Sekiro, Dark Souls, and how From Software is changing the way we play games
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is From Software's latest offering, and it's a mix of both classic challenge and contemporary refinements. It's a rare breed of game that manages to feel old school in terms of its gameplay, but with a modern polish.
While it plays much differently than the studio's Souls series, Sekiro is a From game through and through. The Japanese developer has crafted quite a niche, but more so than that, the titles created by From Software are changing the way we approach play in our games, whether we realize it or not.
Setting the Foundations
From Software has been around since 1986, but the studio wasn't involved in the video game industry back then. For about eight years, the developer made office software. That's right. It wasn't until 1994 that From Software released its first game: King's Field for PlayStation in Japan. A sequel followed suit and made its way outside of Japan.
The King's Field games were maze-like first-person RPGs, and they featured many elements that From's later titles, specifically the Souls series, would employ. King's Field 2, for example, opened with the words, “A mysterious darkness conquered the island.” That darkness would become a staple of the studio's games. The difficulty in those older titles was borderline punishing, a trait that's become signature From Software. Oh, and there were skeletal, sword-wielding knights, too. Right from the get-go, the developer was establishing a dedicated style that it would utilize for decades.
The combat of King's Field was fairly slow-paced. During a time when new hardware was attempting to show what faster processing power and 3D graphics could accomplish, From Software was focused on giving players a difficult adventure where the gameplay dictated how fast you could progress. Even all the way back in the early '90s, you were at the mercy of the world that From Software had created.
Fast-forward to the 2000s, and the world is definitely not your oyster when it comes to these games. Exploration and discovery notwithstanding, these games dictates how you move forward. Franchises like Saints Row and Far Cry allow you to experience a fast-paced, candy-coated power fantasy, but Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro hold the tip of a knife to your throat and force you to pay attention to enemy mannerisms so that you can pinpoint the exact moment you're allowed to strike.
In any other game, you can run into a room haphazardly, with the ultimate punishment being some minor damage at the hands of a hidden enemy. Thankfully, you've got a menu screen filled with health items. In a From Software game, if you just run into a room, a literal deathtrap will instantly kill your character. You can't play these games with a power fantasy mindset. Hell, even if you play extremely cautiously, you'll almost always barely make it out alive.
Evolving Inside a Masochistic Bubble
Make no mistake about it: From Software has certainly evolved since 1994. The way the company has done so, however, has been by its own rules. As the years passed, From's games became more tight, more polished, and more modern, but they retained the brutal, punishing elements that those first King's Field titles presented. From Software's games evolved, but they did so while staying true to the company's mantra of delivering slower paced, methodical combat within dark, enigmatic lands.
Series such as Armored Core introduced larger-than-life enemies and impressively smart AI. Players had to be on high alert at all times during the game's battles as any complacency whatsoever usually spelled doom. The Otogi games continued this design philosophy, though that game's world was more fully realized and hid that deeper lore that fans love looking into.
Ninja Blade experimented with absurd themes and characters — like a ninja clown protagonist — as well as a more stylish, acrobatic approach to its combat, while still being set in a dark world filled with monstrous, borderline grotesque bosses that towered over your character. These battles — and the battles against those slimy creatures in the Souls games — showed us that you can never know what to expect. As disgusting as these monstrosities were, they were also devious, and they required that we play deviously, too, by sneaking around and delivering sneaky blows when possible.
In one way or another, From Software has continued to utilize many of the tropes and trappings that it introduced in some of its earlier games. These gameplay elements — the one-hit-kill traps, the enormous bosses, the wait-and-see design — all require you to play differently. What you take away from these experiences can then be applied to a lot of other games.
Case in point: I recently played The Messenger, a 2D action game inspired by Ninja Gaiden, and I approached its challenges differently after playing Sekiro. Rather than running up to the bosses in The Messenger and mindlessly attacking, I waited. I waited to see what they would do first. I studied their movements, their mannerisms, and their attack patterns, and then I struck. As a result, I was able to get through most of the bosses in just a few tries rather than in the span of several hours, like one friend who also played the game told me he did.
