Review – Sifu
Way back in 2017, a little studio called Sloclap partnered up with Devolver Digital to release Absolver: a martial arts-oriented game that featured phenomenal controls, but not a lot to do within it. What mattered most was that Sloclap proved they had the chops to create a fun martial arts game based on Hong Kong cinema, something rarely seen in gaming nowadays. They just needed time and money to come up with something special. That something special took five years to make, but it’s finally out. Sifu is everything I wanted it to be, and more. I was looking forward to playing for months, and it was so worth the wait.
Sifu is a tale of revenge. As a kid, you were forced to watch a gang of thugs brutally murder your father, a former kung fu mentor. To make matters worse, you are also attacked by these goons, to the point of having your throat slit. You don’t exactly die, however. Well, you do, but you’re brought back to life thanks to a sacred artifact you carry around, which allows you to be revived at the cost of aging a bit. You spend the next few years of your life practicing your martial art skills and tracking down the locale of each of these gang members. Now it’s time to kill them all before you die of old age.
In theory, this is a simple and straightforward game. Undergo a linear sequence comprised of a handful of levels, each one featuring a boss by the end of it. Defeat the boss, then go to the next stage. The catch is that you need to kill all bosses in the game in one life cycle. That is easier said than done. Sifu is not an easy game, demanding an obnoxious amount from players at first. In practice, this isn’t a roguelike per se, since the level structure and enemy placements always remain intact. Although, it retains some of the most notable elements from the genre, namely having the chance of permanently unlocking a few new abilities right from the beginning of a new cycle. More on that later.
This is a martial arts game, so everybody’s biggest concern is to whether or not Sifu‘s combat system is fun and intuitive. Without a doubt, it is the best thing about the entire game. Absolver had already proven that Sloclap was more than capable of coming up with a great kung fu styled combat system, and Sifu‘s is basically that, but with added influences from other games. There is a bit of Arkham in here, namely when battling multiple enemies at once. Thankfully, you don’t slide around the arena in a cheesy fashion: your arms have a limited reach, so you need to properly run towards your foes in order to hit them. You can grab weapons on the ground in order to help you with that, however, such as pipes and bo staffs.
From Software’s Sekiro is also a pretty notable influence in Sifu‘s combat style, namely with the inclusion of a “structural gauge”. Think of it as Sekiro‘s posture meter. If you’re able to fill an enemy’s structural gauge, even if their health is still far from depleted, you’re able to break their posture and perform a finishing move that allows you to regain a bit of your health. Mind you, it’s one of the only two ways you’re able to regain health, so Sifu is basically telling you to not fight like a lunatic, encouraging you to properly learn how to read enemy attacks, dodge, parry, and counter. Your health and balance meters are scarce, and you can die pretty quickly if you don’t pay proper attention.
Ah yes, dying. Without a doubt, Sifu‘s main highlight is how it handles death. Upon dying, two things happen. First, you’re greeted with a screen that allows you to spend acquired experience points on new moves, some more useful than others. There is a catch, however: in order to permanently unlock each of these moves, as in having it available at the beginning of each run (even after a game over message), you need to spend five times the required amount of experience points. You don’t acquire them that easily, meaning that you need to strategize. Do you feel confident that you won’t need to redo the entire level? Grab momentary skills. If not, save up a bit and spend on permanent buffs. The second thing that happens upon dying is, well, being ressurected. And aging as a result.
Let’s assume you begin a new run, aged twenty. You reach a point where enemies overwhelm you, and you die. Upon having the talisman revive you, you are brought back to the same spot you were, but you age one year. You’re now twenty-one. An aging meter will increase, however. If you die once again, you don’t turn twenty-two. The aging meter always increases by an extra year, meaning you’ll turn twenty-three.
