Sekiro Pressed All My Buttons In The Right Ways (but probably could afford to press them a little less)

Trynant’s words after I decided I hated Nioh. Trynant had sent me Nioh 1 and 2 for my birthday and, upon saying this, I immediately received a steam alert. He had given me Sekiro. Was this Nioh NTR?

And so I had Sekiro. I had wanted to play Sekiro for awhile but my computer was slightly too weak when it came out and the idea of buying a game for a PS4 that wasn’t even mine felt bad. But I’m patient so I waited, getting to it finally as I always do: Well after the game has actually come out.

I’m going to say outright that I’m going to be making a lot of comparisons to Nioh. That said, I don’t think comparing these two games is, in most circumstances, at all fair. They are different games with different goals that share only a few things in common (Sengoku era Japan and Souls DNA… which… they only barely do??). But for me, playing these games back to back, it’s hard not to compare and contrast them. So while I am going to bring Nioh up a lot, it’s because Nioh is currently a very convenient lens to look at Sekiro through.

There is something uniquely bothersome to me about people recommending a game by saying “It’s like Dark Souls”. I look at whatever game it is and I get this feeling of “… is THIS what Dark Souls is to you?”

It’d be like someone saying “Hey, try this stealth game, it’s like Metal Gear”. I will be the first to defend Kojima games for their gameplay, but is gameplay what makes a Metal Gear game? Or is it multiple puzzle pieces interlocking together in a perfectly strange way? I feel this way about Dark Souls. Do I enjoy Souls combat? Yes. Do I crave it, in any way, without everything else that comes from a From Software game? Not really. I crave the entire “flavor profile” of their games.

So the irony of the whole Nioh/Sekiro comparison is, in the sense that most people speak, Nioh is MUCH MUCH more like Dark Souls. You could argue that, on a mechanical level, Nioh is a beautiful and even superior evolution. Sekiro… isn’t a Soulsborne game at all. It is less a Soulsborne game than Death Stranding is a Metal Gear game. Yet people (often jokingly) try and string together weird words like “Soulsborneiro” or ” “Seksoulsborne ” to describe them all. Why?

They’re From Software games.

I had heard a lot about Sekiro before playing it. Weird things about the posture system, how different and unfair the game was, how much the person hated it… but no matter what they said, they always said “You’ll like it, though”. I was always more skeptical of this then they were but mere minutes into the game I felt it. This was not a Souls game yet was everything I was missing in Nioh.

From Software knows how to capture mood. They know how to have a sense of place. Their worlds seem to not care about you, as if they were not built for you. But every merchant you miss, every side path that you forget, every weird, unclear bit of progression is designed like that because they care. They do it not because they hate you, but because they want to remove artifice from their worlds and draw you in.

By their standards, the world of Sekiro is the most “designed” for the player. The tutorial/reservoir area feels like something out of Metal Gear. The world is filled with grapple points and convenient grass but yet, as you sail over walls, bypass encounters and jump from rooftop to rooftop, the world somehow still manages to feel indifferent to your needs. Unlike recent From games, you are a major player in the plot. Wolf is an important character, but few in the world understand his significance. The majority of the world doesn’t care about you and because of that, you aren’t exploring a world crafted for you, you’re exploring Ashina, as it is and as it has been, in its final moments.

… Or so the illusion goes. From has always been incredible at this sleight of hand and it, as was exposed to me by Nioh, is what makes me endure the hardships of their games. It isn’t the reward of victory in itself — though the reward is great — it is also the promise of things to come.

Nioh confirmed something else I had already knew but hadn’t articulated. From Software games are not about their mechanics, they are about their content. Nioh, ignoring the tedious loot system, is almost in all ways mechanically superior to any From Software game. They build a system and build content to match it. From Software on the other hand builds content, and matches the mechanics to it.

I love From Software’s content.

I was skeptical of Sekiro’s combat. Descriptions of the posture system always made it sound wild and unnecessary. I’d hear stories about people saying it is too harsh and punishing and others saying the basic combat is easy… and in a sense, it is. Sekiro is not a Soulsborne game. You don’t dodge and circle and defend and look for opening. You don’t have an invulnerable roll. Your block will eventually fail you. You can jump. You can jump?? Yes you can jump this isn’t a soulsborne game.

