Sekiro: Looking at Taco Design
Critiquing this game is difficult, because you see a lot of extreme beliefs pop up. Most reviews would start with a resume about how good the author is at Dark Souls and Bloodborn, so much so that it’s just a meme now. However, I think the discourse is beautifully summed up by these two reddit users below.
The main thing one has to understand is Sekiro is not a Souls™ game and failing the metrics from which we judge Souls™ game is kind of pointless, right? It’s like judging a taco on how many traits it shares with a fish. It fails the fish test every time, unless it’s a fish taco, than it does a little better. But, we lose something in this discourse because we rarely judge Sekiro on the merits of its own taconess.
When I played my first playthrough of Sekiro I did a ‘low-story’ challenge run. By this I mean I skipped all the of dialogue and cutscenes as fast as I could so I could go stab people. Now this is a pretty interesting challenge, because this game is designed around exploring the story and getting clues for how to progress in a fairly unintuitive world. I mean, even after beating the game several times and learning about the story, I never felt like I really understood the layout of the world.
I knew generally where to start down paths to end up at monkey, ape, and ghost fight respectively, but I’d always have to explore from the top of the castle to figure it out. I think this is actually interesting, due to the exploration mechanic of following the clues set by Kuro. The only unfortunately part is the mystery and intrigue this captures is only really enjoyable for your first playthrough. At subsequence playthroughs you really are just mashing to get through dialogue so much that speedrunners consider this a mini-boss. There are alternative endings to explore more story, but the base of it is always roughly the same.
One thing I found especially disappointing is the story rarely reacts to you in meaningful ways beyond the intended script. There is nothing special for defeating Genichiro in the beginning. You don’t get more experience, a secret item, or additional dialogue when you rematch him later. The fight is designed to be practically unwinnable on your first playthrough and reasonably winnable in subsequent playthroughs but it’s just whatever to win. ‘Oh cool, I did it.’
When you get to Kuro, he asks you how many times you’ve returned — generously believing in your ability and thinking it’s been two or three times. He uses this as an argument for why we need to stop being immortal all of the time, but you can get to this point with never dying. The game kind of breaks in some ways when you don’t follow the rails and experience ludonarrative dissonance because of it. On my first playthrough, I defeated Owl to get the branch from him. I gave the branch to Kuro and he talked about how awesome and needed it was. Then I talked to him again and he spent two minutes talking about how we needed to find that branch I just gave him.
And I think while this seems like a trivial matter it really showcasing some of the shortcomings of Sekiro’s story and that is you don’t really have any meaningful agency in it. It’s a beautiful story, that is masterfully created through the world building and character interaction, but it fails to take the next step and be more than the sum of its parts. In many ways I think the game would have been way better if it scraped the NG+ and multiple endings and instead focused on a collaborative story that allowed individuals to explore the possibility of purification, of hatred consumed, or ending the cycle. (Yes, these are contradictory endings in its current form, the point is merging them in such a way it isn’t a contradiction. It’s like reverse Mass Effect, where you choose different colors to open up different endings.)
Further, while the mechanics do interact with this story, such as being able to revive in a fight or your continual resurrection spreading the dragon illness, this could have been significantly better. You are suppose to be immortal, but mechanically you have ‘one extra life’. This can be recharged by items or by getting killing blows to juice up on life energy, but honestly they should have let you return as many times as you want. The consequence should be 50% less health each time. Given the mechanics of this game, you could not abuse this system to win fights. It would make you feel like having true immortality, it’d kind of feel like those old super hard Nintendo games (ninja gaiden) and it would also reinforce the notion immortality does not equal omnipotence. You could use it to learn the fights a little bit more, finish a fight that you just about won if not for their lucky hit, and ultimately make you feel the shear difference in scope and power between you and your enemy in tangible ways. I think this one additional could balance so many issues this game has and be used in ways to make the story more interesting. What if one fight required you to allow an enemy to kill you repeatedly to destroy their resolve? Something you would notice when their posture filled up only when they killed you. A gimmick yes, but within a game designed to be played once, it could be such a great interplay of story and mechanic.
At the end of the day, the first playthrough of this game is amazing and really works as far as story goes. I think there are a lot of things that could be improved or changed for the better, but that first experience is worth the effort to achieve it.
The Lettuce, Cheese, and other Toppings
Let’s talk about the basically everything that isn’t the Story or the Combat explicitly. The one thing this game absolutely fails at is its systems. The mechanics in which you level up are asinine, grindy, and hurt the experience of the game overall.
