Developer Sloclap describes Sifu as a ‘stylish yet gritty beat-em-up, featuring visceral hand-to-hand combat in a contemporary urban setting’, but in reality, Sifu is far more than just another simple punch-and-run game. Sifu provides players with a rewarding yet challenging experience, punctuated by an excellent visual style and brilliant moment-to-moment gameplay; however, by not expanding on some of the core premises of the game further, Sifu doesn’t quite live up to the legends that inspired it.
In Sifu, you play as a young Kung-fu student hunting down the people responsible for the death of their father eight years prior. In your journey, you’ll fight dozens of enemies that test your real-life ability and reflexes with a range of beautifully animated real-world martial arts manoeuvres. Should one of these enemies kill you (which will happen many, many times), a magic talisman will resurrect your character to fight again with only one small catch – you age every time.
The way this works mechanically is simple, every time you die, your death counter increases by one, and you age that number of years. If you die at a death counter of one at age 25, the counter will increase to two, and you’ll rise again at age 27. As you can imagine, this quickly becomes a problem in a game this difficult. As multiple deaths begin to rack up, you’ll find your character aging decades in a matter of minutes, resulting in a game over when your character reaches the age of 70.
Sifu‘s combat is exceptionally challenging, requiring a level of mastery over your selected platform and lightning-fast reflexes to progress in any meaningful way, meaning the game may not be for everyone. To fight effectively, you’ll need to dodge, parry and input combos at such high speeds it almost feels like a fighting game. However, these fights never seemed unfair, and after learning the enemy patterns and studying their attacks, I was able to beat the game in around eight hours.
As you gain experience, a skill tree opens up new abilities and combos that arm you with new tools for the fights you face. Your skills reset after death, but certain moves can be permanently unlocked for use in later runs, a clever reflection of the lessons of growth and learning prevalent throughout the game. However, I didn’t find many of these upgrades useful. Most of the abilities are situational, and upgraded combos mostly give you new ways to stun your target, something that is easily done with your basic move-set anyway.
Sifu‘s boss fights are where the game really makes its mark, but they are not without their downside. These encounters are visual spectacles, with each boss being a master of their unique kind of weapon, forcing you to analyse their patterns and learn their move-set to figure out when to strike. These encounters are home to Sifu‘s most visually striking areas, like an arena in the middle of a stormy ocean or a cave deep underground that shakes with an ancient bell’s toll.
Style and flashy visuals aside, these encounters, unfortunately, end up being the easiest, simply because their patterns are so predictable. In the standard encounters, not knowing who will strike or if multiple will strike at once is a tough challenge that tests your ability to think on your feet. During a boss fight, it’s simply a matter of memorisation and knowing precisely what moves the enemy will make before they do it. This gets less fun and more frustrating the more you fight them, and you’ll likely be doing it a lot
In Sifu, completing a level means you can begin the next level at the same age you ended the last one. Meaning if you beat the previous boss at age 33, you’ll start the next one at the same age. This clever design element encourages you to go back to older levels and beat them quicker to set yourself up better for future runs. This also allows you to find hidden shortcuts that let you bypass some sections in older levels to reach the boss quicker. This system is well implemented and made for a good excuse to practice my skills and explore the game’s environments for story-related secrets.
Sifu‘s story is the game’s most obvious fault. The narrative starts well in an excellent opening sequence and title credits scene but immediately falls flat with poor voice acting and a frustrating lack of cohesive storytelling. The narrative also fails to explore its most intriguing element, the very talisman that brings you back from the dead. This mystical piece of equipment is noticeably absent in the larger narrative outside a few hidden details that are easy to overlook. Rather than focus the story on this essential element of the game’s hook, Sifu follows a lacklustre revenge story that ends without flourish or ceremony, which left me feeling unsatisfied.
Completing Sifu delivers an undeniable sense of satisfaction and pride, with the meaty, brutal and highly complex enemy encounters adding up to provide a punishing challenge. Still, as a whole, Sifu is let down by its unbalanced progression system, which makes it extremely difficult to progress without prior experience with games like it. While Sifu hits some brilliant peaks, its shortcomings are difficult to ignore, especially when they are fundamental to the overall experience.
At its heart, Sifu is a good game, and it promises a truly extraordinary experience – if you’re willing to take a few punches in the process.