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Playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (spoilers within)

Isator Levie

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Same difference.

My plans to go pursuing a bunch of side bosses were derailed a bit by the discovery that Ashina Castle had been cut off, which stood out since I was thinking of going for the Headless in the moat first. It only had one health bar and it might have been easier to keep on the move, it seemed like a safe bet. But the premise of the place being isolated was too intriguing to pass up. Especially when I went to check in with the Sculptor first, and found Emma visiting him, something that struck me as mildly suspicious. It's only looking at it now that I connect the Sculptor's reaction to the Slender Finger to the story he told of his youth roaming the valleys with a whistling lady companion; it's an unfortunate end to that story, but it does make having given him the Monkey Booze more rewarding. I'm also really intrigued by the possibilities of the Whistle allowing me to draw enemies away. At some point, I've really got to build up some money to buy my way up the prosthetic upgrade trees.

For all that I've been fascinated by the background premise that Ashina is under threat by the Interior Ministry, I've been wondering if they might actually show up in the game. So it was pretty cool to come back on the castle and find the guards devastated (all of those dead Nightjars on the roof were an especially stark image) while the place was being assaulted by Ministry troops. It's funny, when I first saw the ones dressed in purple, I assumed that they would be a pushover because of all the times they were littered around Isshin when he was going around in his Tengu guise. You can imagine my surprise when it turned out that they had the capabilities of that swordsman from the well, although fighting them on those sloping rooftops was even more difficult from all the weird angles that attacks were coming from, not to mention the attack dogs some were accompanied by.

Mind, one thing that I'll say for them and those red hats, they're absolutely dripping with XP. That section at the very front of the castle where about five enemies worth close to 700 a pop or all lined up to ambush, farming shouldn't be a problem in future. I tried using Divine Abduction on some of the guys, but I missed my mark when it spun one of them around, and I never quite got it working properly when I next tried.

I did end up going straight to the top of the castle, but... I'll come back to that. I left then to scout the interior Idols because I needed a safer path back up for when dying, and had also run out of Gourd drafts when I was at the tower. You know, I've always been fond of when the From Software games depict enemies fighting among themselves just for how odd it looks, so it adds an extra touch for having a level riddled with such little fights, and the clear diegetic reason for them. I made my way up the tower where Isshin is living, and Emma hanging out with him up there adds to my sense of suspicion, not least because they seemed to be pretty damn cavalier about the castle being assaulted by Isshin's sworn enemies. I'm wondering even more about the black blade now that there's a document about it. Although... I might not be as far along as I've been thinking. Assembling that incense might be more of a beginning then an ending. The sword opens the way to the underworld...

It's funny that for all of the times minibosses have been accompanied by enemies that none of them have seemed to have one placed in an ambush position, so the fighter covering Lone Shadow Vilehand really caught me off guard. But it proved to be his undoing, since it was easy enough to catch the guy off guard and make him fight on my behalf to double-team the boss; between the freedom to flank him at the start and having fought several enemies with the same moveset to be able to handle it easily, Vilehand went down quickly enough.

Last couple of things before going up properly were upgrading myself and talking to somebody. I never expected even the Screen Monkeys to have some moving backstory, but revealing that they carry the souls of children lost in the Senpou monks' experiments, and that's the basis for their relationship with and protectiveness of the Divine Child of Rejuvenation does the trick. And then to meet that dying Nightjar on the roof, well, it was fun enough to have former enemies dotted around the place gasping about the attack underway with their last breaths, but it was a whole other thing for one to put their last will and testament on Okami and reflect on the irony of doing so. It touches on what I was wondering about with the motives of Genichiro and his cohorts; to have been fighting these people who feel as though they should be allies, even if they're not because they're committed to going too far. I don't know, it's nice to have at least one acknowledge a bit of kinship, especially when it's an opposing shinobi.

And on that subject, well... yeah, something never quite sat right with me about Owl's death scene. It always felt a little bit staged. And the opening cutscene having him state that his word as father is absolute, ahead of loyalty even to one's liege, that really felt like it was setting the stage for something. But I also like how his appearance does not coincide with a lot of exposition; presumably he's here at the head of the Ministry forces, and Kuro observes that he's been seduced by the power of the Dragon Blood, but he's not particularly forthcoming with why he's there, what he's looking for, what happened at the Hirata estate three years ago. No, all of the focus is on character drives, as he brings the conflict in Sekiro's loyalties to a head and has a commitment come down on the side of following Kuro ahead of the code that says he needs to obey his father above all else. I was actually pretty surprised for them to play Owl's reaction as more shocked and overcome with horror than angry. That shot of their swords clashing is really lovely and all. And I'm amused by him making that quip about how nice the view is from the top of the tower, since I'm right there with him. It's all very operatic in a way that I'm here for.

And then the ensuing boss fight has to go and be really cool. I mean, take a grand sword fight, add on top somebody turning a lot of the familiar shinobi fighting techniques and weapons back upon the player, in addition to a few of his own... I especially get a kick out of how he brings in an item to render healing temporarily inaccessible, something that is otherwise out of place in this game without online fighting; I pegged that thing for what it was the moment I saw it. It's also really neat how he has his own kind of deathblow attack for if he catches Okami staggered, and then at the halfway point he pulls that hilarious fakeout to introduce expanding his repertoire to include smoke bombs. I appreciate how it only does that bit the first time, since it would feel really perfunctory if it kept being pulled out when the surprise was gone. The fight gave me... a bit of trouble; I want to say that some of the buttons on my controller were a bit sticky and messing up input responses, and there was definitely a point in the middle where I got super frustrated and wasn't handling the back and forth of attack and defence well. But I managed to get my act together soon enough, and then it just became a matter of pushing through until the rhythm was perfected. I'm actually only just now noticing how it adds to Owl's stature as a master warrior is emphasized by the fact that he's the first boss with no attacks that flash with their tells or give a clear opening for giving him a smack; no sweeps to kick him in the face from, no thrust attacks to step on. And the manner in which he bellows out the tenets of the Iron Code when Okami is waiting to resurrect was so dramatic that I had to gamble with letting him kill me again in the second phase when I was certain that I was on the verge of finishing him. And on doing so, well, it was something for Owl's last words to be praising his killer's skills and affirming him as his son.

Incidentally, I kept reading the name of the item I got then as the Aromantic Branch. Odd little thing; as though it was being described as something with stark reality.

I feel as though, in the aftermath of that, there's a stronger sense of familiarity between Okami and Kuro, what with the latter expressing a sense of sorrow at Owl having had to be killed and I'm pretty sure that this is the first time the ninja has addressed his master by name; it makes sense, considering how this is a point in the story at which the man had had to make a firm conviction of loyalty to the boy that goes beyond the strictures of the code he was brought up with. And yet, with the last piece of the puzzle provided, it all seems ready to end in tears.

You know, my initial impulse was to put that off for a bit to see about resolving some things, such as with the Headless, maybe spiriting Kotaro away and fighting O'Rin, buuuttt… due to the way that writing this has caused me to start thinking that there will be more to the game than I was thinking at the time, I'm actually more of a mind right now to follow the dramatic thrust of these events and worry about the side stuff a bit later.

…Although I do want to fight that red-eyed ogre who has been added to the castle... and maybe farm enough experience to buy one of my skill trees to the top and see if Isshin in his Tengu guise at the entrance to the valley responds to doing so... yeah, I'll put it off just a little bit longer to do some of the easy stuff.
 

Isator Levie

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Spent a good half hour on farming for experience. That ogre in the bottom of the castle was really short work; those boys just can't handle their fire. It was funny to be rewarded with another medicine rank when he only actually got one hit in at all (even if it was a doozy).

