“As dew it fell and as dew it vanished—my transitory self; and what happened in Naniwa was all a dream inside a dream.”
—Death poem of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Chancellor of the Realm, 1598
Anayama the Peddler sits in the outskirts of Ashina Castle, behind a chest he uses as a makeshift shop counter. When Wolf first meets him, Anayama recognizes the shinobi, saying they met “that night,” but he is surprised to see that Wolf doesn’t seem to remember. There are several magical bells in Sekiro, and one of them allows the player to return to the night Anayama means. Offering the bell to a Buddha statue, the player finds herself outside the otherwise inaccessible Hirata Estate three years prior—as a remarkably well-organized troupe of bandits set fire to the grounds. Unnamed and unseen characters in boarded-up homes accuse Wolf of facilitating the raid. Soon, in the burning audience chamber of the main house, Wolf confronts his old mentor, Lady Butterfly. It’s one of the game’s first boss fights. If the player manages to dispatch her, she is treated to a cutscene in which Wolf is stabbed in the back by a concealed figure. Even when the fight is won and the fire rages, Wolf can’t slow down for a second. He’s lucky the young Lord Kuro finds him and resurrects him for the first time.
The game’s prologue sees Wolf waking up in a hole, chasing after Kuro, and losing his arm fighting the villain Genichiro. In the warm light of the Dilapidated Temple, he is nursed back to health by the doctor Emma, and the hunched and gnarled Sculptor—who’s also lost a left arm—gives him the shinobi prosthetic. With a stock villain, a kidnapped magical child, and a chosen hero, the broad strokes of the plot are extremely videogamey. But Sekiro goes on to layer these obvious story elements on top of each other over and over—the result is a haze through which certain repeated figures, each engaged in their own struggle against stagnation and decay, come into focus.
The Hirata Estate section isn’t Wolf’s memory and it’s not time-travel either. The near-sighted old woman who gives him the bell is there in the estate, too, and her nearby son looks mortally wounded in both the present and the past. The night of the Estate—hellish, apocalyptic— seems immediate and pivotal to other characters who mention it, and details spill into the present, and back into the past. When Wolf does stumble into Anayama mid-burgle at the Hirata Estate, killing him means he disappears in the present. Defeating Lady Butterfly also affects characters in the Ashina area, but whether the player beats her or not, Anayama sells her kunai as an upgrade for the shinobi prosthetic—he must have looted them after the raid.
After climbing Ashina Castle a second time, Wolf faces Owl, the father figure who turns out to be both alive and evil all along. The old shinobi drops a withered branch from a tree that no longer grows. If the player eavesdrops properly, she can get another bell that sends her back to the Hirata Estate, this time slightly later in the night. The fires burn higher. Lady Butterfly has been replaced by a younger and stronger version of Owl. If beaten this time, he drops the branch again, but this time it’s flowering, and a usable item in one of the game’s four endings. Wolf may be the character who explicitly stands back up after dying but really nobody in Sekiro accepts death lying down.
The Guardian Ape boss exemplifies this in his own way—Wolf descends to the deepest point of the map, dispatching monkey after gun-toting monkey. They wear hats and helmets, they congregate in a big circle, they coordinate attacks. As up on Ashina Castle grounds, there must be somebody in charge here. At this point, now that she’s fought a few bosses, the player understands how to parry the telegraphed thrusts of a spear or sweeps of a blade. But this fight with the Guardian Ape isn’t a duel between human equals. The ape looks more monster than animal—its mouth gapes, its fur is matted with blood. It leaps from one side of the arena to the other and slaps Wolf dead. In order to respond to it, the player has to jump around too—the area is dotted with trees that can be grappled onto, and there’s another grapple point on the sword stuck through the ape’s neck. The hand-to-hand attacks are hard to read and are better off dodged.
When the player does one of those fancy finishing deathblows to separate the ape’s head from its body, the second half of the fight starts. What’s left of the ape lurches back up, grabbing its head in one hand and its sword in the other. Now the ape engages like one of the ghostly, recurring Headless enemies, and the game classifies it as an apparition instead of a beast. The resurrection mirrors Wolf’s constant refusal to die. Other bosses deny death, but here there’s a shift. After a breakneck fight and a truly gruesome death scene, the music stops, and the game congratulates the player with a chime. It’s a fake-out. The ape really is dead, and then it’s not. A bit later, in another location, it comes back yet again, bloodied neck and all.
