Boss Rush: Sekiro’s Last Duel Is the Perfect Final Exam

Games Features Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Boss Rush: Sekiro’s Last Duel Is the Perfect Final Exam

Frequently, at the end of a videogame level, there’s a big dude who really wants to kill you. Boss Rush is a column about the most memorable examples of these, whether they challenged us with tough-as-nails attack patterns, introduced visually unforgettable sequences, or because they delivered monologues that left a mark. Sometimes, we’ll even discuss more abstract examples, like a rhetorical throwdown or a tricky final puzzle or all those damn guitar solos in “Green Grass and High Tides.”

It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that over the last few decades, FromSoftware has become the near-undisputed masters of the boss fight. Across their many releases, they’ve built up a reputation for crafting crushing encounters that provide trying but (mostly) “fair” opponents, foes whose daunting barrages of strikes eventually become parsable with repeated attempts. For veterans of the series, the sight of a pearlescent fog wall or the appearance of a blood-red health bar is enough to conjure memories of getting thoroughly demolished, as the placid audio landscape suddenly erupts into a frantic explosion of chants and lofty instrumentation in the presence of what is frequently a demi-god.

Each area, whether it’s a decrepit castle or a poison swamp, leaves a bread-crumb trail to these arenas, leading lines all directed towards the focal point of a climactic showdown with supernatural beings whose fraying wills frequently once dictated their dying worlds. Usually, their desperate attempts to hold onto long-diminished power have led to them fighting a diminutive, determined undead who loves to roll around (this is you). These duels are exclamation marks on gauntlets of pain, which evoke a combination of dread that this may be where you finally meet your match, and awe, as each foe is framed via compositions that make them feel conjured from myth.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most memorable encounters the studio has crafted is the final boss of their most tightly designed title, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. “Isshin, the Sword Saint” is a four-part battle that draws on every lesson learned throughout this brutal journey, a final exam of metallic twangs and distinct fighting styles that will test everything you’ve got as you whittle away at his health bar and attempt to deal a death blow to his dying dynasty.

After braving undying apes, vengeful Shura, and the very people who trained and raised him, Wolf gets a rematch with Genichiro, the man who threatens to steal away his lord, Kuro, and who cut off Wolf’s arm at the start of the story. However, this isn’t the “real” fight, and having internalized Genichiro’s tempo and tells after crossing swords with him numerous times, the player/Wolf makes (relatively) quick work of him.

Beaten, but still singularly obsessed with using Kuro’s blood to create an army of invincible warriors and “save” the Ashina clan, Genichiro enacts his trump card, slicing himself open with a magic blade to summon his grandfather Isshin at the height of his powers. In a display of queasy body horror, Isshin, who previously helped the protagonist before succumbing to old age, crawls out of the gash in Genichiro’s body, chiding his “pitiful grandchild” for how his obsession with a decaying order has led him to this sad last act, defiling the barrier between life and death in a desperate attempt to bring back long-gone glory days. But still, he begrudgingly accepts his grandson’s final wish. It’s a slight inversion to the usual dichotomy of FromSoftware’s boss fights, as instead of putting down someone clinging to power they long should have abdicated, you’re dueling with a former ally who is similarly fighting on behalf of found family.

A field of swaying silvergrass surrounds the pair, and as the Ashina estate burns in the background, the cool night sky fills with glowing embers. It’s a stage that elegantly synthesizes its chanbara influences, the kind of battlefield that would handily fit into any of Kurosawa’s period pieces that were similarly painted with picturesque brushstrokes of blood. The cutscene that introduces Isshin is shot with FromSoft’s trademark grandiosity, with slow-build, imposing imagery that builds up an intimidating aura around this adversary. It’s all presented with an air of the epic, visually tying into an era of samurai film that frequently portrayed a heavily glorified version of the past that never actually existed, much like what Genichiro imagines the Ashina clan once was.

And then, carrying the wishes of his pitiful grandson, Isshin is on you. The first phase perfectly encapsulates what comes to mind when I think of this game. He unleashes a volley of lightning-fast strikes; each telegraphed just enough so that with proper practice, you’ll eventually be able to leverage the game’s responsive, rapid parries to beat back these blows.

He uses many familiar moves, whether you’ve seen them through his pupil Genichiro or learned them yourself, granting the sense that although your foe is double your height and can take dramatically more hits than you, there aren’t any cheap tricks here. In between the rhythmic chorus of deflections, he’ll suddenly interject stabs that require Mikiri counters or horizontal slashes that force you to jump, calling back to the many previous fights where you had to master these techniques and complicating this dance so that it’s genuinely euphoric when you finally nail each step. In these attacks, you see the shadow of every Ashina swordsman you’ve battled up until this point, the root of their fighting style laid bare in the person who was their teacher and, indirectly, yours.

Once you’ve whittled down this first health bar, it’s time for phase two, as Isshin reaches into the ground and pulls out a spear. He nonchalantly hangs the massive polearm over his left shoulder, still wielding his sword with his right hand, as he unleashes a combination of quick katana strikes and slower spear stabs, resulting in a challenging mixture of tempos that is difficult to stay on beat with. You’ll only be able to sight-read this situation because, similar to his previous attacks, his strikes remind us of the movements used by his Seven Spear underlings you’ve fought ad nauseam. Oh, and during this section, Isshin also has a gun. It’s somewhat hilarious when he pulls out a pistol for the first time and starts blasting, but it complicates things, as unsurprisingly, it’s tricky to parry a bullet (but you still can, of course).

Then comes the last phase. At this point, you’re probably bloodied, frantic, and thinking, “Wait, what if I actually win?” It’s the culmination of dozens of hours of getting cut down, disemboweled, and thoroughly owned, and the end is right in reach. Kuro’s fate hangs in the balance. FromSoftware’s games are almost always about breaking stagnant systems and cycles, and that’s true here as well, as you face a figure literally plucked from the past and into the present, the face of an era of bloodshed that you can end if you can just land that last strike, freeing Kuro from his burden in the process. In reality, this final phase isn’t hard because it’s more mechanically intensive than the previous ones (in fact, it’s probably easier); it’s hard because, at this point, you want to win so damn bad. A little nagging fear in the back of your mind warns that if you lose, you’ll never get this far again.

Now, Isshin starts calling down lightning, a move you’ve seen before when his grandson attempted to win a previous scuffle in the same way. You time it just right and redirect it back. And then, in a final, cathartic strike, you break his guard, end the fight, and the Ashina’s violence with it, playing out whichever conclusion your previous actions earned.

Over the last decade and a half, FromSoftware has probably crafted a higher density of banger bosses than any other active studio, and Isshin, the Sword Saint stands among the very best. In-universe, he’s a literal embodiment of strength, a figure whose gravitas and influence hang over everything. His defeat brings the end of stagnancy, as Wolf frees Kuro from this cycle, one way or another. It’s a test that is trying but fair because you were given proper time to prepare, a battle against a foe who mirrors nearly every move you’ve seen up until now; he invented them, after all. It all comes together in a perfect climax to one of the best action games ever made: fast, vicious, meaningful, rhythmic in its violence, and ultimately, cool as hell.

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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