Got a bit of a kick out of those samurai still talking about salt; I think you've got higher priories right now, lads. I thought that Isshin would only acknowledge my skill development of he was still in the Serpent Shrine, so in going to reclaim its Idol I encountered one Lone Shadow Masanaga. I sympathize with his desire to avenge a friend and regarding Sekiro as a demon, but of course I need the XP and the beads; he was another one that went down fairly easily, having become so familiar with that move set and with the slope of the hill to my advantage.

That have me all I needed to finish off the Shinobi Arts tree with Shadowrush, which seemed fitting for having killed Owl so recently, and I'm very endeared to how it functions. Sure enough, Isshin still took notice from his own quarters, and now I have a book denoting cool combination skills at the top of each tree, that I think may require New Game + to acquire, unless later enemies are very rich in rewards. I still want them so much... The text is also interesting for noting a few of Isshin's characteristics that round out my slight romanticism.

Then there's the matter of his sake. I've actually been holding off on giving it to him, because the only one I have left is the sake he gifted me, there's nobody else let to take it, and it felt kind of weird to give it back to him. Buuuut I wanted to hear more of his story... Somehow I'm invested enough in this fictional character to feel self-conscious over his sardonic comment on accepting his own gift being returned. Still, interesting to hear that he has personal history with this Tomoe, given all the references to her dotted all over. With Genichiro's skill, I can definitely buy that he'd have been trained by a mysterious legendary swordswoman; I'm torn between thinking she'd be better as a figure of backstory, and wanting to go a round with her.

All my XP farming also provided a surplus of cash, which felt like an ideal opportunity to buy up some prosthetic upgrades. Something for the umbrella, for the spear, for the fan... the Sculptor made a nice comment on how the Wolf was clearly now directing his own fangs, I liked that little acknowledgement. I'm interested in pursuing this coin-based shuriken. And I have to assume that despite his assurance that he would return to the castle, Badger is out of the game, since the manual he had on sale for performing deathblows on jumping enemies was present in the offerings box; I purchased it a bit later.

So, finally went to report the final steps on creating the incense to Kuro. I was really sure that he'd need to die, considering what that text said about Takeru being beheaded, and that he only have himself a cut... I feel mildly suspicious. Still, I always like characters reasoning out a decent mystery, so it was enjoyable for the two to figure out what the next step is now that Sekiro smells so pretty.

I was checking back over the key items and was reminded of the hint about that pagoda at the Hirata Estate. Taking that detour allowed me to purchase the last of the carp man's stock (I still have scales left, so I wonder if he'll ever get more), and it took some doing but I found my way to the Mist Raven Feathers, granting me the trophy for finding all tools and one that seems as though it will be particularly fun to get the hang of. Only hiccup was one embarrassing incident where I became inescapably stuck in a spot of fire.

And for good measure, I went for another crack at the Shichimen Warrior. Between decent health and a more level head, I managed him quite handily (even if it did take all of the drafts from my regular and purple gourd). So that's another white whale slain, and now I have a very pretty looking blade to bring back that interesting Bloodborne premise of trading health for ammo. Now that he's gone, I must admit that I do like the odd premise of a kind of bullet hell boss.

And I tried going through with Hanbei and the Mortal Blade, but... couldn't quite make it past the way that the dialogue options were worded to finish him off, even if he does want it. Perhaps later...

Nothing else seems to be waiting behind me right now, so next time I shall assume my place in that palanquin.
 

Isator Levie

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From the moment I first saw that gigantic shimenawa above the palanquin, I had a feeling that it would descend in some manner to provide a path to the heavens. Never expected it to crash down and scoop me up, and turn out to be the arm of a giant composed of rope. I like the way that played out, it's an effectively weird take on a cultural motif. Given the look of the Fountainhead Palace and surrounding sky, I'm going to assume that it's not entirely in the world, inaccessible by merely climbing the mountainside.

Since getting this far has gotten me the trophy for finding all parts of the world, I wonder if I'm closer to the end than I initially thought.

The Corrupted Monk stood out to me at the time as a bit of an oddity with her ethereal body and no trophy for winning, so it made sense to come across her true physical form. I actually managed to win much more quickly than is typical for me with a later game boss, since I'd integrated the Monk's playbook so well from the prior fight (in addition to better deflection timing). The only hiccup for the first round was a couple of occasions where the rhythm behind the special attacks was a bit different. In the second phase, I initially tried using the trees for evading those phantom attacks, but that turned out to do more harm than good; it wound up being far more effective to stay still and carefully deflect each attack. Then the final phase had me repeatedly mess up jumping her sweep attacks even though they were the only specials she had. Still, they were all adjustments I was able to make quickly enough.

I also like her design in full colour a lot, very nice detailing on the fabrics.

I take it from reviving that tally board that causes all the merchants to have unlimited stock of snap seeds, eel livers and Divine Confetti that those things are going to be significant in the rest of the palace, but the main thing I took from it was a sense that going to challenge the Headless was more open up. Went to try the one in the forest first.

Those things really have to be among the more obnoxious bosses in the game. You can barely move, they teleport around and come at you from close and behind with a nasty grab attack, they attacks are so ponderous that it's hard to figure out guard timing, and you need to keep track of your health, your Terror build up and whether your weapon can even inflict damage. At least by this stage my attack power is high enough (and they don't seem to have much health anyway) that cutting through them can be quick enough when I was on point (figuring out that jumping was a way to keep on the move helped). I did need to go back at some point and farm for money to restore my stock of confetti; from herein, I'm going to primarily invest my earnings in building that stock up to go for the rest of them. Given the reveal that the first Headless was one of the guys the candies are named for, I take it that there's one for each variety. I know of three out of four; one in the moat, one in Senpou temple, one in a cave off of the Sunken Valley. I might look up where the last one is if it doesn't come up naturally.

I wanted to see if the transition to night changed the disposition of many characters, which has led to a continuation of my being endeared to the Divine Child of Rejuvenation. I also think it's a good look on Sekiro for him to display concern for her wellbeing and insist on trying to help, and it's not as if I had much use for those persimmons. And that rice for Kuro also seems like it has a strong potential for cuteness and endearing development of the relationship between him and Sekiro, with that bit of banter between them and the promise of making sweets. While the transition seems to have rendered Isshin uncharacteristically melancholy and withdrawn.

Incidentally, I've been wondering for a while why the subtitles have referred to Kuro as "Divine Heir" when I keep hearing the dialogue calling him "miko", a word I recognise as meaning Shinto shrine maidens. I finally wanted to try and figure it out by investigating the etymology, and it turns out that the spoken word miko can be assembled from the kanji meaning shaman and woman, or from god and child. So it is the same word, just contextually with a wholly different meaning; Divine Heir might not be a direct translation, but conveys the same essential meaning. I have some interests in the Japanese language, so I liked learning that bit.

So, now I'm focused on the palace again. Funny thing when I went to swim around the pools and lightning started being shot at me; my first instinct was to dive down away from the projectiles, before considering how water wasn't a good place to escape from electricity. Probably have to wait until I take down the shooter before exploring the depths.

I rather like the design of the local inhuman swordfighters, those lengthy limbs, ceramic masks, the leaping fighting style and armour that looks like it's from an earlier age of Japanese history. Actually, thinking about them now and what Isshin said about Tomoe, I'm more confident that I may be meeting her soon.

Heh, fighting the first of those led to what was probably my most From Software moment in the game yet; I finish off a fight with a swordfighter, feel pretty high on myself, them shift the camera to the overlooking rooftop thinking "hey, what's up with those guys" before being riddled with arrows for immediate death. I don't mind too much though, I'm very fond of the look of yume, so I'm just glad to see them here.

And those lightning shooting dogs are giving me a good opportunity to practice my bouncing it back. It's also nice to get a sense of where that Mist Noble from the forest came from (even if these ones deal in Terror rather than illusions). Just got to move on from the third Idol within the palace.
 

Isator Levie

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My darn TV needed to be repaired, so I've not been able to play the game for days. Made up for it last night with an extra long session.

