Sifu is an action-packed ride that perfectly echoes the old-school Kung-Fu movie, even if it’s a bit rough around the edges.
There’s an undeniable bond between a teacher and their student. This bond is deeper if your teacher happens to be family. In Sifu by Sloclap, you’ll witness this bond become severed first-hand. This spark is the one that ultimately sets the fire inside the heart of your character and sending them on a vengeance-fueled kung-fu crusade.
You begin as a child, hiding in a small cupboard as your father and sifu fights off a group of assailants. A mysterious former student named Yang then challenges your father and beats him, killing him where he stands. This causes your character, a small boy or girl, to accidentally reveal themselves after a small moment of weakness. After showing yourself to your fathers’ killer, one of his henchmen strikes you down in cold blood. You then wake up later, your wounds healed and a mysterious golden charm is gripped in your hands.
This causes your character to continue their training and use their fathers’ kung-fu as the instrument of their revenge. After this setup, Sifu hits the ground running with a hands-on tutorial to explain the deep combat system. The combo-based combat feels like a fusion between the Batman Arkham games and Bayonetta, seeing you face down tons of enemies at once and dispatching them with your kung-fu. The more enemies you defeat without taking a hit, the bigger your score and XP rewards will be and being able to do everything from throw items to knocking enemies down stairs feels great. However, Sifu’s combat has a bit more of a grounded structure that ties into its main gimmick: rapid aging.
When you die, you’re able to spend the experience you’ve earned on skills you can unlock. You also add to a running tally of deaths, adding itself as years to your characters’ life each time you decide to continue a level. This means while you may wake up a little better, you’ll be just a little frailer and visibly older each time. You’ll also strain the power of the golden coins on your charm, breaking them after too many revives, with your last charm being the last time you can revive. While you’re able to pick yourself up and continue with new abilities in tow, it’s paramount to make sure that you’re rising to the occasion of situations you can win.
The combat system of Sifu demands mastery and fights seldom give enough room for mistakes. While the controls are solid and the combos, takedowns, and skills are varied and flow together well; the learning curve of the game is brutal. Enemies aren’t afraid to swarm your position and while you’ve got tons of defensive options in the forms of dodging, parrying, or straight-up blocking, defending against a huge number of enemies can seem impossible. This is felt in the form of low stage scores, which directly affect your XP gain and can be crushed into the dirt by taking just a few hits.
Progression is what you make of it, however. While it may seem slow to some, especially since permanent skill unlocks don’t happen until you’ve paid the unlock cost for any skill at least five times, it is one of the games’ subtle nudges towards planning out perfect runs through stages. This gives the game a sort of Hotline Miami feel, as you’ll end up finding yourself opting to redo the entire level on botched runs rather than take the hit to your age against enemies that aren’t bosses. While this aspect of the game is immersive and will teach you how to make the most out of every situation by using every weapon, skill, and perfected strategy at your disposal, it never pulls its punches. There are only two ways to learn new skills in this game, one is death and the other is to find a small shrine hidden away in certain areas of levels.
Sifu is a brutally difficult game and you feel it as early as the second level. Enemies swarm you, break your takedowns to go into a super mode, and throw things at you from off-screen to stop your advance. While taking on two or even three enemies at once seems manageable, anything above that feels like an uphill battle where your defensive maneuvers are more prone to fail than succeed. This is in part due to poor camera control, as standing dodges are directly related to it. This pushes Sifu into a frustrating space where your run could be stopped by a random occurrence that didn’t happen in your previous run.
Enemy types aren’t varied, many being re-skins of enemies you’ve fought previously, which proves to be a blessing in disguise. While you’re able to easily get a read on most enemies, taking a single blow can lead to a snowball effect of your character getting clobbered by everyone in the room if you’re not at the top of your game. This is because stumbles, knockdowns, and enemy weapon attacks have specific countermeasures to unlock. Due to the contentious progressions system, however, adding an age or two to your death counter never feels like the right move for situational unlocks. Especially since you’ll need to pour the same unlock cost into the same skill again if you want to make any sort of headway to permanently unlocking the skill.
This progression system also makes replaying stages over and over again preferred when you need to level up skills. If you’re into the games’ action-packed combat full-stop it will be easy to get sucked into this gameplay loop to become a kung-fu master. Especially when the game is littered with incredible visual design and oozes that kung-fu theatre charm. Others may find this grinding tiresome, however, since the biggest roadblocks seem to be a mistimed dodge against a single enemy in a room full of them. While you’re able to unlock shortcuts and skills that persist through level restarts and deaths, if you’re struggling then you’ll always want to replay the stage for XP instead of going to fight the big, bad boss.
Boss fights are both the most fun combat encounters and some of the most frustrating obstacles. You’re out to avenge your Sifu and you’ve tailed each of the five people from the fateful night that set you on this path. These fights are the most engaging parts of Sifu, where your skills and awareness will be tested on escalating levels. Each boss is tougher than they look, with incredible arenas and cinematics upon encountering them that delivers the perfect sense of action movie immersion. These are the highlights of the game and each boss is dispatched in a gloriously satisfying manner.
While Sifu offers up a beautiful presentation, fast and fluid combat, all wrapped up in a package that nails the charm of old-school martial arts revenge stories, it’s definitely not perfect. Poor camera control does not couple well the demanding learning curve, especially when certain defensive mechanics are based around it. While mechanically intensive, the game also feels like a grind as you aim to permanently unlock certain skills piecemeal through botched level runs. While Sifu is aesthetically pleasing and very rewarding if you overcome its intense difficulty, the lack of polish on the controls and grindy nature of the game will definitely turn some people off.
-Immersive Kung-Fu aesthetic and visuals.
-Amazing sound design makes each hit feel meaty and strong.
-Fast and furious skill-based combat
-Poor level pacing.
-Progression feels slow, especially if you’re not playing your best at all times.
-Poor camera controls lead to missed dodges and offscreen hits
-Taking a single hit can sometimes invalidate your entire score, causing a net XP loss.