You attack. Your enemy reacts to your attack. You respond to their reaction. Your not a passive force, responding to the whims of an enemy. You control them just as much as they control you and with that, rhythms form in the combat. The combat is simple, but the flow is beautiful, quick and deadly.

You can’t easily fight a group, but relying on stealth kills would take forever. Instead you can hit and run, Separate enemies. You control the engagement with incredible mobility. You figure out what enemies go down the easiest, and which are slowest. You divide and conquer. This is not a soulsborne game, you have tools and abilities, some of them downright oppressive. Taking out groups changes it dynamic once you can swoop in, backstab one and use puppeteering to make him fight his friends.

In many ways the combat is more forgiving than souls game. You can’t be one shot, how neat is that? In fact, you can even use that death sometimes to get a drop on an enemy or even to heal. The balance between health damage and posture damage gets interesting once you deal with bigger enemies and bosses. Getting clean hits pays interest in the future as their posture begins to recover slower.

The combat isn’t particularly deep. Again Nioh, on a mechanics standpoint, would have Sekiro beat. But it’s not about the mechanics it’s about the CONTENT. Sekiro’s enemies make the combat feel incredible. The whole ecosystem of the game is tighter. Sekiro’s whole is greater than the sum of its simple parts.

Bosses take this further. You REALLY need to learn them. Their call and response behavior is probably the peak of complexity for modern From Software games. You analyze them and their attacking habits. You bait them. You force their hand. The timing element of defense elevates the ordeal. You were too slow to dodge, but maybe, just maybe, you won’t panic and will get all the deflections you need to not get posture broken. It’s tense.

What’s also odd is, unlike Dark Souls and most games, you don’t recover your posture/stamina/block gauge by not blocking. You block. This seems counter intuitive at first, but you give up mobility and action to recover. Blocking feels bad. You’re defended, but behind a cardboard shield. You’re a shinobi, movement is life. So when you hold your sword defensively in front of your enemy, you feel vulnerable.

It’s wonderful.

Sekiro is not a Soulsborne game. It has a story. It has characters. Yes those games have those things, but it’s not ABOUT those things. The sullen, bittersweet interactions between all the characters in Sekiro are wonderful. Instead of a game full of offputting, deranged people, we get real performances. I played the game with Japanese voices and am not sure why anyone wouldn’t because the voice work is incredible. The conflict for Kuro’s love and warmth for Sekiro vs the chasm of class between them is so sadly frustrating and sometimes tragic. While we don’t fall into deep monologues and epic stories, the relatively few character interactions drip with texture that implies a deep rich history behind anything. They speak like From Software worlds are built. Simple things like the few spoken lines from Lady Butterfly imply so much about her and Sekiro’s shared history with Owl. The sculptor speaks as tired man, holding on to his humanity. The Divine Child of Rejuvenation speaks as… a little gremlin child who has, through social pressure, been forced to shoulder a lot of responsibility and burden. You bring sake to Isshin Ashina, so you may listen to the drunken stories of an old yet powerful warlord.

And so like the combat, the story is simple, yet somehow, in its brevity, rich.

Sekiro is not without fault. Dragonrot is perhaps one of the worst mechanics implemented in a Fromsoft game. The mechanic, which sickens NPCs and stops their story progression through repeated deaths is the worst of two worlds. It is a mechanic that makes players afraid to engage with the game while at the same time presenting no real consequence. Dragonrot is trivial, the resources to cure it abundant enough that you can cure everyone when need be without worry, but rare enough that you’ll let your buds cough their lungs out until you need to progress something. Not understanding Dragonrot can be crippling, and understanding it can be immersion breaking at worst and boring at best.

Unseen Aid was a mechanic meant to try and mitigate the more punishing effects of death in From Software games, but ends up just being useless and confusing. 30% of the time you won’t lose anything when you die, but as people get dragonrot, that number goes down drastically… but… who is counting on something happening 30% of the time?