That mansion in the palace was pretty intense. You get the old woman at the start telling me about the nobles her own father locked in eternal feeding duty for a gigantic immortal carp, and suggesting that I take the long way around the courtyard. And it had so many enemies arranged covering one another's line of sight, and patrolling in groups. I at least finally got my money's worth with the blood mist ninjutsu, being able to kill one amidst a group while preventing the rest from mobbing me. I managed to be so cautious about those nobles that only the very last one managed to get a good bit on me; I've spent the whole time assuming that they were inflicting Terror and the old woman taking about them stealing youth was just being colourful, but no, there was me with the Enfeebled condition. It's actually a pretty neat look and premise, with him all wrinkled, hunched over using his sword as a cane, and barely able to move, although the possibility of being caught with it surrounded by enemies is pretty unnerving. I'm also going to say that having all of them playing their flutes gives the place a strong ominous atmosphere.

There was a point where I was inside one of the buildings and saw something big, sickly white and surrounded by pink flame through the slats, and I assumed that was the Great Carp. I guess the actual one was bigger from the way it smashed up that bridge, but I, err... had me back turned the exact moment it did so, meaning I missed it. As for the white thing, the Sakura Bull of the Palace wasn't too hard to handle, since it was still familiar from the Burning Bull, although it did use up all of my gourd shots and was pretty damn fast.

Despite all of the enemies on it, the Flower Viewing Stage wasn't actually so bad. The distribution of platforms made it easy enough to manage their numbers (still aided by the ninjutsu), and the ones with lightning provided a few occasions to blast groups clustered together. Those ones playing with the ball reinforce my sense of them being modelled off of Heian-kyo; I initially thought they just used those while idle and would take out a weapon when provoked, and didn't take it to seriously when it turned out they fought with them, but that was at close quarters; I had a couple of nasty occasions when they were providing a support from a distance, and they hit like a damn cannonball.

I skipped past that group who were sitting watching one of the purples dancing to get to the Great Sakura Idol, and from there onto the tree fighting the one who shot lightning at me when I first arrived. That fight was more of a bother than it ought to have been; I became fixated on reflecting her lightning back on her, but between the delay in the attack and the lack of height of the ground, it was hard to catch, and even when I could the curve of the tree branch meant that most of the deflects were not lined up to hit. I had one death from that which cost me a bundle of coin and XP saved from lots of previous fights, and only managed to get one successful reflection in.

Still, one good thing came from fighting Shizu; revealing the identity of the palace's inhabitants as the Okami warrior women. I suppose I should have expected from their voices and their animalistic gait. It was insight I put to good use going back against that group around the dancer, because I now knew they would be vulnerable to the Sabimaru. Sure enough, poisoning them with that was extremely useful for managing a large group (also combined well with shocking them). I think this will be my new favourite farming spot; it's like 4000XP and 600 Sen a pop, right next to an Idol, that should build up nicely.

So with the sniper removed, I went diving around in the water. I've now got loads of treasure carp scales, more than I've had at any one point in the game prior... and not really sure what to do with them, unless the guy at Hirata has restocked. I've also come to find an aversion to deep, dark water that I've never realised before; I actually really like the sense of realism to the swimming and depth, but it made me very nervous about diving to far, not least for great of being caught by a big fish down there.

Some of that was alleviated a bit by discovering another old woman telling me that I need to get into the palace via an underwater tunnel housing the Carp, so I had a sense of where it would be. I scouted out the tunnel entrance, but didn't get too close; I'm pretty sure that all of this slug bait I've been collecting will have a role in letting the Cap out, and I've spotted at a distance a fellow resembling a unique noble whom I'm pretty sure it's the Carp's feeder, so I'll want to see about speaking to him. Certainty about whether the fish would be made me feel a bit more comfortable diving further, which is how I found the location of the final Headless. I was actually willing to give fighting a chance, since I'm flush with Divine Confetti between purchases and finding it around the palace, but it turned out to be unusable while swimming. I suppose that using it from the surface and then diving down might work, but I wonder about the time that might lose. Mind, the water ones only have one health bar... maybe it could work. I still half think I might get a capability to move normally underwater.

There was a target I had seen that I wanted a shot at, but went around fighting to build up for a skill point first, and one last investment in confetti. While I was out, I went to check in on Kuro and Emma. Kuro continues to be fun with his teasing Sekiro for not wanting to eat there rice balls made for him right there (kid, I've got a job to do, I need to keep that stuff in reserve), and opted to give Emma the Drsgonspring sake I got fighting the Okami women. I like the image of Isshin throwing rowdy parties in his heyday when he'd acquire the highest quality sake (I understand that Japanese nobles could get pretty wild), and I'm interested in the implications behind Emma leaving the castle on those occasions; was at a simple matter of wanting to get away from the noise, a deeper affinity for the spiralling cloud she would go to look at, or... did she like looking at Genichiro? As for the last, I continue to be endeared to that man with knowledge of a history of going out to practice swordfighting against the lightning; it's very Zuko from Avatar, and explains why his body is covered in electrical burns.

So, the target in the palace I wanted to focus on before proceeding; another Shicimen warrior. Add to his charming capabilities a greater preference for using that concentrated beam attack which is a real pain to evade at anything but point blank range, and being forced to contend with him in the much more enclosed space of a narrow gorge. Contend with him, and his cloud of projectiles that can really crowd one out. And his opening move of sending a barrage of projectiles that could build up Terror in a second, and keep me at bay lined up for a beam attack.

Took me two bloody hours to win that fight!

Oy, I had one lucky break at one point when I was somehow able to take out his first health bar from above, but it was squandered when one two many purple balls filled up my Terror bar, and I was never able to get that kind of opening again. Another thirty minutes of attempts, and I got into a fight where I used up all but one of my gourd charges just getting the first health bar down. One of those fights where I need to pull out everything in the lunch box to stay in the game; used up all of my pellets, the Divine Grass, my rice and Kuro's rice ball, all while wearing him down. But I did finally get him in the end.

I'll give it one thing; at least the better lighting made it easier to manage his melee attacks. And some of it may be on me, I might have had a better time if I had used even one of the three memories I have banked to increase attack power. I was just mindful of not only that fight, but all of the fights to come, that I want to remain appropriately challenging.

... I might be being kind of crazy about that. They're all memories from mandatory boss fights, is it possible that the game is calibrated around the assumption that my attack power has utilised all of them?

Anyway, so now I have a piece of lapis lazuli, the ultimate upgrade material! A few more purchases on the upgrade tree reveals that even a single one of the final tier upgrades requires two pieces, and getting all for would take ten. I don't know, maybe it'll be like Dark Souls III and there will be that many of them dotted all over.

So with that guy removed and it having gotten pretty late, I went around for a couple of things to finish off. I went to the Waters Child to restock on my rice and hear her response to what Kuro did with her gift (finding it as endearing as I do, asking for his name and expressing a wish to one day meet him, reflecting on his goals), which included Sekiro's responses of a kind that made me think he's gotten pretty at ease around her (I like him giving his opinion on the rice ball he ate). Then there was going to report to Kuro; I like how the lad was expectant and confident of his connection turning out well, with a history of sneaking into kitchens being very humanising, and it's interesting how he's looking to the future with a how towards creative work for a time when he'll no longer be a font of sacred power. Here's hoping that he'll be around for it.

So I'm mostly set for continuing to explore the palace but first, with so much confetti at my disposal, I want to have another go eliminating Headless. I think my experience from the first one will make it go smoother, and I can experiment with underwater fighting with the moat one. If worst comes to it, I might upgrade my attack power once or twice.
 

