You know I actually used to attend a martial arts school when I was younger. My parents wanted me to stay active instead of slowly wind up in a sad unhealthy state, but they didn’t want to sign me up for any extreme sports like football. The option they chose for me was martial arts and for a while I loved it. Learning the different strikes and ways to maneuver the body. Keeping a steady posture and not letting your opponent break your guard. You may not be doing a lot at once, but trust me it does require energy. It requires both energy and effort to make each punch, palm strike, and kick pack a punch. Make sure they are dealt quickly and efficiently. Martial arts can be viewed as a form of exercise, stress relief, and above all a method for self-defense. Not just for yourself but others around you. With that said, I quit martial arts after a year or two. Never got my black belt, and I know that sounds like a really unsatisfying answer for everything I just said. Turns out it was a hassle and that my parents didn’t realize how time consuming it was to drive me out to the dojo and train. So, they took me out and told me to focus on schooling first. Never thought about picking martial arts back up ever since then, but I do think it’s still really cool. Especially since it left a huge impact on media. Books, film, anime, video games, art itself, and much more.
Which brings us to today’s topic, Sifu. A martial arts brawler developed by indie studio Sloclap who previously worked on another complex brawler-like action game Absolver. They seem to be quite an experienced team of developers as compared to a lot of other indie studios they make pretty high budget looking games. Absolver was a proof concept. It wasn’t a terrible video game and for a while it had an active online community, but it died out pretty quickly. There were good ideas to be found though, and what Sloclap learned and mastered in Absolver would be carried over to their next big project. A game that would draw heavy inspiration from kung-fu movies and of course Jackie Chan, the Hollywood king of kung-fu movies. Four years down the road, Sloclap revealed footage of Sifu during a PlayStation livestream and promised that it would come soon. Further work and a one-year delay later they soon released the final product. Their most ambitious title to date, and thankfully their hard work paid off.
Sifu is a difficult game. You probably know this already as everyone who has dabbled into it has discussed the high difficulty curve and ceiling. How enemies beat you down quickly and one of the design choices punishes the player for repeatedly failing without considering what killed them. It’s a game that requires player mastery and understanding of how to improve upon each death. Refusing to do so meant no progression, and due to how Sifu had no difficult options at launch a lot of players ended up quitting the game quickly. Sifu is hard, but I enjoy games like these. It’s a guilty pleasure and one of the joys of being a fan of hard games is that they are fun to talk about. Take this year’s Elden Ring for instance. There’s a reason why people still talk about and several other Soulsborne titles months after they release. There’s still discoveries to be made and the community surrounding these games like to talk about how they overcame each wall blocking their way. The strategies they used and the most viable playstyle for each fight. I enjoy hard games and Sifu seemed right up my alley for how hard yet fun it was to master. I was eager to try one of the hardest games of 2022.
Having finished my first playthrough I can confirm that the game is pretty alright. I enjoyed my time with Sifu for a while, but there was a point where I was ready to be done with the game. This seems like a game a lot of people will enjoy, but personally I find there’s a lot of weird design choices and issues that started to drag down the fun I was having by the end. I will say this is probably one of the more “video gamey” video games to come out during 2022 if you aren't a fan of games with cinematic storytelling or being talked to every few seconds, but I think it’s alright. So today we’ll be talking about Sifu and why it may deserve your attention. Train hard, a trial awaits.
The game opens up on a dark stormy night. A mysterious figure dressed in black attire storms a small martial arts dojo and proceeds to kill everyone within the building. From the youngest to oldest of students. Four other individuals accompany him on his mission and soon they locate the owner of the dojo. An old man who claims the man leading the attack Yang, a former student of his, has forsaken his oath of honor and is a disgrace to his school. Yang wants revenge against the old man and proceeds to fight him to the death. The old man has the upper hand at first, but quickly Yang outsmarts his master and knocks him out. Watching his wrinkly body collapse to the floor and the last gust of air exit his mouth. We then cut to the perspective of a young child hiding in a nearby cabinet. This is the child of the old man, and they just witnessed their father get murdered. In their hand they clutch a talisman glistening in gold and they try not to breathe as the five strangers search for survivors. Yang is aware that someone is watching them and yells at them to come out. The child shivering in fear proceeds to exit the cabinet and is gazed down by the five figures. Yang orders one of his allies, who is armed with a machete, to kill the child .