Some ending things are gated behind some obtuse requirements, like really specific eavesdropping. It’s not the end of the world and some people enjoy looking up spoilers for NG+. Upgrades and Skillpoints also are a bit annoying to manage and plan out. Some stuff borderline feels like a skillpoint trap, like the entire Monk line.

Also there is a part of me that feels the game is too hard. Not for me, so much. Owl (Father) was the only boss to give me significant difficulties and Sword Saint Isshin went down in 5 or 6 quick attempts. But playing it, I felt like.. am I enjoying this because it’s hard or because it feels good? And if it felt good at a lower difficulty, would it be helpful if the game was slightly easier? Some parts of the game ask a LOT from a players, which is especially frustrating when most of the game does not. A little bit more leeway to respond to attacks or in the health of some bosses would help so many more people push through without I think destroying what most people love about the game. Force the players to learn all the things they already need to learn, but just maybe… require them to maintain perfection for less time.

Sekiro is the first From Software game to make me sympathetic to the idea that these games should have an Easy Mode. While my feelings matter much MUCH less than the people who want these things, when people ask for it in Dark Souls games I always have this feeling that… the difficulty is the glue that holds the game together. That without resistance, you see how flimsy parts of those games are. Which doesn’t mean people can’t want it or don’t deserve to have it, but more that I don’t get it.

Sekiro though… Sekiro feels like a game that needs this. It lacks the difficulty smoothing features of other Fromsoft titles. No co-op, no overleveling. Just uncompromising gameplay. Which is a shame, because I feel like Sekiro has the most to enjoy outside of challenge. The characters, their interactions, the sheer joy of moving and grappling through the world. Moving or heck, even combat in Soulsborne doesn’t feel stellar. It’s the feeling, mixed with the reward that makes it feel good. But Sekiro? Gosh just -doing- shit in that game, even when it’s easy, feels great. An easy mode would feel no different to me than DMC or Bayonetta having an easy mode. You can Git Gud later, if that’s your thing.

… I say this, and mean it but at the end of the day, my convictions can’t be that strong. This game felt tuned for me. I slotted right into place like a jigsaw puzzle. It intoxicated me… though again, I think it still would of it were 10%-20% easier (Whatever that would mean). As maybe the most divisive modern From Software game, I’d gladly like it a little less so others could like it more.

How do I rank this compared to other modern from games? I don’t know. I don’t know if I even can. Tied for second with Bloodborne but two different to truly be compared to everything else?

Anyways, with all that said, Genichiro is little baby. Get fucked, chump.

Nioh and Nioh 2 Disappointed Me a Heck of a Lot

I’m reluctant to say Nioh and Nioh 2 are bad games. A lot of people enjoy the games and when a lot of people enjoy a game — especially a niche game with no brand recognition — it means the game is succeeding at something. These are also games I would never buy for myself. The pitch of “It’s Dark Souls but with Diablo Loot” sounds like such a downgrade for my particular tastes that I’d never bother. “Soulsborne-like” is already a genre I avoid. Fromsoft makes games I enjoy because of their tastes and sensibilities more than anything else. The idea of those games as a “genre” has little appeal to me. Loot and skill trees? Something that tends to actively make me miserable. In short, It’s just not at all a game that would cross into my interest radar.

Unfortunately, A friend bought me both. Fortunately, I think said friend finds having a negative opinion as interesting as me having a positive opinion.

Nioh

I tried to write this with an opening summary but I could not. I constantly got caught up thinking about the differences in Nioh and Nioh 2 so it’s easier to talk about my experience.

My first impression of the game was pretty cool. Starting out this feudal Japan game in the tower of London was a strong start. The combat felt snappy and hits felt good? It felt like Dark Souls, but with more loot… but… quickly changed. Even in the first Nioh, the mechanical systems are much more interesting than Dark Souls. A lot of it is unnecessary complexity, but the basic battle of manipulating your and your opponent’s ki (stamina, basically) lead to much more interesting engagements. Yokai had the same feel as those Godhand demon enemies and were interesting to try and take down.