Isator Levie

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All in all, killing those Headless went pretty well. The one pay the secret door in Senpou took only two attempts (and then I found that it connected to a balcony facing out from a rock face in Ashina outskirts that I was sure would have one of them, since it was so close to that sign first describing the Headless, which is how I opened up that locked door just past where the Chained Ogre was fought), the one in the Sunken Valley went down on my first try and despite my having already used up some gourd juice (I think being the one on the most level terrain with some obstacles to block it helped), and while I frequently retreated from the one in the moat, it never managed to kill me. That while strategy of repeatedly leaving the water to use the confetti again was a bust, since it would just lose aggro and the health bar would rest, but in attempting to kill it with just one buff I found that the water ones don't need that; I guess they wanted to make some accommodations to practicality.

Incidentally, going through the valley meant encountering a bunch of illusion monsters, and I tried using the snap seeds now that they're opened up, and... I must have been doing it wrong, because it didn't seem to make a difference.

Before heading back to the palace, I wanted to resolve a few things. I checked on the guy in the pot at Hirata, but he had no new stock (while still asking for scales, that he apparently wants for free now). I then went to finally fulfill Kotaro's wish, in the course of which ( following surprise that it had to be done manually) I learned what I had been doing wrong before with Divine Abduction; namely, assuming that you just had to turn it on and stand close to a target, rather than discharging it. This is why we need to read the instruction manuals.

I had my suspicions on where he would end up, of course. I wanted to follow up on him, so I went to the Inner Sanctum, where I was shocked to find the child missing. Spent a few moments being silly and looking around the building for her before heading to the Hall of Illusions. I'll say first off that I spent an inordinate amount of time looking around the buildings for Kotaro, before finding that he was right next to where I began (I managed to stop the camera just short of noticing him on entry). His talking to the disembodied children is a little unsettling, but he seems to be at peace, so I'm happy for him. I'll probably keep that persimmon as more of a commemoration, although it has piqued my curiosity; it refers to the Ashina Taro Troop, people that the surgeon said would be valid test subjects, but whom I still have no idea who they are. I thought they might be the enemies with the same model as Kotaro, but if so I'm at a loss how to transport them; I tried using Divine Abduction, and it did make them vanish entirely, but that's it. I tested it out in a few places, and found how it has that effect only in Senpou (and on monks as well) while elsewhere it works as advertised and just turns them around. Very strange.

Of course, the big thing in the Hall was the relocated Child of Rejuvenating Waters. I'm not sure what caused her to move; maybe it was sending Kotaro on, maybe it was telling her about Kuro, maybe both. What's important is that she's there taking to the ghost children about not wanting to lose them but being resolved to the possibility that she might, and then talking about an alternative path to Kuro's mission; that rather than severing immortality, that the Dragon's Heritage should be returned to its rightful place, to the divine dragon in the west (I'm taking it that some of this insight is coming from the text I delivered to her). To that effect, she suggested I seek the temple's head priest in the crypt just of the main hall to receive further instructions.

I admit that I'm intrigued. It's clear to me that this is a path to an alternative ending (something I wondered if this game would have), and it's probably a rarer one from the extra steps. I'm also interested in the metaphysical premise behind it, and I like the character besides (although I don't entirely trust her motives*). Buuuttt... I've already invested myself in going along with the path concerned with Kuro, so for now I'll stick with that, and follow this Return course of action at a later time.

And before heading back, I spoke to Hanbei and agreed to use the Mortal Blade on him; that one also had little touches that I liked to the effect of Sekiro having become a bit more open to feeling, such as saying that he would of course fulfill the request and offering an assurance that he could make the death merciful. Still, Hanbei offered one last opportunity to procrastinate, as he requested time to prepare himself for death. I'll grant his wish soon enough.

Back, at the palace, before going down to confront the final Headless, I wanted to explore for a bit too figure out a way to the side area with the guy who feeds the Great Carp. I did not find it then, and indeed spent ages trying later to absolutely no avail, but I did find a path in the opposite direction to another isolated area that I had noticed. There I found another pot noble to accept my carp scales; he told me of how the one in Hirata was a shameful traitor who attempted to kill the Great Carp (and implied that he would seek to eliminate him), and gave me a special bait that he asked me to give to the Carp (insisting upon the utmost secrecy), in return for which he would give me the secret treasure of the palace. I'm getting a sinister vibe off this guy, but he at least answers my question about where to get some more lapis lazuli, although I have no idea where I'll get the scales to afford it; not when I spent most of them to purchase the final piece of the Dancing Dragon Mask. I had expected something to give to a character, but I suppose it makes sense that it's instead something to enhance my own capabilities, what with having had to build it. So now I can exchange skill points as an alternative means of raising attack power; I wonder if this is necessary to maximize it.

With no ideas where to go further, I shouted up my xp and then went to confront the Headless. This was by far the trickiest one I did today; the wide open spaces and some of the awkward terrain making it hard to get a clear line of attack in didn't help, but of course the main thing was that one having backup in the form of a spectral doppleganger. Pretty darn annoying to fight the one while the other is providing backup in the form of blades of hydraulic pressure and those projectiles from wrong their hair back and forth. Still, I was eventually able to keep a level head for carefully getting in small numbers of hits and retreating, rather than getting caught up and countered. I will say of these underwater Headless that I do actually really like the water physics depicted in their attacks, especially that vortex for a grab attack; being underwater in this game looks so damn pretty. I am surprised that killing all of the Headless did not earn a trophy, though.

Anyway, with the threat removed, I was able to further admire the landscape at the bottom of the lake, with all of those huge fish skeletons and what looked like inexplicable giant caterpillars feeding of of one of them. Also collected some more carp scales, although not enough to buy anything.

After that I spent some more time after that I spent some more time trying to get up to the place with the bell, to no avail. I thought there was some promise when I discovered at one time while fleeing the Headless that surfacing at speed causes Sekiro to catch some air, but it was apparently not quite high enough. I decided to finally try the underwater tunnel, but I didn't want to risk the experience gained from killing the Headless, so I went back for farming the Okami warrior at the Great Sakura Idol. I established a cosy little routine, emerging from a concern out of running out of spirit emblems: use the Ceremonial Tanto to create an extra five, spend those on Gacchin's spiritfall to turn stealthy, heal, use the Tanto again, backstab the people warrior, use ninjutsu to create a cloud to hold off the rest, retreat to the Idol and repeat. I think it was more time efficient than trying to kill all the warriors, and had less risk of being killed. In that way, I reaped fourteen thousand experience in just under eight minutes, bring my skill points up to eight (I ultimately spent them on several more prosthetic skills, particularly for more spirit emblems).

So, down in the tunnel. I'll say this for the carp, it's design is a very interesting mix of the prosaic and uncanny; I want expecting it to have the typical colouring of a koi, which lends it a seen beauty even at that size, offset quite a bit by the creepy old man face and a mouth filled with to many human-like teeth. I rather enjoyed the sense of tension to swimming around with it, stealthily around, needing to swim quickly for cover, and the sense of enormous power from its high speed and smashing through the remains of buildings.

Getting past it made it quote evident that this was no way to my destination, I was on the other side of mountains. After activating the Idol, I held off on opening the gate, but did scout ahead a bit. Enough to come upon a scene of several very feral nobles feeding on the bodies of Okami warrior women, with some piles of their discarded porcelain masks in a corner; not sure I want to know the story behind that. The last thing I did was have a look into the distance to where the path forward will lead; a collection of high thin rocky outcrops looming over the horizon, set against the starry sky. I think those might constitute the true palace; the Okami are seemingly layer arrivals, colonists even, who might have brought some of their own architecture, but that in the distance looks older, more primal. Should be nice to see up close.

For now, though, I'm going to bite the bullet and try to carefully look up how to get to the party of the palace that I have failed to access. I just want to get some more of that fish feeder's story, and see what I might accomplish with this bait I have.

