Sekiro's Spirit Emblems Force Me to Play With a Hand Tied Behind My Back

Much has been made about Sekiro’s sword-on-sword combat, the constant tug-of-war between combatants locked in an intense battle of attacks, blocks, parries, and dodges. But just as critical to success is effective use of shinobi prosthetics, a wide-ranging set of eccentric tools, which includes everything from fast firing shurikens to interrupt attacks, a flame vent to set enemies ablaze, or firecrackers that briefly blind anyone in front of you.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3nzwj/sekiros-spirit-emblems-force-me-to-play-with-a-hand-tied-behind-my-back
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I’m glad that Patrick brings up Bloodborne here, as the problem he’s having with spirit emblems is the EXACT reason I’ve never finished Bloodborne and (despite popular opinion) consider it to be From’s weakest game.
Blood vials are a CRIME.

I’m having a way more enjoyable time with Sekiro, but admittedly, I put on a podcast and grinded spirit emblems until I had well over 700 on reserve. Not everyone is going to want to do this!

What if the Shinobi prosthetic had operated on a cool down instead? Or operated like the gourds or estus flask with replenishisable charges?

Very in agreement with this piece.

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I largely ended up playing the game the same as Patrick: I only used my Tools when there was an obvious gimmick that called for them, but otherwise I ended up focusing on internalizing the swordplay for every fight over and over again and pretty much stopped trying to use the tools in 90% of cases.

This was still fun to me, but it really felt like a shame that I felt so punished for experimenting with the tools early on (farming emblems is actively unfun for me so I never did it).

It’s a really bizarre choice. So were Blood Vials. There are reasons I can imagine From deciding on these mechanics for, but none of them are…fun? Or like…good game design, I feel? Its consistently baffled me since BB.

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Yeah, I think I agree with what they were trying to do, but they could have just as easily had the emblems auto-refill with each (actual) death.

I’ve had to grind money and emblems a few times, and it’s always a bore in what is otherwise a pretty thrilling game.

One of the first things I did in the game was just grind a bunch so I’ve had hundreds of emblems from the beginning so they have never really been a problem for me and I think I’ve only bought some once.

I can’t ever say I had this problem in Sekiro, I’m sitting at like 600 emblems with just playing the game, but I definitely have experienced it in the past with Blood Vials.

I think From wants you to consider balancing resources, as you can buy as many Vials, Grass, Gems, or Emblems you’ll need from vendors using currency that can be lost on death.

Like upgrades and secondary healing items It’s a sink for the game’s economy, I’m not saying it’s a great choice, as it’s clearly affected people’s playstyle to play more conservatively, but it’s never been a personal roadblock.

I agree with the sentiment that From never seems to make up their mind about the economy of their immediate resources (heal / ammo) though, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly deliberate (thematic or otherwise) choice per game.

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I am in total agreement, especially with regard to the Bloodborne comparison. I really want to like the game part of Bloodborne as much as I like the writing and world design and the idea of its combat, but it was such a tedious, unenjoyable chore to play because of the constant prospect of running out of vials. Every element of that game is made worse by that system.

I didn’t feel that nearly as badly in Sekiro, but that was because I more or less only used the shurikens and Sabimaru (which have a relatively low emblem cost) until the endgame, and didn’t really start experimenting until I had a big reserve of emblems midway through the game. I truly love the swordplay in Sekiro and was perfectly okay with making that the focal point of my combat, but I do wish I’d tried to experiment more and that it didn’t have a core system disincentivizing it.

A lot of Sekiro felt like a spiritual successor to Bloodborne, both in mechanical design and with callbacks (to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if it was once Bloodborne 2). The combat system is fast and frenetic. The parries feel like an evolution of visceral attacks. The core plot is… kind of the same exact core plot, but with a face-lift? All of the bosses have phases. The [late game boss spoiler] Demon of Hatred is almost literally just Laurence from the Old Hunters. The arena for [another late game boss spoiler] Sword Saint Isshin is also literally just Gehrman’s arena, and Isshin himself feels… kinda like Gehrman 2.0?

That’s all to say that I felt like Sekiro gave me a version of Bloodborne that I could actually love, but I wish it could have taken that last step and ditched consumables entirely.

While I certainly had problems with the blood vials, I wouldn’t call them part of a flip flop.

-Estus in Dark Souls makes the game more cautious and defensive and emphasizes the comfort and safety of the bonfire in contrast to the danger of the rest of the world, since every hit sticks with you until you manage to return home.
-Blood Vials (along with the rally system) emphasize aggression and trading blood and violence with opponents. You’re not a lonely person in a dark and scary world, you’re a monster hunting other monsters.

