A whole bunch of us at Kotaku have been playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. We have impressions, we have gameplay, but we really wanted to dig into the nitty gritty about one particular aspect of the game: how well it handles combat training.
After the jump is a conversation between myself and Professional Video Game Expert Tim Rogers about this one aspect.
Tim Rogers: Hello.
Chris Person: Hi Tim. We’ve been playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Tim Rogers: Yeah and I’ve died more than twice! I’ve only died three times, actually, because I’m So Pro.
Chris Person: That’s a fine amount to die.
Tim Rogers: I guess I’m not a shadow anymore, then, huh? Well, that’s the end of jokes.
Chris Person: There’s a lot that this game does that should be kept unspoiled, but something I really wanna get into that isn’t too much of a spoiler is how the game approaches combat training.
Tim Rogers: It’s super-duper early in the game. It’s like, right after the opening cinematic parade. Though like, if that’s too much of a spoiler for anybody, they should run away from this post right now. Thanks for clicking!
Chris Person: Anyone who would consider this a spoiler is also probably sequestering themselves in a spoiler bunker with survival buckets until the game drops.
Tim Rogers: That would be me, if it weren’t for Activision sending me a review code for the game. Thanks, Activision!
Chris Person: So let’s talk about Hanbei the Undying. Once you get past the big cinematic opening, the game puts you in your world hub.
Tim Rogers: As far as From Software Soulsbourne hubs go, it’s among the more genuinely pleasant ones. You see beautiful verdant bamboo swaying aggressively (as is the realism of bamboo) in a gentle breeze outside of a wooden temple. Inside of which is a man carving literally hundreds of wooden Buddhas out of fear that he will die if he does not. So yeah, there’s the creepy right next to the pleasant.
Chris Person: The hub from Dark Souls 2 is similarly pretty, but this is probably far nicer.
Anyway, since the combat in the game does take some getting used to even if you’ve played a bunch of FromSoftware games, they put a sparring partner right there to hone your skills.
Tim Rogers: Yeah, the combat feels like a radical departure from Souls games for the first couple hours. Your sword is so fast, enemies are so aggressively up in your face at all times, and speedy deflections are so important right from the beginning that the combat can feel almost casino-gambly until you have an opportunity to relax and figure it out. So yeah, that sparring partner is hecka welcome.
Chris Person: And so much of the game is figuring out the exact timing on things.
Tim Rogers: I’ll be honest: I barely gave Hanbei the time of day the first time I met him. I did a couple of his tutorials and then plunged into the game.
My propensity toward direct combat was gettin’ me ripped up so hard that I had doubled down on playing the game Full Ninja. I was 200% Shinobi, hiding in grass, hangin off roof-lips, stealth killing, ledge-grabbing, and jump-killing unsuspecting idiots. Then I met the first dude I simply could not surprise. You know who I’m talking about. The General. He killed me loudly enough that I remembered Hanbei.
Now he’s like literally my best friend.
Chris Person: Yeah the intro part of the game lulls you into a false sense of security. You think you could probably handle this game without some practice, but no, you could use a couple of minutes sharpening your skills.
Hanbei rocks. As you might of guessed from Hanbei the Undying’s name, my guy cannot die. You go up to him and he begs you to kill him, repeatedly, over and over again.
Tim Rogers: Yeah, there’s a neat little FromSoftian surprise (reminder everyone: we already spoiler-warninged you) where he casually asks you for a favour, and then says “face me in battle” and immediately attacks you. I believe you can actually die during this fight? I got hit and my life meter depleted. It doesn’t during the other training fights. I didn’t die, of course, because I am a professional.
When you kill him, he gets right back up straight up like he’s a Lost Odyssey character. Fun fact: the characters in Lost Odyssey were designed by Takehiko Inoue, who also writes the masterpiece manga Vagabond, which is about swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.
So based on this I’m gonna go ahead and say Sekiro is set in the Lost Odyssey universe.
And the Sculptor in the temple, when he alludes to Hanbei, tells the main character, “There’s a man like you outside the temple. You might get along with him.”
Chris Person: “You immortal freaks might have a good time.”
Tim Rogers: At first I was like, “’Like me’? What, does he mean we have brown hair and glasses yet look absolutely nothing alike?” Then I realised The Sculptor does not follow me on Twitter. Anyway, you walk up to Hanbei and you’re like, wow, this dude is pretty cool. He’s marathon-runner skinny, he’s dirty. He’s got a sword. He’s got a big filthy ponytail.
And! He’s got a samurai armour facemask over his mouth. That means that, unlike many other people in this game, you can’t see his mouth move when he talks. So right off the bat he totally feels like a FromSoft character.
Chris Person: I keep imagining there’s no flesh under that thing, like just a skeleton jaw.
