I’m a serial bouncer-offer of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. I adore how bizarre these games are. I love this stuff. I don’t love playing these games, though, which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and didn’t put it down a couple hours later with no intention of returning.
I never thought a lot about why Soulsborne doesn’t strike the right chord until Sekiro got its grappling hooks in me. In the early going, Sekiro does three things that make it more inviting than Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
1) Soulsborne Overwhelms & Underexplains
Dark Souls and Bloodborne do a thing that exhilarates me in turn-based RPGs but stresses me way out in action RPGs. It tells me way too much. Maybe a bit of an odd thing to say about a series that also obfuscates too much (more of that in a second), but look at these menus:
This is a profound amount of information that ends up not really telling the player a whole lot about how things work. Some things, like Vitality or Physical ATK, are clear to the player. On a moment-to-moment basis, the games do a far worse job explaining what other attributes mean. With so much equipment and ways to change your stats, I find myself undergoing analysis paralysis when I should be somersaulting into barrels.
Systems interactions are great when they tell you the perfect amount, but Soulsborne likes to show you evidence that a million systems exist but no indication of how they interact. In a way, this rules. I love watching this unfold. As a player, though, I get completely jittery trying to figure out my ideal builds.
Sekiro simplifies all of this, especially at the beginning of the game. It’s clear the player will have one weapon and likely one set of gear for the duration, though the Prosthetic system provides some variance. The information comes in at a steady tick and stays fairly clear the entire time. It reminds me a little of the difference between Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Breath of the Wild. Both contain systems that reward exploration and both contain systems that interact in meaningful ways while in combat. However, the former shows you every single system and quantifies it while the latter tells you only the bare necessities.
Sekiro is no Breath of the Wild, but it does let things unfold at a more measured pace than Soulsborne. My busy brain appreciates it.
2) Soulsborne Ties Play Style to Build
Dark Souls and (to a lesser extent) Bloodborne ask the player to make a couple key decisions before you even tumble into the world. While these build choices aren’t inflexible in the long run, you’re still deciding your key statistical strengths before you know how the game plays.
In a turn-based game, this is fine for me. I like class-based games, especially when I have time to experiment without being stabbed 174 times by skeletons while I’m doing math in my head.
If I find out that I suck at being a Sorcerer in Dark Souls an hour in, the act of re-rolling exhausts me, knowing I have so many other classes to try. This is part of the appeal for many, but with a game so taxing it’s tough to find the right angle for my particular play style since it’s so closely tied to your initial choices.
In Sekiro, once you receive your arm prosthetic early in the game, your desired play style is available to you. Stealth? Lurking high above everyone? Rushing in? Defensive mastery? It’s all there for you right out of the box if you put in the work. In this way, Sekiro shows itself to be a bit more accessible than its Soulsborne predecessors.
3) Soulsborne Scares The Shit Out Of Me
This isn’t just about visual design, although Soulsborne games are quite a bit more harrowing in that regard comparing the early parts of each game. Light spoilers, but Sekiro does get into some pretty wild territory a bit later in the game. That said, that’s not even what I’m talking about, really. Any game can spook and scare me with enough atmosphere and competent graphical work.
No, what scares me about Soulsborne games is how they set out to corner and terrify you at every turn. No breathing room, no breaks, no rest for the weary. Bonfires and lamps offer some respite in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, respectively, but moment to moment action is punctuated by design choices made to fill your heart with dread.
This is pure exhilaration for many who play, but for me it’s exhausting. Sekiro turns things on its head a bit by allowing the player to pause. Simple, tried-and-true, but very novel for a new FromSoftware action game. Taking a breather is a pleasure in Sekiro, because you will be overwhelmed by enemies at times. Putting space between you and the action allows you to re-strategize and reconfigure your quick items, something unheard of in a Soulsborne game.
The ability for you to tackle many more situations with stealth, space, and verticality also helps alleviate some of the stress of Sekiro.
To be very clear, Sekiro is still a ridiculously difficult game. FromSoftware has not lost its touch in making something incredibly tough to conquer. What makes the experience different is what makes it better for players like me. Even if I’m dying. A lot. All the time.