little room to back off and heal. The new posture mechanic requires you to defeat enemies by standing your ground and repeatedly deflecting (or "parrying", in Dark Souls parlance) enemy attacks until their posture breaks, at which point you can execute them with a brutal insta-kill deathblow, regardless of how much HP they have left. It's basically a much more involved, and much cooler mash-up of the poise and stamina mechanics from Dark Souls.

This combat design can lead to some fantastic one-on-one sword fights that will go back-and-forth will a real sense of ebb and flow in the battle -- which is something that even Bloodborne (with its fast-paced, offensive gameplay) was never able to truly accomplish. These back-and-forth sword duels can be as exciting to watch as they are nerve-wracking play, which can actually make Sekiro a very satisfying game to watch as a backseat gamer, if the person playing isn't repeatedly dying and fighting the same fight over and over again.

All that being said, I feel that Bloodborne does a much better job of executing on its design philosophy of encouraging aggressive play, and of rewarding the player for aggressive play. Sekiro, regretably, does a lot of things to undercut the aggressive play style that it so desperately wants its players to adopt and maintain. It teaches and reinforces very bad habits that go against the intended play.

Strictly punishment for death

Sekiro is very generous with its checkpoint placement. You're rarely -- if ever -- losing much progress in a level when you die -- unlike Bloodborne, which had some massive distances between some of its checkpoints! So yeah, Sekiro is very generous and respectful of the player's time in this regard. However, Sekiro (much moreso than any Souls-Borne game) leaves the player with very little margin for error, and it strictly punishes death.

Dying will cost you half of your accumulated money, as well as half of the experience that you've accumulated towards the next skill point. Thankfully, it doesn't take away the skill points that you've already earned. Worse yet, unlike the Souls-Borne games, you cannot return to where you died in order to pick up your lost money and experience. It is just simply gone -- unless you get Unseen Aid, which has a random chance of preventing the loss of sen and experience, but which always seems to happen after the umpteenth time I've died to a boss and don't have any sen or money to save. However, dying also puts you at risk of spreading Dragonrot to any NPCs you've met since the last time you cured Dragonrot. Dragonrot will reduce the probability of Unseen Aid, making you less likely to keep your hard-earned money and experience, while also potentially blocking you from advancing an NPC's questline.

Repeat deaths will rapidly bring you down to zero sen and experience, and the more of each you have accumulated, the greater the potential loss if you die. And since virtually every level-appropriate threat in the game can kill you in two hits (or one hit for many grab attacks), you have virtually no margin of error. Death can come with just a single slip-up.

Sekiro wants me to be very aggressive, to stand my ground, parry enemy blows, and counter attack. But then it turns around and leaves me with virtually no margin for error, and strictly punishes death (especially in the early game), while also giving me all these stealth options and cop outs. You can often grapple out to relative safety or run away to reset an enemy's aggression and awareness (outside of boss encounters). Or just retreat to the last checkpoint, which -- yeah sure -- will reset everything, but you won't lose any of your accumulated money and experience, and can maybe even spend them or bank them so they are not lost.

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 take fewer chances than in -- say -- Dark Souls, and I'm much more protective of my accumulated money and XP.

Aggressive encouragement in Bloodborne

Compare this to Bloodborne, which does a far better job of consistently encouraging aggressive play. Bloodborne's "regain" mechanic allows you to recover lost health by damaging an enemy within a narrow window of opportunity after you receive damage. You could take more than just one or two hits, which means you had enough leeway to try to dash in, get a couple hits, and then either dash out to relative safety, or continue to press your attack.

In Bloodborne, if you take a hit, the game is telling you to "Don't back down! Get back up and punch the other guy in the face!". It actively rewards you for staying on the offensive rather than running away and hiding.

At a broader sense, all of the Souls-Borne games encouraged the player to challenge the enemies, traps, or encounters that had previously beaten you. Because you can return to where you died to re-claim your lost souls, the games are encouraging you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. If you can get back to where you died, or if you can beat the boss that killed you, or (in the case of Bloodborne) if you can beat the mob that killed you, then you get everything that you had previously earned back! Plus all the new souls and items that you earned in the process of getting back to where you died.

This idea of challenging the adversaries who had previously beaten you is one of the things that gives Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne an almost uplifting sense of achievement. These games want you to feel like you can always pull yourself back up out of a rut. It's why people like [Writing on Games] say that Dark Souls helped them out of depression. Despite all of the cruelty and unforgiveness that the Souls-Borne games seem to throw at you, there is this sense that the "You Died" screen is really saying "Try again. You can do this."

