I get it. I get the draw of it all. The challenge that feels insurmountable, before rearranging itself into beatable patterns over time, all funnelling into the dramatic catharsis of victory. Soulsborne games (is that moniker still current, given the latest entry?) demand precision, dedication and care, and reward players with drips of mythic story and membership of one of modern gaming’s smaller completionist clubs.
But, here’s the thing. I traded in Sekiro last week, and used that store credit to buy a game I can consume and play without needing to plan my life around improving my skill-level, one that I know I’ll finish rather than hoping I might be able to.
Sekiro had me for hours, and it had me straight away. The blend of stealth and action seemed more forgiving than previous FromSoft games, in the way it let me pick off enemies and retreat until each fight was manageable with a dash of optimism. I pushed through the adrenaline barriers, chomping through Ashina Castle piece by piece. Hell, I even bothered to slice my way through the Hirata Estate memory — I dodged around Lady Butterfly over the course of dozens of attempts before eventually finishing her off.
More to the point, I cheesed. I googled almost every mini-boss after the first few attempts, paranoid that there was some obvious strategy I was missing. In most cases this did nothing for me. The “cheeses” I was sold were nothing more than disguised versions of “get really good at parrying, then do that a lot”. But I got through. Prayer beads, gourd seeds, all tumbled into my possession, and when I needed to, I farmed (the “rats” above Ashina Castle Gate, if you’re curious, were my victims of choice).
I stumbled through the Burning Bull, past any number of giant Samurai generals, and hooked my way up to the top of Ashina Castle, confident that I was nearing the halfway point of the game in good stead, nicely upgraded and learning the mechanics well.
Then, for literally a week and a half of real time, I couldn’t beat Genichiro Ashina. His three phases were baffling to me, the disproportion between his damage and my own frankly upsetting. I’d get through, with white knuckles, to the lightning-bound final phase, mistime one dodge and be sunk, another 15 minutes invested and another 15 minutes gone. Not “wasted”, mind you — I understand the pattern of these boss-fights and how your time pays off. But that time was gone nonetheless.
I didn’t give up on Sekiro there, though. Eventually I got through. Genichiro lay defeated, and then jumped off the building, and that was all well and good, because I was stood up pumping the air with my fists. It felt good — great, even. I tied up some loose ends with Kuro, and edged through the Gun Fort quickly. These exploratory phases are by far my favourite parts of Soulsbornes — the unknown quantities around every corner, and the knowledge that I could cope with them, but probably wouldn’t immediately.
But then, almost before I knew it, there was a big shallow lake in front of me, and a ruddy great monkey in my way, and I was faced with the prospect of the Guardian Ape. The pattern was reset, and I knew I was hours of gameplay, of frustration, away from exploring again. And this time, after four or five attempts to make it clear that I wasn’t going to somehow glide my way through, and a couple of YouTube videos to make it clear just how menacing the boss was, I was out.
It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed my time with Sekiro, or that I don’t think I’d ever get past the Ape. It’s just that the experience I’ve had in the first half of the game is what I’ll get over the course of the second — more of the incredible challenge, and the resulting satisfaction when it’s vanquished. And I don’t think I need any more of it. I’ve had my fill, and it was great. It’s like ordering a Big Mac without plumping for a meal. Sometimes you just don’t need it all.
I had a similar experience with Bloodborne a couple of years ago. I loved exploring Yharnam, talking compulsively to NPCs on every circuit to see if they’d elaborate at all on their bizarre dialogue. I got about two-thirds of the way through, that time, before the crushing routine of exploration/boss-fight became too draining. It’s all in the ratio of time spent, and I simply don’t want to have to repeat the same encounters as many times as these games demand of me, least of all when I’ve already run that gauntlet numerous times.
The games are both top-tier, energising experiences. But if you’re not possessed of god-given twitch reflexes, and you don’t care to devote weeks’ worth of evenings to improving your knowledge of their systems, their unforgiving cores don’t exactly demand that you dedicate yourself to them. In Sekiro the far more conventional storytelling style is another reason to feel that leaving off when you’ve had your fill is no great tragedy.
Maybe I’ll feel left out in the months to come, not knowing exactly how it all plays out, or how it feels to finally beat it. But, actually, I know I won’t.