Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // All images from Sekirothegame.com

I’ve died far more than twice during my play through of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and each death brings me closer and closer to a curious revelation. See, while I think Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice dethrones Bloodborne as From Software’s best game, I don’t actually like it. I find the combat exquisitely challenging, demanding a level of perfection that’s gratifying to pull off, the story engrossing (and in a bold departure from previous From games, comprehensible without the help of lore YouTubers!), and the levels exciting to explore. Despite all of this praise, the game doesn’t grip me in the way Hidetaka Miyazaki’s previous efforts have, and I think it comes down to a fundamental shift that I find alienating in the design philosophy.

I’m not talking about the game design, though there are changes on that front as well. On the design front, Sekiro represents the culmination of a decade of refinement on the formula established by Demon’s Souls, with some significant departures to lend the game an identity distinct from the Soulsborne games. 

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The player character’s sweet grappling hook arm is one of those design departures, enabling more verticality in the level design.

Elegance defines Sekiro’s design. Every aspect of the game complements the core swordplay. Even encounters with the most basic enemies play out as thrilling blade ballets of attacking, deflecting, and dodging worthy of the best Kurosawa films. Gone are the myriad of weapons to choose from with different movesets and the complex upgrade system. There’s just you, your katana, and a host of mooks, bosses, and minibosses to do battle with. The laser focus on swordplay distills the complexities of the From formula down to its elemental essence.

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The increased freedom of movement enables some sweet stealth kills, but they’re not that viable. Enemies get alerted easily, making it hard to chain takedowns together, and bosses start their encounters aggro’d, making stealth impossible. Some minibosses are vulnerable to backstabs, but it only takes one of their multiple health bars. Honorable duels are the way to go.

The philosophy behind these choices, however, is more ephemeral. Basically, I define design philosophy as the designer’s intent behind the choices they made. It’s the “whys” that underlie the design’s “whats” and “hows.” There are as many design philosophies as there are game designers, and most finished games feature a complex alchemy as all the competing philosophies interact. One designer’s vision generally wins out over the rest, as seems to be the case with Miyazaki and Souls.

The dominant philosophy of any game manifests in subtle ways across the entire product. Take Mario, for example. 3D Mario games express their fundamental philosophy with crystalline clarity. All of the choices in the design of the series support a thesis of “everyone can enjoy these games.” There are enough stars/moons/shines that a player of any skill can earn enough to fight Bowser, yet the games include postgame content that will challenge even the most seasoned veteran’s platforming mettle.

In contrast with Mario’s accessibility, elitism underlies Sekiro’s design philosophy. There is exactly one way to play Sekiro. If you don’t enjoy repeating fights over and over to master deflection timing and optimal attack windows, your options are either keep playing until you feel the “click” and start to enjoy the core loop, or turn the game off and play something else. While this might sound like a significant criticism, it’s not. The swordplay feels incredible once you wrap your head around the slight input lag and the one boss I beat without getting hit made me feel like an absolute god. However, it is a philosophy that sacrifices the player’s agency over their experience.

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Expect to get your ass kicked by this dude several times as you learn his patterns.

In Sekiro, if you’re having trouble with a mandatory boss fight, the only thing you can do is keep failing until you master the timing and overcome the wall. While this might sound eerily familiar to veterans and would-be veterans of Souls, it’s actually emblematic of the divergent philosophies driving the games. In Souls, you always have several variables to tweak whenever you get stuck. Having trouble with swarms of enemies? Try using a two handed weapon with wide, sweeping attacks. Aggressive boss putting too much pressure on you? Equip a one handed weapon and use a shield to parry. Moonlight Butterfly staying out of reach? Get a bow, it’ll go down fast.

Souls intends for the player to experiment and explore in this way. In an interview with Wired UK, Miyazaki says that the difficulty of the games “incentivises players to experiment more with character builds and weapon load-outs” rather than force them to master the mechanics.

While “getting good” is always the best long-term answer in Souls, it’s never the only one. All of these variables provide the player with a degree of control over the game’s difficulty, but Sekiro allows for nothing of the sort. You can theoretically grind skill points, but the upgrades don’t affect your character all that much. And there are ways to increase your attack, defense, and vitality, but that doesn’t alter a boss’s difficulty as much as change the amount of time you need to spend fighting them.

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No amount of skill points will let you auto-step on a sword. No matter what, you have to master the timing.

The greatest sacrifice between Souls and Sekiro is freedom to play the game sub-optimally, which is something I very much enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s satisfying as all hell to master Sekiro, but I find that the “one approach” design suffers from a lack of narrative equity. If you’re not familiar with the concept, I first saw it articulated by Magic: The Gathering Lead Designer Mark Rosewater, and I’ll link the essay where he explains it better than I ever could. It’s a concept I value as a player and a designer- those moments that feel utterly unique to you as a player, when your build and your choices come together to create weird gamestates that you feel have never happened before and will never happen again. When you make a potentially stupid choice that would make for an awesome story to share with your friends, that’s a sign that the game you’re playing has strong narrative equity.

And Sekiro doesn’t have those moments. I feel satisfied when I triumph over a diffcult boss, but not special. I know there are streamers out there who play the game at a level I have neither the time nor energy to achieve, and the only difference between us is the amount of time we’ve invested. This isn’t a game that immerses me in a post apocalyptic fantasy world, encouraging me to unravel the myriad mysteries of what’s going on and how I fit into it. It’s a game that evokes a fantasy of a world in which I have nothing but time and patience to practice until I’m a master of the virtual blade.

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Even in thrilling, cinematic duels, I’m hyper aware of the controller in my hands.

None of this makes Sekiro an inferior product. I stand by my earlier assertion that it’s the best game From Software has made, it’s just not for me. I prefer my games a little more forgiving, and I like to have control over my character. Even though after twenty hours I learned it’s not for me, I don’t regret a cent I spent on it or a second I played. Miyazaki made a game that doesn’t compromise his vision to accomodate any other playstyles, and that’s a rare treat in an games industry that’s moving towards homogeny, full of live service shooters and triple AAA sandboxes that play like “best of” compilations of mechanics devoid of the context that made the features popular in the first place.

More games like Sekiro, please, games industry. Just maybe with a little less elitism driving the design.

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