Being able to salvage lost souls also gives the player the leeway to experiment and explore. A death as a result of a single slip-up is not going to cost you everything in Bloodborne, so you're more free to play risky. You can practice different moves or techniques or parry timings against a new, unfamiliar enemy knowing that failing to immediately get a grip on that enemy's attacks is not going to result in permanent loss of your progress.

Further, having a single button that is dedicated to healing your character means that when you do have to stop and heal, you don't ever have to back off and fumble through your quick inventory in order to reach your Blood Vials. On top of that, the use of the trick weapons means that you can basically equip different sub-weapons without having to fiddle through menus, and the fact that both forms of every weapon look distinct from one another means that you can always tell exactly which weapon(s) you have equipped because it's plainly visible on your character.

These subtle UI touches allow you to keep your attention focused on the enemy at all times, while the game's actual mechanics enable the player to stay alive by remaining aggressive and promptly counter-attacking when damage is taken.

Sekiro does not encourage you to go back and defeat the challenges that had previously beaten you. Whether you keep your hard-earned experience and money is entirely up to random chance. Trying again is futile unless you are completely self-motivated to keep trying.

The futility inherent in the death mechanic conflicts with the designers' desire to keep the combat fast and aggressive. In Sekiro, I often found myself playing even more defensively than I had in Dark Souls III and Bloodborne, trying to run around, or dash in and out in order to get cheap hits to widdle down the opponent's HP. This is especially true against a new or unfamiliar opponent because it's too risky to stand my ground and try to figure out what his attack and deflection timings are. Even though I know in the back of my mind that the developers want me to be up in the enemy's face blocking and deflecting their attacks, the game's actual mechanics have taught me to keep my distance and not risk taking hits. Some of my most successful strategies for many bosses and mini-bosses have involved sprinting around them (since there's no stamina to prevent me from sprinting indefinitely) until I can get behind them during an attack wind up or cool down, and get one of those precious cheap hits.

Outside of boss fights, the stealth and grappling hook mechanics encourage the player to retreat to safety and hide if they ever feel out-matched. The grappling hook is rarely used to close the distance to enemies, and its much more common "get out of Dodge" functionality is completely antithetical to the intended strategy of aggressively deflecting and counter-attacking that the game wants you to employ.

Based on the intended style of play for Sekiro, the grappling hook probably should have been inspired by the Devil-Bringer from recent Devil May Cry games. It should be a tool used to close the distance between you and your enemies, either by propelling you towards them, or by pulling them in towards you. It can be used in this method in some instances. A few bosses even explicitly allow you to grapple to them in order to stagger them for free hits. However, in my experience, the grappling hook is more often used in the same function as the "go anywhere but here" web-zip button in the Amazing Spider-Man movie tie-in games.

Safe, easy, and tedious farming

The mechanics encouraging conservative play extend to other areas of the game's design, such as farming and grinding. Much moreso than any of the previous From games (including probably the first 2 Dark Souls), Sekiro utilizes a Mega-Man-inspired design, in which you should rigorously scour other levels to find weapon or tools to use against a hard boss. The closest comparison would be Demon's Souls, with its multiple archstones that can be tackled in any order. But even that pales in comparison because so many of Sekiro's bosses virtually require some weapon or tool found in some other level. In Demon's Souls, there were only a handful of such situations.

In principle, this design could be very effective at reducing or eliminating grinding and farming. If you get stuck, you should play other parts of the game to find tools or weapons that will help you get un-stuck. The game doesn't even have a traditional RPG stat system. so you don't grind against enemies to level up vitality and attack power (or any other stats), as you would do in Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, or Bloodborne. That's a laudable goal. It's just too bad that I still found myself routinely grinding and farming.

The Prosthetic Tools that are so essential against bosses consume a lot of spirit emblems. Repeatedly dying to a boss can quickly drain your Spirit Emblems, forcing you to have to grind for money to buy more. Other than the ridiculously long load times at launch, having to routinely stop and farm for Blood Vials and Quicksilver Bullets brought the pace of Bloodborne to a screeching halt and was perhaps that game's greatest flaw. That flaw is carried over almost verbatim into Sekiro.

As mentioned earlier, this 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. Repeat deaths will quickly reduce you to poverty. Worse yet, the number of coin purses that you can buy from vendors is extremely limited, even though you have to pay a 10% tax when you buy them, so you can't reliably bank your money either. Well, you can always bank your money on Spirit Emblems, which is something that I highly recommend you do so that you don't end up having to farm for them.

