Sekiro: How To Design The Perfect Combat System
Shadows Never Die Twice :)
Let’s cut to the chase right away, Sekiro has THE BEST combat system out of all the action games I have played, including Dark Souls, God of War, Horizon Zero Dawn and whatnot. I think it is fair to put it in comparison with that of the Soulsborne series just to give you a taste of what I mean by “the best” system, in my opinion. If the combat system of Soulsborne series is like using a German Leica camera, rigidly built, obtuse and old-schooled, and very much frustrating to a newbie, then Sekiro’s system is like the using Sony’s Alpha 7, nimble, responsive and reliably satisfactory once you’ve gotten into the groove of it.
I have played Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Sekiro, and it may seem irrelevant to put all of their combat systems in comparison, especially the last one to the previous two, please hear me out.
In Dark Souls, players are given two basic attacks and one basic defense mechanism: the light attack and the heavy attack, and defense stance by holding up the shield. To proceed from there, there is riposte and back stab. Oh and there is one more secret ingredient to the sauce: rolling. What these single control combines to form, along side with the narrative setting of the Dark Souls setting, is a system that puts the player in the position of an underdog, constantly struggling with despair, especially during the early hours. The sheer size of an enemy intimidates upon first sight, the frustrating death due to the mistimed of the “I-frame” of rolling/dodging, insane range or clipping of enemy weapon just to mention a few. It is a system designed to encourage and reward passive combat strategy and patience. The player is always kept in check, by the combat system, to not being cocky and proactively initiate assault on the enemy. You are never fully confident that your next roll or riposte would save you from respawn from a previous fire or a stab right at the heart of the enemy. Everything hangs in a bit of uncertainty.
Bloodborne offers nothing majorly different, except that shield is removed and dodging is the only option for safety; that weapons now could shift forms, which offer different ranges and attack power; and that play HP recovers to a certain amount upon being hit the enemy if the play quickly hits back. This last mechanic does encourage a bit more aggressiveness from the player, but it functions more like saving grace in the face monstrosities that force the player into passivity in the first place.
Sekiro overhauls, or even subverts, all norms in the Soulsborne combat system and invents an entirely new system on its own. There is your regular light and heavy attacks, and defense, but all through the blade, the only weapon in the game. This design strengthens player’s psychological connection with the blade: if you want to attack, use the blade; if you want to defend/deflect, use the blade as well. When the symbolic meaning of the blade, more than often taken as a tool of offense, superimpose with the mechanics of dense/deflection, every action conveyed through the blade is an action of aggression. The mindset of the player is now set to focus on attack.
Beyond regular attacks, enemies also have unblockable attacks that requires a bit more reflex and ingenuity from the player. Take Genichiro who have to main types of unblockable attacks: the charge stab attack that requires mikiri-thumping onto his blade by first dodging into his blade, and the sweeping attack that requires jumping onto his head. Both solutions ask for a lot from the player in that they require the player to proactively step into danger to dissolve it, rather than restoring distance from them, as is the instinct for most of us. But once you are over that mental obstacle and have mastered this system, you will notice that for almost all combats in Sekiro, the player is the one initiating the assault, either to damage HP, or to lure enemies into attacking you so you could deflect. Any one of those attacks from any enemy in Sekiro could be deflected and transferred into posture damage. All danger could be dissolved by one specific input. The certainty in this fast-paced system is calming and exhilarating at the same time. Beyond all the interactions with the blade, there are certain combat situations that requires clever use of the tools on the prosthetic arm. To detail them would require a whole new article but just to name a few: the use of firecrackers to stun animals, the use of the lazulite axe to dispel phantom minions, the use of spear to deal huge posture damage to the headless ape etc.
But you have already noticed a pattern, right? There is a plethora of attack, deflection and tools at the players’ disposal, if timed right, to deal with every combat situation imaginable. The elegance of the system lies in the calmness of certainty in fast-paced combat responses demanding uttermost aggression.