When Sekiro came out last year, it featured the best melee combat system of any game I've ever played. It's fast and brutal. Usually in games with swords, you chip away at the health bar of any enemy bit by bit. This is an accepted video game convention, but it doesn't have the same urgency of classic samurai films where a single strike could pierce an opponent through the heart.
Sekiro offered sword fights that made you feel like you were fighting with a dangerous weapon. You're not chipping away at a health bar, you're wearing down your opponents or maneuvering to break through their defense. When you do, you can strike them dead in a single killing blow. You can even beat bosses quickly once you learn how to break their defense, but the challenge comes from their ability to do the same to you.
Ghost of Tsushima returns to a traditional health bar approach. You can break an opponent's defense, but that simply opens them up to a few strikes that whittle down their health. And you don't have a defensive meter yourself, so they can't turn the tables in the same way. Fortunately, the combat is still innovative in its own way.
On harder difficulties, opponents attack relentlessly and mix and match their approach with feints and unblockable attacks. You can parry and counter many of these attacks, but you also need to dodge and make use of the Ghost's many extra tools, like using smoke bombs to keep control of the crowd. The mix of attacks keeps you on edge, and the most unique twist of the system comes in the form of stances.
Other games, such as Nioh, have used combat stances to allow you to change up your attack pattern to fit the situation. Ghost's system is simpler and works beautifully as a result. Each of your four stances is tailored to one of four enemy types. All of your attacks are much more effective against a certain enemy if you're in the proper stance.
I actually prefer Ghost of Tsushima's combat to Sekiro's when it comes to dealing with crowds. You need to mix strategy and honed reflexes to stay ahead, and it's a wonderful feeling to dodge a shield swipe, stab the bearer to death, switch stances and counter the incoming spear thrust, then finish by bringing your blade down to slice off the attacker's arm. It's exhilarating and takes practice to get right, then feels rewarding when you do master it and can successfully defeat large crowds without being touched.
Sekiro is a little clunkier when dealing with crowds, but is still fine. You can lock onto one enemy to center your focus, but switching the lock to multiple opponents doesn't feel graceful. In general, with Sekiro I tried to control crowds so I was only facing one attacker at a time.
When you go one-on-one with an opponent, Sekiro's combat is better, and that's why the boss fights shine. Each one is a puzzle where you need to figure out the right mix of aggression and defense that will effectively break your opponent's defenses before they take down yours. Opponents have particularly powerful moves that can do devastating damage, but each has a specific counter option so you can turn the tide in your own favor if you read the attack correctly.
You have extra tools in Sekiro as well, but they're more of a supplement to a strategy than a means of turning the tide like in Ghost. Ghost, then, is more flexible with combat, but Sekiro finds a lot of tactical wiggle room in a simple system, and bosses constantly keep you guessing until you solve the puzzle and can counter everything they throw at you.
Ghost of Tsushima's combat evolves with new moves and tools as you progress, but the bad guys don't change that much. The one-on-one fights are also great and suspenseful, but they similarly start to blend together as the game progresses. Because Sekiro focuses on those one-on-one duels, each boss encounter is strikingly different from the last and defeating a tough opponent after multitudes of attempts grants a huge feeling of exhilaration that Ghost can't match.
As a whole, I still prefer Sekiro's combat, but Ghost of Tsushima comes closer than I thought it might.
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