I kept well away from any and all information about Sekiro beyonds its release date. I've posted the 4 trailers - I've watched most of them - but all I needed to know about the game was the next thing from the director of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and oh it takes place in feudal Japan.
Those are two big bullet points, for me. I love both those things - that's it. I'm in. Sekiro dropped on Friday. It is Saturday morning, and I'm prepared to say... Hm, how to put this...
Last night I swung through the Penny Arcade forums thread on Souls, and a lot of people were complaining about its difficulty - people with Souls experience. There's an article on Eurogamer today about the sentiment on Reddit and their own comment section - that the game is just too damn hard.
I, myself, was feeling a bit stonewalled by the game. Not quite stonewalled - that's not the word - but as I felt my way around and through the game's opening area, I was definitely not feeling like I was getting any stronger, or better at Sekiro. I was beginning to worry that it wouldn't click with me, and Sekiro is... a spiritual sequel to Bloodborne - my favorite Soulslike. Let's get that out of the way. There are absolutely similarities to Souls, but no, this is much more like a sequel to Bloodborne, which stripped the combat of Souls to its roots and made it almost-entirely about juking enemy attacks with generous invincibility frames on your dodge.
And that's one of the huge differences. In Bloodborne or even Souls, The Answer for that incoming enemy attack is to dodge out of the way. Maybe block it if you're using a shield in Souls. In Sekiro, The Answer for that incoming attack might be dodging, if the attack has specific properties, or jumped over, if it has specific properties, or you might want to try to deflect it.
And here's the thing - if you need to jump that attack and try to dodge it instead? You're gonna' get hit. And when you get hit, you're gonna' lose the fight.
Sekiro demands a way, way heavier cognitive load of the player in combat than any Souls or Soulslike I've ever played.
But that's not a bad thing. Sekiro ensures making The Risky Play at every opportunity the most-efficient thing you can possibly do. And it's a bit complicated, but the short version is you need to just get up in their faces and beat the crap out of them and when they get big enough in their britches to make a big play of their own, you turn it aside like Neo pushing a bullet out of the way and always, always, always keep them on the back foot.
Its combat system is all about killing blows (a one-hit stealth kill or a brutal Kratos-esque finisher to instantly kill a foe) and "poise" - an unexplained and mysterious stat that's been in every Souls game, which takes center stage, here. Works like this - as you block enemy attacks or take damage, your poise meter fills. You're being weathered down by the assault of your foe, and once that meter hits max your poise breaks and you are vulnerable to a killing blow.
Works the same for your enemies. Every time you perfectly deflect an attack, it hurts their poise bad. Mashing attack and forcing them to guard it hurts their poise - and as soon as you let up your onslaught, their poise meter will start to drop and they'll start feeling better about things again.
The better your poise is, the easier it is to deflect attacks and keep up your defense, and how much poise you (and they) have to work with is dictated by how many hit points you (and they) have, so if an enemy's defense seems impenetrable and you can't overcome their poise to get that all-important killing blow on a miniboss, you can take advantage of openings to land sword slashes that reduce their hit points, and thus their total poise.
So, the right thing to do at any given moment is not give these fuckers an inch, never let up for a moment and just rush them down like a berzerker. And keep in mind, each and every one of these buggers will obliterate you if you give them an opening.
So don't. Kill 'em.
It's never about waiting for your enemy to do something foolish - every moment you spend not beating on them like a hurricane is something foolish on your part - so the rhythm of the combat is very different to any of the Souls. It's... wonderful. Feral and coldly intelligent.
I knew there was a way to get stronger, maybe get some combat skills that would give me a few more options, but as I explored and came up against challenges I was quite sure I should return to later, I was beginning to feel frustrated. The problem was me - I was anticipating Sekiro being way, way harder on the player than it actually is.
It's not. The combat, on its face and I'm prepared to say in fact, is harder than any Souls combat you've ever seen - more complicated by far - but the overall game is simple as pie.
Checkpoints are much closer together than any Souls game, for a start, but that's not the big change. The big change is you can never lose too many XP/Souls/Blood when you die, and even then the game gives you every damn opportunity to keep them if you'd just chill a bit.
Works like this - in Soulsborne, when you die, any unspent XP you were holding drops at your corpse. If you can make it back to your corpse and reclaim it, all good. If you die on the way, all that unspent XP - sometimes multiple levels work of experience points - are gone forever.
In Sekiro, the moment you earn enough XP to get a skill point, ding, you get the point. That point is yours and no one can take it from you.
Already, that's very gentle for a Miyazaki joint.
In Sekiro, when you die, you lose about half of your current XP progress to the next point, and about half your money. Money isn't very important so we don't care much about it, but that XP progress woulda' been nice to keep, right?
Well, you coulda' kept it. Why didn't you?
If if occurs to you that you really don't wanna' risk that XP, just rez yourself back up and book it outta' dodge, back to the nearest checkpoint. Sit down, meditate, get your rez charge back and it's back to work.
I found a section last night that was a dream for practicing the combat system, practicing the area's boss and gaining levels and skills on the way. There were about a dozen enemies - some of them quite tough - on the way to the boss, and I've absolutely mastered the techniques for mopping the floor with them.
Once you get to the boss, he's flanked by a dozen more peons for me to tear through, and then it's just me and the big bad, and I can practice learning his moves. I'm not gonna' win, yet, and ooooh that hurt a lot.
Rez. Run. Keep the XP. Try again.
Playing Sekiro explicitly reminds me of the challenging Metroidvanias of olde. It reminds me of classic Mega Man and Metal Gear, in the feel of the challenge and how clever and badass one feels to overcome it.
I was worried, I'll admit. I was worried Sekiro went too far down the Ni-Oh path, its combat felt too different, its world and systems too inscrutable. I should've had a little faith. The name Hidetaka Miyazaki brings with it promises of peerless design, a sense of discovery and exploration so joyous it's almost orgasmic, and the brand of satisfaction only From Software can provide.
Sekiro : Promises Kept.
I was having such an amazing time with this game last night I was laughing with joy. S'good. S'gooooood.