Sekiro: The Fantastical Mundane

I've been playing Sekiro, its pretty neat.

Its amazing, it might be my GOAT, maybe, but what it also is, is very niche. I can't tell you to go buy it even though you should. It really isn't for everyone, as many Dark Souls fans are discovering, which is a shame.

This little quirk of gaming reminds me somewhat of the kind of, OSR/Pathfinder split in RPGs, but I'll get to that later.

Here are some bits I like about it:

1. How Mundane it is.
My favourite part of Sekiro is how boring a lot of it is.

Hang on
Listen. I mean boring, relative to other media.

There is no Thanos who can obliterate half the universe with a snap of his finger. There is no weapon that has crazy weird magic powers (that you can use at least). There are no weird alien people running around everywhere. Its strangely grounded and normal for a Fantasy game.

And oh boy, is the fantasy of Sekiro fucking cool.

*Disclaimer; I'll try and keep spoilers to a minimum, but I find that sometimes, a minimum of spoilage can be beneficial. YMMV*

The game is set in the real world at the end of the Sengoku era in Japan. Specifically, the game takes place in the mountainous lands of the Ashina clan, a fictional place, yet set in the real world.
You can fight such thrilling enemies as:

- Humans with swords
- Humans with spears
- Humans with BIG swords
- BIG Humans with swords
- little Humans with knives
- Dogs
- Chickens
- Lizards
- A Snake

Now, if you have played the game, or any of Fromsoft's games, you know its better than that. And I sell it really short of course.

The vast majority of enemies in Sekiro are humans, who can fall into a few categories:

- Normal people (though some of them can be like, 7 feet tall and thats cool)
- Really small people who are kind of weirdly shaped and deformed, but they seem to just kind of be treated like normal people really? Much like
- Really big people, imagine sumo wrestlers turned up to 11
- People who crawl on their hands and feet, with weird fuckin' hooks coming out of all kinds of places hooks shouldn't be
- Mummified monks who are somehow still alive (and oh god is it horrible fuck me dude)
- Weird bandage people who have inhuman heritage

And like, compare this to your more mainstream fantasy millieu, where you have like, explicitly non-humans of all shapes, sizes, outsider-derived sub-species, and all that running around like its normal.
You can have a party of a Cat-Lady, a big turtle-man, a demon-child and a elf run around Barovia in a pretence of Gothic-Horror. (this shit drives me bonkers)

This is fine of course. Sekiro's much more "contained" (for lack of a better word) speciation of humans is also cool. It feels to me somehow grounded, and yet also fantastical compared to regular DnD diversity. This is nothing new, but I think it is executed really well here. By having a relatively un-fantastical world, it makes the pockets of the truly weird stand out. After having fought humans, big humans, and little humans and having got used to them, when the crawling hook-people show up, its a surprise.

(Which I think is also one of Fromsoft's biggest strengths; not quite uniquely so, but the sense of wonder at each new discovery leaves me feeling constantly delighted and always in anticipation of what comes next)

This is pulled off consistently; a few more of the relatively-mundane things in this game;

- A valley guarded by a gargantuan albino snake
- A lake haunted by a huge carp with a man's face
- The most powerful weapon in the game's only real power is that it can kill immortal beings
- Magic is mostly restricted to things and places
- The first (sort of) boss in the game is a giant man (moreso that the other big men people)

And yet somehow it is amazing and fantastical. It nails the sense of cohesion that bog-standard (and I mean toilet standard haha yeah) DnD completely lacks.
The world design mirrors this again; be entranced by this list of areas:

- A mountain place
- A boggy valley
- A foggy forest
- A castle
- A dungeon

And yet it works, for me at least. There is the fantastic here, it is just buried, hidden behind the veneer. You need to seek it out, struggle for it, and this enhances it for me.

This is my main point I guess. Its a bit of a ramble, but for me it just further justifies my decisions to have human-only ren-fair (which I find is used needlessly derogatively, but that's a discussion for another time) fantasy. By surrounding you with the ordinary, the fantastic rubs off on it, if you do it right.

2. The Prosthetic Tools
Well, I am super in love with the idea of them, and their execution in Sekiro is really super good, but it has a few niggles for me.
Their upgrades are pretty neat, they all have a primary use which has other secondary effects which are really effective if used in specific situations, and they are all very unique and grounded in the way I say above. They aren't realistic at all (they are powered by the souls of the dissatisfied dead for one) but they have at least a veneer of plausibility.
I suppose I can include the grapple hook here, what it does for the handling of the game is absolutely incredible, even if locking on to the grapple points can be a hassle sometimes.

Some semi-counter points that are worth considering when designing similar systems:
- Its weird that you get three slots for tools, but can switch them out at any time by pausing. I feel like you should really only have been able to swap them out at Buddhas so that you are sort of rewarded for having the right tools equipped, or rewarded for good planning rather.
- Some of them do over-lap a little in their uses (though to the game's credit, their secondary effects and aesthetics do keep them all feeling distinctive) and the Shuriken are a bit too universally useful. I'm not sure how you could fix it specifically in Sekiro's case, but its worth thinking about in your game if you want to encourage switching tools out every now and again. (Similar thought could/should be turned to spell lists I expect)

3. The Sword Clashing
No other game that I have seen/played nails the feel of sword-duels as well, ever, period. For my tastes at least. If you really break it down, it gets a bit passive in that enemies can be so aggressive and can counter-attack so quickly that your aggression is much, much more tempered than theirs, so you are forced on the defensive a bit more, but its great that the system encourages you to stay on top of your foes so much more than Dark Souls/Bloodborne ever really did (as close as Bloodborne came to that).

