Does Sifu know Kung Fu? Find out if this game is for you.
Describing Sifu, out on (PS5, PS4, and PC) February 8th, as Incredible requires some clarification as to what that truly means. Sifu is incredibly gorgeous, featuring beautiful visuals that stand out above the crowd in a world full of dull and drab military shooters. Sifu’s sound design is incredible, with a soundtrack that helps push you along and makes every run enjoyable. Sifu is also incredibly difficult, making each death felt, and every action you make require pinpoint accuracy. But in a game about martial arts and the art of Kung-Fu, do you really want anything different?
When Sloclap first announced Sifu, players were drawn in by its striking visual style and outstanding animations. Looking like a watercolor painting come to life, Sifu’s stellar art style has helped it gain quite a bit of attention in the past couple of months. Originally planned for a 2021 release, developer Sloclap pushed the game out a bit further until February 22nd, 2022 to help polish this game, and then, when they showcased the game a final time, revealed that it would be coming out sooner than expected. Crushing blows and fists have flown, but the question remains: Does Sifu stand with the greatest of Kung Fu masters, or does it flounder and fail behind some shortcomings?
Do You have what it takes to know Kung-Fu?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Sloclap knocked it out of the park when it comes to the visual and audio design of Sifu. Lush jungles, neon-drenched nightclubs, nightmarish hellscapes, and so many more locations are rendered in absolutely gorgeous style and substance. Vibrant colors, broad brush strokes, and killer animations make Sifu look like nothing else on the market, and at times, it looks more along the lines of a big-budget animated movie rather than a video game. On the same token, the soundtrack pumps you full of adrenaline, with pounding electronic beats mixed with traditional Japanese instruments, making every fight you take part in feel like a life or death situation. Which in this game, it really is.
However, one part of the sound design that is a little less than perfect is the voice acting. You may find yourself preferring to let your fists do the talking, as sometimes voice lines are delivered slightly wooden. However, the inclusion of using character-specific voice lines is a great choice, as if you play as a “Boy” or “Girl”, the enemy will refer to you as such. Instead of using a generic “Get them!”, it’s either “Get him!”, or “Get her!”, which is a nice detail to see. Many larger budget studios would choose the former option to make things easier, compared to the latter, so it is commendable for that particular reason.
Rise Again, and again
This is a story of revenge. Playing as a young Kung Fu Master, who you can pick at the start of the game after a tutorial session that sees you playing in the shoes of your father’s killer, you set out on revenge against Yang and his gang of deviants. In the shoes of your selected character, you take not but a few steps before you are brutally murdered, being brought back to life by your golden charm on your person. After rising from your death like a phoenix from the ashes, you see your father, your Sifu, cut down in front of you. This is not a happy game, there is no feel-good story to it, it’s a game about revenge, plain and simple. You will stop at nothing to exact the revenge you deserve against Yang for destroying your family. The only thing that may stop you is death, and not in the way you imagine.
One of the biggest hooks of Sifu is its aging system. As you proceed through Sifu, you are going to die. Plain and simple. As you die, however, you do not start at a checkpoint, or again at the beginning of the level. You rise from where you were before, however, a little older than you were. See, in Sifu, you don’t have a traditional life system, this instead is replaced with your Age. As you begin your journey, you begin at age 20, fresh into the throws of adulthood. However, something that would normally kill you cannot do so, thanks to your golden charms that were mentioned beforehand. These grant you a form of Immortality, if you will. When you die, you can continue the fight from where you stood before, but now at age 21.
As you fight your demons in Sifu, you will grow older, and with this comes its benefits, and its downfalls. Following a thorough tutorial, you are thrust into “The Slums” to find the man who murdered you at the beginning of the game. You work your way through his lackeys, picking up weapons, finding Jade Dragons, and items to help your search into the reasons behind Yang’s defection to the side of evil. Unknown to you, your skills are not exactly up to par with what you’re expected to have just yet. You die. However, you are reborn, just a little older. And every time you die before you get a chance to reduce your Death Counter, it continues to grow. While that doesn’t sound too awful, every death is added to your age. You can jump from 20 to 30 in 4 deaths, which makes the fight to survive that much more integral. This vicious cycle continues through The Slums, as you are learning the ropes of how to properly dodge, parry, and attack with an almost rhythmic pace. You notice that your death counter continues to grow, and with it, your age. You quickly go from age 20 to 30, 40 and upwards. After finally exacting your revenge on the man who took your life, you realize starting “The Club” that your age and death counter remains the same as when you finished the level. It feels unforgiving, and that is one of the best parts of Sifu, is its harsh take on morality, and life in general.
