You warily fight through a punishing world in the newest game from "Dark Souls" developer FromSoftware, "Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice." Even the lowliest enemies can kill you in a few swift hits, and death costs you the progress you made to that point. Checkpoints offer repose and replenishment, but they often lie behind a boss who will slice your guts into ribbons before you can land a blow.
So, you might wonder, how is "Sekiro" any different from "Dark Souls"?
For all that FromSoftware's new brutally difficult action game has in common with its previous five brutally difficult action games, "Sekiro" marks a significant and successful departure for the developer. That's mostly because, throughout the game, it manipulates the degree of freedom you have to determine how you engage its formidable enemies. In "Souls" games, as well as "Bloodborne," you approached almost every one of those enemies head-on, teeth grit. But you approached them with a blank canvas: sword or staff, armor or cloth, strength or speed.
"Sekiro," however, widens the first of those freedoms and narrows the second.
With stealth resources like vegetation that masks your presence, as well as the ability to jump and grapple to rooftops and random tree branches, your titular shinobi protagonist can dispatch whole garrisons before a single sword of theirs is drawn. He can even knock down half the health of some bosses with a backstab. And as its platforming goes, FromSoftware gets outright generous: Sekiro's feet softly fasten to surfaces, so stepping against edges no longer means tumbling into one of the game's many mountain abysses. Nor do falls cost you your life, just a fraction of health.
But when enemies spot Sekiro, and when he has to duel away the remaining health of those bosses, the game makes you fight the same way every other player does. There are skills and auxiliary weapons to acquire, but their use is limited and they don't make nearly as much of a difference as, say, magic spells or daggers. The auxiliary weapons, fitted onto Sekiro's prosthetic arm, actually function more like puzzle inputs than equalizers. Also, in a change that some FromSoftware players may find particularly jarring, you can't summon others to fight at your side, either.
So it's one sword, one Sekiro.
Of course, not every enemy he faces is the same. It's a game set in 16th century feudal Japan, so many of them are bandits and samurai. But it's also a game made by FromSoftware, so the humans are joined by overgrown beasts and spectral head-scratchers. And if you follow the conversation about "Sekiro" — the conversation that doesn't devolve into whining that an easy mode would ruin the game, that is — you'll see little consensus on the relative difficulty of those enemies. I beat one of the most fussed-over bosses on my first try. And yet I died time after time to others thought easy.
That lack of consensus shows how uniquely each player experiences "Sekiro." But, unlike "Dark Souls" or "Bloodborne," the experience isn't made unique by weapons to select or stats to level up. It's made unique strictly by what we bring to the game, to those enemies. It's made unique by our adaptivity, our reflexes, our attention to detail and our willingness to endure. I wonder whether some algorithm, were it fed the data on our every death, could map those traits like a Myers-Briggs test. At the very least, maybe it could explain why I struggle against enemies with spears so much.
Sure, the way we play other games, and particularly FromSoftware's, tell us about, well, us. Through the choices we make and the emotions we feel, we have an active hand in shaping every game experience. But there's something about "Sekiro" that penetrates deeper. And it emerges from the razor-thin space between the game's strategic rigidity and its maddening difficulty.
(Is "Sekiro" really the hardest FromSoftware game, as some have declared? Maybe. It certainly killed me more times than "Dark Souls," its sequels or "Bloodborne." But who knows.)
In my case, it was the endgame of "Sekiro" that provoked — at the risk of being melodramatic and dropping a bad pun — some soul-searching.
The game's last two bosses, one optional and one not, broke me, frankly. One's a flailing demon that'd be more at home in "Bloodborne," the other's the most legendary swordsman in "Sekiro" lore. And both have far more health to whittle down than any enemy I had previously encountered in the game. So it wasn't just the terror of chipping away at those two bosses, who could wipe me out in one swipe, that led me to say last week that I would probably never defeat them. It was the prospect of fighting them for so long, minutes that feel like months, in order to do so.
I had died and died again. Sometimes I died in a few discouraging seconds, sometimes I died after progressing further into the battle than ever before. Sometimes I just laughed and said "f--k this," sometimes I punched the couch to vent the steam generated by my racing pulse. But I knew I would beat those bosses eventually. Even when I said I wouldn't, I just knew I would.
I don't know how, precisely, I knew. But I had reached a point with each boss where I realized beating them was possible. I had already begun to read their movements and hardwire my responses. I just had to accept that there was only one curved steel path through them — no backstabs, no leveling — and muster the will to walk it. I knew what I had to do, and that I was capable of doing it.
I just had to do it.
Resolved, I killed the demon first. But the swordsman took far longer. And it's fitting that he, the boss who most embodies the agony and the ecstasy of "Sekiro," is its final one (in most endings).
That's because dueling him also embodies everything that sets "Sekiro's" combat apart from that of FromSoftware's previous games. Enemies have not only health, but also posture, which can be broken with steady strikes and well-timed parries long before their health depletes. And the end of either meter renders enemies vulnerable to deathblows. So the game is like "Bloodborne" in its priority on aggression, but between his deflecting strikes and specialized counters, Sekiro can be just as deadly on defense. And against the game's virtuosic final swordsman, he has to be.
So I sharpened myself to stand with the boss, to answer each of his attacks, to hold it together for 10 minutes. And the first 49 times I fought him, I was doubtful. But the 50th, the time I finally survived all four of his lethal phases and landed the executioner's blow, I was euphoric. It was as if all the despair of my failures was reconstituted into one exhilarating rush. It lasted for days.
It wasn't the first rush I felt playing "Sekiro," to be sure. Several of its bosses may be less demanding, but plunging the shinobi's sword into their chests still delivers the thrill of hard-won triumph, the kind that prompts you to involuntarily raise your arms in the air. Often compounding that thrill is the new ability to resurrect. It's limited, so exhausting it adds yet another layer of tension.
And FromSoftware expertly crafts the game's world around those thrills. Sekiro journeys past thatched roofs, cherry blossoms and smoldering battlefields to save the Divine Heir, a boy whose blood gave the shinobi the power to resurrect, from a besieged castle. Unlike "Bloodborne," the imagery is bright, sometimes beautiful. Unlike "Dark Souls," the story makes sense, and moves forward.
Unlike either of those games, though, "Sekiro" asks you to look only inward to complete that journey.