Spoiler alert: I'm about to gripe about this ape encounter from start to finish, so if you'd rather not know the details here's King Kong Song by Abba instead.
The best thing about reviewing Sekiro (apart from playing an awesome game), is the brief period in the few days after the game you get to lurk on forums and watch players discover every gruelling development for the first time. It's a blissful window, before the game has been pulled apart and perfectly mapped across a library of wikis and guide pieces. Instead, you just get raw reaction.
I saw Reddit threads about the game's difficulty. I lurked in the Sekiro Discord channel and saw folks swapping tips for taking down the Drunkard, who can seem suddenly, overwhelmingly tough the first time you meet him. Eventually you look back on his slow, telegraphed attack patterns with a sense of nostalgia.
With every thread I read, I would smile, very smugly, and think:
In 20 hours you're gonna meet a big ape, and he's gonna smash all your bones.
WHY WON'T HE STOP HITTING
The first thing the Guardian Ape does is hit you. The second thing he does is hit you. This continues apace for eternity with an occasional pause so the Ape can literally fart in your face and then throw its shit at you.
It's like a Bloodborne boss snuck into a different game. Bloodborne's frenzied beasties also like to throw out seemingly endless strings of vicious strikes with little reprieve. These long-limbed fiends are able to find you even at distance with lunging swipes and bursts of speed. It feels like sticking your head in a big furry blender. I spent hours getting mulched by this angry Catherine wheel of spittle and actual poo until I had to go off and do something else for a while. Running away isn't really an option, but staying close seems suicidal, right?
In fact there are little pauses in those overwhelming attack patterns, and you can stay close, dodge those flailing ape fists and land blows here and there. Eventually, like Neo in a cursed Matrix full of bad animals, you acquire revelatory understanding of the beast's swipes and turd-tossing tendencies. There's a spot of calm in the middle of that monkey tornado, and you need to go and own it.
You get into The Zone, eventually. You use the firecracker prosthetic to stun him. You start to deliver slashes to his ribs as he lunges. You discover the patch just to one side of his arse where he can't really get you, and you land more blows there. As his health bar chips down to halfway, its posture bar glows orange and—thank god—the deathblow icon appears.
You stab him in the eye, jump on his back, grasp the giant sword that's been stuck through his neck the whole time (who put it there?), and lever his head off.
Thank fuck that's finished.
IT IS NOT FINISHED
This is the moment that Sekiro: Apes Die Twice outright lies to your face. You stare at the pieces of dead ape in front of you, sigh with relief, sip a beverage, and savour the rewarding SHINOBI DEATHBLOW message. Then the gorilla picks up his head with one hand, picks up the giant sword with the other hand, and starts swinging.
Let's enjoy some reactions to that.
I admire this fight. Its two halves draw influence from fighting styles From Software have experimented with throughout its games. The first half is a dodge-heavy Bloodborne fight that runs at turbo pace. The second half is the Dancer of the Boreal Valley dressed up as a gorilla. Kinda. The Guardian Ape attacks with slinky stabs and slashes designed to throw off your deflection timings. You can get up close and attack whenever you like, but the Ape punishes with a big area-of-effect scream that, understandably, causes Terror.
If the Terror bar fills up, you just keel over dead. You can use an item to muffle the effects of terror a little, but your best defense is to run away as fast as you can, reversing your behaviour during the first half of the fight. The Guardian Ape fight teases out two entirely different combat styles and forces you to switch mindset with that grisly mid-encounter twist.
From Software seems to understand the pressure you're under at this point, so the designers give you a lifeline: a huge, lingering overhead (well, over-neck-stump) sword strike. Deflect that and the ape slumps forward, open to any attack you choose to throw. I love the Ashina double overhead kendo strike for the bonus posture damage, and because it looks awesome.
Finally, a second, terminal deathblow opportunity appears and—twist!—there's a big horrible centipede in there!?
ONE LAST TWIST OF THE KNIFE
Well, that was awful, but at least it's over. Or is it? This is a From Software game so there is, of course, Ape lore to consider.
Now with the trauma of the boss fight still fresh, you're probably not considering the Ape's thoughts and feelings during life. But across various descriptions of the ape spread across a few items and the remnant memory you discover that he was nurturing the glowing flower you find in its den. His plan was ultimately to find a mate and charm her with the flower so that he wouldn't be lonely any more.
Dig deeper and you discover that the Ape once had a wife, long ago. She died naturally, but the Centipede kept the Guardian Ape alive and in mourning ever since. Sekiro takes the Ape's flower for his lord's ritual, apparently without realising that he has become the final act in a sad love story.
Sekiro is an incredible action game with a combat system I love, and From Software manages to bring layers of story and emotion to battles. This is fight that captures so much of what makes Sekiro great in one encounter and I can see it being one of my gaming highlights of the year.
Ultimately though, fuck that ape.