Even if I dump extra cash into buying Spirit Emblems, I still find myself grinding for money or consumables. There are a handful of very expensive items in the early and middle parts of the game, including new Shinboi Tools, a couple of alternate gourd flasks that heal certain status ailments, and a few other key items. The worst farming offender, however, is probably Divine Confetti. This item cannot be purchased from any vendor (that I'm aware of), and is only dropped by a single group of enemies in a single location of the game, and is a rare drop to boot. As such, whenever I found myself wanting to farm for experience or grind for money, I would almost always do so at the Ashina Castle Antechamber idol, so that I could get some extra Divine Confetti on the side -- even if I don't actually need Divine Confetti at the moment. Even so, sometimes, I would get beat down repeatedly by a spectral enemy, only to run low on Divine Confetti and have to go farm for it explicitly -- a practice that would regularly bring my game's pace to a screeching halt!

In general though, the strict punishment of death is such that whenever I feel a need or desire to farm for money or consumables, or to grind for experience. I feel forced to go back to areas of the game that I'm very familiar with, and which are relatively easy and "safe". Going into unfamiliar territory is just inviting death, and death will completely undo any grinding or farming that I've done. Worse yet, the more money or experience I've saved up while farming or grinding, the greater the punishment for death becomes!

With a more lenient death mechanic, or the ability to more readily bank my money, I might go out and grind by exploring a new area of the game, while also looking for any new Shinobi Tools and effectively taking care of two birds with one stone. But as it stands, I don't dare go to an unfamiliar place if I'm saving up money or experience for anything.

This slim margin for error and harsh punishment for failure, combined with having to grind without really improving your character, really makes the game feel harder than it actually is. It doesn't effectively teach the player how to play the game, and in fact, actually may teach bad habits to many players -- bad habits that may be difficult to un-learn, even after you've realized how the game is meant to be played.

Again, this is in stark contrast to Bloodborne. Going back to Demon's Souls and Dark Souls after playing Bloodborne, I found that I played those older games much more aggressively, and much more effectively utilized the dodge and parry mechanics. Somehow I doubt Sekiro will have the same effect.

No narrative payoff?

I'd be much more forgiving of Sekiro's brutal death mechanics if they had some larger narrative meaning or payoff. Dark Souls, for instance, expertly tied its death mechanics into the larger themes and story of the game.

In Dark Souls, the process of hollowing drives the undead closer and closer to losing their minds. The first two games suggest that hollowing can be delayed indefinitely as long as the undead can continually steal the humanity or souls of others. Repeatedly dying, losing your souls and your humanity, and re-doing chunks of the game all tie into the entropic themes of the game: that this world is in decay; it is dying. All those people who die to the Taurus Demon and gave up on the game, never to touch it again, are essentially (unintentionally) fulfilling a character arc in which their character has given up and gone hollow, just like all the hollow undead enemies and NPCs that litter the game world. They are essentially earning a different ending to the game; they just never see an end credits screen for it.

The closest that Sekiro comes, is with its Dragonrot mechanic. But I'm not likely to be writing any blog posts about the lore of Dragonrot. That mechanic just doesn't resonate with me the same way that Dark Souls' hollowness does./p>

On paper, Dragonrot 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 they'll present an anti-war message in which the Dragonrot is a metaphor for the "little guys" -- the soldiers doing the fighting, and the civillains caught in the cross-fire -- who are the ones who actually suffer and die in war, while the generals and politicians who started the war and make all the decisions sit comfortably in their palaces and mansions, rarely (if ever) in genuine danger.

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.

Lots of potential here with the Dragonrot mechanic. It's too bad that From doesn't really do much (if anything) with it.

OK, OK, I know that not every game needs to aspire to be high art, but there's a lot of potential with the Dragonrot mechanic, and FromSoft was too caught up in making the game too punishingly difficult to actually go anywhere with the Dragonrot mechanic. Don't get me wrong! Dragonrot does have thematic relevance to the game's story. The idea of stagnation leading to rot is a recurring theme throughout the game. I just feel that this idea never comes through clearly in the gameplay in the same way that the concept of entropic decay, the madness of hollowing, and the complete indifference of the world to your existence, came through in Dark Souls' gameplay.

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.

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.

Yes, the Dragonrot is more diegetic, but it's actually somehow 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.

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. There aren't enough NPCs present in the game, and the affliction is so trivially cured, that the fear of making NPCs sick was just never a significant consideration. Heck, it doesn't even factor into any of the endings (as far as I know)! 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, or have any effect on the story.

