A lot of people will encounter a hard game and quickly reference the generation’s meme for it. “Is this the Dark Souls of ____?” For the most part, this is true. Many of the more difficult games these days are designed around boss fights, where they serve as walls to be challenged and taken down. And that’s sort of why you get that constant mention of Dark Souls, as it is THE title that comes up with hard boss fights. People might make the same analogy when attempting to describe Sifu. I believe that sort of analogy is a little off, to be honest. Yes, the bosses of Sifu do pose a sizeable challenge, at least at first. They do serve as skill and knowledge tests that you must overcome. But so is the rest of the level that they reside in. And while it’s not quite that elaborate, Sifu demands consistency through your entire playthrough. And due to this, the tension of your game carries through the entire time you’re playing. So thank goodness it’s a relatively quick game.
Normally you’d see a game like this from the east. But the developer behind this, Sloclap, is based in France. This was crafted as an homage to their love for the kung-fu movie genre and that admiration shows throughout the game. The game and the plot are rather simple, and the creators of this game knew it that. They were wise to keep Sifu intense and focused by keeping the affair short and sweet. And for that, I think it’s a game many people should try, particularly if they like Kung Fu movies, action games, or both.
So let’s not dilly-dally any further, we’re already late for today’s drills.
The game opens up with a rather dark tutorial. You play as a man invading another dojo to claim some mysterious items of power. The master refuses, which leads to a dark fate for not only the master but also the character you’ll be playing as next. As a survivor of that horrible, stormy night, you begin a journey to meet the same attackers of that time eight years later.
Will you succeed in your quest for vengeance or is another fate lying in wait? Let’s go ahead and see.
Production (4 / 5)
The graphics of Sifu isn’t exactly ground-breaking. But aesthetic-wise, I’d have to say this is very well thought-out. Anything that’s inanimate is rather simply rendered, and textured just enough so that it expresses the world it inhabits. Most of the time, rooms are of muted colors. It doesn’t try to be much more than it needs to be, and that’s useful for what the game is trying to do.
You see, there’s no map, nothing to check your range with, and sort of a lock-on, but not really. It’s more of a marker of what you have closest to you. Even the humans look pretty well-blended with the world, save for some exceptions throughout the game. Their goal here is to produce what could be considered a near-cinematic experience while the game is completely playable. It also makes for a seamless experience between playable sections and cutscenes.
This comes with a bit of downside as well. Where the muted effects and lack of emphasis on movement and hits can make it hard to discern if you’ve indeed blocked, parried, or properly landed a strike. So sometimes, knowing if you’ve done something right or wrong is hard to tell. In fact, there were many times when I found myself trying to recover from getting hit a second or two after the fact, and that made for a frustrating experience. Imagine making this nice flow of attacks and dodges only to be suddenly interrupted and you watch your multiplier drop as you desperately try to get things back into control. You can combine this with the occasional camera control, where it becomes difficult to track several opponents once they surround you. It can get extra annoying when the camera angle restricts how you can move especially when you don’t know that you’re stuck in a corner.
The audio experience of Sifu I would have to say is generally unremarkable. Sound effects are pretty muted and generic, there’s the occasional sound prompt that tells you you’ve landed a critical hit which is pretty cool. But in general, I can’t think much of what to say about it. I suppose it’s passable. The same can be said about the voice acting, given the B-Movie style this entire thing is going for. Some dialogue does do well, as it feels like it’s batting for higher performance than the script demands. The characters feel convincing enough for the role they were given. Except for the main antagonist, who gives off a more nuanced character from how he delivers his lines.
The music is something I’d have to dismiss as something I could easily forget, perhaps because I never noticed that it was there in the first place. The only one I can roughly recall is from the nightclub and dojo, listening to the OST alone, I can’t say it inspired anything out of me either.
In general, I think how Sifu looks and sounds show that it wants to focus on one type of experience, which is the seamless movement and combat. I’d have to say that they do succeed in producing that, but I really wish they put a bit more effort in at least the music, as it would have completed the atmosphere quite nicely.
