Release your rage: A critical analysis of “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” (2019)

Well tonstant weader, we did eventually beat “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” and we stand by our earlier assessment. To be fair, I have yet to play “Devotion.” Also, “Slay the Spire” would now likely beat “Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” for second place… but I digress.

“Sekiro” was a good game, and more than that, a truly fascinating one. I cannot think of a title released in recent years that was as engaging in terms of both gameplay and story, which is a key combination. One can argue whether other contemporary games had more compelling or complete narratives; on its surface, “Sekiro” is just about an undying shinobi trying to recover his young master in war-torn feudal Japan, decapitating all manner of human and inhuman foes to do so. But underneath that, “Sekiro” has a host of philosophically intricate and psychologically profound themes at play.

One of those themes concerns processing poisonous emotions like hatred, regret and anger. In “Sekiro,” those emotions are natural outgrowths of war, violence, maybe even human existence itself. We give them credence by clinging to them, and it is perhaps only by releasing them that we, as individuals, are able to move beyond the negativity that chain us to the past. Not only does this theme tie together a number of “Sekiro’s” narrative and gameplay quirks, it also ties into the game’s notorious difficulty.

This theme of emotional processing is most directly stated after the battle with the mounted samurai Gyoubu Oniwa. Once that boss has been felled, once horse and rider have seemingly dissolved into ash, once Sekiro has apologized, Sekiro can turn to a nearby building. Inside he will find an elderly woman with a lamp who is given no name but refers to herself as an “old hag.” She notes that Gyoubu is a corpse, but that “changes nothing.” War and violence don’t stop, and that’s not the only thing that can’t be quelled by battle. “Where’s all that hatred go?” she asks. “Haven’t you ever wondered?”

On the same grounds where you fought Gyoubu, an endgame boss called the Demon of Hatred will eventually spawn. This is the final unfortunate form of the Sculptor, an old man who was haunted by his own violent past. He attempted to find release through religious devotion, specifically by devoting his life to carving and (presumably) establishing statues of the Buddha throughout the area. However, his efforts disappointed him. “No matter what I do, any Buddha I carve is an incarnation of wrath,” he tells Sekiro. “Thus is the fate of those who owe a deep karmic debt. You’ll understanding when you try carving one for yourself one day.”

Interestingly, what has been noted by the fandom is that the sculptures resemble less any particular image of the Buddha and more the multi-armed ashuras (conceptual descendants of Hindu asuras), supernatural entities that, depending on the tradition and on their own stage of spiritual development, are troublesome anti-gods or the wrathful aspect of the transcendent Buddha.

As the Demon of Hatred, the Sculptor succumbs completely to a kind of ashura self. If karma is understood as destiny, then his has been achieved: wrath, hatred, however that negative emotion is understood, it has erased his identity this life cycle. Fittingly, “Sekiro” is a game that encourages replays, and so encourages similar trips through a narrative cycle of being, each playthrough subtly influenced by the last.

The concept of negative emotions and karma as something that can be inherited is present in the game mechanic of Spirit Emblems, paper dolls that can be collected from the dead and power Sekiro’s prosthetic arm. In some flavor text, the Emblems are referred to as manifestations of regret, which is held and utilized by Sekiro as a shinobi: “Those regretful of their vile actions are haunted by many Spirit Emblems. Shinboi who have killed many must bear the physical toll of those sins.” Elsewhere: “Shinobi who have killed many must carry the burdern of their sins in their heart.” Elsewhere again: “Inheriting the karma of those they’ve killed is also part of being shinobi.” Regret is not simply feeling bad about something. It is karma, cosmic destiny given individual weight, and it can be passed on to others.

The emotion that is most frequently passed on to the player is anger (for confirmation, check out some “Sekiro” rage compilations). The difficulty of the game was questioned, even criticized, by some who felt the difficulty was a form of elitism or gatekeeping, or else it excluded disabled players. Conversely, the difficulty had its defenders, those who saw victory after intense challenge as subsequently more rewarding. They also cited the difficulty as part of the game producers’ artistic vision, although this seldom seemed to go deeper than tying into FromSoftware’s overall narrative philosophy of gloomy, brooding decadence. Perhaps there was a greater lesson about patience or humility, but the goal of such personal virtues were always connected to the first point: achieving victory following a difficult game felt more earned, and therefore, more rewarding.

