Sekiro and the Joy of Playing Games in Their Native Languages

Opinion by Mark Delaney,
Today is the day millions of eager soulsborne fans, curious gamers, and ardent masochists finally get to boot up FromSoftware's latest brutally challenging action RPG, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It's been on the top of many players' most anticipated lists due to the studio's pedigree, not to mention the exciting setting and the intriguing ways in which it will differ from the developer's previous games in this lineage.

I've put in a few hours with it already, and though our review is coming soon courtesy of our resident action game aficionado, I can say I'm personally off to a great start with it. I could talk about the intense difficulty or the numerous secrets or any number of things, but I'll save all that for our review. What I want to talk about instead is the game's audio, specifically its default language.

Pro tip: Subtitles will suffice.Pro tip: Subtitles will suffice.

When you begin Sekiro, an on-screen message tells you the game will be presented in Japanese, though if you want to change it you can, but I'm here to encourage you not to do that. Playing Sekiro in its story's native language is fantastic and I can't imagine reverting back to English. I'm sure a percentage of readers who are anime fans are laughing at the obviousness of this suggestion, but I think with video games like Sekiro this change may be even more important and more enjoyable. In a video game, you're really meant to take on the role of the protagonist. In the case of Sekiro, you're Wolf, the left for dead shinobi who is out to deliver on his oath. Sekiro has much more overt story content than the other games you think of when it comes to FromSoftware, and for that reason, English voice acting just won't cut it. It's not just background for the deepest lore hounds to chase anymore.

It's a more immersive, authentic experience to watch it all play out in a language I don't understand. Subtitles are there for me to follow along, of course, but to really get a sense of time and place, Japanese voice acting is crucial. It gives it the feel of watching an acclaimed foreign film, mixing this unfamiliar audio with the all-around unique atmosphere this studio's games so often have. Sekiro diverts from the traditional soulsborne genre in many ways, but several of the pillars remain intact, and for longtime fans who will immediately become deeply enamored with this new world from the famed developer, I'm here to implore you: don't change the audio. Let yourself soak up even more of the game's intensity through its dramatic, foreign tongues. It will make all the rest, this interesting mix of familiar and new, that much more engrossing.

Sekiro isn't the only game that works well this way. I first made this switch back in February with Metro Exodus, albeit for very different reasons. At the time, the Exodus English voiceovers weren't doing it for me. They were a bit wooden, often delivered like lines being read rather than emotions being felt. It really got in the way. When we talk about what games do well or poorly, like in reviews, rarely do we think to consider this change, but with Exodus, I really began to see things differently. After downloading the Russian audio, the game was quickly catapulted into my early favorite for Game of the Year. Everything else about Metro was either good or great, so changing the audio like this not only further immersed me in the world, dropping me into the Russian apocalypse, it also took a glaring problem and turned it into a strength.

For Metro Exodus, switching to foreign voiceovers turned a negative into a positive.For Metro Exodus, switching to foreign voiceovers turned a negative into a positive.

The funny thing is I have no idea if these foreign language voiceovers are any good. I'm not fluent in Russian or Japanese, so I'm not one to judge them. But for that same reason, it doesn't matter. As best I can tell, changes like these are upgrades without any downsides.

When a game like Metro or Sekiro takes place in a setting where something other than English would naturally be the dominant language, I'm now committed to making this change every time. Next time I play Hitman, I hope the audio options include the right languages for Agent 47's globetrotting. Even in a fantasy world like The Witcher, where English may do just fine and not feel inauthentic, perhaps Polish will make it even better since that's where CD Projekt calls home and I could totally see Geralt speaking Polish. I'm excited to see more games like these that span time and space, history and fantasy, because I'll be right there with those characters, no longer just seeing what they see but now hearing what they hear too. Maybe the English voice acting in Sekiro is fantastic. Maybe it's distractingly poor. I'll never know, and it feels better that way.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.