This is the tricky bit about aging in Sifu. The more you die, the quicker you age. You might reach a point where you’ll age half a decade at once, and that should sound like a red flag to your current run. Sure, you become stronger whenever you reach a new decade, but you also become more frail. You’ll become more experienced, but your stamina and posture won’t be the same you had when you were in your twenties. In essence, the aging meter acts like an alert. Time is running out. As the kids would say, “git gud or die trying”.
Sifu sounds unfair, but it does give you a few perks occasionally in order to help you in your journey. Every now and then, you might face a stronger miniboss. Upon defeating them, the game rewards you by reducing your age meter by one year. Some weaker thugs might eventually turn into minibosses with increased health bars as well. This is most common whenever you defeat an entire room worth of goons; the last one standing will enter a frenzy state and become a miniboss. Finally, you will occasionally find some jade ornaments throughout a level. These replenish your health and allow you to pick an additional perk, such as increased posture. It also allows you to access the same perk subscreen you’re presented whenever you die.
Some people will absolutely despise how brutal Sifu can be at times. Games like Dark Souls encourage players to keep dying until they figure out how to get past a boss or a tricky section. Sifu wants you to master your kung fu skills as quickly as possible in order NOT to die. The more you die, the harder the game becomes, through a certain point of view. At the same time, the game knows you’re not going to master all of its skills right from the get-go. You are free to access a dojo which teaches you additional skills, without fearing losing all of your health, and as a result, your progress. You will notice your skills improving very quickly, however. On my first run, I reached the first boss nearing my age limit, in my sixties. Upon starting a new game, I’ve managed to reach the same boss in my thirties. You will eventually “git gud” at Sifu.
I’ve spent a ton of paragraphs talking about the game’s complex combat and punishment systems, but its presentation is equally as fascinating. Let me start off with a less “controversial” aspect: the sound design is excellent. Not only is the soundtrack pretty epic, mixing classical Chinese music with occasional electronic and hip hop beats, but the game is absolutely plastered with voice acting. That completely caught me offguard. Not only is there a lot of it, but it doesn’t sound amateurish at all. I loved the fine attention to detail regarding your main character’s voice acting. The more you age, the less nervous and more stoic you sound. You can notice you’re becoming the aforementioned sifu (which is Chinese for “master”).
The visuals are one of the most controversial aspects about Sifu. Yes, it is an acquired taste. The game’s overly angular character models might not please everyone. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed the graphics. If anything, they reminded me of Netflix’s Arcane, not only in the overly angular character designs, but also in the way the game uses textures that look like they were painted on canvas. Add in a deliciously stable 60fps framerate, a high resolution, and some excellent animations, and you get a game that might be offputting to some, but a truly unique visual approach nevertheless. I spent A LOT of time in the game’s photo mode, that’s for certain.
Sifu will trigger a wide variety of reactions from everyone. Some people will hate its art style, while others will love it. Some people will call it way too punishing and overcomplicated. I may agree that it is a punitive game, but I couldn’t stop playing it. I loved almost everything the game offered me, from its slick graphics and neat storytelling, to the cathartic sensation of clearing an entire room full of goons without losing a single chunk of health. This is a game that will demand a bit more from players, but those who decide to stick with it will be rewarded for their patience.
Sifu‘s art style is an acquired taste. By no means is this game low-poly or created without any effort, however. Character animations and background were masterfully crafted, and the hand painted textures looked great onscreen.
A bit of Yakuza, a bit of Sekiro, a bit of Arkham. Sifu takes elements from many combat systems in order to create something completely unique, which requires some time before getting used to, especially when it comes to its parrying mechanics.
Not only is the soundtrack excellent, but the game boasts a ton of voice acting, which completely caught me off guard.
A bit overwhelming at first. Possibly too unfair for some. Sifu‘s learning curve is very steep, and it might frustrate some players. Those who decided to stick with it will be rewarded for their patience. The combat, the story, the presentation… this game’s got it all.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Sifu is available now on PS4, PS5 and PC.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Sifu was provided by the publisher.