The other element that From Software has consistently relied on aside from gameplay is lore — the stories the developer's games tell, as well as the world built around those games. When I first played Demon's Souls, I was hypnotized by the game's minimalist approach to storytelling. Rather than bombard me with a 10-minute cutscene or never-ending dialogue sequence, the game dropped me into a dark, dying world where I could reflect and meditate and hypothesize.
In GameSpot's review of Otogi, writer Greg Kasavin referred to that game's enemies as “philosophical.” That much remains true in the Souls games and in Sekiro, both in terms of enemies and the very world they inhabit. The cold loneliness of Sekiro's rendition of Japan is a metaphor for its protagonist, who roams the land completely alone and kills relentlessly, even if it is for survival. Sekiro and especially the Souls games all drop that heavy sense of solitude on you, and they do so within the confines of worlds that are shrouded in mystery.
You'll never find all the answers in a From title, but you'll be enticed to look regardless. You'll push a little harder, a little further to extract every ounce of lore you can. That's a learned skill that you'll then take with you to other games. Using The Messenger as an example yet again, I was enticed to learn more about that game's world and explore as much as possible just to get every last bit of character development and story progression that I could find, and it's because Sekiro, which I played concurrently, taught me to do that.
A Classic Approach to Play
What most people including myself refer to as Souls-like these days — ad nauseam, I might add — I also like to call classic. Yes, there is a certain style that From Software has developed — that methodical pacing and wait-for-the-right-moment-to-strike approach — that has very much become a Souls-like design philosophy. But even that style seems like more of an offshoot of what we used to call NES-like, or NES hard.
King's Field on PlayStation was NES hard on account of its unrelenting difficulty. Demon's Souls was NES hard thanks in part to the element of surprise that lurked around every corner. Dark Souls and Bloodborne were NES hard for those same reasons, as well. This more classic approach to play is very much a Japanese development style that goes back all the way to the original Super Mario Bros. It's a development style that you don't see too often in Western titles like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, or the upcoming Rage 2.
That said, the popularity of that style of play has reached such meteoric heights that its influential reach is expanding. Red Dead Redemption 2 is nothing like a Souls game, but its slower pace, which many fans appreciated, is definitely like something out of a Souls title.
As previously mentioned, From's games also influence their fans. At my second job, I asked a workplace buddy who considers himself a huge Souls and Sekiro fan if he noticed himself playing games differently after delving deep into From's library. He said he did, specifically mentioning a more careful approach to enemy encounters and a slower exploration style when entering new areas in a game, because you just never know what's waiting for you on the other side of that door.
Realistically, not everyone is going to play games differently after spending an hour or two with Dark Souls 3, Bloodborne, or Sekiro. But those of us who really take in everything that From's games have to offer often find ourselves toggling on that hard mode when starting a new game like Darksiders 3 — itself a Souls-inspired action-adventure title — or meticulously seeking out that tiny nugget of a game world's lore.
Yes, there's plenty of room for a mindless power fantasy — as I'm sure Rage 2, which I'm super stoked about, will be — but From Software has taught us that there's nothing wrong an older style of play. From King's Field all the way to Sekiro, From Software has stayed true to itself. The studio has consistently utilized classic gameplay tropes and high difficulty in its games, taking what was once standard and turning it into a growing niche long after game fans forgot what NES hard truly was.
From Software is changing the way we play games. More importantly than that, though, From Software has proven that it's okay to want something a little different, a little more difficult, and a little more mysterious. The developer, who's now been around for more than three decades, has shown us that in a medium filled with fast-paced, nonstop action, you can still find a surprise around every corner and an enemy that takes up three-fourths of the screen ready to tear your head off. Whatever you do, don't rush in. Oh, too late. Now you're dead.