Diary of a FromSoftware Noob Part 3: This Sekiro Journey Reaches Its End
The endgame is here at long last, but are the skills learned thus far enough to see the credits roll?
By Chris Morse
I've been on a mission to see the credits roll in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, through my own efforts and not just pulling it up on YouTube after calling it quits. I started my journey earlier this month having never played a FromSoftware game in my life. Dark Souls? Nope. Bloodborne? Nah, but it was due time to see what the difficult game commotion was all about. It was no doubt getting pretty impossible to surf the web without tripping over another piece about why these games should or should not have easy modes or accessibility options. Simply put, I wanted to give this one a try for myself in its only form.
My results have been mixed, especially after getting hung up on my first major roadblock in the game, Genichiro Ashina, the asshole who put the "One-Armed" descriptor into my "One-Armed Wolf" moniker earlier in the game. It was right around then when I began to feel I might have trouble seeing this adventure through to the end, but I thankfully followed up my eventual victory with a string of other wins, taking out a slew of mid-game bosses without nearly as much trouble.
Diary of a FromSoftware Noob Part 2: Becoming the Shinobi in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
The student is becoming the master, slowly but surely, as the journey steadily approaches its end.
I left off at a pivotal point, making a choice that put me in a fight to the death with an old ally over my decision to stick with Lord Kuro and his mission to end the divine heritage. My assumption was that this was the "good" path, given that the other choice was clearly giving in to Owl's ambitions and ending the game much earlier than continuing on this path. And so I came face to face with my old master, which would end up being the toughest encounter yet.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I played this one a little more on the cowardly side, fleeing out of his most devastating attacks and striking carefully to slowly whittle down his Vitality. At this point, I wasn't quite up to the task of winning a straight-up duel with him, but the deathblows landed just as effectively with these tactics. In all fairness, it was still pretty tough and time-consuming to take this approach, which is a lesson I would later overcome when the stakes were much, much higher.
With my journey moving onward, the path to the Fountainhead Palace soon revealed itself and I found myself facing down a familiar foe once more. The real Corrupted Monk soon stood before me and this showdown was set to be a little tougher than last time, as the boss boasted three pools of health that I would have to work my way through. It was time to get to work.
From my time reading about Sekiro online, I heard in passing that this boss could be made trivial with some clever positioning on branches and unintended deathblows to skip most of the fight. Well, I wasn't very good at pulling that off, so after a failed attempt at even getting one early deathblow, I decided I could use some practice in advance of phase three, regardless of the winning strategy, and made an attempt the old-fashioned way. I would need to deflect and time my blows carefully, learning attack patterns along the way, but a little practice wasn't going to hurt, was it?
I never had the chance to try the cheesier strategy again. Before I knew it, I was heading into the final phase and had a solid grasp on not only timing my deflects, but also when I could counter-attack. Eventually, the monk's posture broke and the final deathblow brought this fight to its satisfying conclusion. Who needs cheese tactics when you can just win it straight-up on a practice try? Hell yeah.
This next area was definitely a beautiful one, featuring stunning visuals and a whole new atmosphere that was hard not to like. The game slowly began to introduce lightning attacks, indicating I would probably need to figure those out sooner or later, but my journey towards the next boss wasn't too rough. I had my eyes on the finish line throughout this entire section, really yearning to see those credits roll. I was playing like I wanted to win. No stretch of the game is without deaths to minibosses and this area was no exception, but I was thinking about nothing more than the next big fight as I pushed ahead and soon found myself ready to face the Divine Dragon, a necessary step in my quest to help Kuro do away with the divine heritage.
It was a different sort of boss fight, but it sure was easy for me. After the trivial first phase, I quickly worked out that I could do damage to the beast with some grappling and a little bit of help from nearby lightning strikes, offering a rather straightforward path to victory. Throw in a little bit of guarding and deflecting against slow, easily-telegraphed attacks and this boss quickly went down... on the first try. I never thought I'd see that happen in this game, but it was a pleasant surprise, if not a little disappointing.
This victory meant that the completion of my journey was closer than ever. The endgame was here and I was ready to make that final push. Considering my excitement to see this through, I decided to pass on the optional boss, the Demon of Hatred, and go straight for the final encounter. You have to beat the best to be the best, so that was my singular focus and I couldn't wait any longer to go up against whatever final enemy was waiting for me. "Let's do this," I silently exclaimed to myself.
