Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting! (Again)
It's ironic that after my previous first look, One Finger Death Punch 2, I would be looking at another Kung Fu-inspired game. While OFDP 2 is an easy-to-pick-up arcade game, Sifu is a celebrated title based on Kung Fu and Wushu culture. Even the title alone says all that is needed to know as a sifu is another term for a master, much like sensei in Japanese. Players who are familiar with indie titles will be familiar with the developers Sloclap as their first game was also influenced by martial arts. Absolver, released in 2017, was their first foray in combining martial arts and ARPG. Sifu builds upon this foundation and expands upon it greatly.
Cinematography plays a key role in Sifu's premise as it takes many cues from modern wushu cinema. The aesthetic begins when players control a brooding male with long black hair who invades a dojo and immediately begins taking everyone out. It doesn't take long for the player to understand that they aren't playing the protagonist, but it's unaware who the person is until they come across the Sifu. The player and the Sifu engage in combat, with the player killing the Sifu. But wait, the character the player controls isn't the protagonist!
Sifu Is A Classic Tale Of Revenge
The actual protagonist is hidden from the carnage, who witnesses their master's death with their own eyes. At this point, the player determines the gender of the protagonist. While the protagonist's gender doesn't change the game's story, the spoken dialogue changes accordingly. As the protagonist is discovered, the Sifu's murderer orders them to reveal themselves only to be left for dead by his henchman. Moments later, the protagonist comes out seemingly unscathed thanks to an amulet and it is here they dedicate their lives to enact revenge on their fallen master.
Before each level, the protagonist reports to their base of operations, an abandoned apartment tucked in the shadows. Within the apartment consists a training dummy that players can use to practice their attacks. There's a bulletin board used to plan each of the assassins responsible for the death of their Sifu and dojo. The first target is the one who "executed" the protagonist in the prologue, known as the "Botanist." The Botanist is located in "The Squats," a drug operation located in the depths of the urban jungle.
Sifu Shines In Authenticity And Violence
The heart and soul of Sifu are its gameplay and combat. Moments after the protagonist climbs the fence they are told they "shouldn't be there." So begins 30 minutes of non-stop fighting, where the intention is getting from Point A to Point B. Sifu plays itself like a beat-em-up much on the same level as Streets of Rage 4, with each fight playing itself out like a wushu fight sequence. The player has a light and a heavy attack as well as a parry system that flows everything together.
As the player fights, their opponents will occasionally fight back in which the player must react with well-timed parries to knock the opponent off balance. Another way to do so is by dodging attacks, with each attack having "high" and "low" properties. A sweep for example can be evaded with a hop, which will leave the enemy open as time slows down. Conversely, ducking a high kick will result in the same effect as well as dodging left and right. The gameplay reminds me of 3D fighters such as Tekken, where avoiding attacks via crouching and side-stepping results in punishing the opponent.
Fighting Game Fans Will Find Amusement From Sifu
That's the best thing I can compare Sifu to in that it plays itself like a fighting game. The same philosophies and mechanics that one can find in a fighting game are included in combat. For a developer whose experience began with a PVP martial arts game in Absolver, Sloclap excels in the flow that Sifu is going for. While it's enticing to "button mash," especially with a weapon on hand, it's better to take your time and observe your opponent. The player will die fighting stronger opponents and bosses should they swing aimlessly.
Fortunately, recovering health is as simple as defeating foes, which also serves as a comeback mechanic when you're one brush away from death. The player and enemies alike will have a "stamina" system where the more damage one takes, the more they are prone to staggering. Think of the Fight Night boxing games and how repeated attacks will cause a boxer to stun before falling to the pavement. It's a similar mechanic and depending on the enemy, they can turn a fight around much as the player can themselves.
Age Is More Than A Number
One key element in Sifu is the Age mechanic, which determines the player's progression over time. In the beginning, the player will start at Age 20. As the player "dies," a death counter will be added to their age accordingly. Should a player die with 1 Death Counter, they will respawn at Age 21. If they die a second time, they will be met with two death counters, thus adding two years up to Age 23. The only way a death counter can reset is if the player defeats strong enemies and bosses, resetting to zero.
As the player "ages," their physical appearance changes as well as their strength. After every ten years, their health bar will decrease but their overall power will increase. The age cap is at 70, meaning that age 69 is where the player is at their strongest but it is also where a critical blow will end their life for good. This is a great homage to wushu films and video games which feature the "old kung fu guy" who is powerful yet a "seeker of death." Gen from Street Fighter and Pai Mei from Kill Bill are great examples.
Sifu May Be Short, But Great Things Come In Small Packages
Part of the discourse among social media and critics is the game's length. Sifu is not a long game, but its longevity is based on the steep learning curve. While I will refrain by calling it a Soulslike game, I will stick to my guns on calling it a homage to fighting games and fighting media. Most fighting games have a learning curve that must be overcome, which becomes how far the player is willing to push themselves. The fun in Sifu is the experience and it doesn't rely on parlor tricks to stretch the plot thin. It's a great callback to early 3D action games from the 90s and 00s. I recently said this about Blackwind but minus the jank.
A $40 price tag won't break the bank for a lot of people and its replayability depends on the player's devotion to "do a little better each time." The animations are great and the music, composed by Howie Lee, sets the tone that Sifu provides. It is a Chinese noir developed by fans of the same cinema that influenced Sifu. It's not a AAA title nor is it reinventing the wheel. It's a title that's breaking wooden boards with a spin kick and part of the fun is in its marvel to such cinematics.
Sifu is available on the PS4, PS5, and PC