Sekiro's final boss is some bullshit, honestly.
If it wasn't obvious, it's bigtime spoiler territory from here on out.
First up is Genichiro, who I already bested in the early hours of Sekiro. He's not so bad, but a simple mistake or two can suck down a couple health gourds, and I'll need all my gourds to even get practice in with the next bit, which is just three more phases of a mad grandpa decked out with some of the quickest, deadliest moves in the game.
Die and you start with Genichiro again. No checkpoint, even though he's set up as a bluff. Beat him and Isshin the Sword Saint, aka Sword Grandpa, bursts out of his skin and says hello. It's a four phase boss fight and I hate it. I know. It was easy for you. Cool! I spent hours on some of Sekiro's bosses. I just don't have the time or impetus to prove I can do the sword thing well again. The blade and I get along just fine. I'm looking for a different kind of payoff from Sekiro at this point.
So after spending a few mornings trying to take the Sword Saint, Isshin Ashina, down, I figure, fuck it! Let's give that slowdown mod tool a try.
What a godsend. I can adjust the speed of the game as I play it because it patches the active memory, live. Sekiro should've had this built in, Celeste-style, or as part of Hanbei's training set. Sekiro doesn't give much opportunity for in-depth, focused practice to the player. To learn a boss requires throwing yourself at it time and time again, which works eventually. I have patience. I wouldn't have reached the end of the game without it. But to stretch it out like this?
Take it easy
I can get into Isshin's 2nd and 3rd phases without the tool on occasion, but it's so easy to slip up unless I'm on the entire time. Considering it takes 5-10 minutes, and more as I progress, of near perfect execution and concentration to reach a new sticking point, the point where I get a split-second opportunity to observe and practice against a new move or special attack, learning the final boss is a hell of a time sink.
The lightning attacks don't help things, which aren't too difficult to dodge after spending a few hours getting to the third phase and dying to them over and over. It wouldn't be a FromSoft game without a frustrating elemental damage type.
Sure, there's a return mechanic, but it's rarely practiced outside of boss battles until the very last stage, and even then, timing your jumps with swift lightning returns against a set of lightning attacks with different release timings—nah, I'm good. This isn't fun, it's just four stages of fuck-you-prove-yourself difficulty.
I admire FromSoft games for much more than the challenge. The small, sad stories; the conversational level design; the idiosyncratic design touches. Sekiro’s difficulty is much more prescriptive than the Souls games, too. Bosses are lock and key challenges that require the gradual build up of instinct and intuition in response to their particular attack patterns.
It works most of the time. Sekiro's best bosses are great teachers. I really liked the second bout with the Corrupted Monk. With a few hours of space and practice between meetings and a moveset consisting of clearly telegraphed, but swift and strange attack rhythms, the Monk feels designed to show off your own muscle memory to you. Those slow burn epiphanies are one Sekiro's greatest assets.
And there's the ape, who teaches two different playstyles and attitudes. Phase one: matching the aggression of a big beast even if the odds feel tipped against you. Phase two, the great inversion: cautious and distant play against an otherworldly creature with uncanny, fluid movements. It's a flexibility test. Once you get how you're supposed to play, each stage is a cinch. But sometimes bosses are straight up tests of endurance and reflex and difficulty for the sake of difficulty. The final boss is one of them.
Nothing is lost
An hour or so in, I slow the action down by 50 percent with the intent to study Isshin's moveset. I plan on leaping off the cliff once I get cozy, and then juicing up the speed back to normal. But it feels too good to stop. So I finish the guy off in slow motion, watch a predictably brief From ending (I got the 'good' one too) and let the credits roll. The adrenal high, the sense of accomplishment, the themes and motifs and memories are still flowing through me. Nothing is lost. I love this damn game.
Some might say I missed out on the intended catharsis, sidestepping the 'artist's intent.' So what? There’s nothing to preserve for the greater good in Sekiro’s design. I'll get what I can from it. And I got a lot from Sekiro.
Sekiro is certainly a game about overcoming challenges, and I’ve felt that from it quite often. I've felt solidarity and sadness in seeing our modern conflicts echoed in set pieces that depict the cyclical nature of violence, all directed by a select few in power. I laughed—alone, manically—after meeting Kite Guy. I saw anger dissolve into pity and coalesce into regret after bumping into the headless ape a second time, only for a perfectly healthy family member or friend or lover stand in the way, just to get cut down defending an animated corpse.
Sekiro is a game about specific moments, not a game entirely about making players do the sword good. Difficulty is one axis of Sekiro, not the orbital center. I feel no shame putting that last guy down in slow mo. It looked cool. I felt empowered. It was an appropriate time to flip the table and be the FromSoftware boss myself.
‘I did it’ is an exclamation I’ll still hunt for and achieve in games, but it’s so much less important to me than it once was. Feeling good about what I play and why I play it is ultimately up to me. That’s what PC mods, the spirit of the PC overall, has always been: openness and inclusivity. Kick a boss's ass if you wanna. Clip through a wall. Turn off gravity. Or play along with the designer and beat Sword Grandpa on their terms. Do what you want, it's a personal computer.