Maybe you might feel the "stagnation" of immortality if your Unseen Aid percentage is really low, and your character simply isn't progressing. But since Unseen Aid has a relatively low rate of being triggered anyway, it just never really impacted my game. I just always assumed that I would lose everything, and (due to confirmation bias) it seemed like most times that I received Unseen Aid were after repeat deaths such that I had nothing left to retain anyway.

If you ask me, the way that Dragonrot and Unseen Aid should have worked is that you always keep some percentage of experience and money when you die -- defaulting perhaps to 50%. Having lots of NPCs afflicted with Dragonrot would lower the rate of Unseen Aid and reduce how much experience and money is retained after death -- down to 0%. This way, you are always getting the benefit of Unseen Aid, and having lots of Dragonrot would actually make a noticeable difference. Dragonrot should also have had several stages of progression with each NPC, such that if you don't cure it, and the disease gets worse, then that NPC would suffer permanent effects, up to and including death -- which would lock the player out of using that NPC as a vendor or completing any associated quests.

From Soft put this really interesting idea into their game, but then just didn't do anything worthwhile with it.

"Git Gud" or go home

Before I continue, I want to give you an idea of where I'm coming from. I jumped on board with this series all the way back with Demon's Souls, after seeing a glowing review in either GameInformer of Official U.S. Playstation Magazine (often abbreviated OPM) -- was OPM still publishing all the way in 2008? If so, they had long since stopped providing the kick-ass demo discs which were the whole reason for subscribing to the magazine. Do you remember the days of playable demos being available to the public before a game released? You know, so that you could try the game before it comes out and make an informed decision about whether you wanted to buy it? Ah, those were the days...

Anyway, I'm not one of those players who does zero-damage speed runs with no armor. Even though I love the Sould-Borne games dearly, and these games have dominated my last 11 years of gaming, I'm definitely not that skilled at these games. I've written a few blogs about game lore and interpretation, but nothing to the level of someone like VaatiVidya -- who does fantastic work, I highly recommend you check out his "Prepare to Cry" series.

In my years as a Souls-playing blogger, I've long advocated for accessibility in these games. Not that the games should be easy, mind you ... but that they should be accessible! One of my frequent soap boxes has been the PvP and invasion mechanics.

I have several friends who just flat-out hate the invasion mechanics and wish that they weren't even in the game. And they have good reason to feel that way. The PvP mechanic is actually at odds with the games' "tough but fair" design philosophy, in that PvP introduces an element of imbalanced, player-generated chaos to an otherwise tightly-scripted and curated experience. However, I have long countered that much of the frustration with the PvP systems could be mitigated if the games' design allowed and encouraged more people to participate in it.

I've repeatedly proposed ideas for how to offer ways for players to practice at PvP and invasions so that we might get invaders of beginner or intermediate skill levels, rather than having to suffer through the insufferable power gamers grabbing late-game gear with low-level characters so that they can twink the n00bs in their sick perversion of "tough love". So I was happy that Dark Souls II included a PvP arena where players could practice PvP in a consequence-free environment against other willing sparring partners. It was a shame that it was hidden in a covenant that itself was hidden behind an optional boss fight that was itself hidden behind an optional area guarded by relatively difficult enemies and (in the Scholar of the First Sin edition at least) an NPC black phantom.

Whatever. Progress.

I was even more thrilled when Dark Souls III featured an NPC near the beginning of the game who would give the player Red Eye Orbs with the express intent of introducing new players to invasions and PvP. This is something that I had asked for since after the first Dark Souls, which hid its introduction to PvP behind a late-game boss, and expected the player to have the foresight to return to the void that is that boss's arena in order to speak to a serpent that you have no idea exists or should be there.

The ways that Dark Souls II and Dark Souls III gave players more access to PvP and PvP practice arenas earlier in the game are, in my opinion, "accessibility" features. They don't make the game easier, but they do give players more insight and tutorials into how game mechanics work, what the payoffs of using those mechanics are, and an opportunity for low-level players and beginners to practice those mechanics so that they are hopefully less overwhelmed when they get invaded.

Of course, Dark Souls III completely undercut that early introduction to PvP by systematically swinging the balance way in favor of the host in Dark Souls III by way of its match-making system that prioritized matching invaders with hosts who already have summoned cooperators; thus ensuring that almost every invasion is a 3-on-1 gank-fest that completely discourages all but the most elite PvPers from even bothering with the mechanic.

Sigh...