Nobody calls Wolf a “ninja,” but the word “shinobi” pops up constantly in dialogue. In Sengoku period Japan, there were a handful of different words for this kind of silent mercenary. One of them, nokizaru is a compound word: noki, for temple eaves, and saru, for macaque. The shinobi characters of Sekiro are all named for animals, and they also share Wolf’s ability to comfortably navigate the different strata of the game’s world. Lady Butterfly is a shinobi with a title: she holds a position with the Hirata or the Ashina families that lets her mingle with nobility. Owl has his own political goals, and Wolf is often busy splitting sake with Isshin.
It’s mostly samurai minibosses, kitted out in fancy armor, who get first and last names. Like Seven Ashina Spears – Shikibu Toshikatsu Yamauchi. Or side characters, like Nogami Gensai, gleefully telling you how he fought beside Isshin to secure this land before he gets dumped on by a bandit miniboss. These characters don’t seem to last especially long, and with the notable exception of bandit-made-general Gyoubu Masataka Oniwa, their names don’t ring out in one’s memory.
That these longer, more aristocratic names are mostly given to side characters contrasts with the historical importance of names in Sengoku Japan. Like Gyoubu, samurai are supposed to have called out their own names on the battlefield as a way of staking a claim over an important kill and a potential reward. Genichiro is adopted into the Ashina family in order to preserve the line of inheritance, which is also true of the real-life samurai Ashina Moritaka, assassinated at the age of 22 or 23. It’s Genichiro’s need to preserve his name’s importance that drives him to pursue inhuman immortality.
If Wolf agrees to forsake Kuro and help Owl in his plot to take over Japan, the game ends there. He fights Isshin and Emma, and then Owl stands at the balcony, triumphantly shouting his own name before Wolf cuts him down, as if the move from shinobi to named and noble samurai is a step too far. As soon as Owl takes a moment to celebrate and turns his back on the chaos he’s used to gain the upper hand, he loses it.
When the player does defeat the Guardian Ape, she receives an item called the Slender Finger (which can be made into one of the game’s strangest and most fun prosthetic weapons). Through related item descriptions and dialogue, it becomes clear that the one-armed Sculptor—now confined to the Dilapidated Temple—was once a shinobi himself, and the finger belonged to his partner, a woman called Kingfisher. If the player gives him the stolen Monkey Booze, the Sculptor explains that he and Kingfisher used to train in the valley, and that they “came to move exactly as monkeys did.” Emma calls the Sculptor Orangutan, and at one point Hanbei even refers to him as Sekijo, a compound nickname (shortened from sekiwan no shoujou, one-armed orangutan) not unlike the one Isshin gives Wolf: Sekiro.
Each one of the game’s endings sees Wolf mirroring another character who’s been on the same path before. In one, he carves Buddhas in the Dilapidated Temple, as the Sculptor does at the beginning of the game. In another, he sacrifices himself to save Kuro, mirroring a story Kuro finds in the library about a previous Divine Heir, Takeru, and his companion, Tomoe. In the game’s “good ending,” however, Wolf and the Divine Child escape west to the birthplace of the Divine Dragon, with Kuro’s spirit in tow.
The simple plot, repeated and layered, points back at the action of the game. Repetition—sometimes hours of it—is necessary to learn and progress. As in other recent From Software games, the bosses in Sekiro leave a strong impression. Most of the player’s time is spent pushing up against one or another until she learns the rhythms—which attacks to deflect, which to dodge, which tell is which. In the second fight against Genichiro Ashina, the same man who cut off Wolf’s arm and abducted Kuro, the player stands a chance. Genichiro introduces a long chain of attacks—two hits, he spins, six hits and pause, then one big hit. It’s terrifying at first, but when the timing becomes clear, the tell is almost a comfort. The next nine deflects are a given. So in the game’s final act, the last chance comes to rescue Kuro in the silver wheat field where Wolf lost to Genichiro before. But the player already knows how to approach this third version of the fight. This time it’s almost easy.
Daniel Fries has writing about design, AI, and esports that lives at Kill Screen, Heterotopias, and Unwinnable. Find him on Twitter.,