I spent the month of December sprinting through more games than I finished in the previous 11 months of 2020. Katana Zero came first, because I was hungry for swords. Then it was a steady course of retro shooters—Amid Evil, Dusk, Quake and Quake 2, Dredd vs. Death, Ion Fury. Cutesy 3D platformer A Hat in Time was my palette cleanser, but like all those other games, it was something I’d had in the back of my mind to play for years and never bothered. Suddenly I just couldn’t get enough, and my 2020 diet of nightly movies turned into a mad gaming binge.
I still don’t know quite how to explain it, but Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice flipped a switch in my brain. I beat it out of a stubborn determination not to let it beat me, which somehow ignited a drive to beat another game and another and another. I was euphoric, and I wanted to play everything.
Here’s one way to picture it: Sekiro was like a propane tank, a highly pressurized chamber I poured weeks of focus and attention into. The moment I beat it—release.
It took me three days to survive the last 10 minutes of Sekiro. The first day, after a few humiliations in the boss’s first phase, I convinced myself I wasn’t ready—I needed something to tip the odds in my favor. So I went back to grind, running an obstacle course of XP-rich enemies for an hour or two to upgrade my sword’s attack power one final time. In Sekiro, a single point of power is a big deal, a noticeable boost to how much life your sword can slice away in a single hit. More importantly it affects how much “posture” damage you inflict, opening bosses up to a lethal deathblow even if they have health left. That was vital, because there’s no cheap or convenient way out of the final battle—it demands a patient, precise execution of attacks, dodges, and perfectly timed parries.
That little bit of extra attack damage made each of my hits and parries more effective and bolstered my confidence. The second day I started learning the final boss’s tells and found a few moves were easy to dodge and punish. By day three I was only scared of his last phase, because I could taste how close I was—and because that’s when he started throwing lightning at me. After just an hour or so of trying that day every piece fell into place. I nailed my parries, reflected a freaking bolt of lightning, and landed a deathblow. That one time it almost felt easy.
Actually, that’s underselling it. I pretty much felt like fucking superman.
The thrill and relief of that victory was energizing for me in a way that I’ve never felt beating another game. It took me a while to pinpoint why. It’s not like Sekiro’s last boss is even its greatest challenge, when there are optional battles and New Game+ options. But the difficulty was only part of it. The purity of the final boss fight was a perfect capstone to an exquisitely designed game—no tricks, no gimmicks, just the fundamentals of swordplay I learned at the start, 60 hours earlier.
That fight was hard as hell, but the thrill I felt came half from overcoming that challenge, and half from a deep admiration for the game I’d just finished. I adore Dark Souls, but it is a great, messy smorgasbord of ideas, like a flawed diamond made more interesting by its imperfections. Sekiro is so much more confident and refined, unflinchingly focused on the sensation of one katana striking another. It’s clearly developed by a team at the peak of their craft.
Last year Samuel Roberts said Sekiro ruined other singleplayer games for him, writing: “Sekiro forced me to confront my true competitive, petty and tantrum-throwing self. I now need the buzz from achieving something.” The effect it’s had on me is different, but just as profound. I felt giddy at the thought of just playing videogames, cured of the mental fatigue that mostly kept me in casual co-op games or plopped on the couch watching movies after work.
The last time I had this sensation was 15 years ago, when on a friend’s recommendation I spent my spring break reading George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Except for school work I’d fallen out of the habit of reading, and A Game of Thrones jolted me into remembering that I could be completely absorbed by the right novel. As with Sekiro and games, I didn’t want to only read more Game of Thrones—it just reminded me how much I loved reading in the first place.
For PC gamers, a huge Steam library can eventually come to feel like a burden. A deep backlog can be a disincentive to play something new, because the more games pile up, the more it feels like work and responsibility. I still struggle with that feeling, sometimes, thinking about games I “should” play. But the last couple months I’ve been excited to follow my enthusiasm wherever it takes me, for as long as it lasts. If you’re feeling a bit aimless, with so few big games to look forward to in 2021… well, may I suggest Sekiro?
Even if it doesn’t give you an epiphany, there’s a good chance it’ll still be the best game you play this year.