Two very different titles reward players who relish complexity, and raise the question of whether game designers are right to raise the bar
As a one-armed orphan – a disability that you might think would disqualify him from the opportunity to work as a lone assassin in 16th-century Japan – Sekiro is well acquainted with disadvantage. Still, a smooth sea never made a skilful mariner, as they used to say, and these physical and psychological handicaps have only served to strengthen this shinobi, who, with a variety of terrifying prosthetics, must now avenge his fallen master by taking down the Ashina clan. Up close, this is grindcore game-making, in which you are forced to watch the lolling of your victims’ astonished mouths as you trace a katana across their necks. This world of blood, fire and pitter-patter footsteps across bamboo rooftops calls to mind Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood or Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro in both theme and body count. But in its moments of exquisite pause, it’s also a game of refined cinematic style, the traumatised ninja silhouetted against a flaring sunset, while the reeds rustle and soothe.
A purging influence, Sekiro must rid this sickly world of its cruel men and monsters. Stealth is the dominant mode; you crouch in tall grass, duck under the floor beams, and, with your grappling hook, perch silently on rooftops. It’s possible to strike decisively at grunts from the shadows, but sooner or later you face one of the Goliath-esque named foes that punctuate this world, roadblocks that will only topple in open combat. Without a shield behind which to cringe and circle, you are forced to trade explosive blows, timing your feints, parries and counterattacks with a maestro’s precision. There are few shortcuts to progress; only rote learning and practice will yield results, and anyone lacking the requisite tenacity must walk away from a game that withholds its treasures from all but the most grimly determined player.