So it wasn't that I wanted PvP to be "easier" by buffing or nerfing invaders or hosts. Rather, I wanted PvP to be more accessible to all players. I wanted every player to be introduced to PvP and invasions early in their play experience, and have opportunities to practice PvP in relatively consequence-free environments so that they can get comfortable with the concept. The hope being that more players, with a wider variety of skill levels and character builds, would participate in PvP, and every player (from n00b to naked-dodge-rolling expert) would be more likely to be matched up against players at or near their own skill level. A functional ladder system would also be nice. Beginner invaders would get matched up against beginner hosts, intermediate invaders would get matched against intermediate hosts, and elite invaders would get matched up against elite hosts. Everybody gets more PvP experiences that are challenging, but fair!

That is, after all, what I want from a Souls-like: an experience that is challenging, but which is also fair.

You might be asking yourself, isn't this a video essay about Sekiro? What does the Dark Souls PvP tangent have to do with Sekiro, which has no multiplayer mechanics to speak of? Well, this example is relevant in that it illustrates that perceived problems with Dark Souls' imbalanced PvP may not have been a problem of "difficulty" per se, but rather a problem of "accessibility".

Accessability Concessions

With all that in mind, it isn't just the fact that Sekiro's new death mechanics and combat balance make the game come off as more difficult than its predecessors, Sekiro also deliberately strips away many of the tools and crutches from previous Souls-Borne games that so brilliantly allowed each and every player to set their own difficulty -- without the need for a menu option.

This, in my opinion, makes Sekiro the first game in From Soft's modern library that is genuinely exclusionary in its difficulty. 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.

So yes, it is true that 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 (or you played Demon's Souls after its servers were shut down), 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, and the games accommodated that.

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! The game also accommodated that.

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" enough. In any case, all those methods are 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 even though the fanboys rallied around the half-ironic, but often condescending and gate-keeping "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.

If you get stuck in Sekiro, you are stuck. You can't power-level your character to deal more damage or fortify your HP bar. You can't eat a Stone of Ephemeral Eyes, or an effigy, or an ember to increase your max HP in preparation for a tough boss. You can't read player messages left on the ground that warn you of incoming dangers or which recommend alternative strategies that you may not have thought of. You can't summon a friendly player to help you clear out the mobs or act as a meat shield against a boss.

For some players, that will all be fine. If you were clearing Dark Souls or Bloodborne offline at level 1, naked-rolling your way through the entire game, then you'll feel right at home with Sekiro. This is the game for you. But for everyone else, this game may be too demanding, and the mixed-messages that it sends regarding how to play the game might turn you off entirely. While such players might have found solace in the summoning mechanics of older games, they are simply excluded from being able to find enjoyment in Sekiro.

Defenders may argue that those accessibility features of Souls-Borne were crutches, and that Sekiro actually requires the player to earn your victories by tanking the rakes and learning the game. OK, fine, there is some validity to that. But my counter would be to point you to the previous video in this series to hear what I think about how unsuccessfully Sekiro goes about achieving that goal -- especially compared to the successes of previous FromSoft titles.

And I want to re-iterate here: Sekiro does have a "hard mode"! It's available early in your first playthrough, if you can beat the toughest non-boss enemy in the game, and it's existence if fairly clearly sign-posted as a challenge for those who want the extra challenge. Those players who want a harder game are covered! The Demon Bell is an accessibility feature catering to those highly-skilled players. Those of us who are less skilled have had most of our accessibility concessions removed.

Lingering legacy issues

Not only did Sekiro take out features that make the game more accessible, it also left in many legacy flaws that hurt the previous games' accessibility.

I'll confess that I found my self frustrated a hell of a lot earlier, and a hell of a lot more often, in Sekiro compared with most of From's earlier releases. One very fundamental problem with the direction that From Software's games are going is that they keep getting faster, and the enemies keep getting more aggressive. As the games keep getting faster and more intense, all the little problems that have been present going all the way back to Demon's Souls compound on each other and become harder and harder to work around or ignore.

With enemies and bosses that can kill you in two hits, all those problems with the camera, target lock, and fumbling through the quick inventory become harder and harder to excuse because they become much more likely to get me killed. And since death is so strictly punished, with no opportunity to reclaim your lost experience or money, a cheap or undeserved death feels that much more infuriating.

This game doesn't have insta-death traps like ogres that smash through walls, or floors that fall out from beneath you, so I rarely feel like the game is deliberately trying to throw cheap deaths at me. Well, except for maybe the Sunken Valley Gun Fort. Fuck the gun fort! But instead, the accidental cheap deaths really piled up in this game. There's a lot of forced combat encounters, mini-boss, and boss fights that take place in relatively confined spaces and narrow hallways where it's very easy to get pushed back into a wall and give the camera a seizure.

