How Sekiro Reinvents the Myth of the Lone Swordsman

By Luke Shaw on at

FromSoftware’s games are known first and foremost for their difficulty and challenge, a fact that has dominated nearly every aspect of the conversation around Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice since release. It’s impossible to talk about it without confronting the challenge it presents. The discussion often circles around certain presumptions about difficulty and punishment, however, rather than focusing on the more important aspect of accessibility.

The conflation with difficulty does infringe on criticism of the game itself and, to my mind, has obscured the care and attention FromSoft have put into the systems of Sekiro.

As difficult and punishing as Sekiro is, it is unlike Dark Souls and Bloodborne in many ways. It is far less opaque, and despite featuring a stiff learning curve it is far less arbitrary in how it deploys its challenges. Combat is a series of firm-but-fair lessons designed to hone the player's skills until they can take part in a tightly choreographed sequence of rhythmic clashes, and it works hand-in-hand with FromSoft’s more cinematic approach to storytelling and setting. Death is less of a set-back, and more of a harsh lesson.

Eschewing the RPG format of prior games, Sekiro put you firmly in the role of Wolf, and to succeed at the game you must learn to fight like the Wolf. There is less flexibility in how players approach the combat this time around, which may go some way to explaining the prominence of the difficulty debate. There is no spellcaster, pyromancer, or sword-and-board approach to be had this time. Your only option is to adopt the ways of a Shinobi and utilise a slim but diverse set of tools to every possible advantage.

This ties into Sekiro’s confident stride into a less oblique form of storytelling. Like its gameplay, there are fewer avenues to approach the world of Ashina from. It is firmly based in a fictionalised take on the Sengoku Jidai period, built on the myths and folklore that suffuse Japanese culture. Small details such as the Armoured Warrior, which fans are wont to use to compare Sekiro to Dark Souls (in a manner reminiscent of Bloodborne’s wry inclusion of a mostly useless shield), stand as part of the history of Japan. Foreign visitors bringing gunpowder to Japan are also part of this history, and further ground Sekiro’s world, and the lens it asks to be viewed through.

As such the game comes across as an intensely directed experience, right down to its gloriously exacting combat. Whilst I understand the demands the game makes are steep, the punishments are less so (checkpoints are frequent; you can resurrect multiple times; soon enough you have plenty of healing gourd uses). I've found it far more rewarding than any prior FromSoft game precisely because of this. The game is less of a living, breathing world to explore and die in, and more of an expressive depiction of historical Japanese culture. From the meticulous historical aspects, the reliance of folklore, and the way its combat plays out like a Chambara film writ large.

Progressing through to my third New Game Plus file, and deciding to activate Kuro’s Charm, an item which causes the player to take chip damage when they miss a perfect deflect, has felt like less than a chore and a reason to boast about surmounting a difficult game, and more like an opportunity to master a song or a dance, to participate in the beautiful choreography that Sekiro sets up in its excellent boss battles.

Encounters such as Genichiro Ashina atop the castle are particularly cinematic in their presentation: a panoramic view of snow coated Ashina, two warriors clashing their swords rhythmically off one another to a blood pumping rhythm. Whereas my first attempt to fell him took hours of practice, learning his tells and finding windows to open him up, subsequent attempts feel like taking part in a performance. No longer constrained by the lack of knowledge of the steps in the dance, I am able to embellish in certain areas, and practice my understanding of the combat systems, and every combat is capped off by a deathblow that whips the camera in for a quick cinematic angle, framing your victory in glorious close-up.

Players who wish to fully get into the mindset of Sekiro can play out their perceptions of the fantasies it presents with explosive results. Wolf can stalk Genichiro, sword up in the traditional guard, and calmly deflect everything thrown at him before returning a single, meticulously precise deathblow. Or the Wolf can be constantly in his face, feral and unrelenting, capitalising on every tiny mistake.

This represents the fiction of the Samurai, of the Katana itself, as it has been popularised in Chambara films and Anime. Wolf lets the player inhabit the varied roles of Toshiro Mifune, as a calm and collected warrior in Sanjuro, or a rabid dog in Rashomon. The influence of the myth of the Samurai, films and anime can be seen all over Sekiro, and the legacy of Kurosawa’s film suffuses its every moment, from the smoking battlefields of Ran to the cheeky use of a pistol in a swordfight that resurfaces from Yojimbo.

Understanding and accepting the request to take part in a performance is what turned my enjoyment of Sekiro into ecstatic joy at the chance of playing through it again. Being able to take part in tightly choreographed boss fights is something I have always enjoyed in games, and Sekiro borrows from spectacle fighters like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Devil May Cry, but hones everything down to a razors edge, folding the to-and-fro of deflect and attack into one keen edge, to a Shinobi and a sword.

