I always thought that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was a great game, but I only started actively enjoying it once I began New Game+.
The rest of the article contains minor spoilers for Sekiro’s boss fights.
It took me a full month since I published my review to finally beat the game. I drifted away from the game for a couple of weeks, convinced Sekiro would be the one to break me. In my mind, there was no conceivable way that I could vanquish Isshin, the Sword Saint.
But, like every From game I’ve ever played, something about it kept beckoning me. So I redownloaded the game after rage-deleting it from my hard drive and gave it another go.
Every few days, I’d perform the same ritual: spawn in at the Near Secret Passage idol, make the walk of shame through the tunnel, skip the cutscene, and start the fight. Shirtless Genichiro never proved much of a challenge, but once Isshin crawled out of his skin, the real work began.
Notice that I called it “work.” I never felt like I was playing when I was fighting Isshin. I was studying, learning, improving. Isshin was my teacher, and getting my ass kicked was my lesson.
Steadily, I improved. Pretty soon, I was handily getting through Isshin’s first phase. Then I ran into his second phase where he draws his spear and wreaks havoc on Sekiro’s posture meter.
What Isshin and his spear taught me was that, even though I’d made it to the last boss and defeated many tough opponents up to that point, I never really learned how to play the game. I understood on an intellectual level what you were supposed to do and did it sometimes, but the key mechanics never really, truly clicked for me on the instinctual level that allows you to simply enjoy what From had built.
Using every Gokan’s Sugar, persimmon, and health item I had in my inventory, I eventually defeated Isshin, and my love for the game was reinvigorated.
After taking on such a tough boss and getting a better, more purposeful handle on the deflection mechanic, I was eager to start NG+. I’d learned a lot and wanted to stress-test my freshly honed skills against the game again.
Playing through NG+ was like experiencing an entirely different game. Of course, the early stages of the game still humbled me. The first ogre threw me around like a rag doll. I was insta-dying to attacks that I didn’t remember killing me outright the first time I played. Still, I beat him and moved on.
The first time I realized just how much Isshin had taught me was when I faced off against that horse-ridin’ fool, Gyoubu. Instead of grappling past his second-phase attack where he uses his spear like a whirlygig, I deflected it. The clang of steel against steel never sounded so sweet.
Gyoubu wasn’t that hard even on my first run of the game, but he definitely took me a handful of tries. This time, post-Isshin, I beat him on my first attempt.
One by one, I gleefully carved my way through bosses and minibosses that previously took me hours—if not days—to defeat. I didn’t resort to cheesy tactics. I beat them fair and square.
I defeated Genichiro on my first try. Same with the Guardian Ape. I can count the attempts against the Great Owl and Lady Butterfly on one hand. And the Armored Warrior? A joke.
Most importantly, for the first time, Sekiro was actually fun. It wasn’t just because I was flexing all over Ashina. It was fun because the game finally made sense. Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra wrote an interesting article about how she wished she could forget her first playthrough so she could experience the world of Sekiro with fresh eyes. I’ve felt that way about From games before, and there are certain things about Sekiro that I wish I could experience for the first time again, most notably the magical cutscene that takes you to Fountainhead Palace.
But I never want to have to learn how to play Sekiro again. I went from abjectly hating it to loving it more than I’ve loved a game in a long time.
I still think my criticisms of the game are valid, and I’ll stand by my review score. If anything, learning to love Sekiro has given me one final thing to complain about: The last boss is a terrible time to teach players how to play your game.
Mention has been made of how Activision’s influence gave From and director Hidetaka Miyazaki a new perspective on usability and teaching players how to, well, play. But I never felt like I truly learned how to play Sekiro until I beat Isshin.
Maybe that’s my fault. There are plenty of opportunities to master Sekiro’s mechanics before facing off against the final boss. I know that there are plenty of players who felt totally equipped the first time they faced off against the Sword Saint.
I’m sure there are plenty of other players who haven’t beat Isshin. I know there are other players who never even made it to Isshin. Putting aside the question of Sekiro’s accessibility, I’m fine with a game being too hard for me, as long as I know why it’s too hard.
I guess what I’m really feeling is relief. I’m thankful that I enjoyed NG+ as much as I did. Heck, it only took me two tries to beat Isshin the second time. I just think there’s a better way that From could have taught me how to love its game.