I don’t consider myself a gamer — I’m just someone who quite likes playing video games. Apart from a Game Boy in the 1990s, the first console I owned was a Nintendo Switch that I bought in early 2018 to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I finally got around to buying a PlayStation 4 in the latter part of the same year. So it’s no surprise that when I first announced to a few experienced gamer friends and colleagues that I was going to play Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, most of them suggested I try another game first, or maybe not bother playing it at all.
For those who have never played it, 2019’s Sekiro is the downhill skiing of video games: it looks fairly easy and straightforward when you’re watching someone else play it in a video, but it’s a whole other level of hard when you try it for yourself. Sekiro is a game that requires exquisitely timed sword attacks, parries, and deflections against an array of staggeringly powerful enemies. Everything happens much faster than you anticipate, and even the tiniest errors have dire consequences.
“Sekiro is very hard,” my friends warned me. “How hard can it be?” thought I. Today, if someone were to ask me to rank Sekiro’s hardness factor on a scale of 1-10, I’d put it somewhere around 12.
This is the story of how I tried and failed, then tried again and succeeded, to beat this ridiculously hard, infuriating, frustrating, exhilarating, and utterly extraordinary video game that became my obsession.
Part I: Trial and Terror
On Saturday, June 15, 2019, at 7:42 p.m. EDT, I downloaded Sekiro to my PS4 for the first time. Almost as soon as I started playing, I understood exactly why I had been warned about the difficulty. I quickly became bogged down in the Ashina Outskirts area of the game, having my ass handed to me repeatedly by minor foot soldiers, who would floor me in just two or three hits. I had serious doubts that I would ever make it to the first miniboss, let alone to the end of the game.
As frustrating as it was to be locked in this Groundhog Day-like loop of death, it was more infuriating to know that it was entirely my own fault. Every time I was pummeled by a single stroke, I knew exactly why: I had been too late with my deflection, I had pushed the wrong button, I had accidentally unlocked my target because I was squeezing the controller too tight. When I rushed or panicked, I died. Every. Single. Time. There was no mystery to my failure.
Yet it was only by going through this seemingly endless cycle of defeat that I began to understand why I was so bad. There are no shortcuts to learning Sekiro; the game simply wouldn’t let me progress until I figured out exactly how to play. Developer FromSoftware’s gameplay design forced me to put in the time to learn the mechanics and to fully embrace the fact that I was going to die. A lot.
I knew I’d have to really focus and concentrate. I spent time reading through Polygon’s guides and top tips, practicing fighting with Hanbei the Undying (a character specifically designed to test and perfect your skills without the risk of losing gold or HP in the process) and playing the game as much as possible. I began to make some incremental progress. I worked my way through the Ashina Outskirts and defeated my first miniboss, General Naomori Kawarada, before getting completely stuck trying to take out the Chained Ogre. I would get through the first phase of the ogre fight, only to be stomped or crushed or broken seemingly one or two swings away from victory. Even a lengthy side-slog through the Hirata Estate to pick up the Flame Vent prosthetic tool didn’t help.
My breakthrough came after a friend suggested I sneak up behind the ogre for a free death blow to shorten the fight. It had never occurred to me to try to sneak up on a boss, which I assumed was just another way to get stomped. But it worked.
My takeaway from defeating the Chained Ogre and from working my way through the fights in the Hirata Estate was that my progression through Sekiro was just as dependent on learning when to fight as it was on learning how to fight. Rushing into any melee without a plan would result in my immediate demise. It paid to think first and attack second.
One of the hardest miniboss fights in the Ashina Outskirts section (or the entire game, for that matter) is Seven Ashina Spears - Shikibu Toshikatsu Yamauchi. Not only is this one hell of a powerful miniboss, but you have to wade through a veritable army of swordsmen, riflemen, spearmen, and mallet- and club-wielding Taro soldiers just to reach him in the first place. Trying to sneak around these foot soldiers isn’t a wise option; they will simply join the fray if you attempt to take on Yamauchi without taking them out first. I spent valuable time working through these grunts only to fall to Yamauchi within a couple of blows and have to start over. It was the exact same scenario with Juzou the Drunkard in the Hirata Estate: I would take my time to get through the foot soldiers with minimal damage, only to lose to the miniboss in an instant. It was beyond frustrating. I managed to beat both Yamauchi and the Drunkard eventually, but it took me hours upon hours to do it.
