When you boil it all down, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice revolves around protecting your young lord - but surely you can spare a moment to help out a big galoot with a heart of gold. From Software has always done an exceptional job with the NPCs that dot its majestic, treacherous worlds, with their cryptic quests and personal agendas. Throughout Bloodborne and the Souls series, we've encountered all manner of enigmatic strangers, from villainous schemers to noble crusaders. But I can't recall an NPC I wanted - nay, needed - to help out like Kotaro, the colossal, crying monk you encounter as soon as you reach Sekiro's Mt. Kongo. I'm a little late to the Sekiro party, so hopefully it's no biggie to discuss some minor spoilers regarding this NPC, because I just have to profess my affinity for Kotaro and keeping him as happy as can be.
Like so many Soulsbornero (sorry) NPCs, you can't help but approach Kotaro with trepidation, despite the fact that he's a grown (and quite stout) man weeping under a tree in a serene forest. I love how you can't see his face as you initially approach, and his heavyset body type resembles the big brutes you've been killing with abandon up until this point. I suppose it's not unlike the reaction I'd have in real life: I'd be very hesitant to approach an unknown man weeping in the woods, despite the apparent vulnerability of his situation. Truth be known, I flinched when Kotaro dried his eyes and looked up at me with that homely mug; From Software knows a thing or two about masking a character's inner beauty with a frightening exterior.
Helping the lonesome Kotaro find his way can go in three possible directions, and I immediately knew I'd do whatever it took to bring this gentle giant a bit of joy. Brilliantly, two of those three avenues feed into the player's instinct to progress quests as rapidly as possible; the red-and-white pinwheel that opens them up is so plainly placed along the path through the Senpou Temple, while the "pure white flower" pinwheel Kotaro so desperately seeks lies way off the beaten path. Even the pinwheels themselves are a mystery when you find them, with poetic descriptions that end with heartening lines like "Everyone is right here." I initially thought that giving Kotaro the white pinwheel he pines for - with its description ending in "Only the child is right here" - would doom Kotaro to some kind of regressive, immature state. He already seemed like Of Mice and Men's Lennie in Japanese monk form to begin with.
Turns out, it was the right thing to do, at least by my estimation - though I'll fully admit to consulting a guide to make sure I was going down the road I hoped for. And even then, I was still nervous about spiriting him away, and the fact that this half-naked adult kept babbling incoherently about finding children. But I'm so very pleased with the result, and I feel like I've done right by one of the most peaceful, kind-hearted NPCs in From Software history. Funnily enough, some players see that same result a different way - a purgatory detached from the real world. They think Kotaro is happier teaming up with Anayama the Peddler, looting (then respectfully burying) corpses on the battlefield. What I saw as a miserable fate, saddling my big friend with what Anayama calls a "dirty, disgusting, and physical job," others see as Kotaro making a friend and finding true purpose.
My nervousness when inching Kotaro's questline forward is a testament to the gripping finality that From Software imbues into its NPCs. Too often, in-game quests lose all narrative impact when your brain starts to equate them to job-reward-repeat. But Sekiro and the action RPGs before it do an amazing job of making many questlines incredibly opaque, to the point that you'll be questioning your own actions every step of the way. With From Software games constantly autosaving, it's not feasible to take back something that seems wrong in hindsight. As in life, all you can do is deal with the consequences of your actions - at least until a New Game+ resets the universe.
A single dialogue choice with very little explanation can be the deciding factor between a character's life or death, their happiness or misery. In Kotaro's case, particularly evil people can lure him to the Abandoned Dungeon for some unnecessary medical procedures at the hands of Doujun (then again, maybe those folks thought they were just helping out their shady surgeon friend). But I'm so pleased to see where Kotaro ended up thanks to my help, and getting him there successfully felt just as fulfilling as beating a boss. Given just how demanding said boss fights are, it's a marvel that From Software can lend that same kind of emotional payoff into your dealings with a pacifist NPC. Kotaro knows I've got his back, and I'll protect his smile with every ounce of my being.