Blood-Soaked Memories: My Five Favourite Bosses in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice


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Having just finished Sekiro for the second time and taken the other fork in the road, I thought I’d talk about one of the game’s best aspects: boss fights. Note that to get the best spread possible I’m including both full-fat bosses and mini bosses in this, because in terms of my personal enjoyment there’s no real difference between the two groups. So without further ado, let’s get into it. Obviously there are major spoilers from here on out.

5. Armored Warrior 

At last, Fromsoft does a puzzle fight well. It’s a simple puzzle, but one that ties into the game’s mechanics and provides a tweaked challenge: an opponent head to toe in thick, metal armour that protects his vitality from any and all damage. The puzzle is you cannot kill him with conventional means, and must instead fill up his posture bar and use a deathblow to kick him off the side of the bridge you’re on, something that can only be achieved when you’re close enough, at the right angle and if the Warrior has smashed a hole in the wall. He hits hard and erratically, and it becomes a close battle of positioning, dodging and combos. It’s a really fun fight, and its short length makes it a nice, snacky interlude midway through Senpou Temple to show off a neat idea FromSoft had.

4. Genichiro Ashina 

After cutting off Wolf’s arm and kidnapping his master Kuro, Wolf is understandably out for Genichiro’s blood. Waiting for you at the top of Ashina Castle, the Samurai acts as the first greatest test of skill and your grasp of the game. Telegraphed combos that provide a great opportunity to raise his posture, all three kinds of unblockable but punishable attacks and practice with a dangerous long-range foe. While Lady Butterfly is a good fight, Genichiro is far better as a human on human duel, with the game’s best example of the give and take, push and pull nature of the combat up to that point. I’ve seen people say that Genichiro is where the game really clicked for them and it’s easy to see why, as it expects you to have learned the combat and rewards you for it with a challenging, satisfying fight. When you finally beat him he switches to his “Way of Tomoe” form, in which he strips to the waist and gains the power of lightning strikes. This is where the game introduces Lightning Reversal; a trick where you leap into the air to sever a connection between the lightning and ground and send it back into Genichiro for heavy damage. A great boss, and his low position on the list speaks volumes to the quality of the fights in this game.

3. Great Shinobi Owl

At the three-quarter point Wolf must make a choice: side with his adoptive Father and turn against his master Kuro, or decide to follow his own code and stay loyal to the young master. Choose the latter and Wolf must put down his old man, who fights with a Katana longer than Wolf is tall and every dirty trick in the book. Owl fights Wolf with his own tactics and some of his own Shinobi moves thrown in: shuriken, firecrackers, bathing the arena in smoke, bombs that stop you healing, all on top of that massive sword. Unlike Genichiro before him, the tactics for defeating Owl are more focused on nailing the step-dodge timing to avoid the Shinobi weapons, move in close and punish. Owl is higher on the list because of the story implications of the fight, as if you’re taking the “good” path through the game this marks the point where Wolf makes an extremely difficult decision in benefit of his master, showing just how much he cares about the boy. I love Kuro and Wolf’s relationship and often took the time to have them talk, so it feels like a natural progression to maintain loyalty to him and reluctantly fight a father who’s cloaking malevolent, selfish desires in disappointment that you’ve broken the iron code. I like how if you die, while he’s waiting for you to revive he barks out tenants of the code; filled with unrighteous indignation at a son who’s thinking for himself and has chosen a better path. A cool fight between two master Shinobi and a key moment in Wolf’s character development.

