Sifu (PS5) Review

By Alex Orona

Sifu is as easy as learning Kung Fu

Sifu (the new game from Sloclap, developers of Absolver) put me in a weird headspace. At first glance it is a brawler style martial arts game that pits an aging kung fu student against a cavalcade of stylistic villains and henchmen. Though after delving deeper, it’s actually a mechanically dense study into game design and clever non linear progression system. It’s a game that expects a lot from the player and punishes those who aren’t willing to put in the effort which is divisive to say the least. 

The game begins with an assassin and his crew killing a kung fu master and his family ending with cutting the throat of the son. Flash forward a decade into the future and we are the 20 year old son set on a revenge quest to defeat the gang that destroyed your family. You do so by traveling to 5 distinct locales across China and fighting your way through countless enemies to reach the head assassin. It’s a kung fu revenge tale seen in many 60’s and 70’s films but works well here in both style and simplicity. The story acts as window dressing for a complex iceberg of systems that lie underneath the surface. 

As a kung-fu student, you are given a set of distinct moves that follow a pattern of heavy and light attacks. Using these in varying sequences will result in combos or special unique attacks. Then there is the structure system, which acts as your guard break. You can only block so much before being knocked off guard, but using your block at the exact right moment results in a parry knocking the enemy off balance. Also using directional inputs while blocking can result in perfectly timed dodges but dashing out of the way fully is another variable option. Lastly there’s a focus meter that is built up from dodges and parries, that when spent will unleash a special maneuver like a trip or spin kick. Precision and rhythm are key. While the combat is dense with possibilities, it can also feel even more difficult when you sometimes feel like you are fighting with the camera as well. It doesn’t happen often but enough to be frustrating. 

The interesting part of Sifu comes in that all of these skills (minus the focus abilities) are part of the enemies repertoire as well. So enemies are just as likely to slow-mo dodge or parry your punches. Do the same three hit combo with a spin kick and enemies will notice and adapt their tactics to avoid yours. Along with the enemy learning your moves, the environment comes into play a lot within combat. Throwing somebody into a wall or knocking someone off balance can turn the tables of a fight just as easy as a well timed punch. Deciding to use a push move to make an enemy trip over a footstool is a viable strategy here and all of this needs to be taken into account for you to succeed. It’s a delicate ballet that feels like risks are punished in favor of playing it safe. Varying your move set, analyzing your enemy and being aware of your surroundings are what is necessary to progress because Sifu won’t go easy on you. 

The brutality of the combat is best exemplified in it’s life system. The player character starts at a young age of 20. Going through levels will have you  fighting hordes of enemies, and sometimes death will occur, it’s a part of life of course. This is when the death counter goes up by one and your character ages to 21. The trick is, if you die AGAIN to the same set of enemies, the death counter goes up by 2, so you will come back at age 23. This multiplier is a cruel mistress and makes dying a painful endeavor. It feels good to defeat a gang of goons to watch the counter tick down but there’s a real demoralizing quality to dying at a particularly hard boss and seeing the multiplayer tick your age up by 6. 

To add into the unforgiving nature of Sifu, levels/areas are sequential and whatever age and multiplier you finish the first level, carries over to the second level. This makes multiple replays a necessity to set yourself up for the following levels. Sadly what DOESN’T carry over are skill unlocks. There are skill trees and shrine bonuses that will add alternate combos, specials and stat buffs but they don’t carry over from run to run. There is a way to spend experience points to unlock them for the entirety of the game but come at sometimes 5 times the cost. This is both good and bad because it’s a “try before you buy” system but the cost can feel like a chore. If you want something forever, better start saving those experience points and grind out those low level henchmen. 

Now, if you’re looking for a grind, the levels of Sifu are designed intricately for lots of enemy encounters. Each locale feels like a straightforward area, such as a nightclub or factory, but when explored weave into complex labyrinthian paths. Since the game is more run based, you’ll find multiple shortcuts to unlock that weave clear paths to the bosses. This was a highlight for me. Starting a new level was like a fact finding mission. I didn’t care how many deaths I’d have, as long as I found a new shortcut or piece of information that could advance me towards my final run of the boss. There were one too many nights of it being 1AM and saying to myself, “I should go to bed, but there was that other path I should probably check out first… okay, one more run.” That addictive quality is omnipresent. 

What also feels omnipresent is the need for repeated playthroughs. Once you’ve found a clear path to the boss doesn’t mean they will go down easy. Most bosses come with high defense, quick movements and two phases so beating them once is never enough. These boss encounters are unique set pieces that bring in even more movie tropes like bamboo forests or burning buildings. They are visually stunning but jump the difficulty up to a crushing degree. I’ve had to “walk off” the heightened adrenaline from intense encounters and take breaks for the sake of my thumbs. The learning curve is incredibly steep and practice is crucial. There’s even a practice mode with AI bots to hone your skills. 

That’s where my conundrum lies with Sifu. It’s a fun game that commands you to play on it’s own terms and pummels you into the dirt if you don’t. The tutorials are vague because they expect you to play and experiment yourself. The enemy difficulty is cripplingly punishing but that’s because they expect you to learn or perish. For all intents and purposes Sifu doesn’t like you, but only because it believes in you. It believes you can do better and like an old Kung Fu master, it will not hold your hand throughout. That’s why the game is such a hard juxtaposition. It’s got brilliantly high highs, but the lows are frustrating and disheartening. The level layouts and combat mechanics are a sophisticated look into complex game design but only if you are willing to put the time and effort into appreciating them, which can be a hard ask for some.

Sifu is a double edged sword of a game. It’s phenomenally designed in both style and mechanics but requires intense study and practice to find the real gems that lie beneath the iceberg surface. It weaves a subtle combat system that is dense and intricate into a stylish aesthetic that’s visually interesting to look at. Environmental storytelling is rampant along with it’s consistent homages to all the history that came before it (Old Boy, Kill Bill, etc.) While this remains the upper echelon of video game architecture, it comes with a massive caveat. To truly understand what makes Sifu special, one must sit and study the work before you. Practicing and pushing yourself to keep improving. Otherwise the game will leave you in the dust. 

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