Sifu is a game that always expects you to play it on its terms. Like many challenge-focused action games that have come before it, the game makes little effort to accommodate different sensibilities or hold your hand while you learn its basic principles. While it’s lack of willingness to ease you into its formidable challenge might quickly become an unappealing barrier to some, the intricate hand-to-hand combat system that SloClap has designed here does lead to some extremely rewarding moments to those who are willing and able to step up to it. What’s more, Sifu is mostly able to pull off being a fairly simple and uncomplicated game while avoiding the trappings of tedium.
Unlike SloClap’s previous game Absolver, Sifu does have a compelling single-player story that motivates you to see it through. You play a talented kung fu student whose family was murdered when they were a child, but now, the main character is 20 years old and ready to exact revenge on those responsible. It’s nothing you haven’t seen countless times with kung fu movie tropes from Bruce Lee movies from the 70’s to similar films of today, and it never really develops into anything more than that – but it’s something – and it’s more than enough of an excuse to crack a few skulls. And crack skulls you will. The game is broken up into several different levels which are effectively just lairs for each member of the gang that our protagonist is now hunting down one by one. Each level is pretty large with alternate pathways and locked doors that can be unlocked to reveal shortcuts to the boss and other story items, which, thankfully stay unlocked with subsequent playthroughs.
"It’s nothing you haven’t seen countless times with kung fu movie tropes from Bruce Lee movies from the 70’s to similar films of today, and it never really develops into anything more than that – but it’s something – and it’s more than enough of an excuse to crack a few skulls. And crack skulls you will."
The unlockable skills themselves aren’t anything revolutionary but will add to your roster of abilities nicely, until you lose them, but more on that later. The levels are also full of dangerous enemies that all need some sense knocked into them before you can progress past them. These fights are almost the entire focus of the game with very little attention paid to developments in the story or building any sort of character development. It’s ultimately a beat ‘em up game, so I get that, but a bit more depth to our protagonist or the assailants could have really taken the overall package up a notch.
The combat in Sifu is intricate and refreshingly sophisticated for the genre. You have basic heavy and light combinations that you might expect, but also with unlockable combinations and focus moves that let you incapacitate enemies easier and deal massive damage. Blocking, throwing, and dodging are also important though and require a certain amount of finesse to really be effective with them. Button mashing will get you nowhere but the game over screen. Ideally, you want to drive down an enemy’s structure, which is functionally their stamina, so you can deliver a finishing move to their face and rake in as much experience and focus as possible.
That’s not always doable though, and the size of the group you’re tangoing with will largely determine your tactics. Rolling over tables and using elevation to break up mobs is the key to taking out the larger groups, as being surrounded is usually a one-way ticket to death. You’ll want to do your best to whittle large groups down to smaller ones by baiting them into costly maneuvers, throwing things to stun them, and whatever else you can as you dish out attacks wherever you can fit them in. On top of your health, you’ll also want to keep an eye on your own structure, which again, basically functions like stamina and illustrates your ability to block. Every hit you block fills up your meter, if it fills up all the way, it breaks, making you vulnerable. It empties automatically over time, but leveling your own attacks and excessively dodging around can also add to the meter, so each movement you make should be as fully calculated as possible.
"Different types of enemies, attack patterns, and even angles of attack all have ideal solutions for you to discover and memorize – and it’s nothing short of thrilling when everything clicks into place and you’re able to take down a room full of hooligans like a kung fu badass."
Different types of enemies, attack patterns, and even angles of attack all have ideal solutions for you to discover and memorize – and it’s nothing short of thrilling when everything clicks into place and you’re able to take down a room full of hooligans like a kung fu badass. Each and every hit to an enemy feels like it connects in a real way, yet, also feels understated with minimal sound effects and visual feedback. It gives the combat a mature tone that I really ended up liking about it. Enemy variety is solid too, while I did start to recognize certain enemy types being reskinned and re-used fairly early on, they always felt mixed up and distributed well enough that it wasn’t a problem for me.
There are a handful of temporary weapons that can be found lying around, and offer some spice, but unfortunately these aren’t as fleshed out as the hand-to-hand stuff so they don’t bring as much variety to the overall combat as they could have. Ultimately, it’s a combat system that rewards patience and observation, but just as much punishes impulsivity and inexperience. It’s difficult for sure, but you can’t call it anything less than fair. The only times I felt really cheated with it was when the camera got hung up on a corner of a wall or other large object, making me waste precious time swinging it out of the way. It didn’t happen often, but it was often enough – and led to enough cheap deaths – that I feel it should be mentioned.
The big hook here comes from the death system though, which lets you come back from death but at the cost of aging at least one year. How many years you age each time you die depends on how well you’ve been doing up to that point, though. So, if you die often or at the hands of the same enemy multiple times, that number can go up, but conversely, if you remain victorious through multiple scuffles or particularly challenging enemies, it can go down. With each year aged, our hero gains slightly more strength but loses a bit of max health. I found being old was better though, as you can always gain some health back by landing finishing moves. However, if you make it to your 70s then you are on your last attempt before the magical talisman is depleted and you actually die for real and have to start the level over again.
"With a challenging combat system that encourages you to master it, an appealing art style, polished gameplay, fitting soundtrack, and strong focus on its few core tenants, Sifu is definitely one of those “if you think you’ll enjoy it then you probably will” games."
The kicker though is that once you restart that level, you will lose every upgrade you’ve purchased during that level that wasn’t “permanently unlocked” which can only be done by dumping exorbitant amounts of your experience points into it, and have to start at whatever age you were at when you got to it. So, if you get to the third level at age 68, you will always have to start that level at the brink of death unless you can reach it at a younger age in a separate playthrough. Effectively requiring multiple playthroughs of levels you’ve already beaten as you come across new challenges in later ones. While I certainly enjoy the challenge that the combat and aging system introduces, having to replay previous levels to ensure success in later ones did grind my gears a bit and I feel like it creates an unnecessary barrier to enjoying the game’s strengths at times. It is alleviated a bit if you can unlock the right doors that get you to bosses faster, but it still ultimately creates a drag on an otherwise briskly paced experience.
Sifu ultimately has much more going for it. With a challenging combat system that encourages you to master it, an appealing art style, polished gameplay, fitting soundtrack, and strong focus on its few core tenants, it’s definitely one of those “if you think you’ll enjoy it then you probably will” games. More importantly though, it brings something new to the beat ‘em up genre while only rarely missing the mark on achieving its own goals, and even when it does, it’s not by that much.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Great graphics; Tight, challenging combat; Good level and enemy variety.
Camera can sometimes exacerbate tense situations; Replaying levels becomes a drag; Weapons aren’t as fun or diverse as they could’ve been.