2. Guardian Ape

Sekiro has a strong grasp of horror that is used sparingly, peppered into the fights with humans and the odd gun-wielding monkey. Mibu village, the two long-arm centipedes, the headless; they’re all cool, but they lack the visceral punch of the Guardian Ape, a unique boss with two vastly different stages, a great design and interesting lore implications. First you fight a giant, white ape with a huge sword through its neck who alternates between ferocious hyper-aggression and scrabbling to flee like a frightened animal when you gain the upper hand. He throws boulders of poisonous shite at you, he farts poison clouds, he clobbers you with his giant ape arms and he has two different, brutal grab attacks. It is, as the name suggests, a fight with a giant ape. He only has one deathblow marker, and once you activate it Wolf uses the giant sword to sever the ape’s head. “Shinobi Execution” appears on screen, job’s a good’un. But then he gets back up. Round 2, a giant, parasitic centipede controlling the ape’s body picks up the severed head in one hand, the sword in the other and engages in clumsy, eerie swordplay. The ape in this form has a completely different moveset, and can hold his severed head above his neck stump and let out a harrowing, piercing scream that rapidly causes vitality damage and fills the insta-kill terror meter. It’s a fight unlike any other in the game, obviously discounting the subsequent rematch with him and his backup. Shout out to the start of that fight where he’s standing facing the wall of a cave deep in Ashina and creepily turns towards you when you enter. Anyway it’s a fight unlike any other; two entirely different fights with the same boss sequentially, in a beautiful arena, and if you go there before Senpou Temple it’s the first glimpse at exactly what this universe’s other form of immortality looks like. The game is at it’s best when you’re fighting other humans, but the Guardian Ape is so unique and such a cool, creepy fight that it stands shoulder to shoulder with them.

1. Emma, The Gentle Blade and Isshin Ashina

Side with Owl and forsake the young master and you’re treated to the best boss fight(s) in the game, among the best Fromsoft has ever done. Unlike the alternate route in which you fight Genichiro again and then fight a resurrected, full-power, three deathblow marker Isshin, here the still-living old man takes up his sword alongside Emma, one of Wolf’s closest allies. They both engage with the Shinobi sensing that he’s on the verge of becoming a bloodthirsty monster who kills on a whim; desperate times call for desperate measures. First comes Emma, who has a strong offence but only one marker and a fairly easy to break posture. Once she falls it’s Isshin’s turn, who has two markers and similar posture, but a trickier moveset, and in his second phase he uses the flaming arena to augment his attacks.

Mechanically, Isshin is Fromsoft’s best boss. Punishing, challenging and a keen test of everything you’ve learned so far; the better you’ve adjusted to Sekiro’s combat style, the better you’ll do. Rather than overpowering you with superhuman brutality like his Keisen counterpart, this older, wiser Isshin is craftier and more nimble, dodging and luring you in, adding fire to his moves for extra oomph to his attacks. Rather than just chucking Genichiro at you again you have to deal with Emma, who fits with Isshin beautifully and though short the duel with her is excellent. Trained by Isshin and using many of his tactics, Emma is an elegant fighter who, like her master, works as a test of what you’ve learnt throughout the game: if you know what you’re doing you’ll handle her fine, if you haven’t, you’ll have a bad time. But because the combat mechanics in Sekiro are so specific and the game pushes you to learn them more so than Dark Souls and Bloodborne, it feels like more of a fair fight. At least to me anyway. Also the location is so much better than the Sword Saint fight: you’d think that white field would stand out but it ends up feeling more generic and drab than the top of Ashina Castle, framed against snowy mountains, its towering presence fuelling the drama of the desperate struggle to put down Wolf before he becomes a Shura. In a game of excellent boss fights, Emma and Isshin are the best, hands down.

By James Lambert

The Power of Fluffy Boys Shines Within You – Thoughts on Deltarune Chapter 1

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Deltarune is the new game from Undertale creator Toby Fox, chapter one of which had a sort of stealth release on PC a while ago and came to PS4 recently for free. Apparently the rest of the game will be released as a whole package in the future, so I’ll be reviewing that too, but for now let’s take a look at what’s currently on offer. This’ll just be a quick one, because I want to keep my in-depth opinions for the full review.

