Martial arts and video games have always seemed like a match made in heaven. Sifu is here to try and fulfill that promise, but trips over itself too often to feel like a master of the arts.
So many video games revolve around combat, but true “playable martial arts movies” are few and far between. The last great that I remember playing was released in 2012 in the form of Sleeping Dogs, a game sadly lacking in a sequel to this day.
Since then, it’s been a long wait for a developer to come along and take martial arts video games to the next level. While Sifu doesn’t exactly hit the heights it strives for, it does lay a foundation that could offer something truly exciting — if difficulty spikes and other issues can be ironed out.
Sifu: Key details
- Price: $49.99 / £31.99
- Developer: SloClap
- Release date: February 8, 2022
- Platforms: PlayStation 4/5, PC
Kick-ass fun… until it isn’t
If your first thought when you saw Sifu in action was “wow, does this ever remind me of The Raid Redemption”, then you’re not alone. The team at SloClap is clearly inspired by kinetic, hand-to-hand combat, eschewing weapons, for the most part, to focus on wild combat sequences.
For instance, the first mission in the actual story beyond the prologue (Sifu’s tale of revenge is as old as time) seems to be very inspired by that 2011 film. Players fight their way through a slum of an apartment complex, dispose of junkies, and engage in a stylish hallway fight practically ripped out of Indonesian action cinema.
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And that’s only the first mission. Each location is unique and will see you go from shady nightclubs to beautiful museums. There’s a nice variety in the levels and the types of foes you encounter, all permeated by Sifu’s distinct art style that makes the most of color and lighting. From the detailed environments to the animations and cartoon-like cinematics, the game looks great.
The fast-paced combat, assortment moves, and intensity are interwoven beautifully. You’ll be feeling like a badass from the very start. Fighting waves of enemies at once is a troupe for any martial arts movie or brawler and Sifu gives players a number of ways to dispose of adversaries.
Aside from your traditional punches and kicks, Sifu lets players use both traditional and unconventional weapons. Whether it’s kicking ottomans or using glass bottles as makeshift melee weapons, the world is your playground… mostly.
Unlike some games, environmental hazards aren’t very prominent in Sifu. While there are finishing moves that involve slamming foes’ heads against walls, don’t expect to see Sleeping Dogs levels of interactions, at least intentionally. That’s not to say that tables and chairs don’t break, they do – but it always seems by chance.
Sifu relies heavily on defensive blocking, dodging, and keeping your guard up. The window players have to parry is minuscule, making counter-attacks less of a viable option than dodging instead.
This can, unfortunately, work against the game, especially when fighting large groups at once. This is not like the Batman Arkham games, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, or Insomniac’s Spider-Man. Dodging and countering will take time to master, and it can be very overwhelming to have a wave of fists and feet flying at you while you’re still trying to learn the ropes.
Death is not the end, though, and Sifu employs some roguelike elements to keep players coming back after shuffling off of their mortal coil. Sadly, some of these ideas detract from the core gameplay loop.
Death and death (and death) before victory
You begin the game at age 20 and each time you die, your character becomes older up until around 70 where death is permanent. So, for instance, if you manage to barely complete the first level at age 60, you’ll begin level two at a severe disadvantage.
Death multiplies too. Your first death may only make you age one year to 21, but die twice in a row and suddenly you’re 23. Three times and you’re 26. Defeating key targets or using points at a shrine can reset your consecutive death count, but expect to die quite a bit.
Luckily, you can return to a previous level to try again and there are some checkpoints that will remain active thereby making new attempts easier. With each subsequent playthrough and attempt at a flawless run, I felt myself improving and my mastery of kung fu increasing in the process.
It’s a unique concept, but one that makes an already tough game even tougher. It feels like a great idea for an additional challenge mode, but as the main way to play, it can feel brutal to beat a level only to know you’re not going to make it much longer.
Additionally, the game’s difficulty can be brutal at times to the point where some bosses are absolute run killers even with checkpoints reached. Plus, it’s not just bosses who can pose major threats. Even random foes can occasionally block a finishing move, causing them to transform into mini-bosses of sorts with advanced skills and a higher health pool. It’s one thing to stack the odds against a player, but I found myself wishing it wouldn’t more often than not.
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It’s cool in theory, but unfortunately, this can make the game feel more frustrating than challenging, especially when fighting waves of opponents at once and wanting to avoid dying at all costs. It takes all of the good work Sifu does with its world and more unique combat elements, and makes it feel like the only way to win is to dodge ad nauseam while chipping away at a group of enemies with a punch or two.
SloClap did patch the game prior to launch to adjust for this, so it’s likely there will be more balance updates in the future. Still, I can’t help but feel like the difficulty (which cannot be changed) combined with the death mechanic artificially prolongs the length of a game that’s buttery smooth in so many other ways.
One time I found myself trapped in a pillar fighting a boss and was unable to properly attack or defend myself. Bugs like this aren’t super common, but for an enjoyably challenging game, anything “unfair” can be soul-crushing, especially in the middle of a solid run.
Still, there is no better feeling than being able to progress through a level while maintaining a low death count. It just may take some time to get there.
Sifu offers plenty of unique promise, but it’s no kung-fu master yet. The difficulty spikes will be off-putting for some, but others may enjoy the challenge, but the way it stacks the odds against a player is more frustrating than fun.
And yet, players looking for a new challenge might want to pick up Sifu. Even though not every design choice feels like a good one, the foundation and potential for something truly amazing are there.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5