However, recognizing those exact virtues through repeatedly playing – and dying and playing again, itself a game element through “Sekiro’s” resurrection mechanic – is connected directly to the game’s themes of inherited emotion through lifetimes. What emotion does a player inherit while playing through the cycles of Sekiro’s lives, deaths and rebirths? If it is gamer rage, then they have failed to heed the lessons of the old woman and the Sculptor, and their karma both drags the down and is dragged down with them. Ultimately, “Sekiro” is a Buddhist parable in both narrative and gameplay, a reflection on achieving emotional equilibrium – not merely gamer victory – in order to pass through this life cycle free from burdens.

Bosses are the only enemies that won’t repeatedly respawn after death, but some do leave behind key items called memories – battle memories of “extraordinary foes,” as the flavor text puts it. Memories can be processed at sculptor’s idols, where they become remnants – still battle memories, but now recalled in such a way to enhance Sekiro’s attack power. Apparently one answer to the old woman’s question is that the hatred experienced in battle lives on after the death of the body in the form of memory. Whether that hatred keeps us locked in a moment where we cannot release negativity or a moment were can pause, reflect upon and release, and resume the cycle enlightened, is up to our own powers of patience and perspective.

The ghosts of guilt: A critical analysis of “Otogi: Myth of Demons” (2002)

This blog got the Xbox exclusive “Otogi: Myth of Demons” by accident. I saw an ad for the game in an issue of Detective Comics and got the impression I’d be playing as The Crimson King – a muscular gentleman with black armor, a skull face, red fright wig and ibex horns. When I received the game as a Christmas present, it turned out Crimso was a demonic foil to Raikoh, a skinny kid with a pale face, girly hair and antique samurai armor. This was his story, as it turned out: a redemptive and undead romp through a mystical take on feudal Japan.

Despite the mix-up, I played straight through New Year’s.

My notice and subsequent fond memories of the game were not joined by a broad swath of humanity. “Otogi” never seemed to capture the collective gamer unconsciousness, and it rarely makes retrospective reviews (although it can happen, for better or worse). In my modest attempt to add something to our mutual memory, I offer this analysis of the game. “Otogi’s” otherworldly storyline and cast subtly (and not so subtly) cover a host of subjects, including loyalty and freedom, truth and falsehood, purpose and existence, the natural world and human authority, and dreams and reality. This blog begins here by interpreting “Otogi” as a cryptic fairy tale, but we conclude by considering it as a meditation on the lingering and dehumanizing power of guilt.

To interpret “Otogi” as a fairy tale is more than fair. The word otogi appears to mean fairy tale. However, the interpretation goes beyond translation. Many fantasy stories begin by laying groundwork, which in narrative terms is called worldbuilding: sketching maps, penning a glossary, devising a concise history of events up until now. Fairy tales eschew this model. Everything in a fairy tale is taken for granted. There is no reason to ask why the cat can talk or the ogre rules the castle. They always have and, until things change, they always will. This gives fairy tales a more playful quality than other forms of fiction. They are fluid, flexible and formative, and they easily lend themselves to creation myths and just so stories.

The world of “Otogi” does not feel like a creation myth. It feels like a post-apocalypse, with its crumbling architecture, overgrown forests, hollowed out canyons and reality warping weather (in one level, clouds that cover the moon bring out malevolent spirits; in another, winds threaten to blow Raikoh off the landscape; all throughout, the sky is rarely the right color), not to mention the copious amounts of demons. However, just so storytelling is not inappropriate for an apocalypse. In fact, after the end has come, it’s hard not to take things for granted.

Without the extensive narrative worldbuilding other fantasy stories would rely on, “Otogi” is free to lean on developer FromSoftware’s legendary environmental storytelling philosophy. In “Otogi,” everything in the environment points toward guilt, guilt of all kinds. For exampe, the concept of imprisonment figures into the mechanics of several levels. Most of the first half of the game sees Raikoh smashing the fully destructable objects and architecture to “free” elements – gold, water, wood and fire – which have been spiritually sealed in the environment (in doing so in one level, Raikoh inadvertently also frees the Crimson King, who had been imprisoned for crimes against the Imperial Court); a level in the second half has Raikoh paying the opposite role, hammering in giant, magic nails to keep Nayuta, a chittering, multi-armed demon god, chained to a wall. Many of the level settings also hints at something darker. Those decaying mansions, settlements and cities were not abandoned without reason. Someone is at fault.