It's also frustrating when environmental obstacles get in the way of the camera. Things like trees, bushes, gates, and folding screens can obstruct your view of your own character. From is able to apply transparency filters to some objects, but not to all. They did it exactly once in Dark Souls II (in an area that had n combat anyway...), but then neglected to do it in Bloodborne or Dark Souls III, despite those environment being absolutely cluttered with camera-obstructing obstacles! This is a problem that goes all the way back to Demon's Souls, and it is so aggrevating that From hasn't found a working solution in the five games since!

Even though they did a better job with the camera overall, the increased speed and aggressiveness of enemies means that even a brief moment of obstruction or disorientation can be enough to make you miss an attack cue or mis-time an opportunity attack.

The ability to dash indefinitely, or to use the grappling hook to quickly move about an arena highlighted other issues with the lock-on. It can be easy to lose a lock on an enemy if you're moving around too much. I've long advocated for the lock-on indicator to provide some warning when you get close to going out of range of the target. Perhaps it could change to orange if you move far enough away that dodging directly away from the target would put you out of range of the lock.

Thankfully, the game won't let you dodge off a cliff. Praise be for small mercies like that!

Bad intel

The Souls-Borne games have also always struggled (to a degree) with providing the player with adequate guidance. The instructions provided can often be obtuse. Defeating a specific enemy in the Undead Parish grants you a key to the basement. OK, where is the basement? Don't feel bad if you either didn't notice (or forgot about) this inconspicuous door on account of THE FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON! A helpful NPC tells me to go [DIRECTION] to the aqueduct, but there's no in-game compass or other indication as to which direction is [DIRECTION].

Sekiro takes steps to rectify many of these issues. The vertical nature of the levels, and the ability to jump and use a grappling hood, gives the player more freedom to navigate the areas, bypass obstacles, and reach places that would be unreachable in previous games. More importantly, the new eavesdrop mechanic provides the developers with a new way to directly communicate information, lore, tips, and objectives to the player -- without expecting us to stop the game to read the descriptions for every item in our inventory.

However, Sekiro still repeats some of the same mistakes of the past by providing incomplete, misleading, or otherwise ambiguous information.

Perhaps the single best example of this is with the Flame Barrel and the Chained Ogre boss fight. I was stuck on the Chained Ogre in Ashina Outskirts (the first mini-boss of the game) for much longer than I'd care to admit. The only tip to beating him came in the form of an eavesdrop conversation in which two nearby guards talk about how the ogre is afraid of fire. Good news for me! There's lit braziers lining the arena, not to mention a massive bonfire on a nearby ledge. Clearly, I could use these sources of fire against the ogre.

I tried (and failed) for hours to try to catch fire to the ogre by using the braziers. I tried attacking them to see if they would set my sword alight. I tried throwing kunai through then to see if they'd set my kunai alight. I tried luring the ogre towards the brazier and then destroying the brazier to see if it would burn the ogre. I even managed to hop over the barricades and lure the ogre onto the ledge with the massive bonfire. The ogre walked right through the bonfire without any fear, and without taking any damage.

It turns out, that you are expected to go to the Hirata Estate (a completely different level that actually takes place in the past) in order to acquire a special item that can be used to add a fire weapon to your prosthetic arm. I had already visited the Hirata Estate, but completely missed picking up this item because it is cleverly hidden literally inside of a campfire -- a campfire that burns you and deals damage on contact.

The stealth mechanics of the game, and the large focus on stealthily traversing the first area, lead me to believe that Sekiro expected me to try to find indirect or environmental ways to damage or defeat enemies, rather than beating them in straight combat. So it didn't occur to me that I needed to find a fire weapon because I thought that there should be some way to use the fire in the area to damage, weaken, or defeat the boss with minimal direct conflict.

Look, Fromsoft, I'm not a professional game designer. Far be it for me to tell you how to make games. But if you're going to tell the player that an enemy is weak or afraid of fire, do not litter the arena with decorative sources of fire that literally have no effect on said enemy! That's just ... sigh ... not helping...

Yes, I now know that you can also buy a note from a nearby vendor that tells you to find the Flame Barrel in a camp fire in Hirata Estate. But ... ugh ... come on!

After this incident, I wasn't sure if I could ever trust eavesdrop information again. So much for accessibility...

Stealth game, or Souls-like?

