header is screenshot from Sekiro
The Master Swordsman
Reid McCarter

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, repetition is how skill develops. Just as being proficient at a musical instrument requires tirelessly running scales and perfecting études, the latest game to be vented up to earth from the busy demons at From Software demands immense dedication from its players. As Sekiro, a shinobi (or ninja) sworn to serve a virtuous young lord named Kuro, the game is a grueling journey through the war-torn lands surrounding a castle at the tail-end of 16th century Japan’s Sengoku period. After a brief prologue that sees Sekiro lose an arm trying, and failing, to stop Kuro’s abduction—an event that gives him his English name, “One-Armed Wolf”—the game introduces one of its central systems: the shinobi’s ability to come back from life, no matter how many times he’s slashed apart or beaten to death by the menagerie of soldiers, monsters, and ferocious animals standing between him and his lord.

Sekiro’s frequent resurrections are the core of the game on both a narrative and design level. As is to be expected of From Software, whose other recent games include the horrific Victoriana of Bloodborne, and Dark Souls, a gloomy, pseudo-European fantasy trilogy, the Wolf’s digital body is destined to be torn apart and magically put back together again hundreds (or more likely thousands) of times over the course of his travels. Here, like in Sekiro’s predecessors, the point of these constant deaths is to inflect the experience with a running current of tension. Death does not occur in the same strange space as in most games, which simply reverse time, pop up a menu screen, and allow for another try as if nothing happened. After Sekiro dies, he awakens at a glowing statue, getting back to his feet as if awakening from a past life’s particularly awful nightmare and heads back into battle. The game notices and adapts to this rebirth: each resurrection tears at the local population, eventually giving them hacking coughs that signify a metaphysical sickness come home to roost in the form of a tangible, terrible disease.

Everywhere in Sekiro, people are deeply wounded, body and soul, by the shinobi’s failures, lending stakes beyond the player’s frustration at yet another botched sword fight. It’s a game that channels the illicit grit of late-night anime movies through a sparse soundtrack and moments of prolonged silence broken only by a background hum of rushing wind or the scrape of feet on roof tiles, metal weapons shifting in scabbards. Sekiro’s Sengoku period Japan is a place of bright red leaves and snowflakes wisping through craggy, early winter mountains, its muddy forest paths and twisting fortress alleyways hiding otherworldly creatures and human foes around every bend. It’s a game that blends blood-and-dirt historical fiction with myth come to life. In it, samurai aren’t heroic figures, dispatching their enemies with a single, surgical flick of the sword; they’re grunting men who hack at the Wolf with spears and katana, dying with a wet groan as he drives a blade through their sternum and a small volcano of gore erupts from their collapsing frames. Its warrior monks aren’t feather-boned and stoic; they’re maniacal protectors of a twisted version of their faith (more on that later) who attack the Wolf in large groups and overwhelm him with sledgehammer fists that he escapes from like some poor bastard fleeing a violent mob.

Surviving this world requires of the player a willingness to engage with it on its own, markedly homicidal terms. Sekiro is a ninja, which means he spends a lot of time sneaking around, but he’s a master swordsman, too. His style of combat isn’t typically graceful, relying instead on either grabbing and slashing apart an unaware enemy from behind or confronting them head-on with overwhelming martial fury. Sword fights, at least against stronger enemies, are a test of nerves and battering rhythmic challenges, the Wolf deflecting incoming blows, jumping above, and sidestepping around his foe while looking for opportunities to slash away at their defenses until they’re exhausted enough that it’s possible to land a blood-gushing stab into gut or chest. Minor enemies can be beaten down and killed with a few well-timed blocks and attacks. Major ones, from the game’s seemingly endless supply of towering samurai generals, ghostly monks, giant apes, and freakish insect people, are a much harder proposition. Making up Sekiro’s “bosses,” these characters can kill the Wolf in one or two hits, can withstand several of the same killing blows that finish off regular enemies, and require the player to supply a long period of sweaty hypervigilance to guide the shinobi in whittling away their composure and landing enough furtive sword slashes or gritted-teeth volleys of strikes to actually defeat them.

