I’ve never seen a game handle aging quite like Sifu.
Enemies can quite literally take years off your life with their kicks and punches. Knocking you to the ground, you’re either forced to accept an increase in age with a rapidly doubling penalty, or give up and try the section all over again.
As you pass a decade, your character’s appearance noticeably changes, aging gracefully aesthetically, but it also affects your stats with a decrease in health and increase in power. A unique prospect that could build into your strategies.
For the most part, though, you should try and keep your age down as your progress carries over across a series of stages full of bruising mobs, reflex-focused challenges and fast-handed bosses.
Within the first stage, you can quite easily find yourself in the 70s if you’re not paying attention, putting yourself at a huge disadvantage when trying to take on Sifu’s tougher enemies in later stages. Fortunately you can replay to try and improve on your standing, though I guess therein lies adversity for those really seeking the ultimate challenge.
It’s brutal. Physically and mentally, Sifu is hard as nails, which makes for an interesting comparison with a certain other release coming in February, born of a franchise that has a reputation for its difficulty.
But also like that series, you will learn more and more about when to parry, when to dodge, when to strike as you learn the patterns, understand your moveset and get comfortable with your environment. Though admittedly, it’s not always as simple as that, with enemies unrelenting in their approach, not giving you a moment to breathe.
There will be times where you’re beaten into a corner and can’t seem to move fast enough to respond. Such is the nature of fighters, I suppose, with fast button presses usually a sure-fire way to keep your head above water. But even without that, in some sections, you’ll definitely notice progress by just learning the basics and where to position yourself. Then, suddenly you’re breezing through them without a scratch which can be pretty satisfying.
Sifu is a fascinating game in terms of how to categorise it, then. At a glance, you could mistake it for a 3D Streets of Rage with its rowdy locales, blistering soundtrack, and hard-hitting combat. But you’re also picking up clues and evidence through each section, all of which gets pinned up on a board to help map out your route. You’ll even return to locations with new items, like a lesser-form of what you do in Deathloop.
There’s also a levelling up/roguelike element to Sifu. Each runthrough you can unlock abilities with XP gained from candour in battle, but you also need to choose whether you want to unlock as much as possible for the run which is only good for a sole playthrough, or to permanently unlock an ability for use in every playthrough.
Of course, you still have to be comfortable with all these combinations, even if you’ve unlocked them all – easier said than done. Most of the upgrades alternate between sliding kicks, catching weapons, and charge fists rather than health upgrades or focus lifts. Sadly, Sloclap aren’t letting you take the easier way out.
There’s no dialling it down, really. Enemies border on the unfair, those age penalties can really rack up and end your ‘life’ quicker than you’re expecting, and sometimes it’ll feel like you’re hitting a brick wall and not making any progress at all. No doubt, Sifu is trying to target a specific audience and in that it’s definitely going to be off-putting and won’t be for everyone.
Likewise, narratively it’s pretty bleak and barren. The whole concept is about a student who has dedicated their entire life to redemption, taking down a group of five martial artists who defeated and killed their Sifu. It’s fine and it works, but don’t come in expecting a grand, epic tale that adds depth to its encounters. This is really basic stuff, not filled up by much in the way of substance, save for a few scraps of dialogue where thugs tell you in various different ways you don’t belong here and to move along.
And where you think the game might thrive best on its cultural portrayal and representation, sadly that just appears to be in paying homage to scenes from Slocap’s favourite Kung Fu movies, like a whole section seemingly lifted from Oldboy near the beginning. Despite the studio’s desire and intent, there seems to be minimal enthusiasm for character building and a lack of authenticity permeating throughout.
Sifu walks a tight line. It might seem like it’s a game you can just switch off and tap some buttons, but the amount of attention and patience the game requires from you just to stay competitive is definitely going to shock some people and catch them unawares. The random mob you’ve kicked the shit out of can just come back and put you down without you even realising how it happened.
You can offset some of that with Sifu’s unique concepts and once you understand how it works, lean into some of its solid design. Sifu’s bare-knuckle combat can be quite exhilarating when you’re at home with it, and, at times, when your back is to the wall and you pull off a miracle blow to save yourself, you do catch glimpses of a great game.
The game’s stylistic flashing on screen really dazzles and plays some fun tricks with the player and the sensations of the DualSense reverberating and whistling in your hands offer a satisfying accompaniment to the action on screen. When parts of it come together, they really do work and make for a mostly entertaining experience.
There are issues with the game’s foundation which cannot, nor should not, be ignored, and the constant cycle of death with no easy resolution can be massively demoralising and off-putting. However Sifu remains one of the most entertaining brawlers in recent memory. This is a game that rewards just as quickly as it upsets and it definitely won’t go easy on you / you’ll probably go even less easy on your poor control pad.
+ Solid, hard-hitting, well-implemented combat
+ Unique, interesting mechanics
+ Great use of DualSense
– Narratively barren
– Lacking cultural representation
– Difficulty can border on the harsh and unfair
Sifu is now available on PC and PlayStation
Code Kindly Provided by SloCap/TinsleyPR