Take a little pinch of the punishment of a Dark Souls, stir in the aging aspect of Chronos, and top off with a furnishing of some of your favourite martial arts movies and you get Sifu – the latest action beat ‘em up from Sloclap. Sifu sees players battling through room upon room of enemies, using your own swift martial arts prowess and ability to improvise to reach those that murdered your father eight years ago and deliver the long-awaited vengeance that your master and father (Sifu translates to master in Cantonese) deserves.
Beyond just letting you play out your own fantasies of starring in a Jackie Chan kung fu movie however, Sifu delivers its own twist in the way that death becomes an integral and strategic part of the game as, for Sifu, it quite literally takes a lifetime to become a kung fu master.
Fight Through a Lifetime
Roguelites have become the new buzzword of the gaming industry. Since the unmitigated success of Hades plenty of studios have gone on to adopt the cyclical gameplay system in hopes of recreating even a small part of Supergiant’s triumph. Sifu doesn’t market itself as a roguelite, but it nevertheless still grabs a huge element from the genre’s system.
In Sifu your goal is to take down each of the five kung fu masters responsible in your fathers’ murder. Getting to them requires battling through their headquarters in wave after wave of enemies before, then, fighting the master themselves. As a lone fighter against the endless hordes your martial artist is in for a battle of extreme endurance, but one, however, that they have a peculiar advantage in. Bestowed with a special pendant from your father death is entirely impermanent for you, instead only having the effect of you aging you some years until you eventually cross the age of 70 at which point the pendant breaks and you finally succumb to the endless void of death. However, no lifetime is wasted even if you don’t complete your mission since you can unlock new abilities permanently on every run through which will make you stronger the next time around.
Sifu therefore works like so: beginning at the age of 20 you have to fight your way through 5 levels and bosses and do so without dying so many times that your pendant breaks at 70 years forcing a game over. Every death adds 1 to a counter which will then increase the number of years you age by on your next death meaning dying a lot at one section will punishingly push your age up exponentially; however it is possible to lower that counter by defeating special enemies or by spending experience at totems found throughout levels to reset the counter to 0. These totems can also be used to unlock new combo moves and abilities, some of which are permanent if bought enough times with XP on a given lifetime, others which exist only for that life and would have to be unlocked again on a new cycle.
Each of your lives will also be used to learn more from every level too, discovering information on your targets and their headquarters to fill out your “detective board” that can then help you in future. For example, making it so far in one life might grant you a key which can be used to unlock a shortcut the next time you return, hopefully making it easier to get through with less deaths. All information added to the detective board is permanent, and information gained on later levels can sometimes help you on earlier ones. The process of Sifu is therefore iterative. Once you’ve made it to a level you can then access that level again at the earliest age you have ever made it on. It is extremely difficult to handle later bosses once you’re at an advanced age, so you’re going to constantly be returning to earlier levels, using what you’ve learned at later stages, and trying to get your age down as low as possible to improve your chances of success further on.
This system worked well for me. I really enjoyed the aging aspect of the game and enjoyed the challenge and iterative process of sanding my age down on each level until I had enough years to defeat the final boss, Yang. It can, however, slide into a bit of a grind which will turn some players off. You’re going to be returning to some of these levels a lot which can grow tiresome and frustrating, especially with how punishing the game can be. However I do think that since so much of Sifu is about the process of learning to be a master this grind feeds well into precisely what Sloclap are wanting for their players. Like the very best Pak Mei masters’ sections of combat will begin to feel like mere muscle memory; those enemies you struggled with early on will soon be unable to withstand your advanced kung fu prowess, giving that extremely satisfying feeling of like you are actually mastering the martial art as you progress.
The Art of Combat
Sifu takes a lot of its inspiration for its combat from classic kung fu movies, especially those of Jackie Chan’s Chinese work. This is very clearly evident in the fast hand and feet movement of your attacks and the use of improvised weapons to gain an advantage. Slinging a glass bottle straight from the ground at one enemy, chopping another down with a flurry of fists blows before then plucking their baseball bat out of the air as it goes tossing up to smash an oncoming assailant from behind—all in one swift flowing movement—feels like something straight out of Police Story.
Getting to that point of kung fu mastery is no mean feat, however. The combat of Sifu is difficult and can take a little to get used to at first, but once you have it down it is all the more rewarding and satisfying for it.
You have light and heavy attacks at your disposal, available in numerous strings of combos that if linked properly can flow seamlessly into each other for some extremely devastating attacks, as well as blocking and timed parries like in Dark Souls which will grant you a huge advantage. Most enemies have their defences up however which comes through the form of “structure” – you yourself have a structure bar as well which determines how many blocks you can make. Breaking up one’s structure either through attacks or parries allows you to then perform an execution move that will take out an enemy in one, though more powerful enemies can resist your execution and are powered up even more for it. Weapons are also available either as throwable items or for melee.
On top of blocking and parrying you also have a dodge and an “avoid”. Successfully pulling off avoids and parries will fill up your focus bar which allows you to slow down time and select a power move that is both unblockable and typically devastating.
The system sounds simple enough but getting the timing down and understanding the flow of combat (it is generally better to fight aggressively) takes a beat, but the process of learning it also feeds well into the idea that your character is developing their martial artistry as well.
The speed at which combat moves is excellent, with every move flowing well from one to the next, and every final blow feeling so excellently crunching and satisfying. This is aided by the small zoom ins that the camera takes upon executions to really help deliver the viciousness of your hits, along with the audio both from the game and from your PS5 controller. The PS5’s haptic feedback also helps you to feel each hit making for a visceral and thrilling experience. The game’s engine also does well to consider your environment when fighting, meaning that often your character will throw enemies onto a nearby table or into a wall to deliver their final executions. Even after hour upon hour of replaying the same fights the sheer number of combos (apparently over 150 unique attacks in total) and execution styles means that you never get quite stuck/sick with seeing the exact same animations over and over.
The overall experience of Sifu is good, especially for its lesser price point. There are frustrations to be had in its grindier aspects, but the thrill of combat is enough to overcome most of the game’s weaknesses. Few games can replicate the feeling of being in a kung fu movie quite like Sifu manages with masterful style, and for that alone it should be an instant buy.
Final Score: 8/10