When you hear of Sekiro, you probably think of From Software, the creators of the notoriously difficult Dark Souls franchise. Although the term “souls-like” is thrown around more times than you’d die in a Dark Souls game, it is actually not a genre used to describe Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. In fact, Sekiro is more of a rhythm game like Dance Dance Revolution wrapped in a feudal Japan skin rather than a traditional action role-playing game like Dark Souls.
First and foremost, what defines “souls-like”? Though definitions may vary from person to person, souls-likes games contain elements of high-difficulty gameplay from hard-hitting enemies and sparse checkpoints. They also punish players by dropping all their souls upon death with one chance to pick it up again, or else they will be lost forever.
However, Sekiro strays away from the traditional titles of its creators as it lacks many of the RPG elements that its predecessors contained. While the previous soulsborne games allowed you to grind for souls to level up your stats or had exploitable cheese strats, Sekiro constrains you with a limited “upgrade” path and forces you to fight bosses legitimately. The game also limits you to wearing one outfit and wielding one weapon for the entire game, stripping you of any build variety or character customization. Though you lose half of your uncashed experience points and money upon death in Sekiro, there is no element of souls at all. This all makes sense because none of these game elements are relevant to mastering a rhythm game!
Instead, Sekiro introduces an arsenal of shinobi arts, such as a whirlwind slash or mikiri counter, to vary up your playstyle. The main crux of Sekiro’s gameplay comes down to feeling the ebb and flow of your enemy. You have a posture bar that will fill up and ultimately leave you vulnerable to being stabbed by your enemy. To maintain your posture, you must learn the pattern of stabs and sweeps to react accordingly. Perfect blocks will notify you with a distinct clink sound that doesn’t increase your posture bar at all. Unblockable attacks must be avoided by jumping or countering with your shinobi arts.
Let’s take a look at the design principles of a rudimentary rhythm game. Rhythm games tend to value simplicity over complexity. Games like Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution restrict players to a limited range of input, such as button presses and directional steps. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of a rhythm game is feedback and flow. There is usually a visual or audio cue for the player to notify them of upcoming actions they have to perform. When a player actually inputs an action, they should receive some responsive feedback. Without feedback, the action may feel unrewarded and thus feed into a loop of unreceptive gameplay. Identifying flow is also imperative when playing a rhythm game, as games of the said genre depend on the player finding their inner sense of rhythm. In addition, rhythm games tend to offer various music genres and difficulty levels, where complex songs are perfected by learning and practicing.
So how exactly is Sekiro even comparable to a rhythm game? Instead of music, it uses animations to set its difficulty. For the most part, it only takes two buttons to defeat enemies, deflect and jump. The arsenal of shinobi arts that must be inputted acts as the added difficulty of diagonal directional inputs of a DDR game or a multi-button press of a Guitar Hero game. This is analogous to the concept of simplicity for traditional rhythm games.
In fact, all of this comes down to a precisely timed button press to address what you see on the screen. Most attacks are telegraphed by anticipation, and visual cues, with perfect, deflects rewarding and notifying you with a distinct audio cue, comparable with the feedback principle. Every move an enemy makes has both a visual and audio cue that is reminiscent of the melody of a song. The music variety and difficulty levels are translated over to Sekiro via different enemy types and boss battles, where the success of a demanding boss battle is achieved by learning and practicing.
Suppose this still doesn’t convince you that Sekiro plays more like a rhythm game than a traditional action RPG. In that case, you should know that an enemy’s health bar is entirely irrelevant as each of your attacks does a laughingly minuscule amount of damage. Also, notice how Sekiro is more reactive than proactive, where there is more emphasis on defending rather than attacking. The key to defeating a boss is to fill their posture bar and can only be done by the aforementioned flow of perfect blocking and countering. Once their posture bar is filled, the enemy will be staggered and vulnerable to your finisher song. I mean stab.
Deflect, attack, jump, deflect, counter, deflect, repeat. Master the flow of the sword dance, and victory will be yours. As Isshin once said: hesitation is defeat!
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