In a way, I feel like the healing gourd is a bit of a concession. I sincerely wouldn’t be surprised if an earlier version of the game had one-hit kills along with the resurrection system. The game rewards swift violence, but in a different way than Bloodborne. Bloodborne wants you and enemies to hack each other into ribbons, Sekiro wants you to overwhelm the enemy with ruthless aggression so that they can’t even meaningfully fight back. Even your defence is offense, with jump attacks, Mikiri counters, and deflections all being tools to kill your opponents as fast as possible.

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As Patrick says, it’s impossible to know the designer’s intent until they actually comment on it, but I feel like running out of spirit emblems (like a lot of decisions in Sekiro) is meant to be a gentle nudge to “try something for else a while”. It’s really not that hard to get more but I think the thought goes: if you have to get some emblems and sen, you’ll probably explore and maybe find something more rewarding to do.

I personally don’t think this works (and there are resources that are much harder to get that you need for some fights that feel really punishing – looking at you Divine Confetti), but to some extent From’s success has come from resisting contemporary game design wisdom, so I definitely cut them some slack here.

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To be fair with this, Sekiro also wants you to run away and hide if you’re in danger, or to be stealthy and cautious if it suits you. I don’t think its core systems disincentivize caution in the same way Bloodborne does—like you mention, in Bloodborne, you’re supposed to own the power dynamic. You’re supposed to be a relentless hunter. Sekiro is supposed to be a ninja fighting more powerful enemies with stealth and surprise (whether that involves the tools or drop kills or its various ninjitsus) to flip a power dynamic that inherently favors the opponent. Of course by the end you can match some bosses sword-for-sword, but I disagree that that’s the theme the game directs you toward from the start.

This is going to be the kind of “you’re giving them too much credit” explanation I normally dismiss, but I honestly think this is a thematic decision. Failure in Sekiro has a direct impact on the lives of others in your world. In the lore, when you die and resurrect (that is, every time you die), you are sapping the lifeforce of those around you through the use of the Divine Heir’s power, the consequences of which are manifested as Dragonrot. The more you fail, the more lifeforce you sap from the others in your world, the more Dragonrot spreads.

Spirit Emblems, according to the item description, “harbor the souls of the dead”, which is why you find them in the environment over the bodies of those who’ve been murdered, and why you sometimes get them from killing enemies. Every use expends a human soul. If you fail multiple times at a boss like Lady Butterfly or Genichiro, as I did, you pull tons of lifeforce from the people around you, sickening them, and expend hundreds of souls. Even careful, resourceful play expends souls, harms civilians. It’s a moral indictment of the inevitable collateral damage of war as much as it is a mechanical punishment.

That said, do I find it extremely frustrating to run out of spirit emblems at bosses? hell fuckin yes i do

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I agree with this in the same way that I understand the thematic point of the blood vials in Bloodborne. But they still screw with both games’ pacing (BB more so). This kind of thing happens a lot when games fit mechanics to narrative rather than the other way around; in some ways or for some players it ends up defeating the point because it creates a larger problem in the framework that communicates the game’s narrative.

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I get this, but then the back half of the game has them rain from the sky like candy, often giving you multiple for single enemies. I did mostly what patrick did and focus on sword only outside of bosses and that functionally gave me infinite emblem in my supply. I also didn’t experiment a bunch because most of them never seemed to be as good as firecrackers were with some gimmick exceptions like the spear on Guardian Ape/Headless Ape

Here’s an easy solution: Start using your Mibu Spirit Balloons. It’s very clear why FromSoft added them into the game, but I get the feeling most (especially Patrick, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered writing this piece) haven’t bothered using them. They’re not for saving, they’re meant to keep you from having to grind.

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I spent pretty much the entire game with hundreds of emblems banked up. I used shuriken pretty consistently throughout my playthrough, but the other tools mostly felt like an added dimension that would make me lose focus on the swordplay in stressful boss fights and get me killed. So even if I HAD run out I don’t think I would have grinded for emblems, because they never felt core to my success in a fight (with the exception of a few specific late game bosses where I felt the umbrella was almost mandatory–but by that time I had over 1000 emblems in the bank).

Even though I had the opposite experience, I still think it’s an indictment of the spirit emblem system. If they felt functionally infinite, what’s the point of emblems being consumable?

