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September 7, 2020

Filed under: gaming»software»sekiro

Live Die Repeat

In a burst of cherry blossoms, the blog is resurrected!

(It's a Sekiro joke. That's what the post is about.)

There are certain models that have become ubiquitous in AAA game design over the last five years, inspired by MMOs: randomized gear (both from enemy drops and loot boxes), player and enemy level progression, and crafting. In "live" games like Destiny, these gameplay loops are meant to keep the game sticky, making sure there's always a goal just out of reach. But they've become common in single-player games as well, a way to extend the length of campaigns that are increasingly expensive in an era of HD assets.

I generally find this off-putting, and I suspect many of the designers do as well. In Control, for example, grafting a loot system onto one of Remedy's quirky, cinematic stories feels extraneous, and the game seems well aware of that fact — the ubiquitous shelters containing exactly one (1) loot box could not possibly be more desultory and half-hearted compared to the exuberant weirdness of Dr. Casper Darling's musical stylings.

All of this provides context for my extremely mixed feelings about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It's the first From Software "souls-like" title that I played to completion, and it'll probably be the last. I don't know that I would recommend it to anyone. But in its purity and its rejection of the "live game" grind, there is also something admirable that sticks with me.

The core mechanic in Sekiro is the relationship between two meters, vitality and posture, possessed by every combat entity in the game, including the player character (the Wolf). Vitality is basically a standard health bar. Posture is similar to a fighting game's guard meter: it increases as a character defends against attacks or when an attack is parried with perfect timing, and when it maxes out, the guard is broken. In the player's case, this leaves you open to attacks, but for enemies it means you can land an instant-kill "deathblow." Even still, vitality isn't useless since posture recovery speed is directly related to health.

Different enemies have different thresholds for their posture and vitality, and the interplay between these two meters is what makes Sekiro's combat interesting and aggressive. Since timed parries inflict extra posture damage (and reduce the posture you'd normally take from defending), many battles revolve around punishing enemy attacks to bring down vitality and slow posture recovery, then baiting counter-attacks strings in order to break posture and land a deathblow. At its best, it feels like a great samurai battle: fast, dynamic, and deadly.

The problem, honestly, is that it's too deadly. To win a fight in Sekiro, you need to learn an enemy's attack patterns well enough that you can parry or dodge them, a task that's made more complicated in fights where a mid-string parry may change the pattern. But mistakes are incredibly punishing: it's not unusual for many bosses to kill the Wolf in two or three hits, and a surprising percentage of them are one-shots. Realistically, you're only going to learn one or two patterns per run before you get to stare at the loading screen and start over.

And that deadliness only really goes one way. Yes, the deathblow is an instant kill — but only after you slowly tick down the target's vitality and then engage in risky exchanges of posture damage. Compare this to Bushido Blade, an obvious inspiration but one where everyone (player and opponent alike) could die in an instant. In Sekiro, you might as well be fighting with a butter knife compared to everyone else. I wouldn't mind the perfectionism so much if it felt like I got more impact out of it.

From Software is known for games where growth comes from player skill, and not from a mechanic or in-game reward. They're also known for masochism and cheap shot tactics. Sekiro feels like the purest expression of both. The result is an experience that I respected more than I enjoyed it. For all that it's thrilling when everything clicks, those moments are punctuation in long stretches of frustration — running the same route over and over, getting just a little bit farther before a lucky shot or a botched parry sends you back to the checkpoint.

This is, of course, part of the appeal for long-term Souls aficionados: your brain remembers the highs, and tends to ignore the long valleys of frustration between them. It's not for me. But I appreciate what it's trying to do, and the pressure it hopefully exerts on modern design. There is a middle ground between loot boxes and "get good," and maybe with HD development becoming increasingly unsustainable, the AAA industry will finally find it.

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