* I want to put this feeling into context, since it doesn't exactly arise directly from the text. Partly it's due to familiarity with From Software games, in which things like this kind of late stage suggestion of pursuing a different course to the end are often suspect to greater or lesser degree; I find the Rejuvenating Child's notion reminiscent of Sage Freke from Demon's Souls taking about how the Old One should be harnessed as a source of power in particular. It's also partly because I'm grappling with the question of whether or not her words constitute an attempt to avert finality and transience in a manner that cultural context and themes in this game particularly frame as wrong-headed and unnatural.

Mind, another side of it that is rooted more in the game is that her outlook appears to be informed by the book I delivered to her, another inherently suspect source of information. Although with that in mind, it's not as though the instructions that Kuro has been following are implicitly any more certain and honest. If nothing else, the degree to which these characters are being guided by fragmentary written accounts is compelling to me.
 

Isator Levie

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Quick update; apparently I actually already am on the correct course for getting over to the area I've been trying to access, the start of the path is just a little ahead of the place with the creepy nobles. Whoops.
 

Isator Levie

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So, before getting to the feeding grounds, I found the very last of the Gourd Seeds in a chest in the back of that building filled with feral nobles. Getting to the feeding grounds went off without anything exceptional, just leaping over some trees and rooftops (although I did embarrassingly plummet a couple of times) and taking out a very small number of enemies while meticulously searching for stray items.

Before speaking to the feeder, I wanted to check back on the pot noble at the Hirata Estate, since I thought that having seen his counterpart might prompt some more info from him. He recognised that Sekiro smelled of the divine realm, and noted how the shinobi had shown him such kindness, so he offered a boon; an alternative piece of Truly Precious Bait. Where the last one takes of the noble wanting to become one with the master, this one described a noble that wanted to become a master himself. I was instructed to bring the bait to the Great Carp so that the noble could finally become a cap himself, for which he would reward me with his secret treasure. He was also finally an example in this game of the From Software staple of a character creepily ending a conversation with ominous laughter.

I quickly popped to Emma to exchange the seed and receive the trophy for fully upgrading the gourd, and then returned to the feeding grounds. That feeder was really something, enormous, ponderous, barely articulate, although kind of helpful in informing me of how to use the bell to summon his master. I'm deciding which of the baits to throw to the entitled bastard, I opted for the one from the Hirata noble; he's made more of an impression and I'm endeared to his exile, the palace one seems to associated with stuff that is sinister, and I was leaning towards the course more likely to kill that giant fish. But the menu... described each bait in terms of the character names, and I had never taken much notice of those; had to go back to Hirata check that his name was Harunaga. After giving the Carp his bait I went immediately to the tunnel to see if there was an effect, and was supposed that it seemed to be unchanged (even making an attempt to swim up to and stab it, in case the bait merely rendered it physically vulnerable). But then I just returned to the Idol and found the feeder standing at the edge of the water, forlornly calling after his now missing master; I've got to say, his wall of despair was pretty heart-rending, not helped by the notion that he's in a base that he cannot be reached through. Went back into the tunnel to confirm its status (thought there would be a corpse, but it was just gone altogether), then went to see if the old woman would have anything to say about her father being... kind of freed, but she had nothing. After that it was just a matter of checking back on Harunaga, now transformed into a regular sized carp with glittering red eyes and his own creepy person mouth. It's not exactly helped his disposition; all he has to say is that he's too small and demanding more scales. It has expanded his inventory, at least, and I felt enough like not leaving him hanging to spend one scale on a Dragon Blood Droplet (I'm pretty sure I won't get enough to but anymore lazuli anyway). As for the reward, the empty pot contained a piece of lazuli, so I'm guessing it might be four per playthrough. As for the one back in the palace, that poor sucker was just dead.

Before making the final ascent, I wanted to wrap up a few loose ends. I couldn't see any way to find one Sakuza at this point, so I went to finally confront O'Rin properly. Given her ethereal look, I'm pretty sure that it takes Divine Confetti to hit her, but her defence was to fast to make it worth trying to find out. I do like her unique, dance-like fighting style and how she can close distance so rapidly (especially how her whirling gives credibility to bring able to fight so well despite her closely fitted kimono); I also like how it was possible to catch passing glimpses of her messed up face under the basket she's wearing. She killed me once (being saved by Unseen Aid put me in mind of shoring up XP and investing my decent savings into more prosthetic upgrades), then took one more crack at it that went far better now that I was familiar with her style. Given her reaction to bring beaten... I initially thought it was implying that her Sakuza was already dead and she was rebuilt with him, but I can now see that she was talking about setting that samurai that had been following her all this time. I'll need to check back over his dialogue to see if I can figure out the connection, but for now he just stated that he had finally had an encounter with the shamisen player, for which he gave thanks and traded me with a unique one of those statues that restores a resurrection node, before slipping away. It would at least apart that both of those characters are at peace now, so that's nice.

And last of all, I returned to Hanbei, waiting on his knees with his head bowed. After saying that he was ready to die (being fed of the Shane of having not followed his master), Sekiro asked one last time if he was sure it was what he wanted, in a tone of voice he's never used anything close to before; a kind of harsh edge to it, as though steeling himself for something that he really doesn't want to do. The same went for his agreement when Hanbei confirmed his wishes. The euthanasia was a good deal more violent than I was expecting, but I suppose that's what you get when it's necessary to pull out and cleave a giant millipede. For having done that, I've received a Hidden Tooth, apparently the continuously reusable version of the Bite Down item (something that I've never personally used and am unsure of the value of). I'll probably be leaving it to the side for the time being.

So with all of that intensity done, I returned to finish up the palace. I opened up that locked gate (and will check back later to see what the woman requesting that does on the other side), climbed the steps on which more of the Fountainhead Water was flowing down, and fought a trio of the people Okami women. It's funny to me how they're implicitly the strongest of those, but their use of lightning is actually make to make them more vulnerable. I ended up killing one with a ball repeatedly to secure another skill point just in case, then carried on to the cave at the very top. I'm very curious about the identity of that pale pretty lady lying against the rock; I wonder if perhaps that might be Tomoe herself.

And so it was on to the Divine Realm itself. I've been wondering for a while how a fight against the dragon would work, if one was coming in this game calibrated almost entirely around enemies of approximately human dimensions. The sight of a dragon in the form of something humanoid and tree-like carrying what looked like a flute seemed to answer that question, albeit in a somewhat anticlimactic manner (even if I do think the design is kind of neat). It took me a moment to register that the boss was named Old Dragon's of the Tree before a while horde of them popped up there join there first. Despite the seeming disappointment of the fight being against a bunch of small sickly man-tree dragons coughing up poisonous muck (who were ready enough to manage with my Whirlwind Slash), the fight does have elements that I like, most prominently the great tree branches that would pop out of the cloud-floor, and the more reptilian, even alien-looking dragons that would pop up to replace the boys health bar ones.

Now, once the last of the old ones were eliminated, and the remainder bowed their heads and raised their instruments to the withered giant tree top that had been dominating the background? And that resulted in it springing back into bloom and being straddled by a gigantic, one-armed Eastern dragon wielding an enormous, luminiscent and uniquely shaped sword that shot blades and blasts of pressurised air, that was more like it. Sure, the fight was ultimately more gimmicky than conventionally difficult, but it was a good gimmick, with the evading attacks and getting to tree tops to catch the lightning going for them and bouncing it at the divinity. It at least has a genuinely grand sense of scope, and requires just enough passing attention to feel as though I'm typing a colossus. And I rather like the image of it ending by using the Mortal Blade to slice open is tear duct in order to extract the Gracious Gift.

And so, I was immediately teleported back to the room in Ashina castle to find Emma sitting beside the splayed body of Ashina Isshin, drawn sword in his hand (the sight of which was clearly shocking to Sekiro); Emma explained that he had finally succumbed to his illness, and in response the Central Forces have seized an opportunity to launch a full-scale assault on the castle. Kuro had sought refuge back in the field where the shinobi lost his arm, for which Emma gave me the key to reopen its gate. Sekiro asked after her own condition, to which she said that for the time being she would remain at Isshin's side. I walked out of the side window to witness the castle engulfed in flames, with Ministry advancing on the Ashina samurai armed with blade and flamethrower and powerful looking firearms, so I can see the edge that the fulminated mercury is giving them. That was the image that I opted to end the session on.