… But something felt off. Especially when fighting game’s bosses. The mechanics and gauges and timings never quite felt like they lined up right. A lot of enemy behavior felt off. It felt… squishy. There was no flow to combat for me. Enemies felt like they would just… do stuff. Combat with small enemies was fast and lethal in a fun way but the more serious an enemy was the more it felt like the game wanted me to play as boringly as possible. With everyone telling me Nioh 2 was much much better and that I could make my own character, after the first region, I decided to move on. I can’t say anything definitive about a game I only scratched the surface of, but for what I played, Nioh 1 felt like a poor game with some strong redeeming qualities for some players. I was not one of those players.

I had other feelings on the game as well but most of them carried on to Nioh 2 so….

Nioh 2

I made a big muscly gyaru yokai girl and immediately felt happier.

Image

Immediately the game felt better. Stuff like ki bursts and how they timed with enemy actions and the windows and everything felt -right-. Enemies attacked with a little bit more sense and timing and things just felt tuned better. I could finally engage with the game how it wanted me to engage it with. The flow of combat, switching weapons and stances on the fly and everything felt great. Yokai felt way more approachable while being just as much or even more deadly. I had a blast beating down ki with tonfas to switch on a ki burst to an odachi to finish off my opponent. At it’s best, the combat of Nioh 2 flowed together great. Even the average boss of the game felt pretty good.

But what about the other mechanics? The skill trees? The loot? All of that?

It’s fucking trash. Complete, bloated trash. The loot is miserable busy work that you still want to pick up for parts to use with a blacksmith you probably won’t actually use to NG+. Never once did I get an item like “Oh my god that’s so good!!!”, just a steady upgrade slowly over time that quickly because tedious work to clear out. The skill trees, while containing useful, fun abilities are filled with “4% to human enemies” style crap and -whats worse- is that the fun stuff is front loaded. You don’t have exciting, incredible skills to work toward, you got SPREAD SHEETS. Every weapon seemed to have one skill that’s a game changer, is located weirdly in the middle of the tree, and won’t be unlockable until NG+ for… reasons??

In fact, the amount of things that give you little micro bonuses is obscene. You have your equipment, each piece giving you anywhere between 2 to 6 line items of little bonuses or modifications. You got your skills, which can give you more little points. You got your guardian spirit. You got the yokai abilities you equip to your guardian spirit. Actually now you have three guardian spirits each with 3 yokai abilities and the yokai abilities can be leveled up by fusing them and ALSO you get TITLE points for doing… achievement like… things…?? that give you things like “+0.5% Elemental Resistance”. You have the clan you join. YOU HAVE YOUR TEACUP COLLECTION. Oh yeah and your stats but that’s like the bingo free square.

It’s a -mess- and if you don’t properly engage with these systems at the right point, you can be putting yourself far behind and not know it. You’ll be given multiple options of how to deal with excess soul cores and equipment, but you won’t know what is the right one. You will accrue money and have no idea what to spend it on because of the churn of equipment. It’s convoluted garbage that possibly appears to some spreadsheet lovers out there, but I’m certain even by spreadsheet standards, these numbers and systems could be much better. In fact, I’m not sure if I can trust anyone who loves spreadsheets and character action games. That seems pretty sus to me. I got my eye on y’all.

So for awhile I was digging the game. I was enjoying the gameplay even while I hated the homework. Fast and deadly combat on both sides was just nice and exciting and the environment and Japanese horror/mythology aesthetics were dope. This game just had a ton of cool haunted shit. Occasionally I’d hit a stumbling block, but I’d be enjoying the stages enough that I’d want to push through

Enenra was my first stumbling point and gave me the sensation I hate the most in a hard game. Enenra’s beefy health guage made him a battle of endurance, and many of his attacks seemed rather unfairly sudden (a huge issue in the game in general). A favorite was a him having two “Burst counterable” moves, one of which was rare but seemed unreactable by most people (turns out one of your 3 ‘burst counters’ can’t reasonably burst counter a bunch of moves in the game and the game makes no indication to you that “hey maybe a different guardian spirits burst counter will help!”) and would hit you for a lot. So I ended up in a situation where I felt like I had the boss figured out — I could execute my plan and I KNEW it would eventually work, but I just had to wait for that attack to come up less than in other runs. When I beat Enenra, I felt nothing. I had already stopped growing like 15 attempts ago. It was like your friend finally showing up late — a weird twinge of relief and annoyance.