4. The Boss Fights
Oh all right, this is basically point 1 again. But still, I find its the perfect balance for me between inventively designed mundane foes to make them feel fantastical, while tempering the truly fantastical foes with a bit of believability. Nails it in every case for me. 

5. The Sugar Items
You do a rad little pose before buffing yourself. Mega-Cool.

6. The Beautiful, fucking capital-B Beautiful design of the World.
Fromsoft are fucking masters of the Landscape-Reveal, as evidenced by your Arrival in Anor Londo in Dark Souls and walking through the clockface in The Old Hunters DLC for Bloodborne.
Sekiro is no slacker on this front.
I will fight to the death anyone who disagrees.

7. Sets of Mini Bosses
My boy Epicnamebro says that reuse of enemies is the games main weakness. I see what he means, but I don't feel quite the same way. I like seeing a mini boss of a set, in that pokemon collect-em-all type of way. Its a little thing, but when I see a boss called Six Bongo-Players United I say, damn, where are the other 5? It also sets that kinda collectable thing into the world-logic itself, its diagetic meta-gaming!

The Medium Bits
1. The Stealth
Its pretty good actually for a game that is so action-focused. You can definitely play the game completely steathily (except for boss fights) but it does push back a bit by how action-oriented it really wants to be.
The best way to play the game is to sneak in, set yourself up (maybe by picking off a few choice targets) and then battling and scrapping with the remaining foes. You can go full stealth, or full violence, but its harder. Its neat overall, but the limitations of the stealth system can be a little frustrating now and again.

2. The English Voices
Its not that I am a weeb (I am a little though), but the english voices are just so... american. And a bit crap. Wolf himself is so bland and slightly gruff like every other fucking man-character (which is also the reason I can't bring myself to play as Corvo in dishonored 2 now that he has a voice). Its a big pet-peeve I'll admit for myself, but I find it just so disconcerting hearing Emma talk so american-like in feudal japan-land.
Plus other people on reddit say that they think on the whole that the english voice acting is weaker in this game too, so I feel a bit vindicated in my views.
Like I say though, this one is pretty idiosyncratic.

3. The Mini Boss Sets
Look, they don't quite push it as much as I would like. Small beans really, but its there.

Now, some another point:


One of the most fascinating things I've noticed in response to this game, (and is again further shown by the differences in Fromsoft games and Nioh) is the strangely partisan reception of it. Let me explain:
There are a whole series of games made by, and in response to, Fromsoft. Here are the key ones I'll talk about:

- The Dark Souls Series (decent "customisation options", open-world-ish, moderately fantastical)
- Bloodborne (less good "customisation options, open-world-ish, quite fantastical)
- Nioh (maximal "customisation options", level-based, more fantastical)
- Sekiro (minimal "customisation options", open-world-ish, somewhat fantastical)

[And a brief aside, here I define "customisation options"  as meaning; ways to affect how your character looks, ways to affect how your character fights, ways to affect how your character plays]

The main "conflicts" so to speaks have been about replayability, and the "goodness" of the games. Its a bizarre world we live in.

The main "criticisms" I've seen that intrigue me are in thread where people say (in game specific subreddits) "I wanna play a Japan game, should I get Sekiro or Nioh?" and then people say Nioh because its replayable, and has better customisation. This baffles me to no end. Like, it doesn't really, I get that it's a preference thing, but when people present the argument as" Nioh has better customisation and more builds so you can repay it more, ergo it is better", it annoys me, because what they really mean is "I like that I can play this game with lots of different builds, therefore you might like it for that reason too". A small fee, but quite important I feel. A similar comparison is given for souls v sekiro, souls has more builds, therefore you can repay it more.

This I feel, has its roots in the same difference between OSR rpgs, and Pathfinder-esque rpgs (i.e. Buildless vs buildful rpgs). In Sekiro, you have one weapon, one armour set, a modicum of special skill trees, and a small variety of ninja tools. In Nioh you have several weapon types with a variety of weapons in each category, a dazzling array of skills.

And its a big but,

This has no bearing on relative replayabilty or enjoyment. This is not a new idea I guess, but it is very clearly expressed here. (and as an aside, this is not a big deal, and Sekiro is ultimately a very niche game I think, I'm just indulging myself)

Nioh is replayable because you can go for a new build each time, and experiment with different weapons to achieve the ultimate version of your avatar.

Sekiro is replayable because you can go for a new approach with each encounter, and experiment with different tools and fights to achieve the ultimate version of yourself.

A subtle distinction, but a big one.

I've seen it said that Nioh is a game for everyone, and Sekiro is a game for speed runners, as if mastering something is less fun than trying lots of new things. They are no more or less fun than each other, one of them says to you "what kind of fun do you want" the other says "here is some fun, give it a go".

This I feel is very similar to OSR v pathfinder, like I said ages ago. In Sekiro and OSR you have a limited number of tools and you need to figure out how to use them to solve your issues. In Dark Souls and Pathfinder, you have every tool you could ever want, and you get to choose which one sounds the coolest at the time. These are neither one better or worse than the other. You can even mix and match if you like. Perhaps one is more accessible, and the other more niche, but both have their time and their place. If you're reading this, I'm sure you don't need me to say this, but I did.

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