~ essay on the top 5 boss battles in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, with a haiku poem for each.
I recently completed Sekiro, FromSoftware’s 2019 remix on the Souls-style action RPG they mastered in years’ past. You play as the titular “one-armed wolf,” a shinobi exile protecting his young lord in a supernatural Sengoku period. Beautiful Japanese landscapes are embroiled in war, with forest dojos, mountain caverns, and mystic lakes providing your arenas for katana-borne hyper-violence.
Sekiro’s combat is more one-dimensional than any previous Souls game — you wield a singular sword and *must* time your deflections against rival swordsmen and spectral daemons to achieve victory. But the one trick is golden and the sword-battling ‘Posture’ system ends up being perhaps the best combat of all. It is fast and kinetic and thrilling and you will feel like a master swordsman by the end of the experience.
Complete Sekiro, and you will feel as I do now.
I wanted to write about my experience: Here are my top 5 favorite boss battles from Sekiro, with a preceding haiku for each.
5. Lady Butterfly
Flaming wood hides blades
A butterfly awaits you
Flip, fight, fly to me
The first major boss battle of Sekiro comes as Lady Butterfly, a grandma shinobi who cackles while throwing shurikens aimed at your neck. A master of illusion, the fight is shifty, with many leaping ranged attacks utilizing the whole of your wide arena. She introduces the speed and diversity of movement that becomes commonplace from the game’s toughest foes.
I love this fight because of its cinematic nature: you meet Lady Butterfly in a secret hall at the base of the Hirata Estate, where you and your lord are being betrayed. Everything is on fire. It’s the end, a dark memory from your past and the scene of your first death. You have failed and your former mentor is ready to kill you. And she can! Even in her advanced age. The trained ninja proves to be a ruthless foe; this fight was my first real test and took me many tries.
I’ll never forget the condescending words after each time she ends you:
“You were still just a puppy.”
4. Lone Shadow Longswordsman
Cloaked well in royal color
Glides kick after kick
My choice of this sub-boss may surprise an experienced Sekiro swordsman. He’s just a little guy, not an epic major boss. But damn he was memorable. The Lone Shadow Longswordsman comes in several iterations throughout the game, to the point of becoming a normal ninja enemy in the latest stages. The one I am talking about awaited me in a well, optionally reached through a crack in the earth near Ashina Castle.
The Long Shadow does not attack you initially. Non-hostile, he stances up like a Stand-user, i.e. with serious panache.
When you speak to him, he eventually says “They say you’re immortal… Let’s see if that’s true.”
Hostile, he fights like Hitmonlee. The battle is thrilling half because of the close quarters; you duel in a narrow stone passage with a stream running through it. A lack of spacing makes every dodge and counterattack a play with razor-edge margins. The Shadowy shinobi executed me more times than I expected. But I’ll be damned if all those perilous high jumping kicks didn’t train me for further threats down the line.
In the end, LSL was a noble opponent who just needed to be jumped on himself.
3. Guardian Ape
Ape prays to Buddha
Ape screams and shits and slams thee
Ape goes headless, horror
In all respects, Guardian Ape is a legendary foe. The first gigantic monster to be slain in Sekiro, sword fighting King Kong did indeed offer more surprises than I was ready for. He waits in a shallow lake at the base of a sunken ice valley, seemingly in contemplation beneath the King Contemplator himself in Buddha.
His high-velocity fists can be deflected, but at the cost of much of your posture bar. I tried him initially for a few rounds before returning later, after realizing exploring Senjou Temple and recovering the Mortal Blade should come first (could I have even defeated the ape without it?)
Just like in Bloodborne and Elden Ring, giant monsters often require more running, a speedier strategy than the back-and-forth dance of a fellow humanoid weapon master. So it was with the ape, as I dodged underneath his leaps and sliced at his head during monkey tantrums. When I could, I ran below his poisonous poo throws and gave him a power attack as he wiped his ass. (Yes, you read all that correctly.) The grapple hook opened things up even further, with periodic opportunities to latch on as he roared and slash down in aerial lunges miming the great Titan-killing Captain Levi.
After eventually figuring out Phase 1, Phase 2 begins when you “kill” the beast by beheading it. Now headless, a theme throughout Sekiro’s lore, the guardian ape arises like a daemon and fights with the same sword that was previously stuck in his neck. The ape is undying like yourself, and you must parry against looping and horrifyingly fast strikes from the gigantic sword in one hand and the ape’s own head in the other…
Oh yeah and the giant monkey uses his severed head like a conch, reattaching it and blowing out a roar when you get too close for too long, inflicting threatening insta-kill Terror damage. The headless shambling iteration of the white-fur ape, a mesmerizing talent with the blade, was certainly a terrifying sight to behold.
Altogether, Guardian Ape was easily one of the best boss fights I’ve ever experienced, in Sekiro or elsewhere.
2. Genichiro x Isshin
The proud Ashina
Arrows and lightning sow seeds
Father’s flower reaps
Genichiro Ashina is your first true rival. A cutscene spells out your path from Sekiro’s opening chapter; you meet a helmeted swordsman in a field of white flowing flowers, he severs your left arm, kidnaps Kuro, and sets everything else in motion.
