Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
My obsession with Dark Souls and FromSoftware is entwined with my origin story as a creator of internet things.
I played the first Dark Souls game, guided by my friend Jon Jon. I recorded and publish the play through, day by day. Jon Jon lives in America, so I’d burn the midnight oil, trying to beat bosses at 3am.
My love for the franchise continued to matriculate — I played Dark Souls 2 the day it came out, and everything after that is history. History you can watch online.
The documentation of my love story with the Souls franchise has meant that I’ve been able to periodically reflect on the biggest moments of the franchise, and relive my initial reaction.
The final boss of Dark Souls 3 is one of those stand-out moments. Reminiscing on this particular challenge is one my favourite late night whiskey activities.
Ultimately, the Dark Souls series represents a lot of things for me: my start as a creator, my investment in an ambiguous world, the only game series I’m any good at playing — but ultimately, it’s infused with the friendships and memories I gathered along the way.
I’ve beat Dark Souls 3 a handful of times, and I’m currently plugging away at Dark Souls on the Switch.
Very often in video games you spend time doing activities that are not thematically coherent with the thing you want to be doing. Side quests or inventory management often feel like chores or necessary busy-work.
But Dark Souls never felt like that to me. Understanding the stats of weapons or reading item descriptions or talking to people is not transactional. All of these things teach you about the world, and the more you learn, the more empowered you are in your attempts to overcome the world and defeat the ills within. There’s a beautiful coherence to the Souls franchise — in that everything aligns with your goal of doing the thing you came to do.
It requires you to play in, of course, and be totally on board. But that’s what you’re there for.
But for all of that, I haven’t beaten Sekiro.
I enjoyed the game for what it was. The rhythmic dance of sword-play. The pseudo-diegetic BWAAAAM as you break someone’s posture and open them up for a death blow.
The setting is interesting, if uninspired, and I’m not uninterested in the goings on of feudal Japan.
The game is good.
But I haven’t beaten it.
The situation is this: I played through the game confidently over three months or so, dropping in and out to take down challenging bosses, revisiting areas to gather secrets and levels.
And I arrived at the final boss, as prepared as possible.
And hit the wall.
Fighting Genichiro is child’s play, almost comfortable, at this late moment in the story. I parry and dodge his blows easily. But then Ishin the Sword Saint comes out.
This old guy is a bastard.
I hate him.
It’s fitting that this is the final encounter — that someone whom Sekiro once had common interest with stands between the Wolf and his ward. Thematically, I get it.
But god if I don’t hate the fight.
Where other encounters force you to learn a new skill or hone a particular aspect of the game — the Guardian ape entreats you to understand how aerial movements can be a boon — Ishin doesn’t teach you squat.
Academically, I understand the point of the Ishin fight is to bring together all of the skills you’ve learned through the game and apply them.
The first phase is about parrying, the second is about zoning, and I don’t know what the third phase is about because I can’t get to it.
I think it goes without saying I am extremely salty. I’ve made it my mission to stream the boss fight until I beat it — and with isolation on the horizon, it seems I’ll have plenty of time to bash my head against the wall fighting the sword-douche.
My favourite fights of the Souls series are against enemies with a similar skillset to your own. It feels like you’re going up against someone who, with the same tools you have, has become a master of the craft of violence.
Artorias is my favourite fight of the whole franchise for this reason, followed very closely by almost all the fights against dudes in armour in Dark Souls 2.
Beating Artorias is a lighting in a bottle moment — the encounter bubbles with tension. It’s less about memorising his skill, and far more about internalising the game’s rules and systems. It’s a duel, not a chore.
And the lessons the fight imparts have a one to one application for you moving forward. You learn that broad sweeping attacks should be rolled through and overhead blows must be avoided at all costs lest you want to become a pancake.
Ishin is trying to do the same thing, but it doesn’t feel the same.
Maybe it’s that I’m playing it by myself.
Maybe the communal effort of beating the other Souls games with someone is pivotal to my enjoyment.
But I also think it’s just that I don’t enjoy the fight itself.
Will I ever beat Ishin? Maybe.
I don’t think it matters, I might just press new game and start over, and enjoy the best bits of Sekiro again, and try to forget the wall of the Sword Saint.