After literally hundreds of hours of play, I found myself facing two insurmountable obstacles where nothing I had learned seemed to work: Lady Butterfly and Genichiro Ashina. Lady Butterfly is a tricky two-phase boss in a burning cavernous hall at the end of the Hirata estate; Genichiro Ashina is an incredibly powerful three-phase boss you face atop Ashina Castle.
Try as I might, I couldn’t get beyond even the first phase of either fight. I was hit by the realization that after almost five months playing Sekiro, I had progressed through less than 10% of a very difficult game that was only ever going to get even harder. I had to accept the fact that I was done. Sekiro was simply too hard for me. It was time to cut my losses, move on, and play something else.
Part II: Run away and live to fight another day
Sekiro was still very much in my head, even as I moved on to other games. I loved the game, and it bothered me that I’d quit. No matter what else I played, I found myself comparing it to Sekiro, even if there wasn’t a logical comparison to be made.
In early November 2019, I started playing Death Stranding. I thought the game was a technical marvel, and I loved the design and art direction, but I found it unbelievably tedious to play. Death Stranding was like wading through mud for no good reason: It wasn’t exactly hard, just a rather annoying and pointless experience. I decided that if I had to struggle with a game, I would rather that game be Sekiro.
I started playing Sekiro once again to see if I still found it as hard as before. I did.
So I gave Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order a try. My first step was to remap my PS4 controller to match the button layout for Sekiro, because seriously, why would I have it set up any other way? I also set the game to its easiest difficulty level, because, again, if I was going to put any time and effort into playing a hard game, it definitely wasn’t going to be Fallen Order. I blasted through the game in a matter of weeks, and found it an enjoyable romp but nothing special.
Control, on the other hand, was an extraordinary, challenging, and deeply atmospheric game. The design was exceptional, with stunning art direction (I thoroughly recommend the limited-edition book featuring the concept art) and a decent story. I enjoyed Control so much that I began to think that maybe I’d been right to put Sekiro behind me.
Outer Wilds was another wonderful distraction. I thought Polygon’s 2019 game of the year was a creative breath of fresh air; a clever, beautiful experience that was the “most not-at-all-like-Sekiro” game I had played in months.
In the fall of 2020, I started Ghost of Tsushima. I thought of it as Breath of the Wild Sekiro or Samurai Red Dead Redemption. Yes, I wished it was possible to lock onto the target during a fight, and yes, the game was a little formulaic and repetitive. But the story wasn’t bad, and the landscapes were stunning. Perhaps most importantly, it was just difficult enough to be a challenge without being controller-throwing impossible like Sekiro. I beat Ghost of Tsushima on the game’s default settings and started a second run in the new game plus mode almost immediately.
As fall turned to winter, I started (but didn’t finish) Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (very meh) and Hades (which is great, if a little frantic). I also began to wonder whether it was the perfect time to pick Sekiro up again. I felt like I’d learned a lot playing these other games. Maybe Sekiro wouldn’t feel quite so hard this time?
On the second to last day of 2020, I booted up Sekiro for the first time in many months.
Part III: Shadows Play Twice
My save file had become corrupted and wouldn’t open. I’d lost over 200 hours of progress, and was faced with no option but to start again from the very beginning.
Oddly enough, what had first appeared to be a monumental disaster quickly morphed into a blessing of sorts. Starting the game fresh gave me the opportunity to play in a far more deliberate, methodical manner than my first rather naïve, fumbling attempt.
This time, I really took my time, planning my route through each section and giving careful consideration to the order in which I would fight each of the enemies. I learned to better manage my Vitality and Posture, taking steps to conserve them both as much as possible to give me a better chance of winning difficult fights. I dove back into the guides and read them much more studiously. And I watched as many different boss fights on YouTube as possible. I even went back to looking through the Official Artworks book for inspiration (the book had cut me when I first opened it, which I considered perfectly on-brand). Over time, I became so deeply obsessed with the game that I found myself playing it my dreams, and its visuals bled into my waking life.
I played as much as I could during the long, dark winter evenings, working my way through the Hirata Estate and the Ashina Outskirts and Ashina Castle. After taking out the minibosses, I would run back through the different sections a number of times to farm the XP and gold I needed to upgrade my prosthetic tools, and to speed my progress through the skills tree. I did this in order to prepare myself for the upcoming rematch boss fights with Lady Butterfly and Genichiro Ashina.
