Sekiro Shows What Activision's "Expertise" Means

By Rich Stanton on at

When Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was first announced, some reacted negatively to the news that Activision would be publishing the game. The concern was that, bluntly, the super-moneyed American behemoth would exert a bad influence on the work of the Japanese developer. This was always a little unfair — few publishers have as varied and high-quality a history as Activision, and the idea it would force loot boxes on Hidetaka Miyazaki was always unlikely — but there's an interesting element to it nonetheless. The Activision influence on Sekiro is plain, and the impact it's had is both good and bad.

Before the game's release, Fromsoft's Yasuhiro Kitaro described the relationship to Game Informer:

“They offered to help us with areas that we don’t consider our expertise, such as user testing, offering feedback in regards to usability, things like this. We’re getting a lot of stimulation from the ideas they give us."

“[Activision has] given us all creative control of the project. Everything past the start screen is From’s jurisdiction.”

While I've no doubt that Fromsoft did retain creative control, the first and most striking impact on the studio's style is the idea of 'usability' or on-boarding players. As you might have heard, Sekiro is a tough nut — to my mind it's the toughest game Fromsoft has made. But it's also by far the most accessible game amongst its recent output.

Fromsoft's most brilliant work, the Soulsborne games, was never perfect in this regard. I had a friend who couldn't get into Dark Souls: when we discussed it, I realised he'd been trying to kill the first boss with a broken sword for two hours (you're supposed to run away, after which you find a 'real' weapon, then come back). Another mate didn't realise that, in Bloodborne, you're meant to pick up your starting weapon in the Hunter's Dream. He ran around Yharnam swinging his fists at the baddies, thinking "people weren't joking about the difficulty."

Now, I can already foresee the comments proclaiming 'THOSE FOOLS!' I don't agree. You can simultaneously think Bloodborne is the best game ever, while acknowledging that the way it gives you a starting weapon is unnecessarily obscure. The mystery and forbidding nature of Fromsoft's creations is one of the main reasons I love them, but that doesn't mean they need to bamboozle new players about the most basic elements.

This is perhaps the biggest influence Activision has had on Sekiro. While by any definition a very difficult game indeed, it's also clear about your abilities, tools, and gives control instructions about the individual elements. You might still spend the first few hours getting filleted by samurai, but the combat system's rules are explained patiently, both via tutorial tips and loading screen blurbs. Souls fans might recall the community disagreement over exactly how the 'poise' stat in Dark Souls 3 operated. Bloodborne fans will know that the only way to find out the intricacies of every trick weapon is to relentlessly experiment with the moveset. There's no such confusion here.

That's reflective of the single-minded focus that defines Sekiro. The biggest difference in style between this and the Soulsborne games is that almost all of the role-playing aspect has been pared-back to the bare minimum. Narratively, it's a character-driven story about a specific person's journey. Mechanically, it's a combat game built around one versatile core weapon, and a bunch of gadgets that complement it. Where the world of Yharnam is sprawling and stuffed with different ways for you to define your character and their adventure, the world of Ashina is a more tightly controlled space where you will play out a particular story about one shinobi.

From one angle, this is a clever table-flip. It deploys Fromsoft's own area of expertise in a new way, and has allowed it to construct a new kind of combat system. That should not be undervalued, because the beating heart of Sekiro is the intense rhythm of the fights. The sheer speed and brutality makes it obvious why there's no multiplayer mode (particularly given the studio's past form with lag). It's a unique take on sword combat, which Fromsoft has always been good at anyway, and arguably the new standard for a cinematic style of battling.

I think some of that polish can be fairly attributed to Activision: at the very least, it has to be acknowledged that this feels like a game where the creator's vision was paramount. And as you play through there are other touches, some subtle and some not so much, that have the unmistakeable hallmark of that idea of 'useability.' The shrines, Sekiro's equivalent of checkpoints, show up as a little UI icon when you're nearby: nothing major, but sometimes a useful guide. The game retains Fromsoft's usual always-on save system but now, wonder of wonders, you can pause the action. What luxury!

The last is a function of multiplayer's absence, but its impact is wider than just letting you answer the phone while playing. First time I fought a certain boss I hit the second phase and realised he was going full-on poison attacks. I didn't have my antidotes in the quick slots. In a similar situation in a Soulsborne, I would've just bravely died. In Sekiro I was able to open up my inventory, and use the item. Then the boss swiftly shellacked me anyway but, hey, at least I didn't die of poison.

Almost inevitably, there's a 'but.' I've really been enjoying Sekiro (I still haven't quite finished it) and it's in almost every sense a top-tier video game. I'd recommend it to anyone. But in opening itself up, explaining stuff clearly, and zero-ing in on one man's story, its world has undoubtedly lost some of the mystery and ambiguity that made Lordran and Yharnam such unforgettable places. I'm not talking about tutorial tips or combat instructions here.

It's more that, in Fromsoft's previous work, a lot is left unexplained. In Sekiro, an element of this is retained in the item descriptions. There's a lot more explanations, however, which are along the lines of 'this dude was from here, this is why he did what he did.' In Bloodborne, no-one's quite sure where Ebriatas came from. Or what the Moon Presence's true goal is. Or how exactly Gherman ended up in the Hunter's Dream. That's why that place is so magical, and remains so fascinating. In Sekiro, you'd get an item description reading "Gherman and Laurence summoned the Moon Presence to try and fight the scourge, but lacking insight, Gherman became trapped, a prisoner, and Laurence a beast."

I won't spoil any of the game's story but this aspect of it (and yes maybe I'm being unreasonable) hacked me off. You never wonder if you're really the bad guy in Sekiro, like you do in the Soulsborne games. You're the good guy and the game goes out of its way to point out what assholes some of the other characters are. What exactly is dragonrot doing? Don't worry, it'll tell you. What's fake dragonrot?!? Description coming right up sir.

One could say this is an unfair criticism: after all, the point of Sekiro is that it's different. There are certainly ambiguities in this world, chances to build your own story, and I certainly wouldn't want Fromsoft to spend the next decade churning out Soulsborne games on the same template. Sekiro is aiming to be a character-driven action blockbuster with fantastic combat, and it is. This game may well end up as Fromsoft's biggest commercial success yet.

Nevertheless its focus on 'useability' has come at a cost, and the reason it matters is that this cost is arguably what Fromsoft and Hidetaka Miyazaki are best at.

One of the greatest insights in Demon's Souls, the first of the series, was that the idea of role-playing games had long since fossilised into genre pieces like Final Fantasy, text boxes and turn-based combat. So profoundly did it reinvent the idea of 'role playing' in a video game that, even now, it feels a bit wrong to call it an action RPG — this is what masterpieces do of course, smash genre boundaries and create the future.

As Miyazaki and Fromsoft matured over the series, the narrative techniques, and the way the player's character was elided into each world's stories, became more refined. The world of Lordran is described in more detail than the world of Boletaria, but retains and enhances that inscrutable quality. Yharnam marked the pinnacle of this technique, in its layers of obscure history, visual storytelling, and incredible conceptual depth.

To be explicit about it: as a standalone product, there isn't much to knock with Sekiro.

But will I still be thinking about it in four years? I doubt that very much, and here's the thing. There are other studios that can make brilliant combat games, albeit not exact equivalents to this. There is no other studio with such talent for world-building, and the creation of spaces that inspire a player's imagination. That's the big thing that, for me, this lacks.

Sekiro's a top-class game. But unlike Fromsoft's past work, I find it hard to think of it as a masterpiece.