FromSoftware’s latest addition to the ‘Soulsborne’ genre of video games, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, is little over a year old. Yet, it has left an indelible mark on the gaming community, on gaming criticism, and, likely, on video game development. From conversations around its esoteric (though, more straightforward than other games from the developer) narrative, to incisive criticism about the game’s difficulty and the role of difficulty in games in general, to dozens upon dozens of video game developers proclaiming it 2020’s game of the year, Sekiro has left its mark.
Now, FromSoftware, with the help of Yen Press and writer-illustrator Shin Yamamoto, seeks to expound on Sekiro’s world and narrative through a manga prequel story about one of the game’s more nuanced and underdeveloped characters, Hanbei The Undying. Does it work, or does a more straightforward narrative spoil the ineffable mystique that FromSoft’s game revels in? The answer is a little bit of both.
Structured around expounding on the history of Hanbei’s immortality and “infestation” and also around explaining exactly what the lone soldier was doing before appearing at The Dilapidated Temple and training Wolf, Yamamoto’s narrative has a lot of work to do, and results are a mixed bag. The illustration, replete with images of Guardian Apes with swords through their heads emerging from the dark forests, immortal centipedes unleashing themselves from the wounds of warriors, and murderous mountain-dwelling demons, however, is significantly more successful. Though, not much of either will make sense to readers that aren’t familiar with the game.
The central plot of this ‘side story’ sees Hanbei attempting to do good by Ashina region commoners that have taken him in, washed him, and fed him both through combating a murderous red-eyed demon that haunts their mountains, as well fighting off Ashina clan leaders intent on exploiting the area and its people for their gross scientific gain. Readers familiar with the game will appreciate that while Yamamoto’s story certainly expounds on Sekiro’s lore, it doesn’t retcon or reinvent the wheel away from things established in the game. There are immortal centipedes, parries, and the Guardian Ape, yes, but none of their depictions or actions are incongruent with the game. Instead, their inclusion seems to be very intentional and respectable references to the images, sounds, and momentum that existing fans will be able to call out and appreciate. Hanbei, too, is presented as an honorable and stoic, yet affable character whose story and struggles parallel themselves with Wolf (Sekrio) in a way that makes sense and enriches their interactions in the source material.
That being said, the story sprints through scenes, switching focus and tone without much warning or reason. It’s understandable, as Yamamoto is trying to tread the thin line between past, present, and future without harping on things readers already know, but the balance is off. For example, as a truly sinister and mortifying Red Eyes is about to expound on the reason behind his killing of dozens of men, the narrative shifts unexpectedly to a flashback revisiting Hanbei’s similar experiences. The two are so close to each other physically and narratively that readers will need a second to cue into the fact that the speaker, as well as focus, has changed. This problem is further accentuated by speakers interrupting each other, frequently, in a way that makes it seem like dialogue has lost the plot or is misplaced. Again, with continued reading, the intent is clear but unmistakably pockmarked by moments of unnecessary confusion.
The illustrative work here, however, gleefully and gorily leaves little to the imagination. Hanbei strikes down foes with a swiftness that seems intentionally referential to the game’s in-your-face aggressive style, and the world is littered with references both big and small to the source material. Page-turns reveal men standing covered in wounds and blood, shadows of their former selves. Narrative twists rely on picture-perfect depictions of swords going through throats and bellies, rendered in a way that is not off-putting, but certainly visceral. Even Hanbei’s interactions with aloof commoners are intentional and detailed, balancing his stoic, hard expressions with the awestruck looks from a young boy who has not seen the half of what the Undying has. If there’s anything to fault here, it’s that some of the physical copy’s seams run directly through detailed two-page splashes, breaking the imagery in a way that doesn’t ruin the experience but makes it frustrating to read at times.
All-in-all, Sekiro’s first Side Story is a success, and as a fan of the game, I would love to see more. It can’t be ignored that almost none of the narrative or art and its implications will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with the source material, but this also isn’t for them. Yamamoto has done a fantastic, though not perfect, job of embedding a worthwhile story into a bigger picture in a way that doesn’t demystify Sekiro but does enrich it.