I agree that the item economy in From games is consistently a point of friction, often in a way that doesn’t feel intentional or well thought out. Upgrade materials are another good example of this. If you wanted to switch weapons past a certain point in DS1, you had to grind slugs in Blighttown for large titanite shards. It was horrible. From has been evolving on this clearly, by DS3 titanite was plentiful, and in Sekiro the “material” to upgrade your main weapon only comes from main line boss fights. But that dynamic still found its way into the game with prosthetic tool upgrades. “I really want the top tier shuriken upgrade before I fight the final boss… guess I have to go on the wiki and look up how to grind for fulminated mercury!”

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The game definitely talks about how a shinobi fights by overwhelming their foes, and I’d say about 85% of the stealth falls into one of two categories:

  1. Sprinting up behind a dude, stabbing him, and then quickly overwhelming his friend while he’s still too shocked to fight back
  2. Finding a way to get a really good first hit in on a powerful enemy.

While it’s entirely possible to avoid encounters, killing every single miniboss in the game is very important, and the game’s stealth mechanics are mostly about speedy efficient murder. I’d say it still fits into the idea of using quick and overwhelming violence and not letting your opponents fight back.

I see a lot of people saying “Well I have plenty of spirit emblems. Hundreds!”

But you can go through literally hundreds of emblems so quickly if you are actively using the prosthetics. When I was fighting Genichiro, I found out that the Sabimaru was pretty effective. He would be poisoned after two combos and the poison would get his health low enough to prevent him from recovering posture. I could pull this off twice per run. So I would use one of the first phase, then again on the second phase.

This fight still took me hours. I was using about 15 spirit emblems per fight. After 20 tries, that’s 300 spirit emblems. And as Patrick says, it can take dozens of tries to get a boss down. There were multiple points in the game where a tough boss had me go through my entire stock of a hundred+ emblems.

And while late game enemies give you more emblems, they are also hit pretty hard. Those ninja dudes never stopped being kinda tough, so I would make use of my prosthetics or my shadowrush (which took 2 emblems) so you can go through them quick.

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Yep, I had a similar issue. I had over 200 emblems when I got to that General just inside the Ashina Castle gate and ended up using them all because I kept shuriken-ing down the gunmen standing around him (which was way less time consuming than trying to stealth kill them all). And yeah, that’s a dumb place to get stuck, but it happened. Then in the middle of trying to beat him I had to go grind. Ugh.

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One of the frustrating things about the complaints about Bloodborne’s blood vials system is that those same people will often talk about how bad and pointless the Chalice Dungeons are, but the chalice dungeons are by far the best way to get restocked on vials or grind out a level or two if you’re struggling!! If you are gradually doing the main chalice dungeons as you play through the game, by midgame you will likely have access to the Ailing Loran dungeon, which gives such wildly huge amounts of blood echoes that you can spend like literally two minutes grinding beastmen and go buy 100 or so vials at the messenger bath shop and be set for a long while. The Isz chalice is even better if a bit harder to get to. Seriously though, this approach means you will never have to grind for more than a couple minutes ever again, but most people will just suffer through grinding central Yharnam for hours because someone online who didn’t bother to even try the chalice dungeons told them they weren’t worth it. I saw this over and over online about a year ago when everyone was getting back into Bloodborne (including during waypoint’s streams) and I kept trying to spread the good word of the chalice riches but people are very stubborn about the dungeons and wouldn’t listen lol. I’m not saying that criticisms of the vial system are invalid, because they aren’t, but this an extremely effective solution that goes almost entirely ignored due to widespread unwillingness to engage with a pretty big and IMO underrated part of the game.

With Sekiro, I haven’t had much trouble with emblems despite using the tools constantly, since enemies constantly drop them and they’re so cheap to buy en masse at the idols. I’ve had 300+ for most of the game, they were only a problem at the very start for me, but I have also been approaching the tools as a supplement to sword attacks to only be used at the most opportune moments, and never something to be spammed. The way they’re all designed, they really aren’t conducive to spamming and doing so is rarely the kind of faster path to winning people seem to want them to be. The shuriken are the only ones that I consistently use a ton of, because of usefulness of the chasing strike for keeping pressure up on enemies, the rest are more effective when used strategically. If you find yourself leaning hard on the tools and still getting killed, it may be time to change up your strategy. That said, you shouldn’t be afraid of using them and experimenting, just keep in mind that they are a supplement not an equal weapon to the sword.

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I agree that Sekiro can be a little grindy, but I think it is done well. Honestly, my parrying skills are still a work-in-progress. Some of these grunts are no joke. I also do not mind taking the breather the grind provides after slugging it out a couple times on the tougher enemies. Sekiro’s grind gives me a small allowance to replenish Spirit Emblems and hones my skills which fits into the game nicely.