Everyone in the dojo is now dead, but suddenly you are brought back to life by the golden talisman you held onto earlier. Turns out that talisman has the magical ability to bring people back to life, but in exchange they age faster. Once they hit a certain age the talisman will no longer work and stop resurrecting them. The young child realizes the benefits of such a gift, but is furious at the figures who killed their father. So for the next few years they spend their life training. Growing stronger, faster, and preparing for his ultimate. To claim vengeance on those who came that night. They spend that time looking for evidence and clues of where these figures hide, and slowly they find out who they are in real life. Fajar, the machete wielder who now works for a gang of drug dealers. Sean, the owner of a night club which is secretly a fight club. Kuroki, a well renowned artist who owns her own museum. Jinfeng, an old woman who runs her own company and private operation. Finally there is Yang, now training his own students to become just like him. Our character who is now twenty will hunt these figures, kill them all, and claim sweet vengeance. Even if that means getting older with each death.
Sifu is a third person action brawler where you fight through waves of enemies, utilize creative combos to break their guard, and make it to the end of each level where you fight a boss. If I had to simply describe Sifu to you I would say this is a traditional Yakuza title deciding to concoct a special drink with Sekiro and Hitman. There are a total of five stages in this game, so you may be wondering how the game is so hard even though it looks really short. Well these stages are actually really long and you’ll want to replay them over and over because of one main mechanic, the age system. Whenever you die you are given the choice of either restarting the whole stage or resurrecting yourself. By resurrecting yourself you can continue the fight you are currently stuck on, but there are tradeoffs to over utilizing this mechanic. You can only resurrect yourself a certain amount of times, because if you die at the age of seventy or higher you can no longer resurrect. There’s also another mechanic, this little death counter, where you age faster whenever you die unless you kill elite enemies which lowers this counter. Let’s say you die once, well that adds one death to the death counter. Die a second time before lowering this counter and now you’ll age by two years. This risk of abruptly ending your run is what gets you to replay the five stages over and over. Lower your age so that you don’t struggle as much with future stages.
There is one unique tradeoff for aging though. Whenever you age by tens years the maximum damage you deal increases. This should allow you to gain the fighting power you need and possibly an upper hand against stronger opponents. Combine this and you should be learning upon each death, Sifu is a risk reward experience where failure can sometimes turn the tides of a battle. There is another caveat where in addition to a damage increase you also lose maximum health, so that’s another risk to consider when venturing across each level. Anyways, you battle across each stage defeating foes and racking up points. We’ll discuss what points can be used for shortly, but for right now let’s discuss the combat as it’s the meat of Sifu. If you’ve played a game like Sekiro or Ghost of Tsushima then you’ll feel right at home with this game. Enemies can be knocked about and landing successful hits will decrease their health bar. However, they won’t always stagger easily and usually they’ll put their guard up to block attacks. Attacking them whether they are blocking or not deals posture damage instead of direct damage, but raising that bar is heavily encouraged. Filling up that posture bar to the max will break their defense and this allows you to perform a finisher move. This kills them instantly and restores a bit of your health. Meaning by keeping up the pressure and knowing who to take down next you can remain unkillable. You’ll also want to consider what moves to use as it can help during group fights.