The end result is incredibly rewarding battles that feel compelling to return to time and time again. The regular enemy fodder that Sekiro fights start out as a real roadblock, but subsequent encounters see you tear through them with impunity — like The Bride cutting through the Crazy 88 — the violent spectacle of these melee skirmishes serving to relax the pressure between the longer and more cinematic encounters, allowing the player to inhabit the role of the peerless warrior. Later in the game Wolf even gets to stalk between warring factions, soaking in the combat of the game as a spectator as the Internal Ministry and the beleaguered Samurai of Ashina battle for control of the country.

Beware: heavy boss spoilers after this point!

The choreography of each boss elegantly reflects their characters and stories too. Genichiro is your nemesis, and many of the back and forth trades end up in Wolf and Genichiro knocked back, swords drawn, exhausted by the exertion of matching an equal. Owl is the student fighting the master, requiring Wolf to learn how to deal with the shurikens and firecrackers he has used to his advantage in the past. Owl’s exhortations when he kills the player “ONE! TWO!” play into the narrative of the student usurping their master, and Owl’s ability to use the mikiri counter on Sekiro and severely punish him are deliciously amusing, the light footed manoeuvre contrasting with his impossibly heavy set frame.

Later still, the Guardian Ape and the Corrupted Monk ask Wolf and the player to learn abnormal rhythms, to deal with the brutal tantrums of a savage monster, and the methodical otherworldly assault of an undead warrior. Both fights ask the player to learn a new dance — the Ape requires speed and tactical precision to land glancing blows that eventually mount up to bring down the beast, and the Monk requires calm resilience in the face of comically exaggerated swings from an absurd opponent. Animations and tells in action games are incredibly important in aiding the player in learning the patterns they must tangle with to succeed, but Sekiro lavishes such wonderful attention on them that they add much to the cinematic feel of the game.

The Ape hides aggressive, unpredictable attacks behind leisurely windups, whereas the Monk’s sweeps are graceful and deceptively slow. Characters who jump in to strike Wolf like Owl, Genichiro, and the various Generals, hang in the air, defying time for a brief instant before they crash to the ground with incredible force. Whereas the Souls games in the past immersed the player in a world they could live in and explore, Sekiro again foists the player into a world where cinematic techniques trump experiential design. The addition of far more non-diegetic music than in prior games also helps push this even further, with enemies and bosses getting their own unique music, with pounding Taiko drums and chanting Monks being particular aural highlights.

All of this culminates in the two battles at the end of both branches of the story — Isshin Ashina. Whether fought as a mortal, or as the ethereal Sword Saint, these battles capitalise on everything FromSoft has worked towards in Sekiro. Both Isshin fights occur in locales the player has previously fought Genichiro in, and a keen eye will recognise similar combat techniques they both employ. Atop Ashina castle Mortal Isshin will employ the Iaijutsu technique in the simmering sunset, cutting down Wolf in the blink of an eye, directly referencing the classic single cut performed by countless fictional swordsmen. The game has taught you his whole moveset piece by piece throughout the game, and asks you to join in its fatal choreography one last time as he raises the temperature and sets the very stage on fire.

The final fight against Sword Saint Isshin takes place in the picturesque Silvergrass Field, the moon shining on two warriors as they run silently across a field, swords drawn, before clashing and sending leaves glittering through the twilight. Again,the fight is a culmination of everything asked of you before, entirely focused on two opponents dancing perilously around each other, with the rhythm of combat changing as Isshin employs new techniques from his wide repertoire. You are asked to step fast to the rhythm of sword swing and gunshots, to confidently rebuff achingly slow spear swings, and reflexively leap into the bolts of lightning he hurls at you.

The fight ends, hopefully, like every fight in Sekiro: with your eventual victory. A close fought but rewarding battle. But if you enjoyed it, I want you to go back and play it again, to go toe to toe with these encounters once more. With the confidence and understanding, Sekiro’s battles transform from fraught nightmares, to cinematic spectacles. They pulse, and ebb and flow rhythmically. Mistakes are punished, but they often feel like part of the dance as you claw your way to victory one ear-shattering deflection at at time. Sekiro represents not only the historical fiction of Japan, but of retellings of that, from the elegant roleplay of Noh Theatre, to the violent Chambara films of post-WW2 Japan, FromSoft now take up the mantle and retell the legend of the lone swordsmen with the latest storytelling methods.

Many players may miss the expansive and engrossing worlds of FromSoft's prior series, but Sekiro represents an unwavering and bold step towards a more directed, cinematic experience that understands how games can excel at giving players a role to play. If you accept this, and immerse yourself in the role of Wolf, it gives you a chance to perform some of the most exhilarating and tightly choreographed pieces of action in any media, and for that reason alone it stands tall among the studio's finest work.