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Sekiro's Genichiro Ashina boss fight is a miraculous teaching moment

A few weeks ago, a purple swordsman bullied me relentlessly in Sekiro. Most players have probably met him: he's near the bamboo thicket slope idol in the Hirata Estate flashback sequence, not long before you fight Lady Butterfly. I was probably slightly too early in the game to take him on, but kept throwing myself at him all the same. At the end of a long evening of trying, I quit Sekiro in a huff, decided this was yet another From Software game I'd never crack, and prepared to move on to something less stressful. 

Except, I didn't quit Sekiro. I went back to the game a day later, and I persevered. This Sengoku period-infused grim setting—where the pervasive obsession with immortality is decaying everything—was too compelling for me to walk away from. I recently found that purple swordsman again and killed him the first time. He was a piece of piss. That's because I'd already beaten the game's Genichiro Ashina boss—and like a lot of players, I define my time with Sekiro as pre and post-Genichiro. He teaches you the game by kicking your ass over and over again. I understand things about the game now that I only thought I understood before that boss fight. It took me at least 30 attempts to beat him. I skipped that cutscene preceding the duel a lot.

I imagine Genichiro Ashina is the biggest separation point for players who give up on the game and those who persevere to the finish. I'm far from done with Sekiro—I just beat Snake Eyes Shirahagi this morning in the Ashina Depths before work, and I haven't killed anything that requires Divine Confetti yet—but I can't see any further difficulty bumps making me give up at this point. The Guardian Ape took me four or five attempts to beat. Sub bosses that would've taken me tens of attempts before are now taking three or four tries. Instead of getting angry with enemies like I did with the purple swordsman, I just reconfigure and calmly try again. 

Genichiro Ashina, you broke my brain. But you saved me. 

Turning point

If this boss fight wasn't as well-designed as it is, I don't think the player's journey through Sekiro would hold together as effectively. This trial-by-fire teaches you how to parry and dodge properly, but it does so without the player necessarily realise they're learning through failure—only afterwards did I discover that parrying had almost become second nature, and not a move where I'd frequently flub the timing. This fight slowly transforms you into the precise, deadly wraith that the game needs you to be. 

In its second phase, the fight stops being a straightforward duel, and Genichiro starts throwing lightning strikes at you, which you can either deflect or dodge. This part of the fight is about teaching you to expect surprises in Sekiro—say, if a poo-throwing ape happens to come back to life with no head—and to acclimatise on the fly against new threats. It's the model the rest of the game is built on. 

I don't have much of a history with From's games, which is why I'm surprised Sekiro has swept Devil May Cry 5 aside in my Steam library and dominated my spare time this year. I've seen people say it's harder than previous Souls games, or Bloodborne—but personally I find Sekiro much easier to grasp. I understand its parry system, which I didn't in Bloodborne. There aren't many abstract systems to figure out and no equippable items, and the stats are so simple that you can focus on swordplay and move sets.

After Sekiro, I'll probably go back to those games, and see if anything I've learned will help me out. I finally understand the appeal of From's games, past the videos breaking down lore and extra-tedious discussions about difficulty, and get that these are singular works. FromSoftware has made a whole bunch of games that are roughly in this vein now—but it's the twists on Sekiro versus its other works that have made it specifically appeal to me. It's a masterful sword combat game, which is something I've always been looking for, going back to the Jedi Knight series. 

I can't wait to see how else the developer plays with this template in future—and hopefully it'll pick up many more converts like me along the way. 

Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.