Mechanics (5 / 5)
You know, I took Jeet-Kune-Do once. Yep, the same one that Bruce Lee popularized. I wasn’t really a master or anything. But I managed to stay for a month or two before school got too busy and that project kind of just faded into the wind, like my many hopes and dreams. Anyway, one thing we were regularly doing was simply repeating the same punches, kicks, and routines many, many times in a session. Let’s say we do 40 punches and kicks alternatively for 10 sets, for one exercise, in the three times we meet in a week. That means at minimum, we do the same moves at least 1200 times every week. And you know what Bruce Lee says about people that do that.
But you don’t necessarily practice doing the same move hundreds of times in Sifu. What you do is train yourself against the many encounters you’ll get across its five curated stages. Repeating them to perfection so that you can dodge, parry, and attack flawlessly through everything they throw at you. Those three moves are generally your functions throughout the entire game. It’s not really memorization that the game challenges you to do, but mastery. Being able to decide when to commit attacks or stay on the defensive, being able to tell how to respond to incoming attacks without even thinking about it. This is the true goal of Sifu.
An odd choice I found is how the game doesn’t allow you to manually lock on to an enemy and just leaves it to its automatic system for you to quickly attack and switch targets as more and more enemies try to take you down simultaneously. And while it does work as intended, it does not like to work the way I intend to play. If I say, wanted to chase down or focus on one opponent, this desire could be completely forgotten as soon as somebody else gets a little too close to the snapping range of my next attack. Eventually, you get used to it, but thanks to its automatic systems, it feels like you’re not in control, which doesn’t sound like something fitting of a master.
However, if there’s anything you want to master in this game, it’s how to defend yourself properly. Yes, you can play it in a sort of Dark Souls manner. But some enemies won’t let you get away with that, where the only way to get an opening is to stand your ground and parry or dodge. This game actually reminds me a lot about God Hand, a beat-em-up with similar dodging mechanics and has a lot of fun gimmicks for offense, like breaking guards. What’s a bit different in Sifu though, is that instead of trying to break guards, you break structure. Think of it as another life bar that acts much like posture in Sekiro. You and everyone else have it, and getting it filled means you’ll be in for a world of pain. For enemies, it means that you’ll be able to land a finisher.
Mastering the gameplay of Sifu weighs much more on being able to defend properly than attack. It’s actually entirely possible to defeat enemies just by parrying, with enough patience. It’s like Cuphead, where so long as you’re shooting, you’re going to hit your giant targets, but what’s more important is you don’t get hit in return. There are other things you can do to make the fight more exciting, but generally not getting hit is already winning.
Losing on the other hand works a bit differently, once an enemy successfully takes you down, you don’t exactly die. You get older by a year, dying repeatedly too quickly before you can defeat a strong enough opponent will increase your death counter, which results in you losing more years every time until you get past the age of 70. This really exposes your weaknesses towards certain enemies and bosses, that you’ll want to work on the ones that give you a hard time. Like a coach that won’t let you give up on an exercise you’re having a tough time with, it can get pretty relentless.
While the game is pretty strict, it’s not unforgiving. You gain a score multiplier as you perform well against your opponents, but they also get more aggressive. Once you get hit, your multiplier drops, and with it the vigilance enemies around you also relax. Yes, this game is like God Hand part 3. You even regain a bit of life for every opponent you take down. So Sifu has been designed to dynamically respond to how well you’re doing through the game at a moment’s notice. And, like a friend who’s trying to get you to eat increasingly spicy food, try to keep you at the very edge of what you’re capable of, tempting to get you even further.
Honestly, this game’s moment-to-moment gameplay is one of the most engaging I’ve played in a long time. I just honestly wished this allowed me to keep the XP I’ve ground after finishing a stage, even after I decide to redo it. I’m honestly not sure why they would hamper your progression through the content you can find in Sifu.
Content (4 / 5)
Speaking of progression, there are two types of it in this title. A temporary and a permanent one. You see it’s possible for you to learn a skill like being able to catch projectiles or doing a new kind of combo, or you can have higher structure or improve how strong you are with weapons, that and more. But none of that will be permanent. When you retry a stage, the progress you made in terms of experience and learned moves will also be reverted to the start. And you lose all of your temporary upgrades when you start a new run. Some of them can be carried over though, given you’re willing to pay the price. And it’s not anything really all that special, you just pay the same amount in experience five times over.
