Last time, I was writing about how the magnitude and tone of music can affect our perception of the difficulty of FromSoft games. As far as the typical Soulsborne formula is concerned, there are two ways to look at the music: one focused on art, and other slightly more practical, diving into the relations with other game design elements.
They spoke understandable dialogue and music appeared in-between the bossfights while exploring.
This formula was shaken up by the studio’s latest hit — Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Gone was the furious rolling, stamina bar and slow chipping at the opponent’s healthbar. The characters were given moving mouths, they spoke understandable dialogue and music appeared in-between the bossfights while exploring. The punishing core of Souls remained, though, pushing the difficulty further and greatly expanding on the music department. As such, Sekiro is instant classic in some ways.
The crucial part of this change is adding jumps, deflecting and thrust countering to the nerfed dodges and attacks, putting more pressure on the player, who now can’t just hit-and-roll. No, Sekiro is a borderline rhythm game with its combat system that requires you to perform multiple, chained and diversified moves with great reflex and strategy. It simply is more difficult than its predecessors, but more satisfying as well.
Sekiro dwells in the territory of uninspired noise that can’t get a pass for being narratively justified.
With more music coming from Yuka Kitamura, I’ve had my doubts about implementation, but let’s talk about aesthetics and its general appeal first. Japan-like tunes, taikos, flutes, cello. All things considered, it’s a safe soundtrack with almost no surprises (Fountainhead Palace is a treat in solo listen), which draws from the composer’s earlier work, while adding more elements closer to her homeland. Not especially outstanding, sometimes boring and predictable, the music in Sekiro transposes the previous idea of grand music into the game, but makes changes to the instrumentation. It’s layers and layers of strings, brass and Eastern ornaments, forming very layered and noisy soundtrack with a lot that is going on at the same time.
It gets unnerving, especially when you get detected from stealth and get a taiko-siren booming in your ear, fight another mini-boss with the same music for the 15th time, or generally struggle with a unique boss. While aesthetically pleasing initially when setting up the tone and place, after dying and trying numerous times, the score becomes a purposeless filler that runs out of any meaning towards the player halfway through the game. And instead of everlasting silence, you get and ever-present music, truly balancing the other games out. And let me say this again: too much music is never good.
In any other game, a loud and uninspired score would’ve passed over everyone’s ears. Its negative influence on the experience would’ve been ignored as it most likely would’ve been fitted to a way less demanding game. Here, in Sekiro, I noticed — despite my bias — that some people in the community (reddit) had actually began turning music off, claiming it was nerve racking and jarring, despite the Souls music “circlejerk”.
Sekiro’s music is the perfect opposite of what the game needed.
Three deadly sins of this soundtrack (and the game) are no musical variety in the same gameplay scenarios, lack of thematic and instrumental diversity, and excess of instruments used in the tracks (with the distracting noisy chaos that follows). Sekiro’s music is the perfect opposite of what the game needed, giving you no way of getting lost into it and finding a pattern to focus on (which is what the combat system teaches you). The “art” aspect completely outbalances the practical effects of music here.
Taking the final boss as the prime example, you are bombarded with quick attacks, delays, gunshots, thrusts, lightning, multiple phases — the fight is excruciating and the music fights against you: it meanders up and down, throws everything at you with no sense of orchestration, distracts you with random samples. The practical effect of having something to hook onto is non-existent here, as you will catch no theme or a simple rhythm to get lost into. The lack of music in some of these fights would not only be unnoticeable, but pleasurable. Some players claim to have defeated the boss only when turning off the music and advising others to do the same.
Had the music been forgettable, but still suited to the tempo and difficulty of the game, without the constant booming music, we wouldn’t hear such words in the context of the FromSoft game. But the technique used falls behind the tempo and the type of game that Sekiro is. That type of score here is an outdated relic that drags behind a nuanced game like a dead weight.
Why not turn it off, then, and just enjoy the silence? That’s what a lot of people did, including me. And that’s the first time since I’ve started playing videogames around 20 years ago. But what a place we’d be in if we doubted music’s purpose instead the creativity of people who handle it?
Any other game, I’d suspend my critique and get affected by the music.
This was FromSoft’s experiment into a more approachable form, an experiment that musically failed to impress the players and resonate with the game. Any other game, I’d suspend my critique and get affected by the music, but Sekiro dwells in the territory of uninspired noise that can’t get a pass for being narratively justified. Let’s hope it never happens again.