header is screenshot from Sekiro
The Unkind-Faced Buddha
by Chris Breault

At the heart of Sekiro is the Dilapidated Temple, and in the back of the temple the Sculptor works. For the player he designs killing tools, which he refines until they shine with precious stones; for himself he carves statues of the Buddha, which look hideous. In the corner stands a copper Buddha that he tells you was made by a master, “the True Sculptor,” who gave it a kindly face and noble bearing. The Sculptor’s own wooden attempts are hunched and malignant. Some seem to have lost their heads at the hands of a frustrated creator.

It’s an unkind take on the creative process. The Sculptor is not an artist and never will be; he’s only good with weapons. His failures pile up around him until he finally loses his mind at the end of the game and degenerates into the towering Demon of Hatred. But the scene at his temple workshop is the bit that sticks with you: every time you visit, you see the evidence of a long struggle to better himself that leads him nowhere at all.

The Sculptor’s hoard of Buddhas, whose grasping forms pile up like the melted bodies in Bloodborne’s Yahar’gul, looks back to the Souls games’ excesses of statuary and embellishment, their galleries of decaying replicas. The scene in the Dilapidated Temple reads a few ways: as the Sculptor’s penance, a way to “pay for his own mistakes,” in the gloss from the priestess found near the Demon of Hatred fight; as an illustration of the cycle of wrath that traps shinobi like the Sculptor and Sekiro, who follows the Sculptor’s Idols through the game, and carves one himself in the default ending; or as the Sculptor, the only older man in the story lacking an adopted or dead child, surrounding himself with a sort of stunted brood. But the discarded Buddhas are most striking, I think, as a simple admission that making art is hard.

Sekiro itself feels like something that was worked and reworked but never came out right. It’s bloated with extra rules, like the Unseen Aid refunds, the banking of experience at each level, and the granting or denial of instant resurrections. All this to replace the all-or-nothing Souls corpse run, which is as simple and dramatic an idea as you’ll find in games. The Dragonrot mechanic, which pretends to be a world-shaping mechanic like Demon’s Souls’ World Tendency, turns out to be only another tax. Layers of second-chance mechanics lead to ugly inflation, until the player finally carries three potential resurrections into fights against bosses with three health bars of their own.

Much of Sekiro departs from the house style of its creator, From Software. It tells a more traditional story, providing more background on its blankly appealing leads and its stock villain Genichiro. It’s less concerned with atmosphere, using its loading screens to show gameplay tips rather than glimpses of characters and objects. The concept of a major area like Senpou Temple is explained clearly to you at the front door, where the voice of the Divine Child of Rejuvenation immediately warns you that the warrior monks living there have been corrupted. (Plenty of environmental cues, like the bodies hidden in the woods, or the mummified priests with huge centipedes living inside them, might have delivered the same message.) It doesn’t hide much away, preferring to highlight new pathways with a green grapple icon instead of concealing them in dark corners. It succeeds in looking less like the developer’s old creations, and more like a lot of other ninja stuff.

It looks like Blade of the Immortal and Lone Wolf and Cub, straw basket hats and exotic double-blade polearms. It looks like the moonlit bamboo groves in Castle of Owls and the kite ninjas in Duel to the Death. It looks like a gap between ceiling panels where the furious face of Sonny Chiba might appear.

But it also looks like the brainless Ninja Gaiden (2005), which featured a similar Dragon Legacy and good and evil swords, when a polearm-wielding second boss charges in on horseback, like Masakado did in that game. And like Nioh, 2017’s crude Dark Souls/Diablo/Gears of War fusion, where you also leap across burning rooftops in a village razed by bandits, and duel the quickdraw king in a field of tall wheat.

From Demon’s Souls on, From Software had consistently worked its familiar sources into something more alien; here, they lean on the same visual references as everyone else. The serrated dreamscapes of Bloodborne were not easily confused with, like, Nightmare Creatures (1997). Or The Order: 1886, or any other Gothic horror. The Souls games reworked sword & sorcery props into environments resistant to mapping and understanding, full of shifting characters and symbols that eventually formed their own constellation of meaning. The malevolent level design never lost its power to surprise—even when, in Dark Souls III, the series began to fixate on internal echoes.