The first thing to understand in this game is that you’re going to die a lot on your first playthrough and basically nothing mechanically is designed around this. In fact, you are actively punished for each death, in a way that makes the game and everything in it less enjoyable. This actively gets ignored by the toxic lol ‘git gud’ crowd, but let me stress that I’ve beaten this game without dying and I’m still of the position these mechanics are complete horseshit.
This whole world is littered with single use items that stop working on death and only have marginal effects on gameplay. A slight boost to attack, posture, or enemy drop rates. None of them are really game changers when you’re new to this game, but you get such a low quantity of them, you die so frequently, that there becomes no point in really using or relying on them. You don’t often die in Sekiro in degrees, you die in a fucking explosion. This means most of the shit you pick up is just worthless.
The limited degree from which you get these items and the marginal impact they have on your ability to fight, especially bosses, means it’s all effectively meaningless. Mix this with how when you die you lose half your money and experience rounded down, means to effectively use these items you have to intentionally farm enemies in a safe capacity. It also means you have to be sure to spend all of your money and level up before fighting a boss, because you’ll probably die several times and lose everything you had.
This is just bad game design. You can work around it, you can buy money bags from venders or do what I describe above, but why? WHY!? In a game that is stealth, exploration, intense combat why do I have to manage experience and money. To do so often just halts the game completely. And while items or money or even experience aren’t even needed to beat the game (I didn’t upgrade a single prosthetic in my first game) these mechanics inhibit exploring the combat system. Having to hold a button to loot enemies is so weird? Why doesn’t that happen automatically? Why are they adding such meaningless and tedious elements to the game that do nothing but hinder your ability to even play it?
The level system is objectively grindy as all fuck. I played to NG5, simply so I could farm experience faster to get all the skills unlocked. I was done with the game, I was one shotting the bosses, but 3 hours of grinding was waiting for me at the end to get the rest of the materials, money, and experience to finish this out. And the result is I just didn’t use maybe 75% of the skills in this game or even touch them. I didn’t need them and they took so much work to unlock and I was done with the game by then.
A very easy fix to this is unlock everything immediately. You can still have different schools, but once you unlock the school you have access to everything. You can still have a level system, but that system could be used to level up skills rather than unlocking them. That way you can get the feel for what abilities do and then decide to invest more in them.
The worst part is on your first playthrough, you have no idea what you’re unlocking or what’s valuable. Every mistake you make in putting levels into a skill you never use is a punishment put on the increasing experience cap to that next ability. I had no idea about the posture abilities in that one skill tree, because I was just leveling up the skill trees in order. And by the time I realized what it was or how valuable it was, it was 2 billion experience to the next level.
And none of this is talking about difficulty, it’s talking about the ways Sekiro actively punishes you from using the diverse systems available in the game. And while you can grind them out, all magic is lost by then.
It is so weird to me how incongruent this game is for it’s resource management system. There is no reason a game like Sekiro should feel grindy. Its strong suits are the ability to intelligently approach situations through the stealth mechanics and reward you with the intricacies of it’s intense combat. And while the system does arguably work if you’re very good at the game, you are actively punished for being bad with compounding interest on that shit.
All around these are bad decisions that just feel like they’re in there because it’s a FormSoft game. The irony is that many people don’t like this game because it doesn’t hold up to Dark Souls, but honestly I think they didn’t go far enough from away Dark Souls game design elements.
A final thought here is I think the verticality of the levels was just kind of average. This game is a sort of batman like blend of stealth and violence where the right answer almost always has to be a combination of both. A lot of times I wished it’s stealth and world design was better, where each situation through patients and observation revealed a silent way through. But the observation skills of the enemies is just so janky, with being spotted a million miles away sometimes (from just rando non-snipers) and being fucking invisible at other times. It kind of just falls into a good experience, instead of something that I would call masterful and the disappointing thing is I feel like it had potential. Some situations would reward stealth more than others, where it was heavily designed around it and allowing one stealth hit on a mini-boss, but so much of the A to B of the game was kind of blah filler.
I think the biggest problem with the combat in this game is it almost always feels like you’re completely winning or completely losing with no in between. Further, the mechanic of posture is something that heavily punishes mistakes, because often if you get hit, need to heal, or die such that you’re not putting pressure on the enemy anymore it basically erases the entire fight and progress up to this point. And this isn’t bad by itself, it usually means it can be really interesting learning the fight, but it really hurts the replayability of this game, because once you get a fight, it becomes hard to lose the fight anymore. When you do get it hit, it’s often because the combat system is not always tight and the enemies behave in weird ways sometimes.