I’m a big fan of Undertale, and based on Chapter 1 Deltarune has the potential to be just as good. The new characters are great for the most part, particularly best boy Ralsei and Susie, the reuse of Undertale characters in different circumstances is intriguing and I loved Sans’ reappearance. The new additions to the combat system are neat, in particular having to warn enemies about Susie’s unyielding attempts to smash them. For me the villainous King isn’t anything special; his fight teaches the protagonists a valuable lesson but lacks the sustained “but thou must” heartbreak of fighting Asgore. I’m a tad trepidatious about the ending cliffhanger, but at the same time intrigued. I like the whole “No one can choose who they are in this world” angle, and I’m interested to see how that affects things going forward. I know this was very brief and light on detail but initial attempts read too much like a review, and I don’t want to do that twice. So for now just know that I really liked Chapter 1 and I eagerly await the full release of Deltarune, whenever that is.

By James Lambert

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest game from Dark Souls and Bloodborne developer FromSoftware, initially conceived as a new Tenchu game but reworked into a new I.P. It has noticeable similarities to Dark Souls and the like, but makes several changes that take the mini-genre in interesting new directions. It’s a trimmed down, single-player only stealth-action game with a unique spin on combat but that same crushing difficulty the developers have become known for.

Rather than a player-created character and a story told almost entirely through lore, Sekiro has a more direct plot. You are a nameless Shinobi referred to as “Wolf”, on a mission through Sengoku-era Ashina to rescue his master after he was kidnapped and Wolf had his left arm cut off. Said Master is a young boy named Kuro; immortal and impervious to all harm due to a mysterious bloodline. Aiding Wolf in his quest is a prosthetic left arm known as the “Shinobi Fang” (it’s more frequently called the Shinobi Prosthetic but that’s far less cool), fitted with a grappling hook and capable of housing all manner of weapons and tools. I won’t spoil anything, but the story goes to some interesting places, and it’s all built around Wolf and his relationship with Kuro. Wolf is fully voice acted, and that’s put to good use when he’s addressing his master; taking a strictly formal approach that potentially has something more familial creeping in, slowly being coaxed out of his shell by the more openly friendly boy. Returning from an area to have Wolf relay his adventure to an eager, wise-beyond-his-years Kuro is charming, and acts as a little epilogue to exploring new areas. The more direct approach to storytelling is refreshing, and despite the character customisation being one of my favourite parts of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, I really grew attached to Wolf and his allies.

In contrast to Dark Souls’ overwhelming smorgasbord of weapons, attacks, magic, armour and defensive options and Bloodborne’s more aggressive melee focus with a range of useful trick weapons tailored to different tastes, Sekiro is far more streamlined. Wolf’s only dedicated melee weapon is a katana, supplemented by various Shinobi Fang tools like a heavy axe, a spear, an iron umbrella shield and, of course, shuriken. In departure from the aforementioned titles Sekiro’s fights are focused less on depleting an enemy’s health bar and more on breaking their guard by filling a “Posture” meter. Posture is depleted by clashing weapons with them and parrying their attacks: top off their posture meter and you can perform a deathblow. A deathblow will kill an enemy outright or if they have multiple nodules above their health bar it will erase one of them. Wolf also has a posture meter, which fills the more attacks he blocks rather than parries, and should the meter fill he’s staggered and briefly open to attacks. This puts the emphasis on pressure and being aggressive, but also encourages the player to be more active with their defence. You can dodge around the arena chipping off health, but the quicker, more satisfying way to do it is to get up close and personal and win with parries and good sword technique. Enemies incorporate a sort of rock, paper, scissors approach to special attacks where red kanji flashing above their head denotes an incoming grab, sweep or thrust. Grabs are sidestepped (or jumped if that makes you feel safer), sweeps are jumped over and then countered with a boot to the head and thrusts have their own unlockable parry called the Mikiri, in which Wolf stomps on the incoming weapon and either gives the enemy a stern look or, if they’re weak enough, hits them with a deathblow. The game has no stamina meter, and Wolf’s maximum health and attack power are tied to items, rather than RPG-style stats. XP is a factor, but it’s instead used to unlock new moves and latent skills, like enemies taking more posture damage, or the Estus Flask-style healing gourd becoming more effective. The game’s USP is the revive system, in which Wolf can spring back to life on the spot once per enemy deathblow marker, and it becomes a careful balance between using health items (which don’t refill upon revival but do at checkpoints) and relying on a revive. One revive is always refilled upon resting at Sekiro’s equivalent of a Dark Souls bonfire, but additional revive refills +have to be earned through combat, making them even more precious.