The Imperial Court seems to have caused much of the suffering (tellingly, the Court held sway directly over the above demon god’s prison: power built on imprisonment; the guilty literally lording over the guilty). The Court utilized a supernatural Seal to separate the realms of humans and demons (a move not without its discontents, since it required moving the old capitol). However, during its rule, the Court banished many individuals beyond the Seal. There, they were either devoured by monsters or mutated into monsters themselves, embittered and wracked with pain. In short, the Court had much to answer for, and it could be seen as a kind of poetic justice when its Seal was broken by the rogue sorcerer Michizane, an action that destroyed the capitol.

The punishments of the Court did not have to be supernaturally grotesque or cruel. Raikoh was the Court’s executioner, a role that saw him bring much death to the world, or so the Princess tells us. The game manual backs this up. Raikoh’s family served the court as executioners before the collapse, but Raikoh himself was always “bothered by the task.” The only hint at what bothered him is that his final job, executing his father, saw him so rattled he abandoned his post. If the Court had no problem pitting son against father, one can only imagine what they’d do to those outside their circle of loyalty.

Still, Raikoh’s guilt remains ambiguous, since he is guilty of abandoning his duty and performing it. Either way, Raikoh is unclean, and his penance is to purify the demons haunted world, a task not without its own guilt. This penance is directed by the Princess, who vicariously seems to seek forgiveness or salvation through Raikoh. She is certainly connected to the great demons he is tasked with felling. When Raikoh purifies the Soul Caller, a waterlogged entity haunting a nexus of bridges, the demon cries foul. “You were the one that put me here in the first place,” she says, presumably directed at the Princess rather than Raikoh. Later, if Raikoh kills the giant centipede Kurada above the floating tomb, the great worm is initially stunned before recognizing someone: “I see. It is you, Princess. I remember you.” If nothing else, the Princess is guilty of association.

Kurada’s last words are actually: “But where is… Lord Mi…” referring to Lord Michizane, the Princess’s guiltiest association. Her perhaps partner seeks godhood, which is presented as another kind of penance. “Human beings have limitations. Certain sins cannot be erased,” he says during a ritual among the stars. “The limits of humanity shall no longer bind me. I am a god.”

Guilt is a force that toys with humanity, literally. After being found guilty by the Court, wrongdoers were exiled, where their state sanctioned guilt saw them mutate into demons (the Yasha Raven King being the prime example). In order to escape guilt – which he labels “sin” – Michizane casts off his humanity. Even Raikoh, in order to purify his guilt, must remain in a state between the living and the dead, the human and the spectral.

Godhood and purification, demons and ghosts, these are all euphemisms. They obscure the true subject, guilt, and that is the most devastating observation “Otogi” offers. Guilt needs no context or clarification to cause its suffering. All it needs is the crippling sensation of purpose to serve as shackles. The Princess herself has perhaps the most profound statement on the matter. Tucked away as a bit of dialogue only accessible while visiting the in-game shop, she says: “One who hides his tears and punishes himself in silence means to cloak his guilt from the eyes of others.” Notably, she speaks this unseen, seated behind a translucent screen.

An elegant mess: A critical review of “Otogi: Myth of Demons” (2002)

Ten years ago this month, the broodingly Gothic and punishingly difficult RPG “Dark Souls” was released in Japan (the worldwide release staggered out the following month). That makes this a perfect time to talk about the game, so naturally this blog will be talking about everything but it. Well, two other games really, but they’ll all be related. The second game will likely require no introduction, but the first can use a little more help.

Even if “Dark Souls” presents a particular dark fantasy vision, the Souls series as a whole was not born in a vacuum. Some of its ancestors are well covered: the olde European style, spatial structure and obscure difficulty of “King’s Ques”; the design choices, foggy plot set up and blunt failure screen of “Lost Kingdoms”; the Armored Core games because, uh, Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki worked on some of them, I guess.

