Anatomy of a Boss: Sword Saint Isshin

DISCLAIMER: MINOR SPOILERS FOR SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE

“Hesitation is defeat.” This is probably the most useful bit of dialogue that Sekiro provides the players with, and this is conveyed through the sword saint Isshin himself.

Isshin is undoubtedly the most powerful boss in the Soulsborne series.

We don’t normally play a FROMSOFT game for the story or lore element of the game, most of us play these games because of the crushingly difficult gameplay mechanics and the bosses – who most of the time don’t have a lot to say, we fight them because they are strong, because we want to brag to our friends about how we beat a Dark Souls boss.

This is precisely why we need to talk about Isshin from Sekiro. Even from the early stages of the game Isshin is someone who shows up to help Sekiro or have a friendly conversation if you offer him sake and even to assist the player the guise of Tengu, to “clean up the rats from Interior Ministry”.

Isshin Ashina is modeled after several Japanese Warlords during the Sengoku period, especially Date Masamune who was called the “One-Eyed Dragon” and wore a golden headgear which resembles the same one donned by Isshin himself. Isshin’s swordsman ship and the Ashina Combat Arts are also heavily inspired by warlords from the Sengoku era.

The Sengoku era engulfed the entire Japan in war and conflict. Between the feudal lords and different clans, and in the Sekiro, between the Interior Ministry who were looking to unite Japan under one banner and between Ashina clan who were fighting to keep the clan from getting wiped out.

At the helm of this conflict is prodigal heir to the Ashina throne who had already brought back the clan once from extinction, the man who singlehandedly crushed all the opponents of the Ashina clan; Isshin Ashina.

Isshin was not only gifted with the sword, he was also a charismatic leader that made people rally to his cause, sometimes even his enemies.

One of this instance is Gyoubu Masataka Oniwa, who was a former bandit leader but after being defeated by Isshin, Gyobu swore his allegiance to the Ashina and became the retainer of Isshin’s adopted grandson Genichiro Ashina.

Gyoubu Masataka Oniwa
Source: Sekiro Digital Artbook.

Throughout the Sword Saint’s life there was only one enemy who could come close to defeating Isshin, that was Lady Tomoe with her graceful and lethal swordsmanship which Isshin describes “her fighting looked like dancing, and her eyes made one feel like they were being drawn into the depths of the ocean.”

Tomoe would later mentor Genichiro and teach him to master lightning. Lady Tomoe takes inspiration from Tomoe Gozen who is one of the most famous female Samurai in Japanese history.

Tomoe Gozen
Source: wikipedia

Even with all his strength and wisdom Isshin was mortal and ultimately he was too old to lead the Ashina clan. The Interior Ministry saw this as an opportunity to launch attacks on Ashina and wipe them out for good.

The fate of the Ashina rested on the hands of Genichiro and Genichiro would not stop at anything to revive the Ashina and ultimately using the Black Mortal Blade to call back his grandfather from the underworld.

As the final boss of the game, Sekiro is faced with the Sword Saint Isshin who have been brought back at his prime, no longer the old man who is ready to part friendly advice and stories from the old days for some sake. Isshin is about to test Sekiro and the player on the skills acquired throughout the game.

Genichiro Ashina
Source: Sekiro Digital Artbook

This battle is a favorite boss fight for many reasons, you are facing off against the revered sword saint at the peak of his strength, the battlefield being Ashina Reservoir the starting point of the game where you are faced off against Genichiro in order to teach you the basics of the game.

The game is asking you, “You have progressed through the journey, you have mastered the techniques and prosthetic abilities. How will you fare against the strongest boss in the Soulsborne franchise?”

You could even say that it is almost poetic how well the environment is designed from the wind on the grass, the occasional lightning in the sky to the epic soundtrack it sets the tone to this one versus one showdown.

Like many other FROMSOFT bosses Isshin has multiple phases throughout the battle. He will only use his katana in the first stage and the standard attacks are relatively easy to dodge and counter, but this all changes when Isshin stomps the ground to pull out a spear where he can continue doing large sweeping attacks from the spear and he also starts shooting at you with a firearm.

During this phase Isshin can be very aggressive and will deal damage to Sekiro with his katana, spear and his Glock. Moving to the third phase of the boss fight Isshin incorporates his attacks with lightning and can get very troublesome to counter.

But like Genichiro’s Way of Tomoe Isshin’s lightning attacks can be countered by intercepting them mid-air, if done right this would also leave him incapacitated for a few seconds. If you manage to beat Isshin the Sword Saint will congratulate you on your victory as Sekiro severs his immortality with the Immortal Blade.

I have encountered many different types of bosses in FROMSOFT games but no other boss battle could compare with the Sword Saint.

This is a boss who will guide you through your journey and will wait for you at the end of the game to test your strength.

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