To put it lightly, these fights are extremely difficult. Each of them is a small puzzle that can only be solved by staying alive long enough to study the opponent’s attack animations, map out spatial windows where engaging or backing away is necessary, and then performing this combination perfectly. The Wolf often dies in two or three hits and he can only reanimate his semi-annihilated corpse a single time per round. In practice, this means that fighting Sekiro’s bosses is an exacting process of trial, error, and steady-nerved perseverance. To overcome one of these enemies, the player needs to absorb the game’s button inputs and the split-second timing of its sword fighting system to the point of second nature. She must approach a fight that can end in moments with calm, concentration, and unflappable purpose. It’s similar to performing intricate live music, alone on stage with an instrument controlled by fingers all too ready to slip up and blow everything if not adequately trained to do their job when it counts.

This kind of stress is appropriate. Sekiro is a story told, explicitly and implicitly, through the lens of a grim Buddhism that takes a notably despairing view of humanity as it appeared in Japan during the Sengoku period, an era when the country was racked with more than a century of war. Like the bloody expression of Christianity during the Crusades or England’s 12th century Anarchy period (which is described in entries to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a time when people “said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints”) faith is expressed in its most desperate terms here. For the characters of Sekiro’s blood-soaked Japan, the pain of existence has reached a fevered pitch. Life is suffering, rebirth upon rebirth, and so a lonely sculptor, veteran of some war past, endlessly carves Buddha statues with “faces of wrath” in a futile attempt to soothe his guilty conscious and the Wolf dies miserably over and over, coming back to life again and again, hoping to break the seemingly endless cycle of samsara by literally and figuratively seeking release through the zen practice of deadly sword fighting.

The game makes a lot of room to elaborate on the desperate theological struggle that moves its plot. Sekiro fights a wild ape, frenzied from the obvious physical pain of a sword lodged in its shoulder and lashing out in mindless violence at him. Their two reactions to the anguish of their lives plays out in a fight to the death in a waterlogged mountain valley whose rock walls are carved with a giant bodhisattva. It looks down upon them, its carved smile calmly judging their actions. Elsewhere, Sekiro, along with his lord Kuro, gives up any chance of safety once reunited in order to continue fighting to put a stop to their enemies’ plans to harness the power of immortality, a sickening perversion of nirvana best represented by a school of monks whose bodies are colonized into a sickly life beyond death by spiny centipedes. Sekiro and Kuro, quite literally, work to stop the possibility of artificially extended lives, seeing this path as an unnatural shortcut that can only lead to derangement and horror. Most importantly for the way the player engages with the game’s world, the Wolf’s journey is a process of mastering the martial techniques and ways of being—resource management, mental approach to combat, and behaviour toward others—instrumental to the bushido code that would be formalized as the samurai ethos in the century following the game’s time period.

All of this works to give Sekiro’s difficulty—and its expectation that audiences will devote themselves to studying its systems and mastering its challenges—the sort of context that excuses it from being simply an exercise in masochism for masochism’s sake. Its theological and historical context work together with the often-frustrating experience of mastering its exacting sword fights to create a holistic sutra of a game—a work of fiction that treats the accepted videogame conceits of preternaturally skilled warriors, “respawning” characters, and punishing combat encounters as essential narrative elements in its story of 16th century war and Buddhist thought.

There comes a point—several points, really—when, after an hour spent clenching the controller, unblinkingly poring over a boss’s every animation and studying the rhythms of parrying and stabbing, that something in Sekiro either clicks satisfyingly into place or goes sour. These are moments where the hard work of practicing the game’s systems suddenly seems worth it or prompts a nauseating question of how, exactly, the player’s spending her limited time on this earth. Everyone will have a different answer for this. For some, the joy of overcoming a challenge is worth it for its own sake. For others, it’s impossible to wave away the nagging sense that becoming extremely skilled at a single game is so specific an accomplishment as to be a waste of time. Sekiro’s creators have done an admirable job of obscuring the latter thought by positioning it within the context of an artistic statement that’s exceptionally confident in its purpose and execution. At the edge of the player’s willingness to endure the game’s seemingly sadistic design philosophy, the game unfolds with a simple enough kind of clarity: it’s about a beleaguered swordsman who can’t die until, with a lot of repeated practice, he perfectly understands how to do what his world asks of him.

Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.