One game that never seems to get on that list is 2002’s “Otogi: Myth of Demons.” In fact, “Otogi” never seems to get on any lists. Every now and then there’s a retro review that hails it as one of the original Xbox’s most underrated exclusive titles, but even that’s not quite right. Contemporary reviews of the game were positive, and sales were just strong enough to warrant sequel. Nossir, “Otogi” is not underrated. It is a classic in search of a cult.

“Otogi” tells the stately tale of Raikoh, a silent executioner who shirks his duty right before something mystical wipes out the Imperial Court. Raikoh is apparently killed (we don’t see it happen; we get everything through a narrative crawl) but then seemingly brought back by an enigmatic Princess, unseen and known only through her voice. She tasks him with killing the demons that have overtaken the ruins of the imperial capitol, although her motivation for doing so remains unclear.

The philosophy of presentation in “Otogi” is very close to “Dark Souls.” Both games have a dark fantasy atmosphere (feudal Japan in “Otogi” and medieval Europe in “Souls”), with the emphasis heavily on atmosphere. There is painstaking attention paid to visual scale and weird flourish: towering landscapes, crumbling megastructures, twisted enemies, outlandish weapons and very uncomfortable looking suits of armor. These impressive images come at the expense of coherent narrative, leaving the stories (both seemingly about reinstating a golden age of humanity) to be told through the melancholy environment, as well as cryptic hints from characters.

Where the games diverge is in gameplay. At its core, “Otogi” is a hack and slash with fairly light RPG elements. No open world either. There is a central hub, but it’s a menu screen, giving the game an arcade-y feel. Before levels, Raikoh can be equipped with different weapons, magic spells and stat-balancing accessories; however, there’s no armor, so you can’t cosplay as an onion or a giant yellow spoon or whatever other weird crap you’re into. Also, the stat upgrade system is automatic, so there’s no control over how Raikoh levels up (although the effects are gradual, which feels very Souls-like).

If there’s anything else that’s especially “Dark Souls” about “Otogi,” it’s the difficulty. The game is neither easy nor fair. It starts Raikoh off with a fraction of his eventual health, which is pretty standard for an RPG, but there’s more. Raikoh also has a gauge for his magic, which is used to cast spells and dash and regenerate health… to a certain degree. Raikoh’s health is measured in discrete chunks. Take too big a hit and lose a chunk for the rest of the level, which magic won’t regenerate.

Magic is constantly decreasing too, although it can be replenished by killing enemies. If Raikoh runs out of magic, he starts to lose health instead (I guess his reanimation was not completely successful). This leads to some interesting scenarios, like an infamous boss battle that concludes with a lengthy posthumous monologue, where you risk dying after you’ve beaten the level simply by standing around while your life drains out.

Another early game kneecap is Raikoh’s starter weapon, his family’s ancestral sword. It’s powerful, but it’s also saddled with a mountain of damage that needs to be repaired. The gold required to do so will take a lot of grinding. Raikoh picks up weaker but more less damaged weapons pretty early on, so it’s not a problem, but this blog can’t remember seeing that mechanic anywhere else. It’s interesting. Not bad, interesting. It feels in line with the show-don’t-tell storytelling. More on that later.

Regardless, combat is probably “Otogi’s” weakest element. Raikoh only has a handful of spells and combos, which lends itself more toward button mashing than complex strategy. The spells, which are balanced around a mystical understanding of the cardinal directions, never get more involved than rock, paper, scissors. Weapons are even less dynamic, typically devolving into “sharp thing make bad man go away.” To be fair, Raikoh moves like a dancer while he gracefully beats the snot out of stuff, and he does so with an impressive selection of weapons, but they all fall into four basic categories and rely on the same mix of light attack/heavy attack combos. Simple to learn, simple to master. Even at the time, the combat was hailed as “repetitive.”

The enemies at least reflect this. They are not particularly bright, and their difficulty comes from them absorbing a ton of damage, turning some fights into twitchy wars of attrition rather than thoughtful showdowns. They can also hit hard. For added color, they’ll smash Raikoh through the all the nice Heian antiques, which risks flinging him off certain maps but at least gives you environmental destruction points.