So before I head down to the finale, I'm going to briefly check back on the palace and see if that old woman moved on past the open gate. And I'm just going to go ahead and use all of the remaining memories; at this point, I find that I'm more concerned with getting a bit more information about all of those bosses than I am with my attack power being a bit excessive.
 

Isator Levie

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Okay, I converted all of those Memories into Remnants. Some interesting tidbits there: that the undying Guardian Ape had probably actually outlived all peers and was pretty lonely, the Corrupted Monk becoming ingested for the sake of being an eternal guardian of the palace (plus her real name), how the Divine Dragon did indeed come from the west and took root in Ashina because the ancient rock and water of the Fountainhead provided ideal conditions for the Everblossom. I initially thought that the insight into Owl was the last interesting, with him simply described as having an ambition to seek the power of the Dragon's Heritage, but that line about letting one's true name ring out over Japan... I can see that in terms of, after a lifetime of anonymous shinobi service, having frustration mount to the point of wanting a new national order to be an opportunity to seek personal acclaim and recognition.

And I did return to the palace beyond that opened gate, and was shocked to find all of the nobles murdered; lying amidst their corpses, still stabbing into them, was the old woman, growling that they were beasts, that they tricked and manipulated her father, and demanding that they give him back, before appearing to succumb to the strain of it all and dying. I actually find the tragedy of that to be pretty moving, and feel impressed by the premise of her having managed to kill those folks (I also like how it gives that narrative to an elderly person). I tried going back to the fish feeder to see how he would react, but he's still insensate, with eyes only for his lost master, which of course compounds the tragedy. Looking at it now, I wonder if I shouldn't put him out of his misery; it feels at least more merciful than leaving him there to wallow immobilised in despair.

So with that out of the way, it was down to fight the forces assaulting the castle. I might have just left it at the ones climbing up the main stairway and then headed to the reservoir, but at the gate was a dying Ashina samurai asking me to reinforce the castle rear, and I just couldn't resist.

I'm glad that I did. As I've repeatedly said, the premise of Ashina being under threat by Central Forces has been compelling to me from the start, so it's been a real treat to see it fully culminated here. Seeing groups of the two forces clashing all over the complex, various little pockets of Ashina samurai huddled together in complete despair, while the large fellows will at their plight, those were all good enough. But then to get to the castle's edge and see that the invaders have built a bridge spanning the canyon that separates that area from a previous one that could previously be seen to be in proximity? And then go across and see how the starting portions of the game have been repurposed as a forward base for the Ministry forces, with fortifications and siege cannons and powder magazines? That is really freaking cool, a treat that I was never expecting.

(I like how the shinobi hunter in the castle gets a little arc to himself, culminating her in passing and asking everybody to forgive him for abandoning then but being unwilling to risk his life unpaid, and wondering how to make his escape.)

And one advantage of having them erect a base is that it's somewhere that they can hang their banners. To my eyes, the Mon that they have on display looks conspicuously similar to that of the Tokugawa; it's two hollyhock leaves inside of a hexagon rather than three in a circle, but I think it's close enough to be intended as evocative without stepping too much on reality. In any case, is a touch that I like.

I found the forces around there pretty tough (enough to make me glad at having been willing to enhance attack power), and spaced well around one another; took a while to figure out effectively stealthy paths through. I did die a couple of times, but the enemies here are so rich in cash and XP that I never experienced significant losses.

I found that mini-boss, Shigekichi of the Red Guard to be pretty interesting; how he's reminiscent of the large drunkards, but is a lot less slovenly in his appearance and spits fire. After having been wondering about the Loaded Spear's armour stopping capabilities for a while, I also liked seeing somebody else that would work on (although I still think there haven't been enough). With a bit of help from a puppeted soldier to run interference, I was able to beat that guy on the first attempt (although it took all of my healing and the last of my rice).

For the rest of the fortress, the only thing that have me any real trouble was trying to kill the Chained Ogre with them, who was not styled as a mini-boss. I find a certain irony in how the previous ones were introduced in terms of a desperate weapon to ward off Ministry attack, and now the attack has finally come and the only ogre to be seen is on the other side; this one isn't even afraid of fire, which would of course be counterproductive considering the primary weapon the Ministry army employs (speaking of, I've been wondering where more fulminated mercury might be found; figures that it would be scatters around their full-scale assault). That bastard kept managing to kill me with his grab attack, which damn near took my entire health bar in one go. It ultimately want even worth the effort or the loss, considering how there was no special reward for finally succeeding. After that, it was on to a gatehouse fully engulfed in flames (with great seating claw marks gouged into rocks), with one of the actual Red Guards nearby dying so that he could convert his final words on the fire having gone out of control, before I proceeded to a strange new Sculptor's Idol nearby, that merely teleported me directly to a new location.

That location being the battlefield where I fought Gyoubu, with an Idol dedicated Flames of Hatred, and... a shocking new boss added to the mix, initially working his way through some stay soldiers, whose affiliation I couldn't make out from that distance.

So, the Demon of Hatred; because it wouldn't be a latter day From Soft games of it didn't have a boss with a huge janky left arm. There is actually a lot that I find really cool about this boss. The design is great for one thing, something I think is reminiscent of a traditional Oni, but stylised in a manner rendering it distinct to this property, even apart from that really neat looking pure fire arm; I'm a bit of a sucker for beings with arms made out of some kind of force, or weird mutation. I also quite like having a gigantic boss as a proper fight, after the more spectacle-driven dragon, and it especially stands out in this game where they've otherwise been mostly human; gives it a much greater sense of raw scope. Indeed, it recalls to me some of what was outstanding in the boss designs for Dark Souls, that I feel as though the sequels never quite captured.

His move set displayed a relay palpable sense of raw strength and weight, but also with some nice character in the form of the occasional kata. I always want creatures like this to have a bit of magic to them, so it's very satisfying for him to have such a varied array of moves that blast out fire, in addition to the ones based on swinging around his fire arm. The one in his third phase in particular, where he sings the arm around repeatedly to ignite an enormous inferno that remains burning in that portion of the arena for several moments after, out of which he'll come charging, is truly stunning. That it's such a powerful move set really helped increase the sense of achievement to finally mastering reading it and being able to dance between every part (I never really attempted to block out deflect it; maybe next time, but here it didn't find fit my rhythm). I also think there was great use to incorporating the grappling hook to have the fight flowing rapidly.

It's funny, prior to this point, I had been feeling as though Burn was an underrealised element of the game, but after this whole last session I can see they were just holding it in reserve. :)

There's also grand lore, but I'll come back to that.

The premise of the boys fight is not without its frustrations. I could have done without the arena being covered in obstacles that only break when the Demon collides with them; there were too many occasions in which I was backed into a corner I couldn't escape from. There would also be occasions where his long ranged charging attack would bring him against a wall or into a more enclosed space in which more limited mobility for both of us would make maneuver around him annoyingly difficult. I think his wave of fireballs could be a bit too difficult to get through without taking a nasty hit. And he's got this one annoying combo attack where I could never tell if he was going to swing three or four times. That was one where I'd often see the tell at the start and Mrs up by fishing closer, but that was on me more than him, and I got over it (other bad moves I had to break were attacking him too much so that I got caught in his charging claw, and repeatedly trying to escape for stomps by jumping for some reason).

