- Developer: From Software
Review: The type of game that defines the concept of "needs no introduction'. Every word I waste introducing Sekiro is a word spent telling you what you've already heard. Likewise, every attempt to give it a traditional review is bound to have been replicated a hundred times over by people more qualified to speak on it than I. A nihilistic stance to take at the beginning of yet another traditional review of a game both widely played and widely… Expand
Review: The type of game that defines the concept of "needs no introduction'. Every word I waste introducing Sekiro is a word spent telling you what you've already heard. Likewise, every attempt to give it a traditional review is bound to have been replicated a hundred times over by people more qualified to speak on it than I.
A nihilistic stance to take at the beginning of yet another traditional review of a game both widely played and widely reviewed. The reason I feel such a strong need to chime in, however, is the same reason I've reviewed games in the past. No one else is talking about the script in isolation. As a game writer, I feel as though the discussion around game writing is anemic and often plagued with political noise.
So to get the basic tenants of what would be my traditional review out of the way: It's good. It's great even. It's not quite Dark Souls.
If this is an opinion you strongly disagree with, I may recommend not spending any more time reading it, as the rest of my review is based around the idea that the mechanics and design are strong enough to carry the game's script, whatever it may be. If a lackluster set of gameplay options, or perhaps an unwieldy grappling hook have turned you off the game, a discussion of its script's competency, values and flaws will probably do little to brighten your perspective on the game. Which is totally fair.
With that out of the way:
-Sekiro must be compared to Dark Souls-
This is not to say the game overall has to be compared to Dark Souls all the time. Again, I'm a script specialist. The reason the two must be compared is not because the two games share a lead creative vision, but because contrasting the game against Dark Souls so clearly illuminates the faults in Sekiro's writing. Which I suppose lays all the cards down on the table: the script, not simply the gameplay, is not quite Dark Souls quality.
The most highly touted difference that Sekiro has over Dark Souls is the inclusion of a pre-defined main character. While some may lament the loss of a customizable main character (i.e. the ability to freely break tone for the first or subsequent playthroughs with a silly character, the ability to role-play as a character not prescribed traits by the script, and others), there are certainly reasons to switch to a defined MC. Briefly, some of these reasons may have been so as to keep a consistent tone in the game's story, to narrow the gameplay's focus to a single combat style, to better write natural dialogue that isn't stilted toward a character who may easily be a frightful hollow, a goofish clown or a complete blank slate.
However, this decisive switch comes necessarily with the implication that this would now be a "character-oriented story", as in now that the character is important enough to define and take options away from the player, then the character himself must be important to the narrative.
In the simplest terms, Sekiro does not do a good enough job telling a character-oriented story as Dark Souls tells a setting-oriented story.
Every story is comprised of questions, whether these questions consist of "Who committed this murder?" to "Will our heroes defeat the villain?" to "Could these people truly be happy together" to even the simplest version of this idea: "What happens next?"
Questions are often implicit and sub-textual. When two characters are in the middle of a heated showdown, a character doesn't necessarily need to chime in with a "I wonder who's going to win." to implant that pivotal question within the audience's mind.
With this concept of implicit questions established, they scatter themselves over every pore of Dark Souls' world. "Why was I locked away to begin with and who did this?", "Why is everything built like it was made for someone three times my size?", "Why is this dog protecting this specific grave?" and so on. These questions can be ignored or pursued and to do either is extremely satisfying. If an implicit question has an answer, and the answer itself is satisfying, it is difficult to imagine a way in which its inclusion would be a bad thing.
The setting of Sekiro has no such quality, or at least not to the degree of Dark Souls. The switch from a purely fantastical world to a historical fantasy period such as the Sengoku Jidai, something that (and this can't be stressed enough) has been very VERY well documented and archived, does little to increase the amount of implicit questions. The Chained Ogre exists with its implicit questions immediately answered by the eavesdropping section immediately before it. He's a weapon. Why does he exist? Because ogres are a part of Japanese folklore. He exists purely as a way to define the world (not a bad thing in itself) and as a gameplay challenge.
Other examples include the Way of Tomoe, the Guardian Ape and the destruction of Hirata Estate. All of these exist as questions that have been answered. There are certainly better example, but the reason I list these very separate concepts as such (a fantasy concept, a creature and an event) is because they neither limit themselves to any part of the story's presentation but they also aren't markers of quality in and of themselves. They simply illustrate a point:
Sekiro does not make an attempt to tell a story through its setting.
Which is *perfectly fine*.
However, Sekiro IS trying to tell a story. But how? Combine the elements of a newly defined main character and an extremely evident lack of setting-based story-telling, and the answer becomes clear: Sekiro is a character story. The interactions between characters, the way the characters act and the desires of each character are the vessel through which the questions are being asked.
The problem is not only that the implicit questions are few and far between (there's very little to wonder about Sekiro/The Wolf, and there's even less to extrapolate from his actions) but that the interactions are hardly even good enough to justify this switch in focus. In fact, on a personal note, I was extremely frustrated to find that the game had apparently left the choice up to me whether I would allow myself to put The Divine Heir in danger in order to give his young life meaning, and felt as though Sekiro's dedication to the Divine Heir meant he would break this oath for the boy he cares for... only to be told that he would not break this oath and I'm then forced to choose the other option (to not allow Kuro to put himself in danger), only THEN to find that Sekiro had come to see things my way by the time the conversation was over.
Kuro is given one or two lines that show he has both faith and dedication toward Sekiro, and good lines as they may be ("For he is my Shinobi"/"How many times have you died and come back to life?"), they don't make up for the otherwise empty narrative.
The game is phenomenal for its other points and is absolutely worth a playthrough. In fact, I would not go so far as to say it's a bad story. There's enough wonder regarding the impact that the Rejuvenating Waters has upon the setting to provide at least twice as much intrigue as most AAA games. But it shines less brightly when compared to the incomparable Dark Souls.
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