So if gameplay isn’t necessarily a highlight and story is firmly in the backseat, why did “Otogi” get impressive ratings back in the day? Why would anyone want to play it now? One word: style.

There’s the art direction: colors and lighting focused on making the Xbox go pop. There’s the soundtrack: both the croaky and clangy sound effects, and the score, which is a mixture of traditional wind, string and percussive instruments and modern electronic and orchestral flourishes, all done to dissonant perfection. There’s the monster designs: mutated raven-men, twisted worms with baleen mouths, vegetables that resemble bloated corpses, all grotesques inspired by Japanese mythology rather than taken directly from it. There’s the landscapes and architecture: moody, imaginative, ethereal and fully destructible. This might have been the first game to use destructible environments as a selling point. Some people complained that a few levels in the second half were reskins of earlier ones, but I never cared (except for maybe the one that became an escort mission).

It’s almost 20 years old as of this writing, but “Otogi” still looks gorgeous. Of course it’s a little rough around the edges compared to today’s slick visuals, but the game’s focus on a singular stylistic vision has helped it retain an elegance and intrigue that more mainstream titles from its era now clearly lack. “Otogi” honestly feels like no other game, and it should probably be mentioned with the likes of contemporaries “Ico” and “Okami.”

I think I’ve spent more time reviewing this game than previous ones, but I am both fond of it and saddened by the lack of information about it online (publisher SEGA has long since axed its “Otogi” webpage; FromSoftware still has a page, which offers proof the bizarre Otogi/Brittey Spears advertising campaign actually happened). At the very least, the Internet deserves more “Otogi” content.

“Otogi” didn’t come out in the States until a year after its Japanese release. If memory serves, it was covered by the gaming magazine GMR in the same issue as action RPG “Fable,” although “Otogi” might have been a blurb and “Fable” a preview (that would make more sense with the timing, but I’d have to actually find the paper copy to confirm). It’s an interesting footnote because “Fable” was supposed to represent the big revolution in RPGs, with a dynamic world that both responded to the presence of the hero and shaped his adventures. However, while “Fable” was well received and spawned a franchise, it was also infamous for failing to deliver on a number of forward-facing fronts.

Curiously, it was “Otogi” that signaled coming change. It was a few years out, but the offbeat import pointed the way toward “Dark Souls” and the whole subgenre of Souls-like games that would dominate the next decade. “Otogi” is now, as it was then, an elegant mess: frustrating, cryptic, stunning and beautiful. Rather than old fashioned or cutting edge, it might be timeless.

The allure of lore: A critical review of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” (2021)

A confession, tonstant weader, and feel free to stop reading at the end of this paragraph if you think me unqualified: I haven’t played this game. I have watched a bunch of videos, both playthroughs and the thoughts of others. Given the nature of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus,” I think that’s a decent substitute. It’s a sorta sequel of a visual novel, except with even less game stuff this time around. All I would be doing if I bought the thing would be reading or watching someone else’s videos so I could find out how to unlock the secret stuff, so I’m just cutting out the middleman by watching videos of someone else reading it to me. I’ve also thought a bit about the original game, so I hope I have something worthwhile to say about this incarnation. With that out of the way…

It would be a bit senseless to relate the plot of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” It is the same plot as the original, at least the main game is. There are side stories and a new flight of background info opportunities courtesy of an email/music player/kitchen sink desktop screen. This replaces the original game’s habit of forcing curious players to dive through game files to pick up narrative extras. It’s a notable change, and the general consensus is it was done to allow console users a way to navigate mechanics that were designed for a PC crowd. It’s also a move toward simplification, which hints at some of what lies ahead.

First the strengths, of which there are a few. The music is still good, perhaps even better, with a new composer brought in to flesh out the original soundtrack. The resulting tracks are lively but mindful of what came before. The art style is in tact, and while there’s not a lot of new art, what’s there is the same as the music: reflective, expansive and respectful.

