Welcome to another edition of “The Casual Gaymer!” This is a bimonthly column from AiPT! Gaming in which I’ll share my thoughts, questions, and concerns about video games and the gaming industry as a queer person with limited free time. Missed last time’s edition where I worked through some of my thoughts on the repetition in Nier: Automata? Marking your map. This week, I want to talk about a game in which you have to be aggressive. A game in which you have to make use of your transforming tools and carefully timed dodges to slaughter your foes, humanoid or otherwise. A game in which things appear to follow one set of conventions until little hints snowball into full genre-blending. Am I talking about Bloodborne or Sekiro? You found me out–I’m talking about both! Or rather, I’d like to talk about the ways in which approaching Sekiro while playing Bloodborne has informed my experience in FromSoftware’s mythological, Sengoku-era stealth-action game.
As I’ve written before, I’ve yet to finish Bloodborne even though I consider it one of my favorite games. Diving back into that blood-soaked nightmare in the week leading up to Sekiro helped me get back into the mindset of playing a FromSoft game when it came to things like keeping an eye on enemy animations for dodging or doing a little warm-up combat on easier goons to wake up my muscle memory to the controls. When it came to starting Sekiro specifically, I was immediately grateful that Bloodborne prepared me for a few things to which Souls veterans who may have missed the PS4-exclusive might need to adjust. For one, while there are shields in Bloodborne, one of them has a usefulness that is…let’s be polite and say situational, while the other is even more situational and unavailable outside of the Old Hunters DLC. I don’t need to unlearn the use of a shield Dark Souls encourages, which makes it easier to have a lighter finger on the block button in Sekiro for the sake of my posture. Parrying attacks in Bloodborne feels very different from deflecting consecutive blows in Sekiro, but it’s a mechanic that feels less foreign thanks to the time I spent wielding Yharnam’s firearms.
Most of all, Bloodborne is a game that encourages aggression and that aggression carries over into Sekiro in the form of keeping your enemy’s breathing time short as their posture bar grows closer to breaking. When I encountered my first midboss type enemy in Sekiro (well, second if you don’t count the one in the opening area before you get your new arm) I was getting my shinobi ass handed to me–twice per attempt, at that. I was preoccupied with keeping my distance so his sword couldn’t reach my vulnerable body, bare of fashion or Caryll Runes boosting my defense. From the jump, I wanted to start internalizing the deflect mechanic, so I never made a move unless my opponent did, which gave his posture plenty of time to recover on the off chance I got brave enough to swing. After several attempts (Sorry, Mr. Sculptor. Get well soon?), I only finally bested him by really wailing on him, thrusting Kusabimaru at his gut whenever he tried to take a breath and collect himself. I still died once, I still used all my healing items, and even though I was more exhausted than exhilarated, he was dead, and I was not.
What makes Bloodborne a bit of a false friend as practice for Sekiro is that Bloodborne‘s regain mechanic lets you take many a hit before you go down. For those unfamiliar, Bloodborne offers a few seconds of opportunity to regain health lost from a hit if you strike back fast enough. This isn’t going to save you a trip back to the lamp in all cases, as a number of bosses who will two-shot you with a giant stomp or a tentacled slap. However, after a certain point and against most enemies–even other hunters–I can more or less run in swinging and the regain mechanic will cover me as long as my Beast Cutter tears them up before my stamina runs out. Taking that rabid approach into Sekiro was like gift-wrapping my own ass to be handed back to me, as even when I stopped giving the midboss as much wiggle room, going all out with the katana just got me killed faster.
What was missing was–say it with me reader–balance. You have to get in their face and try to stay there, but you aren’t a wild beast clawing your way down a Chalice Dungeon; you’re a shinobi. There needs to be a degree of grace, a scoopful of skill, and a sprinkling of knowing when to get the hell out and strike again from the shadows lest your death takes its toll on the few allies you have. The best play session I had with Sekiro was one in which I had just finished tearing at the many limbs and eyes of Ludwig in Bloodborne and taken that adrenaline with me into the Ashina Outskirts.
This time however, I let the aggression of Bloodborne give me confidence, without giving in to bestial frenzy. I took the swings, but kept sharp, deflecting the big brute’s sword and strategically hurling a little ash in his eyes when things started to go south so I could regain the upper hand. The difference between slaughtering a beast in Bloodborne and dueling a samurai in Sekiro is that in Bloodborne you brawl and in Sekiro, you dance, but as you dance, you balance your aggression to decide who leads. You let your opponent take the first few steps, but only so you can stomp on that sword like a pushy partner’s foot, take the samurai by the waist, and lead him around the arena until your sword dips that man into his grave.
That’s all from me this week! I’m hoping that Sekiro doesn’t follow Bloodborne into setting a trend of taking five years to finish a FromSoft game. Judging by how quickly I’ve progressed through the first area, I may even report back with the credits rolling before 2021! Until then, keep your eyes sharp, your spirit emblems stocked, and maybe find a lozenge for that sculptor. Poor guy.