I soon discovered Isshin had passed and Kuro was making his way to a secret passage, not coincidentally the same area the tutorial mission took me through before the fateful encounter that cost Wolf his arm. I could feel this game bringing everything full circle and had a bad feeling about what kind of fight awaited me back on that field. Needless to say, finding myself staring down Genichiro once again was about as big of a "fuck you" as the game could give me, considering how much trouble I had besting him the first time. It would seem that I would have to do this again.
As it turned out, I would have to do this again and again, every time I made an attempt on the true end boss, Isshin, the Sword Saint, who boasted three deathblow icons of his own, making this a four-phase encounter that starts off each time with a battle against the bane of my existence, who has since added a Mortal Blade to his arsenal. Damn it all to hell; I had enough of this bastard.
One frustrating part (of many) about this fight is how quickly things can turn to shit. I had tries when the initial fight against Genichiro went so poorly that I would just say "fuck it" and let him kill me to start fresh. Other times, I would get through that whole first part without taking a single hit to my Vitality. The occasional urge to throw a controller definitely approached boiling point on a number of tries.
For a while, I struggled to get through the one-two punch of Genichiro and phase-one Isshin unscathed, without blowing through resurrection charges or healing items early. It was one of those nights where I just wasn't "on" and decided to save it for a new day, since I was only regressing on my reads and reaction time the more frustrated I got. Thoughts about whether I would have what it takes to get through all four phases definitely lingered in the back of my mind while I waited for my next chance to fire up the game and give it another try (or twenty). This fight just wasn't clicking for me.
And so I went back to the grind and eventually got the first two phases familiar enough to blow through quickly, give or take the occasional try where everything went bad immediately and it was better to restart from the beginning. I tried to get cute on tactics again with a lot of running and occasional striking, leading to lengthy attempts that ultimately resulted in failure. Honestly, I had enough of that and set out to fight this boss one-on-one and break his damn posture the right way. Either I would learn how to fight him or I would fail and never see the end credits for myself. It was now or never.
My first few tries at a straightforward battle with Isshin's third phase were promising, but it was still very much true that any attempt could go to complete shit very quickly given how relentless this fucker is. I began to feel a bit more comfortable with his attack patterns over time, to the point where I could play very defensively and focus a little more on my own posture in between deflects. Eventually, I finally got that second-to-last deathblow and Isshin learned a couple new attacks, notably involving lightning – something I had yet to master the proper timing for.
The rest of his moves remained the same, so I continued my approach of focusing on my posture and deflecting everything I could, occasionally panicking and mashing buttons whenever a lightning attack was coming. I somehow managed to jump up and reverse his first lightning strike, but he got me stunned on the second one. At this point, I was completely unaware of the fact that I had no resurrection charges available, but continued to focus on patterns and posture, slowly working my way to the final deathblow that would complete this game.
As Isshin's posture bar turned red, I could feel my hands getting jittery and my heart racing. This was the first attempt I pushed into the fourth phase with a proper, up-close approach and I had to fight to keep my subconscious from celebrating too early. Soon, the tough motherfucker reared up for another lightning attack and I felt panic setting in. I jumped, got hit by the bolt, and pressed attack just in time to reverse it and stun him. His posture was nearly maxed after this, so I sprinted up with a few attacks of desperation and finally saw the little red marker I'd been waiting to see for so long.
Boy, was it satisfying to plunge my blade into this bastard for the last time. With the hard part over, I quickly found Kuro and gave him both the Divine Dragon Tears and the Frozen Tears to set up the "Return" ending, the most convoluted of the bunch to attain. It was a satisfying conclusion to top off the incredibly-challenging battle I just overcame.
For all the difficulty it was to learn that final encounter, Sekiro sure makes you feel like a god when the credits roll. I can't recall the last time any game made me yell out loud with excitement (and profanities) after landing that fatal blow. I'm still riding the high of finishing this fight, but what a journey this has been in hindsight. Through all the highs and lows, this was certainly a memorable adventure and the feeling of accomplishment is undeniable. It feels damn good to beat a game like this.
In the end, I had some doubts about whether I'd be able to finish Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but I'm both glad and proud that I did, especially with this being my first-ever FromSoftware title. I'm not sure if or when I will take on Dark Souls or Bloodborne, but I definitely need a little bit of time to indulge in some less-stressful gaming before I think about that. Either way, I feel different as a gamer after overcoming these challenges. Could more hard modes be in my near future? I'm thinking maybe...