When you meet Genichiro again later in your adventure, he has the young Lord Kuro hostage. Your master must be freed from his clutches or all is lost. You duel at the peak of Ashina Castle, in an open-air dojo where royal warriors presumably trained for generations.
A samurai, a master swordsman and archer, Genichiro is the fire upon which your steely resolve as a shinobi must be forged. This matchup is the one that sets you on the path to completing Sekiro. That, or it will be an end to the journey. I reckon many Sekiro players met their demise so many times at Genichiro’s lightning-infused hands that they quit.
To defeat the “Lightning of Tamoe” in Phase 2, your one-armed wolf must leap to block his electric slash and counterattack *before* landing back down on the dojo floor. Science is science. The overall fight against Genichiro’s sword, bow, and elemental power is a thrill that requires mastery over every mechanic yet learned.
Genichiro is encountered and defeated at the midway point in Sekiro, but you see him again at the finale. A simpler foe this time around, his true fate is as an egg for the daemonic rebirth of his grandfather out of his own body. This man you know well, he’s a legendary warrior from a past age now returned to his prime: Isshin Ashina, the Sword Saint.
The final boss, Isshin is one of the hardest fights in the game. His speedy versatility as a lunging sword and spear-wielder and unconventional timing with every strike means you’ll be in that same field of white flowers workshopping your approach against such expert lethality for a long while.
But Isshin remains a satisfying fight throughout, never unfair or without the peeking hope for a victorious resolution. He’s one of the best fights because you can feel his skill is beyond anyone you’ve yet faced — as a swordsman, as a samurai. Isshin’s blades are honorable and true, delivering their strikes with the composure of a more refined killing machine than even you.
In my view, Isshin is one of the best fights — but not THE best. That spot is reserved for Sekiro’s father.
1. Owl (Father)
Old ninja finds cub
Owl flies at midnight to dawn
Asking fate, dies proud
Owl (Father) is the best boss fight in Sekiro. In its dancing violence and in its meaning, it takes the top spot on my list.
For the backstory: The Owl is a master ninja to the powers that be. He takes you in, an orphan cub of the battlefield, and turns you into a shinobi. As your adoptive father, “The Great Shinobi” Owl tasks you with defending your Lord to the death, exclusively using your blade to protect Kuro.
Shinobi are just as prolific on the battlefield as samurai, only they kill from the shadows. A ninja uses stealth and poison and pinpoint strikes borne of immaculate focus to slay their foes.
Fatality is what Owl gives his adversaries, not honor or the promise of a blade-on-blade meeting; after all, that’s the kind of backstabbing death Sekiro has been dealing all game long to enemies. You soon discover first-hand that he learned such skills from the very best in the business.
When circumstances at last reveal the true source to the intrigues and power plays behind the threats to Lord Kuro’s life — Sekiro and Owl must face off.
Owl sees Sekiro, his apprentice son, as his weapon, to be used as he sees fit. You are presented with a choice — to go with Owl and betray Lord Kuro, or to defy him for the first time. I chose to disobey my foster father and protect my Lord against his wishes.
With tears, your own father draws his sword and strikes with conviction as your back is turned. To his own inner thrill, you cross father’s blade. The battle is on.
The Owl fight is intense and long and full of strategic feints and poison clouds, ranged shuriken strikes with more power than Lady Butterfly land upon you and longsword slices with as much precision as the Ashina boys must be deflected with impeccable timing. Your father has more moves than anyone; it becomes clear he either didn’t teach them all to you or he’s just on another level. Power attacks meet with his own primed mikiri counters; you’ll be hard-pressed to mikiri counter his lunges instead of just dodging them.
Truly, Owl towers like a giant over your whole life.
Owl (Father) is the best fight in Sekiro because it’s your father; it is the first and last fight which pits you against yourself, spiritually speaking. Owl saved you, created your purpose, honed your body and mind, and set you on your path — fighting him means making the first real choice of your life, a departure from everything that came before.
One of the major themes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is that of fatherhood and tradition and the competing wills of predecessors and descendents — fathers and sons. Kuro wishes to rid the world of his own immortal bloodline — the Dragon’s Heritage— because he believes it’s the right thing to do; Sekiro defies his father to protect a path he’s at last forged for himself. When you make the choice to fight your father to the death, Sekiro speaks such words which transcend tradition:
“A code must be determined by the individual…”
Within your memories, Sekiro can fight Owl (Father) again in the same burning arena underneath the Hirata Estate that you fought Lady Butterfly. *Prime* Owl is even harder, with more moves and a capacity to transform into a spectral owl striking from on high.
This battle represents the chance you never had, to face your father sooner — before he murdered you from behind and Kuro’s blood brought you back. It’s an opportunity to further test your skill and avert the disasters that come from his betrayal, if only in an old memory.
Altogether, the two-part cinema of your adversarial father’s blade against your own makes up the best, most viciously satisfying struggle in Sekiro.