Game name: Sifu
Release date: February 8, 2022
Available on: Epic Games Store
Remember Absolver? Lots of people probably don’t, but the few of us who really sank our teeth into it found a true diamond in the rough, a fighting game with tons of new ideas marred by technical issues. Well, that didn’t deter developers Sloclap from trying their hand at the genre again thankfully, as today we have Sifu with us, a visually similar title that also deals in punches and kicks, but instead of focusing on player versus player battles, chooses to go for the much cleaner single player route. Of course that doesn’t mean things have to be simple, as the team working at Sloclap seems to love getting into relatively uncharted territory with their action titles, and I’d be lying if I said I was disappointed with that, because the reality is that I welcome these detours into strangeness, especially when they come from such an interesting creative outfit.
The basic idea behind Sifu is that you are a martial arts student who’s trying to avenge their family. So far, the usual stuff, right? Well, this particular person has a very special item that lets them come back to life after being beaten to death… Of course, this isn’t as amazing as you would think, considering that each death will age you, and reaching 70 will end your current revenge quest with a big old F mark, but still, it’s a lot more than what the Bride had in Kill Bill, and you can bet that the developers went all in on this mechanic (and that gamble pays off, mostly).
But before we delve deeper into more complicated stuff, I’d like to shine a spotlight on Sifu‘s combat system, because in many ways it’s an evolution of the free-style brawls we have been seeing since the Batman: Arkham Asylum let us face off against the Caped Crusader’s rogues gallery with the full might of his fists. What do I mean by that? We’ll be fighting goons of all sizes and shapes, and most of these fights won’t be one-on-one affairs, but rather large scale chaotic melees. That means fluidity and responsiveness are key, and I’m very happy to report that when it comes to those two aspects, Sifu delivers in spades.
Another thing this title delivers on is lethality, as both our protagonist and the foes they’ll face can pummel someone to death faster than a big MMO’s servers going down on launch day. Remember when I brought up Arkham Asylum in the previous paragraph? Well, while Sloclap were clearly aiming for a combat system that might look visually similar to Rocksteady‘s fan favorite action title, they weren’t pulling any punches when it comes to your enemies’ response times and their ability to cooperate in order to try to take you out. The awkward “please sir, go ahead and punch my friend into a pulp while I wait my turn” brawls from the Batman games (and countless other similar titles that have graced our hard drives since then) is nowhere to be seen here, as foes won’t hesitate to hit you in the back as you try to navigate your way through crowded fight scenes.
That lethality is further accentuated by a simply majestic art style that perfectly highlights every move, both yours and your enemy’s. Our protagonist moves in and out of the fight with the grace of a gun-less John Wick, delivering brutal blows, parrying would-be career enders with swift moves, and dodging out of the way like some sort of ballet dancer. You can feel the weight behind every punch, block, dodge and finishing move, and all of those combine for an audiovisual experience that is almost peerless in this industry. When Sifu is firing on all cylinders, it’s pretty much a martial arts movie, and it’s hard not to feel pressured to keep going without catching any stray punches to the face, not only because those would hurt our chances of finishing the game during this run, but also because they’d ruin a perfect scene, and that would be a crime.
So we know that the game looks amazing in motion, but how does it control? Almost as perfectly as it looks, it turns out. The meat and potatoes of Sifu‘s combat system resides in being able to combine different inputs in order to chain combos. At first, that will mostly comprise normal stuff like chaining light and heavy attacks, but you’ll soon learn that you can combine evasive moves with attacks, or even use the environment as a weapon. A stamina system of sorts (called “structure” ingame) will let you break an enemy’s posture with enough good combos, but you have to pay attention every time you get hit while blocking, because the same applies to your character, and the consequences for a guard break are pretty brutal. If you manage to do it to an enemy, you’ll be able to instantly take them out of the fight in most situations, with just two button presses. Of course, as you can imagine, any time you are on the receiving end of a structure break, things will end up badly for your tired and beaten martial arts master… That’s why the game encourages dodging and weaving between enemy attacks instead of just trying to block or parry everything (there’s even different moves to dodge high or low attacks, and you’ll be rewarded for pulling them off correctly).
Now, if we do happen to go down, that special item I mentioned at the start of this review will come into play, as it will revive us at the cost of our age going up by a year for the first death, then two for the second, four for the next, etc. This isn’t a cosmetic change, as aging will have a number of different effects on our character’s ability to keep fighting. For starters, growing older will reduce our health points but also increase our outgoing damage. That’s not all though, as Sifu features an upgrade system, where we get to spend experience gained while beating down opponents, and certain upgrades can only be unlocked by characters who haven’t reached certain age thresholds. These upgrades won’t be permanent initially, but we can choose to spend five times more experience and turn them into stuff that will be there for our next run. So, does this mean that dying early on is a sure ticket to a wasted run? Not necessarily, as from time to time we’ll face tougher enemies that will remove deaths from our counter once defeated, resetting the clock in a way, so we can take more beatdowns before reaching the ripe age of 70 and having to start all over again. Aside from the normal unlock tree that we’ll access every time we go down, there’s also special shrines to be found, which will grant us certain boosts that will only affect the current run, and can be purchased in different ways (some require experience, just like an ability would, some are free as long as you haven’t passed a certain age threshold, and some are unlocked when we reach a specific level score). These upgrades won’t carry over our next run should we fail the current one, so they act as incentives to make it all the way to the end, in a way.
So far I’ve been pretty positive on the game, right? Well, there are a few things that didn’t exactly click with me, but I don’t consider them as dealbreakers either. Losing a run has the obvious implication of having to start the whole game again, but it also means we’ll have lost any skills that we didn’t fully purchase (by buying them five times). If that wasn’t enough, it also means we get to see the exact same rooms and enemy distribution all over again, because Sifu isn’t a procedurally generated game, and every room we’ve visited will be the same on a further run. This can be a good thing if you are the methodical type, but in my particular case, I would have enjoyed a bit more variety there. Also, it’s pretty easy to get attached to a skill you’ve only partially unlocked, only to lose it the next run, and then waste precious time trying to trigger it, since the game doesn’t tell you that it isn’t in your kit unless you go to the skill tree and look for it. I also had issues getting certain combos to work on mouse and keyboard, but I feel that’s more on that specific input method than on the game, since fighting games are usually better on controller. Camera work can also get tricky during larger fight scenes, but it’s notoriously better than Absolver‘s, so that’s a visible improvement over the developers’ previous title.
So, what do I think about the game? Overall, Sifu is a gorgeously presented martial arts beat ’em up that will sometimes manage to get in its own way, but almost always ends up making up for its mistakes with exciting combat and a novel approach to death and failure.
8.5/10 – Great.