Even so, both fights were still stupendously hard. I would hazard a guess that it took me at least 100 attempts to get through each of them, maybe even more to beat Ashina — he did have three phases, after all. But this time, I knew exactly what to expect. I had prepared. My deflection timing was more precise, I was better able to manage my Posture, and I had a wider variety of Combat Arts to choose from. Most importantly, I had fully embraced the reality that both fights were very difficult, and that the only way for me to triumph was to try again, and again, and again. The elation of delivering those final death blows was extraordinary. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted, like I had finally atoned for all my past failures.
The game now opened up for me. Over the following weeks and months I discovered new areas — including some, like the Sunken Valley and the ludicrously well-protected Gun Fort — that I had completely missed on my first playthrough. I worked my way through the poison pools of the Ashina Depths, I cleared the misty Hidden Forest and the creepy Mibu Village, and I made it to the final area on the map: the Fountainhead Palace.
Each new area I discovered, and every boss and miniboss I encountered, only reinforced my earlier belief that Sekiro would only ever get harder. The game kept surprising me, like adding Apparition enemies that required a completely new set of skills, prosthetic tools, and Combat Arts to defeat. But what I hadn’t previously considered was that I would get better at playing the game — and not just in terms of technique and increased stamina and attack power. As I learned more about how the game worked, I found new ways to make it work for me.
For example, once I had made it to the Fountainhead Palace, I would regularly return to the Flower Viewing Stage Sculptor’s Idol to farm gold, spirit emblems, and XP, since I could quickly collect so much more of them in this spot than in any other area of the game. Running back from the ruined bridge, the two Palace Nobles would yield 530 XP each, and the Okami Elite Lightning Naginata warrior an additional 1,060 XP, making it fairly easy to accrue cash and skill points.
After collecting the three pieces of the Dancing Dragon Mask, I could use this process to upgrade my attack power, too. It just took time. To gain one skill point, I would have to complete the same 25-second (ish) run at least 24 times, which meant completing at least 120 runs to gain the five skill points needed to increase my attack power by 1. The bonus was that I would also make well over 33,000 sen and collect a ton of Spirit Emblems along the way. It was a tedious grind, but well worth the time spent.
As I worked my way through the game’s major bosses, I returned to the Sculptor’s Idol on at least four separate occasions. Though the increased attack power undoubtedly made a difference in the subsequent boss fights, in reality the only tool that really helped me to beat them was lots and lots of practice.
Even so, some boss fights were much easier (a relative term) than I had expected. The True Monk battle seemed to be over far more quickly than I anticipated, which stood in stark contrast to my fight with the Guardian Ape, which was a seemingly never-ending slog of epic proportions, even though it only had two phases and some fairly predictable Perilous Attacks. But by far the hardest and least surprising fight of them all was the final boss battle of the game: Genichiro, Way of Tomoe and Isshin, the Sword Saint.
On May 27, with an attack power of 14, High Monk selected as my chosen Combat Art, Suzaku’s Lotus Umbrella at the ready, and the Tanto on hand to grant me those precious five extra Spirit Emblems, I began the final boss fight in Sekiro.
Part IV: This is the end
On Friday, June 25, 2021, at approximately 6:55 p.m. EDT, I finally beat Isshin, the Sword Saint — and with it, the game. Although my second playthrough of Sekiro had taken me a little over 127 hours to complete, the reality is that it took me two years and 10 days.
Of course, this wasn’t the end of the game, just the story. I still had the Demon of Hatred (technically an optional boss) and the five Headless to beat. Before attempting the Demon of Hatred battle, I went on a side quest to find the Malcontent Ring — a valuable upgrade for the Finger Whistle Prosthetic Tool — and stumbled, completely by accident, upon the Headless Ape and Mate. To my utter surprise, I dispatched them both on my very first attempt, the easiest (again, a relative term) boss fight I had in the entire game.
The Demon of Hatred was not easy, but I got through it. I then took my newfound confidence as a beater-of-Sekiro-bosses and worked my way quickly through all five Headless. It helped that my attack power was now at 19, but I also found that copious use of Phoenix’s Lilac Umbrella accompanied by the Projected Force skill came in very handy.
And with that, I am done. My two-year adventure playing Sekiro is finally at an end. It has been a long and at times emotional journey to get through what has undoubtedly been the hardest but most rewarding video game I have ever played.
For now, I’m going to sit back and play some fun, easy games for a while. I considered playing the Demon’s Souls remake, but decided instead to take some time to prepare for the next FromSoftware challenge. Armed with all of my experience playing Sekiro, I hereby declare that I am confident I will have beaten Elden Ring by mid-2024. Maybe early 2023, if I get really good.