Still, ultimately a satisfying boss fight. It was another two hour effort, but unlike the Fountainhead Shachimen, that wasn't a matter of a punishing arena, but of needing to develop the proper senses and cadence to get through. For the most part, it was not a troubling time because each go would feel like a learning experience, and kept getting incrementally better. Ultimately, getting to his third phase was the real challenge; the first time I got there, his singing arm caught me completely off guard with no resurrection left, but the second time (several attempts after) I had become so familiar with him that I keep up a very effective assault. It did end up using up all that remains of my healing, but those were so few at that point that it still attested to how much I had become capable of evading him. I definitely would have missed the extra attack power here, of I had held off on those Memories.

So he finally went down, in compliance with his own stated wishes, and even the manner in which he fades from the battlefield looks cool, disappearing in a flash of flames. It turned out that being him was one more source of lapis lazuli.

The elderly woman back up in the house where I first met Isshin was amazed that I was still alive and asked if I knew who the one-armed demon used to be (at the time I hadn't a clue), before commencing me for ending his misery, and providing a warning about how the hated could still manifest while the war raged on and earning Sekiro against fulfilling that role, finally reminding him to return to his duties.

That constituted a dead end in the path through the outskirts so I headed back to the Dilapidated Temple to see if there was another way through there; it turned out that the original tree branch to climb out with was burned away, which I think was pretty clever. I also wanted to check in with the Sculptor and get his take on things, and upon finding nothing but am empty work bench with his told left behind, I put together what the true identity of the Demon was. :( Indeed, I recall how he stated that Isshin cut off his arm in the first place to stop a demonic contamination that was still capable of relapsing. Looking back on my footage, I can also now hear how the Demon refers to Sekiro as "omai-san", which is how the Sculptor always addressed him. The Sculptor is another element that I had felt neglected for a while; he was so prominent at the start, but after saving Kuro the centre of activity shifted to the castle, and he was mostly left behind. I really only visited him for prosthetic upgrades. I was wondering if he might return to the narrative, but want expecting another thing so tragic. I suppose that the return of such warfare to Ashina after two decades of trying to find tranquility was more than he could bear, but at least he to is now at peace. Now Sekiro has graduated to doing his own maintenance in the arm.

After that, it was mostly just a bit of cleanup duty. I checked in with the info broker (the temple one; the one back in the outskirts I found dead earlier); he commented on the invasion, opined that the Ashina are probably finished, and expressed plans to move on himself. Also made a sardonic remark at Isshin having probably gone to heaven, and that he didn't understand samurai. I went to check down by the Serpent God shrine, and slew a whole bevy of monkeys (with a rather tricky pair of sword-wielding whites), for which I got another of those items to restore resurrection nodes. I went around the castle interior, where the most significant thing I found was a samurai kneeling in the base of Isshin's tower, saying to himself that he was borrowing something, asking Isshin to watch over him and promising that the Ashina would win. I felt a bit bad about fighting him, but... I wanted another prayer beads. Ujinari Mizuo employed iajutsu for some wicked fast and highly damaging attacks, but he was red-eyed so I was able to continuously off-balance him with fire, and made good use of Shadowstrike to continuously hit him from a distance. Only took a couple of attempts to win.

It was a bit in vein, though; I'm on my eighth prayer necklace (telling me about the Lone Shadows, the most trusted agents of the Interior Ministry), and it's still not enough for my Vitality to be at maximum. Hmm, the necklace said that there are seventeen Shadows, and I think I've fought... two or three... Is it possible that more of a dozen remain in the world?

Nah, I'm on the path to the end now, I've no time for scoring for loads more mini-bosses. That trophy will have to be another time.

So I left off at the start of the reservoir. When I next play, I intend to finish this run.
 

Isator Levie

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All right then; final session of the first playthrough.

For a start, after having fought my way through all of those Interior Ministry forces and seen the portions of the castle filled with battle between the sides, I like the more quiet, understated image of a last couple of retainers, an anonymous general and another of the Seven Ashina Spears (the last of whom gave a fight that I rather enjoyed) having accompanied Genichiro, standing along the path leading down to where he's gone in pursuit of Kuro and awaiting his return with the Dragons Blood, holding out hope that they can still turn things around. It was almost a pity to turn them against one another, but the shinobi had his own duty to fulfill. At this point, between fighting experience, Vitality and attack power, I took down this one last mini-boss without difficulty. Confirmed that the path into the rest of the reservoir had been completely cut off by flame, then I used the Idol to convert my remaining skill points into the final steps on the shinobi skill tree, and descended to return to the spot where he first became Sekiwan no Okami.

I'm going to describe that encounter separately in terms of the gameplay of the boss battle and observations of story and design.

So, first of all, fighting Genichiro, staying with the Way of Tomoe from the outset and wielding the previously hinted at black Mortal Blade; the one referred to as a gate to the underworld. All in all, that fight had nothing much to it; it's all very familiar to me now having repeatedly watched the footage of my original fight. The only new addition to his playbook was a Mortal Draw derived from that new sword, which did catch me off guard the first time he used it to open the fight, but I was thereafter able to effectively counter by using the Shadowrush to rapidly close the distance and interrupt his attack (and on other occasions being close enough to get behind him when he wound it up). I actually managed to beat him down on just the second attempt, and while a number of others had him winning, it wasn't too hard to ultimately establish a standard that allowed me to break down his Posture without difficulty.

And so, recognising his own weakness, Ashina Genichiro called in the big guns, severing his own throat to open the way to the afterlife, allowing the return of the original Sword Saint, Ashina Isshin. A man who, when old and sickly, was frequently surrounded by the corpses of some of the game's toughest enemies, now presented against me in his prime.

As a fight, I find something compelling in how unique Isshin's style feels. He's not quite like any other fighter in the game; somewhat reminiscent of the samurai that were inside the castle keep, but in several ways more advanced. Most of the human bosses seem to fight with a certain wild abandon, lots of flurries of blows, but Isshin's strikes were more precise, more measured, in a manner creating an impression of a sword master who, through long years of experience, has learned exceptional patience and an eye for reserving until the exact opportune moment. It makes me think of things I've heard about how expert martial artists are not exactly exciting to watch because their movements are too reserved and efficient. In gameplay, I found that it actually made it more difficult to effectively defend against, as it required a more exact timing to not have him batter me down. His use of iajutsu in particular have him a unique form of difficult to predict or evade attack, and punishing attempts to strike him in that stance. And then there was his capacity to sheathe and draw his blade with such force that it would shoot waves of air pressure, another attack unlike anything used by any other books except maybe the Divine Dragon. However, considering that nothing in Isshin's backstory implies congress with supernatural powers, the sense that I get is that his dedication to the sword has been so meticulous that it grants him capabilities verging on those of a god in his own right, an enlightenment of the sword.

To effectively get through that first phase, I found that I needed to use a combination of sharing his own patience, and using some of Sekiro's shinobi style; being a lot more observant of Isshin's incoming attacks to properly time deflection and Mikiri counters, and when he would sheathe his sword using high speed to retreat out of range of his attacks and circle around to hit him in the flanks, with occasional Shadowrushes to close distance and interrupt. Getting through that first phase without significant losses was the biggest challenge in the fight for me.

I like when these games give final bosses varied arsenals, so I enjoyed the idea of Isshin in the second phase drawing a spear from the ground, the same spear used by the general he slew in order to claim victory in Ashina's rebellion, as well as actually using a gun of all things. That latter in particular has kind of completed my impression that he's inspired a bit by Oda Nobunaga; a similar kind of Sengoku warlord, renowned for battlefield prowess, known for raucous parties and a sardonic sense of humour, and with a tendency to bestow not entirely flattering nicknames. I think they even look a bit alike.

So, the new weapons. The gun is something that felt a bit scary at first with the barrage of bullets and the loud noise of it, and it does seem like a good means of keeping me at bay so that he could prepare a follow-up assault, but it ultimately didn't take much for me to get the hang of defending against it. The spear was a lot more threatening, with the greatly increased range and unusual arcs and angles of attack it introduced; it was often confusing to tell exactly where his weapon was at any given time. But with enough times getting to that phase, I got the proper sense of the speed and flow of the thing, and it became especially effective to bounce his attacks off. A spear also introduced the distinct weakness of throwing out more frequent and predictable stab attacks to step on.

