Sifu is the kind of game that takes many hours to perfect which will excite many, but also one that will turn people off for that very same reason. Heralded as one of the most intriguing indies of 2022, Sifu comes from Absolver developer Sloclap and truly feels different that anything that has come before it.
The hand-to-hand action game takes on the world of kung fu, mixing in some rogue-like elements, and a bit of Dark Souls difficulty. It sees players traverse across various locales in an effort to take down the man who killed their mentor. It's a simple premise that gets the job done, and sets the protagonist on the course to punch and kick their way to revenge.
Aging Like a Fine Wine
One of the biggest unique mechanics from Sifu is its aging system. Instead of a simple linear adventure, Sifu takes notes from the world of Rogue-likes (i.e. Spelunky and Binding of Isaac). The player is tasked with getting through each of the game's distinct levels, taking as few deaths as possible, and is sent back to the beginning after a certain number of tries.
With each death the main character ages. Starting at 20, the game's protagonist actually grows in age and appearance with each failure by the player. The first death results in 1 year, with things compounding with each successive death.
As the hero ages, the way of playing Sifu actually changes. Every ten years of age decreases the player’s health stores but increases their power. This only goes so far, however, as once a certain senior age is met the player is greeted with a “Game Over” screen and is walked back to the beginning of that particular level.
This system is actually quite impressive in practice, and the idea of starting the next level at the age the hero finished the last at really makes it feel like each death holds major consequences. This results in an interesting added layer through Sifu where, despite completing the last level, it makes no sense to move on as the player only has a few more chances before the hero meets his ultimate end.
More Drunken Master Than Bruce Lee
Gameplay in Sifu may sound simple on the surface, but is anything but. The majority of the game is spent taking down baddies across fairly familiar locations to the genre. Want to roundhouse kick across the rooftops of a stunning cityscape? How about a double dragon embrace in a neon-streaked nightclub? It's all here.
And the actual act of chaining light and heavy attacks, with various dodges and parries, is fun when things are going smoothly. However, Sifu rarely makes it that easy.
For those looking for a kung fu power fantasy, this is not the place to find it. Playing Sifu is like mastering a material art. It is something that one gets better at with diligent training and plenty of patience. However, encounters are very punishing. Yes, there is a tutorial sequence to the game - and a visually impressive one at that - but once that is over Sloclap holds nothing back.
The first handful of hours of Sifu can make one feel like a naive pupil going up against his master for the first time and failing horribly. Teeth will be kicked in. Controllers may be thrown. It's punishing, and overwhelmingly so at first. But as the player sees these enemies over and over, and perfects their patterns along with their own arsenal of moves, soon enough they will be parrying leg sweeps with the best of them.
However, this initial learning curve and the deep list of Street Fighter-like combo moves can feel like a lot for someone not fully prepared for that experience. The onboarding process is severely lacking here, and a better ramp-up of difficulty could have served Sifu well.
Moves Like a Butterfly, but Stings Like a Bee
In action, Sifu moves like a dream. When in the flow of combat, the game runs smoothly at 60 frames per second (on PS5). The art style is simple enough that there isn’t too much to distract but unique enough to stun at points. The character models and various landscapes almost give off this sculpted clay vibe that sings when in motion.
Despite the game being almost solely combat-based, things never feel stale. Sifu does a good job of switching things up on the player to keep them questioning what will be around the next corner. This includes simple camera angle switches, going from over the shoulder to something more akin to a sidescroller to emulate a hallway fight fit for Netflix’s Daredevil. These cool change-ups are scarce, but when they appear they usually delight
Where this variety shines most, though, is in Sifu’s boss encounters. The game's bosses do a fantastic job of throwing the player off of any habits they may have developed in the level leading up to them, while also offering some of the best environmental switch-ups in the game. Like a Dark Soul boss, these one-on-one battles bring unique mechanics to each of their encounters and require a particular time commitment from the player to learn their patterns and move set.
While these boss encounters do provide that endorphin rush and feeling of glorious satisfaction upon completion, they do also emphasize any problems with Sifu’s difficulty that players may have.
Punch, Kick, Repeat
Something Sifu struggles with is its overall progression. While the player gains XP during runs and can upgrade throughout, there feels like an obvious lack of growth between runs.
Other than the knowledge one acquires from clearing a particularly hard room or boss, and some added moves that can be permanently unlocked for a large sum of XP, there isn’t really anything carrying over from run to run.
Something as simple as being able to level up between runs by small health or power upgrades (a la Rogue Legacy) would have gone a long way and made things easier for players who were having particular trouble getting through the game. As it is, it can feel like some ill-fated runs can truly be for nothing.
Feel the Fight
One last note has to do with Sifu’s PlayStation 5 version. Its implementation of the PS5’s Dualsense is immaculate.
The haptic feedback in the controller is remarkable. The minute pitter-patter of individual raindrops can be felt during a storm. And each hit the game’s hero takes hurts just a little more as its impact resonates through the Dualsense.
It’s something as simple as vibration, but it makes a world of difference in immersing the player in this universe of combat.
Time to Get Training
All in all, Slocap has built an excellent game here, but it is not that instant power fantasy that some may have expected leading into it. Sifu is tough to sum up in a few short sentences. Its action and unique aging system shine alongside its beautiful world and stellar soundtrack. But the overbearing difficulty and steep learning curve are what will hold a lot of people back from seeing its greatness.
This isn’t an experience to breeze through in a handful of hours. Like the art of kung-fu itself, it's something that takes time, focus, and practice to master.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Game provided by Sloclap.