This game is also really mean. I’m not saying this to say it’s difficult, I think it is a highly difficult game, but it is ALSO very mean. One of your first mini bosses is the chained ogre, who spams grabs. The combat in this game is super janky such that the tracking on the grabs means conventional dodging is not super reliable. And at this point in the game you have very limited healing items or options for approaching this. Sure, you can go do the hinata estate memory, get the flame barrel as hinted at by the mercenaries before the orge, get that attached and then have an easier time. You can pay attention to these very subtle clues and hope they’re rewarded or just you know, try to play the game and die a 100 times to this beast even if you play correctly.
One of the things I kept coming back to in this game was how many times I was punished for playing correctly. How many Mikiri counters got caught by a camera angle change or something weird happening and I ate the attack that I correctly timed and dodged into. Or how many times the camera decided to show me a wall, instead of me or my enemy. Or how many times a tiny ledge was preventing me from running or moving due to the spider mechanics of your feet. And so many enemies have attacks or maneuvers that don’t break your posture, but put you into a defensive state for which you’re more open to a follow-up attack. But more importantly, will eat all inputs except for deflection or dodge. And while after a 100 hours you will understand how to recognize or stop these issues, these deaths don’t feel fair. I had 2000 deaths on my first I Wanna Beat the Guy game and every single death felt like I failed.
But I think the meanest thing this game does is makes you fight that bull so early. It is mechanically different than any other fight in the game and by this point on your first playthrough you’re by no means an expert in how these mechanics, timing, deflection, and countering work. This bull takes you out in two hits, presses the attack at all times, has fire chip damage, and pretty much doesn’t react to your hits.
Face hits or firecracker will stun it, but fuck is this fight brutal. I 100% the game, ending at NG5. The last playthrough I did of the game I didn’t die once. I had gotten good, I figured it out. I played through on a new file again to see how the game felt once I understood the mechanics, design, importance of items, what to level, etc. I think it’s really important to do this to really understand a game, because until you have intimate knowledge of it, you won’t be able to understand what the designers were going for in the world they built. I couldn’t understand the flame barrel hints on my first playthrough or realize how important and abundant pellets were before you get many healing guards.
But going back to the bull fight, on this new file and a complete understanding of the game, I’m just realizing it was a fuck you moment. There is so much talk about Sekiro being the hardest game out there and that’s a joke. There are single levels of Mario Maker 2 that are harder than Sekiro and difficulty measurement is kind of like a Tantalus source of water you can keep chasing. You can make a game that requires 12 frame perfect inputs a second for 3 minutes and call it the hardest game ever, it doesn’t fucking matter. What matters is the agency you have to approach that difficulty and how well it rewards your effort.
Sekiro doesn’t start becoming fair about it’s difficulty until the Genichiro fight and I think many players could have seen this game as immensely difficult, because of just how mean that beginning of the game is. I think the game becomes more fair as you open up avenues of more resources and it rewards you to explore the story and the world to get stronger. I didn’t really feel like item hunting on my new file, so I beat the final boss with about 60% of the healing resources, boss power level ups, and beads. But I did know that if I needed it, I had options to try different paths, to beat mini-bosses, gain vitality, and try different things.
I know I’m coming down as horribly critical of this, but I do think a lot of this game does work really well. I just don’t think it has much replayability and the fact the game was heavily designed around this just makes it a worse experience. If it was just longer, with tighter level design, and improvements I suggested throughout this it could’ve been a total masterpiece of gaming.
It’s really fun playing it the first time and it can be really rewarding, I just don’t see myself going back to it. I really soured after grinding out all the items for upgrades and each time I fought a boss the less interesting the fight became for me.
There are optional challenges like Kuro’s Charm or just intentionally doing a no prayer bead run, but ultimately that makes you just have to be more cautious and takes away all of the engaging moments of risk/reward you’re constantly juggling within battle. Instead of trying to capitalize in a sword exchange and maybe over committing to eat a sword to the face, you’ll just memorize what’s safe and wait for it. I think these challenges ultimately make the game design less interesting, if not more punishing. And that’s the thing, difficulty should not be synonym with punishing. Something can be punishingly difficult, but it should never be difficult simply because it is punishing.
IS THIS TACO GOOD OR WHAT’S GOING ON AGAIN?
I think the very short of it is the game at its best is very engaging, difficult, and rewarding both in gameplay and story. However, at its worse it is grindy, mean, and arbitrarily punishing. I honestly think the Souls elements of this game only work to its detriment and if it focused more on its own identity, had a single story that was expanded, and changed up the death/item mechanics it could’ve been something very special.
As it stands now, it’s definitely worth enjoying, getting full, and than leaving the restaurant and finding something else to eat.