Stealth in Sekiro feels ... dated. This is not the complicated, robust, and agent-driven Rube Goldberg machine of interacting A.I.s and environmental game systems like what you might see in Metal Gear Solid V or Hitman. This feels like stealth that could have been pulled straight out of a PS1 game. Remove the insta-kill deathblow takedowns, and stealth in Sekiro basically amounts to stay behind a wall until the enemy turns its back to you.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Demon's Souls had a very retro approach to its gameplay design as well. It was a dungeon-crawling RPG evocative of the first Elder Scrolls, with the same trial-and-error gameplay that you might find in any 80's platformer from Mega Man to Contra to Ninja Gaiden. But those retro design philosophies were paired with modern design conventions.

The unforgiving difficulty of Demon's Souls could be counteracted by slow, methodical progression. Unlike the classic side-scrolling platformers in which you could get killed by something off-screen that you couldn't possibly have seen, the fully 3-D world of Demon's Souls allowed an observant player to see every threat that was coming. Then, of course, there was the completely revolutionary online mechanics that developers (including From Soft themselves) have struggled to re-create.

Demon's Souls was a retro-feeling game that was truly modern, ground-breaking, and (based on the overwhelming popular success of its follow-up Dark Souls) ahead of its time.

Sekiro, similarly is a mash-up of retro concepts and revolutionary design. The stealth may feel dated and simplistic, but the combat engine that requires precision strikes and repeated, carefully-timed deflections is wholly modern. It's rapid-paced and frenetic, but somehow manages to maintain the sense of highly meticulous and deliberate play that made Demon's Souls work so well.

Not to mention the fact that the mechanic of "sneak up behind bad guy and insta-kill him" is a bog-standard stealth mechanic that is present in virtually every modern action/adventure game, whether the game is supposed to be a stealth game or not. But then again, so many modern action games emphasize sandboxy shenanigans and player expression. Sekiro ... doesn't.

When you get to the end of a level in Sekiro, you aren't rewarded with a system mastery test that requires you to use the skills you've learned in the level to beat a boss, or for you to come up with some clever and creative way to defeat the boss using the stealth tools that you've been practicing with throughout the level. Instead, you're expected to have a straight-up sword fight.

In fact, I found myself regularly deliberately failing at -- or outright ignoring -- the stealth during a first run-through of a level, simply so that I could get in some practice at sword-fighting the enemies. There's the old joke that games like Metal Gear Solid have crappy combat mechanics because having to use them is intended to be punishment for screwing up the stealth. Sekiro feels like an inversion of that old cliche. In the case of Sekiro, there's actually genuinely good combat mechanics that serve as a reward for screwing up the stealth, but it's the brutally difficult bosses that feel like a punishment for you having wasted your time even bothering to practice at the stealth.

I'm reminded of why I stopped playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I had built a mercantile character with high speech and barter skills with the intent of going around, collecting loot, and selling it to vendors to make myself rich and deck myself in high-end gear. But then I got into the first Oblivion Gate, and you can't talk or bribe your way through those. My combat skills were crap, but the game's level-scaling meant that the Daedra's combat skills were leveled to my superior speech and barter skill levels. Leveling up stopped feeling like a fun reward -- ooh! I get to pick a new skill and get stronger! -- and instead, it started to feel like an outright punishment -- now all the enemies are stronger, and there's even greater separation between my combat skills and theirs.

Sekiro gave me a very similar feeling. Both games made me feel like I was being punished for using, and becoming proficient with, the tools that the game gives me. I felt like Sekiro was punishing me for practicing and getting good at the stealth by throwing me into boss fights in which the stealth skills were, not only in-effective, but outright useless!

And it's not like it wouldn't be possible to design and build a compelling boss fight out of a game's stealth mechanics. It's been done before! Heck, Fromsoft themselves have even tried it in the past (with, admittedly less-than-stellar results).

Not a single boss in Sekiro even allows the player to utilize stealth. There's a few mini-bosses that allow you to use stealth to get the first deathblow for free, but every major boss is fought in a dedicated arena that offers no possibility for stealth. There's nowhere to hide, and usually no avenue of escape. The boss is always aware of exactly where you are, and they will relentlessly pursue you.

So there's really no point in practicing and getting good at the stealth (as rudimentary as it is). If you're using stealth to explore and clear a level, then you're not practicing the combat that is going to be necessary to clear one of the game's Dark Souls-inspired mini-bosses or bosses. If you're good enough to clear out a level by killing everything directly, then you probably don't need the stealth. And if you're just trying to speed through the level to get to the boss, then the stealth is only going to slow you down. You're better off just sprinting through the level with your unlimited stamina. Running through a level is pretty much moot anyway, since almost all the bosses are just a hop, skip, and jump from a checkpoint anyway.

