Sifu is the story of a young Kung Fu student on a path of revenge, hunting for the murderers of his family. One against all, he has no allies, and countless enemies. He has to rely on his unique mastery of Kung Fu as well as a mysterious pendant to prevail, and preserve his family’s legacy.
Publisher: Sloclap, Microids
Reviewed on: PS5
Also available for: PS4, PC
Cast: Jemma Moore, Vincent Lai, Rae Lim, Nicholas Goh, Dan Li, Kevin Shen, Kristy Rider, Daphne Cheung, Matthew Leonhart
Creative Director & Lead Game Designer: Jordan Layani
Writer: Barry Keating
Art Director: Paul-Emile Boucher
Animation Director: Kevin Roger
Earlier this week, I put my DualSense controller down and had deep thoughts about whether or not I’d be able to beat Sifu. The martial arts brawler from Sloclap is painful, requiring a lot of patience and as much persistence as the player-character does in their quest for vengeance. But as the week continued, I’d dream of the hallways, rooms, and boss fights that were kicking my ass and play over the button inputs required to block, parry, dodge and take down my opponents. Like having a case of Tetris Syndrome, I saw my opponents in my mind at work during the day and planned new routes of attack for each night as I entered the fight yet again.
Sifu is a martial arts brawler that can look like the Batman Arkham series in the trailers, but other than the icon above enemies heads letting you know you can perform a takedown maneuver, this is a much different game. Taking everything they’d learned from their previous game Absolver, developer Sloclap has crafted a much less confusing combat system with just as much depth and honed in on the basics. Although you can unlock new attacks, the moves are often only two button inputs, rather than long codes you may have to enter to perform a combo in something like Street Fighter. Instead, the focus is on light and heavy attacks and always being aware of enemies’ attacks and your surroundings.
Attacking will damage an enemy’s health bar, but more often than not, and especially during boss fights, you’re looking to break their ‘structure’. Attacks and parries will eventually break an enemy’s guard and open them up for a highly damaging or finishing takedown. This system will be instantly recognisable to players of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which used a very similar combat system. It’s a mechanic that means your best offence is often your best defence. But you, too, have a structure bar that can be broken by enemies attacks or blocking for too long. In Sifu’s boss fights, learning to rotate between blocks, dodges, and attacks is paramount to success, so is knowing when to break away from the enemy and give yourself some space to recover some of your structure.
There are five levels in total in Sifu that have a boss waiting for you at the end, and although it took me around 12 hours to initially beat the game, you could technically beat them all in succession in about an hour, if you’re a god. But this is where Sifu gets unique as it combines the level design elements of things like Souls-likes and roguelike elements. When you begin the first level, the player-character is 20 years old and on a revenge mission against five assassins who killed their father eight years prior. As you explore each level, you’ll eventually unlock shortcuts to make it to the boss fights a lot faster; this is because the game has no checkpoints. When you die in Sifu, you come back to life, at first, one year older. Die again, and you’ll age two years, die again after that, and three years — and so forth until you’re over seventy, which is your last life. The counter which tells you how many years you’ll age upon death can be reset to zero, but the years you’ve aged cannot. So, for example, the initial time I beat the first level in the game, I was sixty years old, making it impossible to beat the following four levels. At ages thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy, you lose some of your max health while also gaining strength, so there is some positive to growing older.
Learning your enemies’ attacks and mastery over the basics is what’ll get you the furthest in Sifu, but there are some skills you can permanently unlock. You earn experience by beating enemies in a level that you can use to open several new combos or abilities, like the opportunity to parry while knocked on the ground. You lose these when you die, but you can permanently unlock them. Say a skill costs 500xp to unlock once: you can then spend 500xp five more times to permanently unlock that skill. It doesn’t have to be in one run either, so if you think you have a terrible run, it’s worth playing the level out to get enough experience to unlock one of those five slots needed for skill. Throughout levels, you’ll also come across totems that unlock abilities that’ll let you regain more health from takedowns or deal more damage with weapons. These perks aren’t permanently unlockable and are lost when you die.
Mastering a level to the degree you can beat all the enemies and then the boss without taking as much as a single hit will separate the kung fu novices to the real Sifu’s. I’m excited to see people speedrun and master this game, as it’ll make for some super satisfying gameplay to watch. I wish there were a replay feature as the animations for all the attacks are so fluid and often my mind was so “in the game” I’m maybe not giving them the appreciation they deserve. When you’re on a roll blocking every attack, performing a plethora of different attacks, grabbing bottles from benches and smashing them over heads before sliding across a table and then throwing them to the ground, Sifu feels and looks like a classic kung fu movie.
There is variety to each of the game’s five levels as the locations, music, and environments differ. The backstreets of the opening chapter quickly change into a pulse-pounding club dancefloor and through to a strange and secretive museum. I loved the music by Howie Lee and the combination of traditional instruments that give it the martial arts soundscape while incorporating modern techniques and digital music to drive home the dark and revenge-driven story. Each level has its unique music, and the boss fight music, in particular, is stuff I can’t wait to listen to on streaming services or being available to purchase.