Unfortunately despite the razor-sharp precision involved in the combat, FromSoft’s penchant for dodgy hitboxes rears its ugly head. The Mikiri parry works well for the most part, but sometimes Wolf will just ignore you and dodge right into the thrusting blade. The aforementioned rock-paper-scissors moves are very hard to react to until you’ve been hit by them several times, and grabs in particular do extreme damage, if they don’t kill you outright. If attacks are meant to be dodged or Mikiri’d then jumping will often result in Wolf being jabbed in the foot for massive damage, and even at waist height trying to counter sweeps is a bad idea. When the fights work, they work beautifully; it’s a real step forward for the genre, but at times they’re deeply frustrating. Fighting anything other than a human is a lot less fun, because the combat mechanics are tailored to parrying and carefully balancing pressure and self defence. While those tenants still apply to more monstrous enemies it’s clear that’s not what they were designed for. There’s one boss that’s cool enough to negate this, but another that’s one of the worst in the game because of it. Despite these negative aspects I really enjoy the combat system in Sekiro. It feels fresh but within FromSoft’s wheelhouse; if Bloodborne was a step forward in high risk/high reward aggressive attack and defence from Dark Souls, Sekiro is a step up in that vein from Bloodborne. This is more of a unique style than those two games, but has an added richness to it having sprung forth from them. Whereas in other games having your attacks repeatedly blocked is annoying, here it feels like a valid part of the combat, and alongside the gorgeous sound design and the thrill of pulling off a deathblow, it’s all immensely satisfying. Alongside the direct approach is stealth, which can be a tad hit and miss in terms of A.I, but as a way to instantly remove a threat or halve a boss’ health, it’s an invaluable weapon in Wolf’s arsenal, though it’s more supplementary than complementary.

The level design is similar to Bloodborne in that Ashina is one continuous map, but at times Wolf will slip through a transitional area and arrive in somewhere that’s basically self-contained. Obviously there’s a general theme of Feudal Japanese architecture but there’s enough variety in the locations, and they’re all well designed both in terms of art and level design. Of particular note are a temple complex high in the mountains populated by martial arts-wielding monks with a dark secret and a spooky village at the lowest part of the world that provides the game’s strongest horror elements. Said horror elements are really well done and used sparingly; for the most part you’re fighting human enemies, but once you reach a certain point in the story and start to venture further afield it becomes apparent there’s some nasty stuff hidden away from prying eyes. Parts of it are reminiscent of Bloodborne, but never in a way that feels overly familiar or like FromSoft are reusing ideas; it’s more that they’ve established a signature style and tone over five games in this loose genre/series and Sekiro is very much at home in that groove, while adding some memorable new touches of its own.

Overall, Sekiro is fantastic. It uses Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Bloodborne as a base to build the most satisfying combat Fromsoftware has done to date. The focus on active defence and clashing weapons until an opening presents itself and slipping in for the kill makes hacking away in Dark Souls and even Bloodborne feel almost clumsy. Its more direct approach to story telling, Wolf as a protagonist and his relationships with his allies are engaging and provide a warm contrast to the game’s strong grasp of horror, pragmatic violence and overcoming brutal odds. This is not merely Ninja Souls, it’s its own beast, and what a beast it is. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, a real step forward for this style of game and arguably FromSoft’s finest hour. Magnificent.

By James Lambert