Sloclap put itself on the map with the martial arts-themed action-RPG Absolver in 2017. Four years later, the company delivered Sifu, a 3D brawler cut from the same fabric, but with an entirely different pattern. Sifu is a much tighter, more linear experience that focuses on mastering your craft: the game’s kung fu fighting style. It’s incredibly rewarding to play, as each encounter is a fast, dynamic fight for the survival.
As exciting as Sifu can be, it can also be quite frustrating. The game pulls no punches; it has an intimidating difficulty that, unfortunately, will almost certainly ostracize some players who are just looking to get some virtual butt fucking without worry. That said, if you can roll with the punches the game throws at you (figuratively and literally), you’ll find a visually stunning and mechanical-sounding brawler that delivers a wonderfully poignant message about revenge.
Fun fight, questionable inspirations
Sifu’s biggest appeal is his focus on melee combat. The main character’s fighting style draws heavily from kung fu, particularly the Pak Mei style. On the subject of the game’s influences, Sifu is obviously inspired by the large-scale combat scenes popularized by Chinese cinema. Additionally, its story regularly delves into Wude (an ethical system found in Chinese martial arts) and also features various mystical elements and artifacts commonly associated with Chinese culture, such as resurrection, magic talismans, and dragons.
The game has a very apparent fascination with Chinese culture, or at least the parts commonly exposed in mainstream Western media, but I’m not entirely convinced that it necessarily respects the culture it draws from. The game was developed by a mostly white studio; it has been reported that not a single person of Chinese descent worked on this game. Keeping this in mind while considering the studio’s decision to send press kits filled with generic articles which you’ll find at an American-owned gift shop in your local Chinatown, as well as the game’s Twitter account actively promote Lunar New Year, it certainly feels like Sifu is more geared towards appealing to the Western sensibilities of Chinese culture – the large-scale combat, the mystical elements, the “whimsical” tourist memorabilia – rather than delivering a product authentically made with input from those who are a real part of the culture, which means the game will almost certainly rub many people looking for this kind of experience the wrong way.
It’s a real shame, because devoid of its stereotypical styles, Sifu’s core gameplay is pretty solid. Like any real-world martial art, it requires a fair amount of practice and patience. You can’t just make your way to success. This makes each combat encounter a dynamic puzzle with several ever-changing variables. Does my opponent have a weapon? Are they located near a ledge? Is there a bottle around that I can throw at them? Answering these questions in real time is rewarding, and the game gives you so many offensive options to work with that any encounter could have an almost limitless number of solutions.
The depth of Sifu’s combat only increases as you gain XP and unlock new skills, all of which seem like substantial additions to your moveset. These skills can range from hard-hitting special attacks to defensive maneuvers, such as counters. Most of them are fairly easy to use and can be integrated seamlessly into your existing combos, allowing you to experiment with them without deviating too much from your preferred playstyle.
The game really comes to life during its boss fights, all of which are brutal, albeit fair, skill checks. Plus, they each call for a different strategy. The encounter with the brutal Sean forces you to employ evasive maneuvers, while the fight against The Leader calls for constant counterattacks and generally more aggressive play. I felt quite frustrated during my first encounter with each boss, as these enemies are some of the toughest in the game. But once I finally got to the top, I felt a real sense of reward, as if I had just passed some kind of milestone.
However, while I was motivated to keep retrying boss battles until I win, I can easily see a lot of people bouncing off Sifu from these fiendishly difficult encounters. The game has no difficulty levels or selectable modifiers, meaning the only way to progress is to “git gud” enough to defeat each boss. As someone who enjoys challenging games like Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden, I had a lot of fun improving myself gradually, but I have to admit that Sifu doesn’t really seem interested in serving those who just want to experience it for its story or stunning visuals.
Although Sifu is quite difficult, he gives one key concession: his controls are quite simple. You won’t have to worry too much about messing up combos here, given how simple they are. None require more than five entries in total. Even if you mess one up, all of the attacks in the game still work pretty well with each other. In my experience, I found that my wrong entries sometimes resulted in accidentally discovering a very effective combo that I then tried to replicate in the future. If you find any of the controls confusing, the game also features extensive button remapping, allowing you to fine-tune your controls.
fight for your lives
One of the defining traits of Sifu is that its protagonist can resurrect upon death at the cost of his youth. This mechanic is a double-edged sword. The most immediate impact it has on gameplay is that it takes you right back into the action, as you’ll respawn exactly where you died at full health. You can even do this during boss fights, which partially alleviates the aforementioned concerns about those tricky encounters. Aesthetically, your character will become noticeably more gray and wrinkled as they age, which also affects gameplay.
As you age, you will deal more damage, but your health total will also decrease. This created an interesting dilemma for me while playing. Like in any other game, it is best to avoid dying in Sifu. However, provided you can dodge/parry most incoming attacks, getting older could potentially make you a more capable fighter. More often than not, I chose to preserve my youth as much as possible, but knowing that I would receive damage buffs as I got older helped soften the death blow a bit.
That said, you don’t want to get too old in Sifu; your resurrection power runs out at 70, and dying after that causes a game over. You will then lose any XP gained, as well as any unlocked skills, unless you have permanently unlocked them. Aging is another dynamic gameplay variable in Sifu that you need to consider. This makes the game a bit more forgiving, but not necessarily less tense. The age mechanic also adds a lot of replayability, as you can challenge yourself to replay the game’s story while remaining as young as possible.
A great story of revenge
Sifu introduces you as a once-orphaned individual on a journey to kill those who murdered your father. At first glance, the game looks like a mundane revenge quest, but what really surprised me was how the game handles the concept of revenge. Unlike other revenge-focused games, such as The Last of Us Part II, Sifu chooses to tell a more upbeat story about escaping the dark shadow of revenge, rather than succumbing to it, which I found rather refreshing. At the same time, he emphasizes that revenge is a complex desire and does not reproach his characters for their natural and vengeful feelings.
The game also uses stunning visuals to help tell its story. The entire game features a vibrant color palette that makes it look as good as it plays. Each level feels like a visual representation of its boss’s psyche, peppered with hidden details and lore entries that help flesh them out a little more. If you’re really into the characters, each level also has its own set of collectibles, all of which give even more insight into each of Sifu’s main players.
Sifu is a complex, yet rewarding, action game that packs quite a punch. It’s sometimes a little too difficult for its own good, but taking the time to overcome its challenges can be quite rewarding. That said, the game is grossly infused with exoticism, which kind of puts a damper on things.
If you’re looking for a tough 3D brawler that will really test your gaming skills, it’s hard not to recommend Sifu. Just know that the game will not be easy for you. Just like actual martial arts, you’ll need time and dedication to get through this, so make sure you have both of these resources handy before you jump in.
|+||The combat is deep, rewarding and looks great in action|
|+||Aging mechanics make the game somewhat forgiving|
|+||Highly replayable and beautiful levels|
|+||An engaging story that asks you to think critically about its premise|
|–||High difficulty level that not only forces players to master its mechanics, but also isn’t suitable for those who can’t|
|–||Fascination with Chinese culture smacks of exoticism and inauthenticity|