At their best, Sekiro’s landscapes absorb you momentarily: when you watch the snow fall outside through an embrasure in the Ashina keep, or look down at the coral bloom of maple trees growing on the slopes of Mount Kongo. But when you look away from those postcards, you find underdeveloped and weirdly truncated levels that never grow into the multilayered spaces you expect. From a distance the closely packed towers of Ashina Castle, the game’s centerpiece, suggest a labyrinth of nightingale floors and hidden passages, audience chambers and rock gardens. But when you finally climb in a window, the entire interior of this vast compound amounts to maybe five rooms and a little more than a dozen guards. It feels like someone only had time to build a castle facade.

Souls always recycled a bit; Sekiro recycles a lot. Constantly borrowing from its predecessors and its own modest store of material, it trades away its ability to surprise. It helps itself to slices of older levels (Bloodborne’s Forbidden Woods, Dark Souls’s Blighttown) and refills its own compact areas and boss arenas repeatedly. The conflict between the Ashina and the Central Ministry plays out in pantomime as you watch new sets of enemies appear in the same rooms of Ashina Castle two different times. (The game locks out all your fast travel points without explanation each time it chooses to repopulate the castle, which is not the cleanest work from the masters of environmental storytelling.) “New” minibosses show up, sharing most of their moveset with a guy you’ve already seen: Ashina Elite Ujinari Mizuo replaces Ashina Elite Jinsuke Saze, and so on.

Your fight against Genichiro in this castle’s crowning lookout also marks the peak of the game. It’s a gorgeously detailed arena: open on three sides to the encircling mountains (to the north, you see the gold and persimmon leaves of Mount Kongo) with an austere landscape of creeping mist and rangy pine trees painted on panels over the sliding doors, themselves obscured by mist until you beat the boss Genichiro, who waits below a ceiling of red-and-gold tiles bearing the image of a phoenix. (The developers can’t resist using the same arena again later.)

And yet, even as you approach a space that has been worked over with as much energy and care as any room in the game, the developers undercut their own buildup with numerous and obvious warnings. By my count there are four reminders that you will need to use something called a Lightning Reversal technique, before any lightning-wielding enemies have been introduced or imagined by the player. A loading screen tells you; then a painted scroll shows you the move in action; then a poem explains exactly how Lightning Reversal works, just to drop an anvil on anyone who missed the point of the scroll; then, in the fight itself, the game actually pauses to display a box of instructions about redirecting the lightning that Genichiro just used. It’s the same type of kludge as the exposition at the start of Senpou Temple, and speaks to a lack of confidence in the design.

Even the game’s major innovation, its “swords clashing” combat system, trusts the player less than it lets on. Timing each sparking deflection has been compared to a rhythm game, but it’s a surprisingly permissive one. There is little penalty for spamming the block trigger, as long as you don’t hold it down; each parry attempt cancels the previous one, without the recovery period traditionally enforced by Dark Souls’s parries and dodges. The window to cancel an attack into a parry is generous to a fault. And any given parry has a fat footprint, allowing you to deflect two successive enemy attacks when you actually press and release L1 only in time with the first. The system looks clean in motion (now you watch a reddening central Posture bar, rather than a Stamina gauge hung in the corner of the screen), but it tips the scales on your behalf too visibly, diminishing your victories. The Perilous Attack flags also feel like a crutch; only the game’s magisterial final boss, the Sword Saint, mixes up his big moves enough to force you to watch the position of his arms.

In the end, it’s the only From Software game that feels too slight to deserve a second playthrough. It doesn’t benefit from proximity to Bloodborne, the most intoxicating and thematically coherent game of its generation, and an inscrutable True Work if there ever was one. Sekiro feels rougher, more derivative, with the doubts of its creators written on its surface.

In the Dilapidated Temple, you may notice that the Sculptor has moved the kind-faced Buddha out of the central altar, which now stands empty, and moved it across the rooms. The priestess might say he wants to face his sins alone. But it seems more likely he’s just sick of watching it lord over his own flawed carvings. It isn’t easy to live in the shadow of a masterpiece.

Chris Breault is a writer on the internet.