As you proceed through your time in Sifu, you’ll gain three main attributes; Age, Experience Points, and Level Score. You can visit the Jade Dragons that are scattered through a level to spend your hard-earned points to help level up your character and grant new skills. One, in particular, is “More Health On Takedowns”, which as the name states, gives you more health as you take down enemies. However, the max age that you can unlock that skill is age 40, with the third tier of it being able to be unlocked only before age 30. If you pass that age, you will no longer be able to max that skill out, which makes you think hard and with the judgment of how good you think you are at the game.
The best fighter is never angry
Finding rhythm in what you are doing in Sifu is the key to success. If you are anything like myself, you are going to rush into your first couple of fights, destroy your enemies and continue with a swollen head full of pride, only to have it taken away shortly after. This is one of the most frustrating, however satisfying, reasons why Sifu excels. It is not afraid to strip your pride away, it is not afraid to make you angry, it is not afraid to make you lose your cool. And that is one of the reasons a fight can feel so exhilarating. Completing a level results in some of the most satisfying boss fights in recent memory, but you can turn around and take those newly learned skills and put them to the test to lower your age and death counter by a few bits. The first time playing through a level, you may end on age 38 with 5 deaths on your counter.
But, taking your new skills for a spin on a retry of the level may help you start the next at age 24 with 1 death on your counter. This is the way of the World of Sifu, by being forced into a situation where you are tossed around, feeling lost, and then having the opportunity to redeem yourself. On an initial playthrough, you may find yourself struggling with the pattern of an enemy that is continuing to beat the snot of you, no matter what you throw their way. Then, you finally figure out their pattern, and eliminate them at age 72, leaving little room for error through the rest of the level. But as you continue to learn these patterns, and learn the best style of play for you, be it slow and methodical or fast-paced and frenzied, it starts to click.
As you begin to learn the finer nuances of the game, such as proper dodging, parrying, and how to keep your Structure meter in check, you begin to feel like a true Kung-Fu master. The satisfaction of dodging 5 quick attacks in succession and laying into your enemy is something you’ll never forget, and a great reason for why the combat is so satisfying. The animations that follow suit, from a simple palm strike to a takedown that sees you rapidly punching your opponent into a coma, are replaying in your head to remind you of the thrill of battle. Spending XP to unlock an attack to try out, or spending it to permanently unlock it so you can continue to use it if you die helps you build yourself into the ultimate warrior, which you will need to be to succeed in Sifu.
I can show you the path, but I cannot walk it for you
The theme of difficulty comes up a lot during Sifu. This is not a game that you’ll be able to blaze through in the time of a weekend. It is something that requires devotion, time, and effort, much like the subject matter that it is based upon. Sifu takes the mentality of Kung-Fu to a new level, with its ability to make you feel like an absolute monster as you tear through a room full of enemies, only to reduce you to feeling like a bug as you are stomped on by the next enemy. Boss battles are one of the greatest parts of this game, as they not only test your skill, but your level of patience.
The first boss of Sifu is a great stepping stone for the battles to follow, as you cannot attack him straight on. You learn that you must keep your distance, that you can’t let your guard down, and that you need to keep on your toes through the forthcoming events. You don’t want to take your eyes off of him, or let him get too far away from you, or you are in for a world of hurt. However, as you study his movements, his attack patterns, and his ways of approaching you, the true beauty of the game starts to show. I will not spoil the other half of this battle, but you’ll need to be on your top game to make sure that he doesn’t cut you down to size.
The combat system is another shining example of where Sifu shines in a world of beat-em-ups. Taking what feels at first to be a fairly basic combat system of combos, you can build your skills up through XP purchases in your Ward, or when you die, allowing you to get new abilities in the middle of the level. While it feels a little strange that you cannot upgrade your moves without dying, it also feels like a deliberate choice to only allow you to do this in two different places. One, in your Ward, or your home base, because you are taking the time to examine your enemies, and to find yourself. Or when you rise after defeat, as you are now older and wiser, with new skills to boot.
As stated at the beginning of this review, Sifu is an incredible journey. Featuring top-notch animations, music tracks, and visuals that are hard to match by even a big-budget animation studio, you will find your jaw-dropping as you make your journey through this story of revenge. Patience is something that is required through it, as you will find yourself getting trounced at any given point if you let your guard down for just a moment. As Master Yuan Xiu Gang said, “Learning Kung fu has only one purpose: To train one’s reaction into a natural response. Such reaction is essential.”, and there is no better way to describe Sifu. As you push through the story and see sights untold, you begin to sympathize deeper and deeper, finding your rage being channeled into your character, and helping you make your way up the chain until you are confronting the man who murdered your father yourself. While brutally challenging, it makes you think before you act, because if you don’t, you’re done for. If you find yourself looking for something to make you feel like Bruce Lee, look no further as you will be granted one of the finest combat-based experiences ever made. However, if you are looking for a mindless button-masher to help you pass time on the weekend, your time may be better spent elsewhere, as Sifu demands your time and effort to make you into the true hero you are.