There’s something inherently badarse about martial arts films that pit one against many. Movies like Oldboy, Enter the Dragon and, more recently, John Wick that depict a trained killing machine disassembling a room full of lesser fighters just scratches an itch that few others in the action genre can. Following on from their excellent multiplayer fighting title Absolver, developer Sloclap looks to capture that feeling and transfer it into a playable state with the kung-fu brawler Sifu. With near-perfect combat and a host of engaging roguelike elements, Sifu is an experience that demands perfection and returns it in kind.
Like any good martial arts tale, Sifu is centred around revenge. Forced to watch as your master and father is killed before you, you’re nameless and stoic protagonist sets out to find and kill the five former pupils responsible for his death. Though the plot is straightforward, it’s also beautiful in its simplicity. The tutorial level that teaches you the basics of combat and traversal not only does an excellent job of preparing you for the challenges ahead, but it does so in a way that shows you exactly what you’re fighting towards. I won’t say any more than that, but just know that the opening moments are exceptional.
The breeze that created a storm
Eight years pass and your 20-year-old Pak Mei protégé is primed to exact their vengeance. The young protagonist, who can be either male or female, has spent those years perfecting their punching prowess while compiling information about the five individuals responsible for their master’s murder. An evidence board within your home is littered with documents, photos and clues that explore their backgrounds and motivations. Over the course of the game, you’ll find more clues that gradually fill the board, revealing connections to each other and even providing context for their actions. It’s a subtle and effective way to further the narrative that gives you a sense of accomplishment as you uncover it.
Without sounding dramatic, Sifu has the best hand-to-hand combat in any game that I’ve played. Brutal, challenging and effortlessly smooth, it’s as incredible to perform as it is for someone to watch. A light and a heavy attack build the foundation of combat, with combos performed by alternating between the two. You also have the ability to wield weapons found throughout each level, from knives and machetes to staves, bats and even brooms. Of course, you’ll also need to defend yourself, which you can do in a multitude of ways. A block button will prevent you from taking damage against most normal attacks, with a parry being possible if timed correctly. You can also use a directional sway that helps you avoid getting hit while also creating an opportunity for a counterattack. Using all of these abilities will progressively fill a focus bar which, when complete, can be used to slow time briefly and deploy an unblockable attack that can change the complexion of a fight.
Don’t be fooled by the numbers in which they appear, the enemies in Sifu are no joke. Though the basics of combat may sound similar to the Arkham games, your opponents are far less forgiving and far more skilled. Throwing devastating blows with little to no notice, you’ll be forced to pay close attention to their movements and counteract their advances with direct and specific methods. Your foes also know the advantages that come with attacking as a group. You won’t find polite goons that wait to be knocked out here, they’ll bombard you with flying fists from all directions and, if you’re not quick enough, you’ll quickly find yourself staring at the ceiling. Though you’ll eventually become capable of dealing with this kind of threat, the game’s camera never quite learns the skills needed. Though rare, there are moments of chaos in small spaces that become infinitely harder due to an awkward camera being obstructed by scenery or a character model. Fleet moments for sure, but frustrating ones all the same.
What was that about Oldboy?
You do, however, have a few ways to take out these death dealers. Each enemy has a health bar that can be depleted, but they also have a Structure metre akin to the Posture system in Sekiro. Whether your attack finds its purchase or is blocked, your opponent’s Structure gauge will rise, governing their overall guard. Once you manage to fill that gauge they’re effectively spent, allow you to perform a takedown that will immediately dispatch that fighter, while also rewarding you with a sliver of regained health. Not only are these takedowns mechanically vital, but they’re visually stunning as well. Completely contextual, each takedown will differ depending on your situation, whether you’re near stairs and send them tumbling down them or near a wall and introduce their head to it, or simply light up their torso and head with a dozen lightning-fast strikes; the finishing animations never got old and consistently felt like their own reward for besting a tough foe. Be wary though, as you too have a Structure metre, so be patient and don’t leave yourself open.