And finally, Isshin starting to harness the lightning himself. I'll say one thing for him; channeling that through his long spear, far away from his body seemed eminently more practical than Genichiro doing it through his sword. ;) However, as I've said before, by this point lightning ultimately represents more of an advance for me than for the enemy using it, for the significant damage I can throw back and the window thereafter when they're immobilised, and this battlefield in particular was ideal for it, the uneven terrain creating a lot of opportunities where Isshin would for it off from high ground while I kept to catch it from a dip where there was less chance of hitting the floor to early. I had little healing remaining by that point, but he only got to significant hits in; one at the start when I was briefly caught off guard by introducing lightning, and another where my foolish attempt to flurry at him from just too far away caught a response of him contemptuously sweeping his sword over me. In the end, the lightning was to beneficial; the first time I got to that last phase, I was able to finish the fight. All in all, took about an hour worth of attempts.

The story elements: when the concept was introduced, I suspected that Genichiro would acquire the other blade for the sake of cutting Kuro to extract his blood. I find that the sword itself has a pretty cool design, with that monochrome blade and hilt guard resembling a lotus flower (presumably for the connotations of rebirth).

I like how even when he's severely wounded, Kuro remains firm in defying Genichiro and rebuking the value of the Dragon's Heritage, although the major thing in that encounter is what he says back to Sekiro; not just the part reaffirming that nobody should have the power, but finally having a moment to let his resolve slip as he admits that he wishes there was another way. And Sekiro himself... as he stepped forward to confront Genichiro one last time, I heard a tenderness and resolve in his voice, a confidence in his stance, that I never really expected at the game's start; I supposed that he would remain stoic and sour throughout.

But still, for all of his determination and sacrifice, Genichiro just was not up for it, but his dedication to his land beyond himself is apparent in his willingness to finally use himself as a gateway from death. I like how the close-up on his face allows me to see that, since his retreat from the tower, he's become a bit more unkempt with some stubble growth. I quite like the animation of his arterial spray settling into a kind of ethereal mist. The image of a human arm springing out of a body is one that I like just about anywhere it shows up, and I enjoy the twist on it here where it lowers to delicately take the sword out of Genichiro's hand. I also have a fondness for occasions in which people seem to be stuffed through portals that are to small for them (like in Dark Souls III where you can get sucked through a tiny scrap of painting), so that in combination with the visceral quality of rising and stepping out of a dead human body was a good look.

For Isshin's design, I like how he contrasts with most other warriors in the game by being very tall and lean; the impression I get is of a man who fights not with overwhelming strength, but with a body honed and could like a steel wire, a look that fits well with his fighting style and animations. I think the kabuto is a good look on him, especially for drawing a stylistic connection between him and his adopted grandson, and I like him dressed in those loosely fitting robes more than if he was in armour both for being able to show off how battle scarred his torso is and creating the impression that this is all very casual for him.

As for his motives... this is kind of like when I fought Gehrman at the end of Bloodborne for the first time; it's not unexpected that Isshin is a boss, but I would have thought it would occur as part of some kind of betrayal. But no, it appears to me that everything he was doing previously was sincere; he genuinely did not see the wisdom in Genichiro's actions and was ready to assist the man he dubbed Sekiro in preventing them from coming to pass. And during the fight, I get the impression that he himself is still not interested in attaining the Dragon's Blood, because he's far too focused on Sekiro and the fight itself; calling for the other man to come at him, whooping about how his blood is boiling as the phases change, and when he wins repeating his instructional mantra of "hesitation is defeat". And the way that he speaks when he emerges implies a certain resignation to me; I get the impression that having been summoned back in that manner leaves him bound to carrying out Genichiro's last will, even if it's not what he wants.

No, what he clearly wants is to die the dignified warrior's death that old age and sickness denied him, a wish that felt apparent from how his body had a sword in its hand. There's been so much emphasis on how Isshin joined himself into a living weapon that it makes sense, and if he hasn't been specifically assisting Sekiro towards being the one to provide him with it, I can at least imagine that he recognises the shinobi as somebody well suited to oblige.

That all culminates in the final blow of the battle; where having been given the finishing deathblow, Isshin visibly exerts himself to settle on his knees with his head held high, so that he can be in the appropriate pose when Sekiro fulfils his demand and severs his immortality, his final words being to gasp out a "well done" while his opponent tells him farewell.

I've got to say, I find how the relationship between these two characters develops over the game, the respect that can grow between them, building up to this moment where Isshin seeks for Sekiro to end him and the younger man is very considerate in doing so, to be extremely compelling and very organically integrated into the game. Things like Isshin having given a name to somebody who didn't conventionally have one, Sekiro inquiring after the background of the rebellion, general recognition for each others warrior's prowess (and what the younger man would have led in that to the older, considering things like the manual be gave), it's a closeness that I would never have expected at the game's start. It actually makes me wonder if anything in this fight would be different if I had never spoken to Isshin previously; it would certainly feel a bit odd for him to appear calling the shinobi by a familiar nickname if it had never actually come up before. I'll have to try that out on some later playthrough.

And so it finally came down to kneeling beside a grievously wounded Kuro and being given a menu thus far consisting of only the one option to bestow the Dragon Tears. I've said before how I like the way that the story has maintained Kuro's agency, and that remains right up until the end; that image of him reaching up to grasp the Mortal Blade himself and guide it over his own throat. There have been hints here and there that the final step of Immortal Severance would involve the Divine Heir's death, and while neither character brought it up directly, it's apparent to me now that they were both aware of it and quietly ready to take that final step (even if Kuro made occasional references to what he would wish of a life not cut so short). It's a sad moment, but it's staged very beautifully, as dawn breaks again over Ashina.

Thus, the Sculptor's prediction has come true, and Sekiro has set aside his sword and his prosthetic to take up a place in the Dilapidated Temple, seeking his own peace in carving the Buddha, while Emma replicates her own mentor by returning the Shinobi Prosthetic to him with a sentiment that he should hold onto it for the day that another might have need.

And that's my first playthrough of Sekiro. A pretty remarkable game in the end, with numerous moving elements that I never expected of it. In looking at the end credits, one thing that stands out to me is how they credit so-called "worldview advisors", divided between a historical and theological advisor, things that indicate to me the level of dedication in crafting all of the elements of characterising the world that I've been so enamoured of. That's an artistry that I admire.

But of course, the game is not finished yet, as there are still several unanswered questions. Where would I find the Malcontent's Ring necessary for one of the prosthetic upgrades? What were the surgeons in the Abandoned Dungeon up to? What could things like the Serpent's viscera and red carp eyes be used for? How would I acquire any more ninjutsu techniques, since I clearly don't have them all and only seemed to acquire them from defeating bosses? For that matter, what might fit into the slots left by various other hidden trophies; are there still several undiscovered bosses, despite having found all game areas? And what specifically would happen from pursuing the course of meeting with the Senpou high priest?

I'm going to hold off on looking anything up about the game for one more playthrough, one in which I will provide the surgeons with a subject and take up the Child of Rejuvenation's request, and see what comes of that. When that's done, I'll look into where any things that I've missed might turn out to be.

I expect it will all be much quicker the second time around, now that I know where everything is, what's a dead end, and how to fight everybody.

But before I start New Game Plus, one last thing I want to cover in the initial game is getting ahold of a bunch of items in the poison swamp in the Ashina Depths that I never could access before.

(Oh, I also want to give Emma and Isshin the sake varieties that weren't available to them the first time, to hear the last little bits of their stories).
 

Dzhay

Trust a flumph.
Validated User
I love this game, and have a lot to say, but I don't want to colour your impressions too much.

I suppose the only question I should ask is "do you want non-spoilery hints as to how to get some of the things you missed?".
 
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