Those basic punches and kicks are good against single opponents, but Sifu will most often pit you against multiple foes at once. It’s easy to get killed when multiple individuals are ganging up on you at once. You want to use maneuvers like the palm strike or push kick so you can maintain ground control and not be overwhelmed. Pushing them into walls or breakable objects can be beneficial as that increases their posture quickly. Moves like the roundhouse kick and sweep are good for knocking them to the ground and giving them a couple strikes to the face before they get back up. The snap kick and charged back fist may deal quite a bit of damage while closing the distance. There’s just a lot of moves and combos to utilize. There’s also weapons you can pick up during battles. Either dropped from enemies or picked up along the side. These weapons have different movements themselves and can be quite deadly when used against the right opponents. However, these weapons have a certain amount of durability and will break after a certain amount of hits. You’ll also want to consider the different dodges and counters, because while parrying is a good way to raise enemy posture while also maintaining defense it can raise your posture too. Yes, you too have a posture meter and when it’s broken it exposes you to heavy damage dealing attacks. You want to dodge to the side, backwards, or use high and low dodges to avoid attacks aiming towards the head or your legs. Keep up the pressure and parrying and you fill up what are focus meters. Use these to perform special moves which can stun foes.
During your adventures you will encounter doorways that are blocked or these special items. These items are actually clues or keys that may help you across your journey. Obtaining these keys will open up shortcuts and cut down the amount of the level you have to progress through. This means if you reload the level you can use the key you obtained to skip a portion of it and not risk raising your age. This does mean you’ll miss up on points you could have racked up and another crucial item you can stumble across during runs. There are these snake statues scattered across each level and they can be used to upgrade one of several categories. Maximum posture, amount of health recovered during finishers, damage dealt by weapons, maximum focus bar, the amount of posture you recover during successful avoids, and much more. To unlock certain perks though you need certain requirements. You either need to be under a certain age, have a certain amount of experience points, or have a certain level score. This rewards players who go through the full level, take on all the enemies they face, and maintain good combos. Snake statues can also be used to unlock new moves. Besides specific perks with snake statues, experience points can be spent on this sorta skill tree to unlock new moves and combos. To pull up this chart you normally have to either visit this tree back at your home base or die. Certain moves cannot be unlocked when you pass a certain age, but will remain permanently unlocked if you max them out. Another reason to replay levels and rack up the skills you need to take on harder opponents. At the end of each stage there is a boss and they are usually composed of two stages. Each boss has their own quirks and gimmicks, and you have to figure out how to get around them. Besides that there isn’t much else to say. Hopefully you can defeat each of these stronger individuals, drain them of their corruption, and claim vengeance!
Now with everything I just described in the last section you must be wondering why I think Sifu is pretty alright. When you consider all of the elements Sifu has on display it should be a greatly designed game with unique gimmicks that separate it from other generic brawlers, but when you put some of these elements into practice you quickly run into problems. Flaws that make Sifu tedious to go through over and over. The age mechanic is cool, but it can also be a b*tch at times. Age too much and you are locked out from unlocking certain perks and skills on the skill tree. Fail too many times and now you start aging like crazy with each death. Try to remain at a young age and you may not get the damage you need to face the later bosses in the game. You may even be a player who is afraid of reaching that permanent death state. So you try going through the same level over and over hoping to only die one or two times, or not die at all. This felt like an absolute waste of time after a while. It felt nice mastering each stage, engraving each encounter into memory, and knowing what strategy to use. It’s what makes the repetition in titles such as Sekiro, Hitman, or Dishonored so enjoyable. What I think makes those games work better than Sifu though is that they offer choice. Not just choice in how you fought, but how you navigated levels. No, I do not mean skipping huge chunks of it which brings me to my second complaint.
Shortcuts in Sifu are really poorly thought out. They range from skipping close to around half the stage or skipping the whole stage entirely. For example, if you survive the gallery in the museum you unlock a keycard for the elevator. The elevator is set right at the beginning of the stage and allows you to skip straight to the boss fight at the end. You skip all those encounters and the snake statues that could have been used. Now there are reasons to go through certain fights again like using those mentioned snake statues to level up, but that final stretch at the end of the museum becomes pointless as you only have to go through it once to obtain the key and almost all the snake statues in the level are available before that final stretch. Now you could argue these shortcuts act as alternate paths through each level, but you're still progressing through them in a linear fashion nonetheless. It’s not like Dishonored where you also progress down a linear path, but some of the choices you make have a bigger impact as you are decided what is the most stealthy and creative way to get through each stage. The second half of the game could be improved as well. I won’t spoil it, but basically to achieve the true ending of Sifu you must spare your targets. This requires you to break their posture twice during the second stage of each fight. While this is still challenging I wish there was a more creative way of dealing with them. Like how Dishonored and Hitman have you discover clues and explore levels to find alternate ways to deal with targets. It would have also made the clues you found in Sifu more interesting, because besides the keys you stumble upon none of the other clues are particularly great or useful to come across.