The new material, the side stories, are well-written… for the most part. Whenever the girls are talking, everything’s great. Like the original, it is a lot of writing, but also like the original it’s appropriately complex, with language and actions informing psychologies both directly and subtly. For example, someone calls out always upbeat Sayori for trying to be everyone’s friend. The game is acknowledging Sayori’s overly chipper attitude in a mature way, and it’s hinting at her neurosis – some people with personality disorders come on strong, like they’re your best friend in the world, the second they meet you. Brilliant. Likewise, Monika mulls over her desire to step in and fix other people’s problems. Again, a mature handling of her alpha gal stereotype while also slyly hinting at her willingness to do bad things in different settings. It’s all very nice.

Unfortunately, it’s the narrator that cocks things up. There is no player character, so narration has to do a lot of heavy lifting. It’s fine when it’s taking care of stage direction, but when it creeps into characters’ heads, then it feels intrusive. That both adds text to an already text-heavy game and feels like hand holding. The characters themselves do a decent job of revealing their flaws and motivations with their own words. I don’t want a narrator – especially one who isn’t a character – to spell it out for me. It’s unnecessary.

Unfortunately, “unnecessary” is a word that could describe a lot of the game. There are some new music cuts and pieces of art, but those are mostly integrated into the side stories. The original game is just the original game, which has been kicking around online for free since 2017. The side stories are, again, mostly well-written, but they’re even less gamey than before. Without a player character, there is no one to write poems or choose between Doki girls, so there are no minigames or branching paths. It’s all just click to read. There aren’t any horror elements there either, no unsettling atmosphere, not even any goofy jump scares to spice things up. The side stories are squarely in the slice of life genre. I get that these decisions were made in the interest of the narrative, but it raises an interesting question.

Why does this game, this updated edition, exist? Is it an excuse for lore? Those who are interested can hunt down secret time-locked emails to uncover a story about simulated realities and trial-and-error multiverse theory. It’s satisfying enough, especially since this blog privately theorized that the original game might have been a kind of digital stress test that went wrong after running the same simulation too many times. That’s intellectually vindicating, I suppose, but it’s not as interesting as the psychological insight the original offered with its neatly crafted narrative outside of the ARG treasure hunting. I am not a fan of lore, Tonstant Weader, at least not when it distracts from the story.

Arguably, the lore in “Plus!” comes at the cost of character development and compelling gameplay-narrative structure. Look, I’ve seen the Game Theory videos. I know the hidden stuff is blocked off by clever puzzles and written in distinct voices. I admit it’s all smart and thoughtfully put together. But why did that intelligence have to be titled toward a digital scavenger hunt? Why couldn’t it have been titled toward a script and structure that considered something about human nature or the ethics of gaming or the structure of reality, even if parts of it had to be more conventionally presented?

Also, instead of making a literal meta-narrative in the form of behind-the-scenes puzzles, why not let the meta-narrative exist in the abstract, where it would reward thoughtful players who like pondering the psychologically dense character, and the nature of story and gaming? I know the conspiracy theories and incomplete breadcrumb trails in the first game got a lot of people hyped up about the secrets to be revealed this time around, but I’m already on the record for saying I didn’t care about that. I was much more invested in the psychological/philosophical “aha!” moments than the puzzle-y ones.

There’s another, much more cynical, reason this game could exist. It might be a cash grab. At (the price as of this writing, which is) about $30, it can certainly feel that way. A price tag like that might be enough to convince some people “Plus!” would be a grand sequel or sprawling with new content, instead of this rather conservative offering. A digital download that costs that much ought to have a lot of something. You would think.

I suppose we can console ourselves with the fact that money spent on “Plus!” will go toward developing the next game from Team Salvato. That’s fine. I still welcome it. But whatever it is, I’d like it to be more than breadcrumbs, both in terms of gameplay and narrative. I know this dev is capable of thoughtful, insightful storytelling, and I’d like that to married to at least slightly compelling gameplay.

That is the the allure of lore and the danger of relying on it too much. There are interesting ideas here, but they are poorly developed. The psychological impact of the new gameplay material is dulled by a style that lacks interaction and feels rushed. The philosophical pondering of the meta-narrative is left unexplored, no doubt to give it the necessary mystery for a game of narrative connect-the-dots.

Ultimately, “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” is a good story clumsily told. If it’s gathering resources for deeper games to come, so be it. But if it’s pointing the way toward the future of narrative gaming, then I want a refund.