With the final sword slash struck, I can add Sekiro Shadow’s Die Twice to my catalog of From Software games beaten. Of the titles released by them, this one has been the most polarizing to talk about: between discussions on difficulty, to the very design and whether it’s as good as people were saying.
I’ve already written a lengthy piece discussing the overall nature of the game which people have disagreed with, but for this one, I want to talk explicitly about the combat engine, and why whether you love or hate Sekiro, the combat is objectively broken.
We are going to be spoiling the game from a design perspective in this piece; including boss discussions. This article is only meant for people who have finished the game with any of its endings.
A Lesson in Swordplay
Sekiro’s combat is the fastest-paced we’ve seen out of From Software to date. In terms of offense, you have a basic swing, thrust attack, special combat arts that you can only assign one at a time, and your prosthetic arm that can be loaded with up to three special weapons at a time. We’re not going to talk about stealth in this piece, as we’re focusing on combat only.
Every character in the game including the player has a posture bar that grows while they defend and degrades when they are not actively fighting. Posture goes up whenever someone blocks an attack.
The rate at reach posture goes down is dependent on the character’s health. From eyeballing it, posture degradation slows down at the 75% health mark and becomes almost nonexistent when the character has less than 50% health. When an enemy’s posture bar reaches max, they can be finished off regardless of their health total via a “deathblow.” If the player’s posture reaches max, they will become stunned for a few seconds. The player is free to use prosthetic tools in combat, along with a chosen combat art for additional utility.
The first step in understanding Sekiro’s combat is how the game wants you to handle fighting bosses.
Reactive Not Active Combat
Sekiro may belong to the action genre, but it does not play like an action game. The big distinction between Sekiro and other games comes down to a focus on defense. The player can block, deflect, jump, or dodge out of the way of attacks.
Blocking is the safest way to avoid most attacks but causes posture to build up. Jumping or dodging works against sweeps or vertical attacks respectively and leaves the enemy open for counters. By deflecting, you don’t take any damage, and you cause the most posture to build up when fighting. The one exception is the Mikiri counter — a skill that lets you counter thrust attacks with a correctly timed press of the dodge button.
When enemies perform unblockable attacks, you must respond with the correct defensive move to avoid damage.
With all that said, Sekiro’s design is inherently broken by the very fact that it focuses so much on the defensive play. The best way to play the game (with exception to one detail we’ll talk about in the next section) is to focus on reactive play. You’re not going all-out on bosses; you’re only attacking them before they react with a parry.
Many action games train the player to just keep attacking the enemy whenever possible; Sekiro discourages that. You cannot interrupt your attack animations, meaning that bosses can attack you while you are hitting them.
You always want to be close enough to the enemy to be able to react to their actions, and you’ll notice a huge difference in difficulty when you go from hit and run strategies to staying close. As an unintentional benefit, by playing this way, it keeps the camera better focused on the combat — making it easier to spot animation tells and attack patterns.
I also notice that this tends to break the AI a little bit, and the enemies are more likely to repeat attack combos and not perform their most punishing moves by playing this way.
The best way to tell that you’re playing the game the way the developers intended is that you are winning battles via posture breaking, not having them run out of health.
The focus on defensive play creates a situation where despite all the enemies and bosses in the game, there are only really three kinds of enemies in the entire game.
The Enemies of Sekiro
There are essentially three kinds of enemies in Sekiro — grunts, humanoid boss/minibosses, and nonhumanoid boss/minibosses.
The grunts are all the enemies in the game that are not named. For these fights, the enemy AI is very basic and can be exploited. You either want to deflect or counter the enemy or just go all-out on them until they posture break. The only exception is the higher-class enemies that show up near the end of the game, as their move-set is based on one of the miniboss types.
Humanoid fights make up the bulk of the bosses that you fight in the game. This is where the focus on posture breaking and reactive combat is at its best. The best examples, in my opinion, are the Owl/Father and Owl/Shinobi fights, Genchiro, and Issen’s two fights.
Nonhumanoid is a catchall for all the monster, ghost, and beast type enemies in the game. These enemies are more chaotic to fight and don’t follow the same reactive style that you see with the humanoids — you must be aggressive against them.
Of the three types, the nonhumanoid enemies are the ones that go against Sekiro’s combat system. They typically move erratically, posture breaking isn’t the focus, and larger ones can become hard to track if the camera gets too close to them. The Demon of Hatred fight is the ultimate example of this, and why Sekiro was at its best during the other battles.
Most importantly, nonhumanoid enemies are where the prosthetics come in and their impact on gameplay.
A Prosthetic Crutch
Many people have argued that Sekiro doesn’t have any crutches or elements for inexperienced players to use. However, the more I’ve played, I’ve come to realize that the prosthetic tools were designed to be that aid.
As you play through the game, you’ll find and unlock tools that you can equip and use in combat; with a limit of three active at one time. Each tool has a specific purpose and meant to counter a threat. Shurikens do more damage to enemies in the air and can briefly stun them, fire stuns red-eyed enemies and so on.
There is an entire perk tree dedicated to them and an upgrade tree to enhance them. The upgrades are very substantial — not only do you need resources to improve them, but some upgrades require progress in other tools.
When I did my analysis video on Sekiro, I purposely did not use any prosthetic tools to play the game, as I wanted to prove that the game could be broken without them.
As with the other systems in the game, I feel the tools could have been better explained in terms of their utility. Outside of firecrackers for beasts and fire for red-eyes, it’s up to the player to figure out their best usage. The best uses for the tools I’ve seen have come from speedrunners.
An example being the firecrackers which seem to have the most utility out of all the tools. You can use them to stagger a humanoid enemy and reset their AI while continuing to put pressure on their posture.
The problem I have with the prosthetics is that they’re not really set up to be a crutch or a secondary element like magic in the Souls series.
All prosthetics consume resources called “spirit talismans” that are collected through play or bought at the idols. Playing Sekiro, you are either going to be swimming in talismans or always running out depending on your use.
This is the same problem I had with the relying on consumables in Bloodborne and how your ability to parry was dependent on bullet use. A better system, in my opinion, would be simply having a total usage for each tool that resets when you return to the idol like the healing gourd.
Ultimately, I have a few things to say about how I found Sekiro.
Sekiro is a game that I came to respect at the end — it wants to be played a singular way and that’s where players are going to be rewarded for playing. The difficulty spike in Sekiro at the start is a lot higher compared to Soulsborne, but there is less depth and variety compared to the other titles.
One of the reasons why Sekiro is easier for players not used to the Dark Souls formula is for that very reason of how it’s played. If you try to play Sekiro like a Soulsborne, you are going to have a tough time; for people with no prior experience and learn how the game works, they’re going to find it not as challenging. With that said, I would expect those people to then have trouble trying to apply the lessons learned in other Soulsborne-styled games.
Just like the other Souls-likes, the further you get in the game the easier it becomes, but that’s simply due to understanding the limitations of the system. And that’s the point of my analysis video, that the game is very simple once you remove the confusion of the mechanics. I beat the entire game without needing prosthetics, and I bet I could beat it possibly with the new game + harder conditions.
Unlike Bloodborne that evolved from Dark Souls, Sekiro is a first-time design. I’m curious to see when From Software makes a sequel what areas will it iterate or change.