The combat of Sifu is great for a while. It’s fun to perform fancy combos, all your attacks have impact, and it’s satisfying to knock down baddy after baddy. It’s great, until you come across foes that have to be dealt with in specific ways. It’s not that these foes are bad or terribly designed. They can add diversity to encounters and get you to prioritize targets in group fights. More like how they teach you the moves on how to deal with them. In the first stage you encounter this big round bloke. He uses grab attacks and if he successfully grabs you, he deals a huge load of damage. They teach you the maneuver to avoid this during a slow-mo moment, which is pretty bad because when the player starts testing it out in real time in the time fight it becomes hectic. The second boss, The Fighter, strikes quickly with a polearm and your posture builds up quickly even if you fight him with a polearm as well. Turns out you are supposed to use the low duck which they teach the player in the tutorial. The tutorial in this game is pretty bad, because they show you how to perform each move once and never again. Most likely the player will not use these moves again afterwards, because they forgot. Some moves they hint to use against certain bosses are absolutely completely useless against them. Like they teach you to use palm strike against the artist, and when I did it was useless as the artist is always moving around the arena at high speed.
The button mapping is also a big problem. Attacks may have impact but performing them feels really finicky. Some actions are mapped in such a way where the game will get confused and perform a different action instead. For example, on a PS4 controller you hold L1 and then pull the left joystick down to perform a low duck. L1 is also the same button to deflect and let’s say an enemy from behind is about to attack. So instead of blocking the enemy coming from that direction you get hit because you performed a low duck instead. One move, the roundhouse kick, has you press triangle twice before you pause and press it again. The time window you have to wait to perform the roundhouse kick is odd and sometimes at the end of random button combos it triggers so I don't know what's going on. The camera is pretty bad too. If you thought the camera in the Soulsborne titles were bad, then wait until you see Sifu. The camera is so bad that it can lead to cheap deaths at times as enemies push you into a corner, overwhelm you, and you can't see what's going on as the camera clips into a wall. I also wish there was lock-on as sometimes you end up punching into nothing as the game struggles to figure out who you want to attack. With the amount of bullsh*t that was going on I was ready for the game to be over by the end.
Now just because I'm complaining about the game doesn’t mean I hate it. The combat as a whole works pretty well and I can see a lot of people having fun with it. Learning the different combos and mastering the flow of each fight. The clue system had potential and I like how by exploring carefully you may find different passageways. I really liked the art style to this game. It has that same look the Dishonored series had where everything is shaped and moves around realistically, but the models and environments look like they’ve been painted over. Like a brush gently went over their skin and you can see the individual streaks. The lighting and detailing of the world is really nice and I’m surprised for the most part it ran beautifully on my PlayStation 4 with minor framerate drops. The environments are unique despite being set in realistic locations, and I like the design of the main characters. Helps set them apart from everyone else as you go on what is basically a No More Heroes adventure set in China. I enjoyed the story, but some people might not like it. The overall theme is revenge and eventually you figure out revenge is bad. There have been games that did it well like Ghost of Tsushima where the protagonist goes down a dark path to protect his people but creates an ideological conflict with his uncle, the ruler of the land. Then there have been the questionable examples like The Last of Us 2 where you feel bad for killing the villains but not the several other enemies you fought. Sifu is that second one where you feel slightly bad for the baddies you killed, but there’s dozens of unconscious bodies lying the path you just walked to get to them. I enjoyed the story of Sifu, but yeah, it’s a pretty flawed one. Sifu is good. Would I recommend it? Yes, I would but I would say be very careful when stepping into it. It’s not particularly forgiving, and I would even say it's one of the harder games I have played. However, it's well made Sloclap put a lot of love into making a polished product. In the end I give Sifu an 8/10 for being pretty good.
This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site!