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