After that I pressed on. Pretty deep into the game from what people told me. Occasionally a boss would be stupid or have some dumb attacks that were poorly telegraphed but I could muscle through for the things I liked. But then I hit the turning point. The game felt like it was no longer changing. Levels were just fighting the same yokai over and over again. Human enemies were chumps — fun to fight, but nothing new and exciting was going on there…. and the yokai… Most of them didn’t really need to be approached very differently. Most of the skills I could upgrade were boring bonuses and none of my equipment or yokai abilities were game changing. I just did… more of the same. The enemies stayed the same. The environments stayed the same. The bosses were a crap shoot between ‘pretty good’ and ‘bad’ but oh boy did I hit into
Shibata Katsuie.

Shibata is a pretty infamous boss with Nioh 2 which was apparently already nerfed several times before I even got to him. Like Enenra, he’s a huge tank with sudden damaging attacks who just seems to -do stuff-. He’d be far from the hardest challenge I’d overcome in a game but I got hit by a feeling that was nagging at me for awhile. I felt like I was giving a lot to this game and getting nothing back. The game asks a lot of skill from me, but doesn’t reward me emotionally. I don’t get to see a cool new area, I don’t get to find cool new weapons, I don’t get to unlock cool new abilities or fight cool new enemies. Maybe I’ll get one new enemy. Maybe. The poor balance of the game didn’t even let me feel the thrill of victory. Victory, when it came on hard bosses always felt like they were overdue. I took a week off from the game, came back, did like 5 attempts, did much better but… just didn’t feel anything. I was waiting for my friend to show up again. I’d have no sense of accomplishment when he was dead and nothing exciting would happen in the next mission. I’d get more of the kinda incomprehensible story that I lacked the historic context to properly appreciate (which I’m sure is awesome for people who know more about japanese history), but… without the context it doesn’t mean much to me.

So at that point, I decided I was done with the game and would write this to seal it. I knew I’d enjoy doing literally anything else. There is, at least for me, a comfort in having done a lot of hard things in games. I never have to doubt myself like “Maybe I just have to get good” because I -know- I can get good. Or go at grind for levels or loot or look up a cheese build and use a book of reincarnation or ANYTHING. The question instead for me is: Does this game make me want to get good?

No, it absolutely did not. Through all it’s improvements from Nioh 1, it could not engage me on that level and that makes me sad. I would not call Nioh 2 “A weak game with redeeming qualities”. It’s a good game with some strong flaws. If the good parts align with your interests and the bad stuff is stuff you tend not to notice, it’s great and I can say that because I know plenty of people who say its great. For me, at lot of things it did that people like if stuff I don’t enjoy (build tweaking and grinding) and the stuff it fucks up is stuff that hits all the wrong nerves. I like the game enough that if it were easier I’d push through it, enjoying a moderate challenge and some good vibes… but none of that is worth overcoming the harder parts of the game for me.

Maybe it’ll get Better

During all this I was constantly cursing Team Ninja. “You guys have been making character action games for like 15 years, how can you fuck up boss design and get shown up by the company that made Kings Field??????”… but that’s not fair. I actually went through the credits and saw what a Ship of Theseus Team Ninja is. Barely anyone in design rolls worked on much else. This is a company trying to rebuild institutional knowledge. Judging from patches, they hear complaints, see where they fucked up, and try and make improvements. If I treat them like a relatively new company making their first IP, the growth from Nioh to Nioh 2 would be inspiring. Even with its flaws, Nioh 2 is a game I almost really liked, which is why all of this is so frustrating to me. So maybe with that in mind, Nioh 3 will be a game I like.

Sorry Trynant, I tried my best.