The first time I picked up “Dark Souls” years ago, the game kicked my butt.
It took me dozens of hours in the world to understand its intricate mechanics and learn the playstyle required to best the punishing game. Moving slowly from bonfire to bonfire, beating low-level but still dangerous monsters, to replenish my health was enough of a challenge, nevermind the ridiculous bosses I died to probably hundreds of times.
On my second run-through of the game, I shaved my playtime by half or more and laughed as I manically demolished anyone who stood in my way. Yes, I still died, but I had learned and graduated from “Dark Souls” noob to “Dark Souls” journeyman. It felt great to actually see measurable improvement at such a brutal game.
“Dark Souls II” and “III” were much the same experience, but I carried the knowledge of previous games with me, which made them more approachable. I had to learn new bosses, but the mechanics remained largely the same. I could tell I was better at both than I had originally been at the first game.
From Software’s newest franchise, “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” is a different experience entirely. The game is kicking my butt, and it’s simultaneously thrilling and humbling.
I’ve spent several hours in the game, and I know I have many more to go before beating “Sekiro.” In my time, I’ve beaten two main bosses—Lady Butterfly and Genichiro—and bested at least three times as many minibosses that are almost as difficult. I’m getting the hang of the game because I quickly realized it can’t be played at all like “Dark Souls.”
In “Dark Souls,” my boss-battling strategy was to charge straight in and get close enough to my opponents to hug them. Then, I would roll around like a lunatic to avoid their overpowered attacks and wait for an opening to either get in a hit of my own or parry a blow and counterattack. Rinse and repeat, and you’ve got yourself a victory.
“Sekiro” is nothing like that. The battles are much more convoluted and, thus, more thrilling.
“Sekiro” is all about feeling like a master samurai. Armed with a katana, the combat is all about ruining an opponent’s posture to leave him or her open for a single deathblow. To ruin posture, you must push the offense and perfectly time deflectionss of enemies’ attacks, turning from offense to defense at a moment’s notice. Deflecting requires precise timing, and several moves can’t be parried but must either be jumped over or side-stepped. Only by watching and judging on the fly what attack is coming can you successfully bypass it. It’s a brilliant system that turns encounters into dance-like bouts where even a single mistimed parry or miscalculated attack can be devastating.
In my fight against Genichiro, I carefully observed his moves and patterns to figure out how to deflect them and when to mount my counterattack. After several tries, I was expertly blocking anything he threw my way and pushing against him when he left even the smallest opening. It honestly felt incredibly gratifying because I had to earn every blow to his health and every deflection of his attacks.
After a few minutes, I had delivered two deathblows on Genichiro, which I naively thought meant I had beaten him. Unfortunately, Genichiro has a second stage in which he hurls lightning at you, which meant I had to learn even more attack patterns and how to deflect his terrifying bolts of electricity. After a few tries, I had bested Genichiro, and it felt amazing. It felt earned.
Had I taken on Genichiro or any other boss as if I was playing “Dark Souls,” there would be no hope for victory. You can dodge in “Sekiro,” but good luck damaging an enemy’s posture enough to kill him if you only avoid and not deflect his blows.
At first, I was sad to learn “Dark Souls III” would likely be the last in the series, but considering the brilliance “Sekiro’s” unique, challenging and fair combat system, I’m more than content. “Sekiro” is forcing me to learn a whole new way to play a From Software game, and I can’t get enough.
I’m not sure whether “Dark Souls” or “Sekiro” is a more challenging game. For a newcomer to From Software titles, it’s probably “Sekiro,” but for someone used to experiencing From Software’s brutally punishing games, “Dark Souls” is probably more difficult overall. Then again, I have several more “Sekiro” bosses to beat, and who knows how difficult the game is going to get?
All I know is for any “Dark Souls” fan, “Sekiro” is a must-play. It’s the best single-player game I’ve played in several months, and I’m looking forward to spending several more weeks taking on the worst the game has to offer.