The worst part of this design, however, is that the stealth could (and probably should) act as an in-game difficulty adjustment for players -- a "crutch" for struggling players, if you will. If you're having trouble with confronting enemies directly, then the stealth should be there to allow you to get through the level with minimal confrontations. In that sense, it would serve a similar function as summoning an ally in a previous Souls game. But since bosses can't be beaten through stealth, that crutch gets kicked out from under you when you get to the end of the level.

Not only do you not get to practice the game's tough and demanding combat, but you also might not be getting any money or experience from defeating enemies.Sekiro does not grant you experience from sneaking past enemies in the way that Skyrim levels up your speech skills whenever you successfully persuade, bluff, or bribe an NPC in order to avoid conflict.

The stealth does not serve as a crutch for struggling players. It does not increase the accessibility of the game.

Even early-game bosses will require you to achieve a moderate degree of mastery of the game's combat systems, which you may not have because you've been playing the game like a stealth game so far. Which means you're only shooting yourself in the foot, and making the experience more miserable, by even bothering with the stealth.

Sekiro is good, but Bloodborne is better.

Now comes the part where I have to qualify these entire past two videos and their combined hour's worth of criticism of Sekiro. Please do not misconstrue my criticism of Sekiro as meaning that I think Sekiro is a terrible game. It is not. As I said in the first video, Sekiro is a very good game that I think just stumbles significantly in its execution.

These two videos compared Sekiro [mostly unfavorably] to the other Souls-Borne games (with a particular focus on Bloodborne), but the intent was not to say "Bloodborne is good, and Sekiro is bad." Rather, what I'm trying to say is closer to "Sekiro is good, but Bloodborne is better!" Bloodborne might very well be my favorite game in the Souls-Borne / Sekiro lineup. I consider it to be the single best game available on the PS4, and it's one of my personal favorite games of all time! So Sekiro has a lot of good company in the category of "games that I don't like as much as Bloodborne".

And if anybody at From Software happens to watch this video -- or anyone from Sony, or Namco/Bandai, or Activision, or any other company that might publish future From Software titles -- please do not get the wrong idea. FromSoft experimented with a new idea, and it was a good idea that was well worth experimenting with! They just didn't quite stick the landing. I want them to try new ideas. Not every one is going to be a master stroke like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne. Not every FromSoft game has to have asynchronous multi-player with co-op and PvP. Not every game has to be about undeath or cycles of rebirth. Not every game has to have a death and resurrection mechanic. None of these features should be considered sacrosanct. I encourage FromSoft to keep trying new and original ideas. I just think that in the future, they need to be a little bit more thoughtful about how they execute those new and original ideas. I absolutely do not want FromSoft to keep playing it safe by churning out more Dark Souls sequels until Dark Souls becomes just another rote, stale, annually-released Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed.

FromSoft's best games are the new IPs, and I definitely think that Sekiro is better than either Dark Souls II or Dark Souls III. New IPs is what I want to see FromSoft continue to create, and it's what I want to see publishers continue to fund them to make. Considering that Sekiro sold over 2 million units in the first week or so of release, I don't think FromSoft is in any danger of losing the support of major publishers any time soon. And that's a very good thing.

Tags:, , , ,

Contribute Comment

avatar


We'll incarnate your avatar from the services below.
PlayStation Network Steam Xbox LIVE Facebook MySpace Pinterest Twitter YouTube deviantART LiveJournal



biuquote
  • Comment
  • Preview


Grid Clock Widget
12      60
11      55
10      50
09      45
08      40
07      35
06      30
05      25
04      20
03      15
02      10
01      05
Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

A gamer's thoughts

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.

Follow me on Twitter at: twitter.com/MegaBearsFan

Patreon

If you enjoy my content, please consider Supporting me on Patreon:
Patreon.com/MegaBearsFan

Without Gravity

And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

Featured Post

I actually like playing the preseason in MaddenI actually like playing the preseason in Madden10/07/2019 If you've already read my review of Madden 20 on my personal blog, then you know that I consider this year's release to be a massive disappointment. In fact, the last Madden entry that I actually liked was probably Madden 17. Despite my misgivings about this year's game, I do want to start off by talking about something in recent...

Random Post

It's not everyday that you get to sing along with a BeatleIt's not everyday that you get to sing along with a Beatle03/18/2015 Last weekend, I added an item to my bucket list: Sing back-up vocals with an actual Beatle, in the flesh. I then promptly crossed that item off of the list. Sing back-up vocals with an actual Beatle, in the flesh. My girlfriend and I had the pleasure of seeing a live concert performance of Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band...

Month List

RecentComments

Comment RSS