You’re given all of the tools needed to wade through rooms filled with goons, but the inevitable will come and you’ll be met with defeat. Thanks to a charm bestowed upon you by your master, however, defeat doesn’t immediately result in death. Instead, each time you fall, you’ll shake off the loss and get back into the fight having aged a bit. Initially, you’ll only jump forward a year, re-joining the land of the living at the tender age of 21, but the gentle curve doesn’t last. Each time you die your death counter will go up by one and the years added to your life will coincide with that number. You’ll quickly go from 20 to 21, then to 23 and again to 26, before boom, you’re officially in your 30s.
At first, it doesn’t seem to do more than allow you to grow out your hair and cultivate a nice beard, but, as we all do, you’ll soon start to feel the effects of age. Each time you move into a new decade a portion of the charm will break, lowering your overall health but raising the amount of damage you inflict. This not only creates a fun balance when it comes to difficulty, but it’s a clever way to tangibly show that with age comes wisdom. Eventually, the greys catch up with you though and once you enter your 70s you’re faced with mortality, as a death in this decade will be permanent.
Getting asked for ID might be awkward
Each time you age you’ll be given the opportunity to bank experience points gained from combat into skills. Moves to inflict more damage, techniques that will allow you to use your environment to best your foes and combos that break through their defences are all on offer, but they’re fleeting. Though you can continuously put XP into skills to unlock them permanently, you’re unlikely to manage that in one life, and once you die those skills are erased along with your progress in the level, forcing you to take what you’ve learned and start over.
There are five very distinct levels for you to make your way through, and each location has its own visual style that sets it apart from the last and each is home to one of the five bosses. These figureheads are your targets, but there are droves of their followers between you and your end goal of, well, ending them. Working your way through each level you’ll encounter locked doors and blocked paths that require keys or combinations to unlock. Within each level you’ll discover at least one of these items that will permanently unlock a shortcut through the area, making each subsequent run easier. Not only is it incredibly thoughtful and clever level design that rewards your persistence, but it’s also necessary because you only have one life to exact your revenge.
That’s right, your age and death counter carry over between levels, making you meet each new challenge bearing the scares from the last. This will undoubtedly be the most divisive aspect of Sifu and will either make or break the experience for you depending on your preferences. Yes, this approach forces you to master levels in order to bring down your age and give yourself a fighting chance at the next challenge, and that’s incredibly cathartic when it finally comes together, but the repetition and mounting challenge will likely overcome many.
If only they knew what I could do with this broom
The main reason you’ll need to completely conquer each level and unlock shortcuts is that the bosses are so brutally, unforgivingly difficult. Each boss has their own attack pattern and weapon that must be observed in order to overcome. You won’t be landing many strikes on these guys, instead, you’ll need to wait, evade their attacks and patiently pick your moment to strike. Each fight with a boss takes place over two phases and you’ll need to change your strategy between them, so complacency isn’t an option. The first boss will hand you your arse, but the second is where you’ll either find your resolve or put the controller down. The second area (a club) is home to a rather steep difficulty spike that isn’t unfair and can be bested but be aware that it’s there.
Through all of the challenges, it can be easy to overlook just how visually and technically impressive Sifu is. The game’s minimalist and striking visual style is almost cel-shaded but in a way that’s reminiscent of artwork found on ancient parchment. Each level has a specific colour palette that gives it its own personality and flair and makes every location memorable and beautiful in equal measure. Somehow more impressive are the animations that you’ll be treated to during every moment of gameplay. The authenticity felt in each punch thrown is unbelievable, making for fight scenes that could be mistaken for well-choreographed dance.
There’s no coincidence that the word Sifu means master. Of course, this references the simple yet effective narrative told throughout this visually and mechanically incredible game, but it also tells you exactly what you must do in order to succeed. Immensely challenging in every faucet, Sifu will punish you for your lapse in concentration while rewarding you for your patience and persistence. An absolute masterpiece, this is the brawler that all others in the genre should strive to emulate.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- PS5 / PS4 / PC
- February 8, 2022