Tim Rogers: Yeah, if Our Main Dude has the same affliction as Hanbei, I think he’s got a fresher case of it. The clues are that Hanbei has been rotting much longer.
Chris Person: It’s a really great character design, and also the most FromSoftware way they could do a simple mechanic: like a huge existential bummer but delivered in kinda a funny way.
Tim Rogers: Yeah, he’s funny!
Chris Person: He sees the lighter side of death. Good delivery too!
Tim Rogers: Yeah, his style of speaking Japanese is pleasantly weird. I mean, hearing a Soulsborne character speak Japanese is an exciting, fresh experience to begin with, though it’s right around when Hanbei shows up that you realise, hey, this is writing that possibly came directly, fully formed, from the people who design these wild games and their wild levels.
He talks like he *is* a Souls game. His Japanese is a mixture of comic book samurai cliches and samurai period-piece film cinematic affectations. He’s just got a rich and delicious way of expressing his sardonic quirks.
There’s a fun moment when, after you’ve killed him maybe 10 times during the “free combat” mode, he says, “Can I ask you one favour? Might you go easier on me next time, my friend?” And the game offers you the opportunity to apologise. If you do, he’s just like, “lol man I was just messin’ with you.”
So yeah: is he the funniest FromSoftware character? I think so.
I mean, I’m of the opinion that FromSoftware games are extremely funny in a Japanese heavy metal sort of way. The grimmer and the darker they are, the funnier they are. I have a Notre-Dame-sized hunch that the developers have incredible senses of humour. Like, all the “unintentionally” funny mechanical moments in Dark Souls have to be things the developers encountered during development, found funny, and left in.
Like enemy corpses balloon-animalling around on the ground when you step over them in Demon’s Souls? That’s so unintentionally funny that it’s gotta be intentionally funny. Once you start considering each death in Dark Souls hilarious, the games absolutely cease to be “hard.”
Chris Person: God, what a cool dude.
It’s also just such a great way to set the tone for the world while also letting you get good at the game.
It’s funny, there’s a kinda similar training dojo in Nioh later on for advanced skills, but it’s much more unwieldy and less 101 than this.
Tim Rogers: We talked briefly before, on our gameplay video that people should watch, which might be linked directly below this line of this chat, about how super-duper mainstream the opening half hour or so of Sekiro is. It very clearly feels like they made an effort to welcome new players in.
I mean, the game gets plenty ridiculously soul-crushing hard with pretty brutal speed, though that first half hour is Pretty Much Hollywood. Then 20 seconds into the hub world, you have a Tutorial Guy who literally lets you take a lesson on How To Press The Attack Button. My eyebrows were touchin’ my living room ceiling at this, man. I was like, “Uh-oh, is this a Baby Game?”
Then, yeah, after I took a couple steps into the cold, hideous, destroyed world, I went back to practice.
The more techniques and skills you unlock, the more tutorials Hanbei unlocks, and each tutorial line terminates in a “Free Combat” option that lets you experience a pretty well-rounded fight. I’m still early in the game, though when I encountered my first Hanbei difficulty bump I immediately began wondering if there’s going to be a way to perma-kill the poor guy later.
Chris Person: I’m not far enough to know that either way, but knowing From that’s the kind of mystery that might be hidden in an incredibly obtuse item in NG+.
Wrapping up, I think that’s all there is to say about our best friend Hanbei, unless there’s something I’m missing.
Tim Rogers: I could talk about him for a couple more hours. I could talk about how I used to love practice modes in fighting games, because I got to try out all sorts of stuff I couldn’t get away with against my friends and college dorm neighbours.
I love how rich the combat is in Sekiro, how there’s no one way to kill every enemy, how there are so many whole wide avenues toward any given kill that you might not explore specific technicalities at all in live combat until you’ve considered them in Hanbei’s risk-free garden. Then you go out and try them in the world and spectacularly die like an idiot, which is a greatly humorous feeling.
Just, as a character and as a contextualized tutorial, he’s giving me so many moments. It’s rare for a video game character to feel like a real friend. He rules.
Also, he reminds me of a particular chain izakaya in Japan, called Hanbey, which is quaintly Disneyland-decorated up to resemble the Showa Era.
At Hanbey, the menu is designed around food that people ate while living in poverty during the reconstruction era after World War II. So when you sit down, they bring you an enormous plate of cabbage. Like, a *huge* plate of separated ice-cold cabbage leaves. That’s the complimentary appetizer. I am a big fan of this. Also, “Hanbei,” in addition to being a samurai-like first name (in that it ends in ~bei), is also a pun on the Japanese word 反米 “hanbei,” meaning “Anti-Americanism,” which was understandably rampant during the Showa era.
Look, I said I could talk about this for hours—
Chris Person: I think we all agree about that.
Anyway, that’s Hanbei folks. Remember: he’s here, he’s strong, and lives to be murdered constantly.