Five seems to be a magic number in this title as well. Not only are there five stages with bosses to match but there are also five enemy types for you to fight throughout the game. I guess you can give a bit more leeway if you consider that a few of them have male and female variants, but in general, their move sets and how you fight them is pretty much the same. This detail stuck out to me as I was playing through the third stage. As more and more enemies bared themselves upon me, I noticed that what they would do and how they looked was starting to look predictable. I suppose this was by design, as having to deal with too much variety might have soured my experience with the game.
They did present variation in another way, stage themes and a few gimmicks here and there. There was always something that made going through the stage a bit more interesting. The art museum in particular was quite the trip, giving huge set pieces to stare at and a change in aesthetic every few minutes keeps me wondering what I’ll be facing next. But if you look beyond that, you’ll see that a lot of the game is just changes to the arena you’ll be fighting in. It’s another flavor of a small, restricted room, or a hallway, or a wider room with some walls for terrain. The ways you can tackle the problems set in front of you doesn’t really change, as the problem is always the same thing. Figuring out how to take everything down with your bare hands. It would have been nice if there were things that could change your approach to enemies, like more swinging pendulums, or fighting on a suspended bridge, or dealing with more ranged attackers.
Though, one cool thing about all of these stages is how the function in an inter-connected way. If you explore around enough, you’ll eventually find key items that either help you uncover more of the game’s story or give you shortcuts through other stages. Opening these shortcuts give you a way to get to the boss faster, but you miss out on opportunities to farm experience and upgrades. But it does help guarantee that you won’t be losing any years before getting to the boss.
Features (3.5 / 5)
This makes it doable as a speed run if you’re aware and capable of what you must do to get through the entirety of Sifu. Do it quickly enough and you’ll probably finish the game within an hour. However, my first playthrough took the better part of around 8-10 hours. It’s a lot like Jump King, where a complete beginner may take a week or so just to finish the vanilla map. But well-practiced players can clear it in less than ten minutes.
If you’re the type that doesn’t want to commit so much time to learn the intricacies of hand-to-hand combat, considering how many hands you have to deal with most of the time, which is a lot, then there is the option of taking it to a lower difficulty. On the easier setting, not only are opponents a little less aggressive and throw less variation in their moves, but you also have a much larger life bar, and defeating certain enemies brings it back up to the brim. And no, playing on easier difficulties doesn’t block you from attaining achievements, so slog away if you just want to complete the game.
Also, this might be a game you want to revisit come August, considering how they’re adding a few modifiers to it. Like unbreakable weapons, low gravity, more enemies, faster attacks, and even bullet time. I mean, that sounds like a pretty different game already.
Challenging gameplay doesn’t appear to pick a place from where it comes from. Sloclap has given us this through Sifu. I also found it a bit amusing that a western-themed game from the East would be somewhat comparable to an Eastern-themed game from the West. It’s clear that the developers behind Sifu have shown their love for Kung Fu movies as Miyazaki had shown his fascination for swords and magic.
Sifu has taken me through the stages of grief and at the same time given me an eruption of satisfaction once I finally clear the area boss. Then I try to clear it again, whilst losing fewer lives, then try to clear it without getting taken down at all. After a while, it felt like I was being asked to pull off Daigo’s Moment 37 again and again. Perhaps not as intensely, but through a stretch of about 10 to 20 minutes at a time.
While I do have my reservations about wanting a better targeting system, wished that the camera could be better managed, and would appreciate having clearer effects to explain how the combat is going clearer, I do believe that this game wins a lot more than it loses. A simple story, with tight controls and combat, and a system that entices you to do a little better each time. Sifu dares you to walk the path of a master, and it was a worthwhile journey. I recommend it to those who are looking for a concise and intense action game.
Sifu gains my applause, getting a 4 out of 5.
Available on PS4/5 and PC through Epic game store.