Sifu (PS5) REVIEW – Zen And The Art Of Kicking Ass
February 8, 2022
PC, PS4, PS5
Gaming has long had a love affair with kung fu and action cinema, and it’s not hard to see why. Watching a martial arts flick like The Raid, any classic Bruce Lee film, Ip-Man, Ong-Bak and “Kung Pow! Enter The Fist” offers a raw kind of wish fulfillment and satisfaction that video games have often tried to escalate. It’s all very well and good watching a martial arts master take down hordes of enemies, but what if you could become that person?
Sifu isn’t the first game to have attempted that formula. Side scrolling beat ‘em ups have been around for decades, providing the one vs all joy that martial arts movies provide, while modern titles like the Batman: Arkham games have redefined that formula in new and exciting ways. However, Sloclap’s Sifu stands as one of the most honest depictions of martial arts cinema in gaming, with the first level throwing out an Oldboy homage within the first five minutes, while creating a power fantasy that’s incredibly rewarding. Quite simply, Sifu is one of the best action games available on the market.
The core of that satisfaction isn’t based on how powerful the player character is, though they’re certainly a destructive force to be reckoned with in the right hands. Landing combos, hitting takedowns and sending dozens of foes on an express trip to the hospital all add up to you feeling like a badass as you progress through the game’s five levels, but it’s not the offense that ties Sifu’s incredible gameplay together — it’s the defense.
Sifu’s defensive options turn what could have been just an enjoyable, if a little basic, martial arts romp, into a game that demands your attention and rewards your patience. Hitting light and heavy attacks on their own is satisfying enough, but using the L1 button and the left stick to perform dodges, or tapping L1 at the right moment for some devastating parries, helps elevate Sifu’s combat above most of its contemporaries.
It’s a different kind of power fantasy. Games like the Arkham series are designed to make you feel like a badass, but that tends to come at the cost of most encounters not feeling like too much of a threat. In Sifu, you always feel like you’re in danger, because the majority of your opponents are just as proficient as you are, making each encounter dangerous and thrilling as a result. Victory is never certain, it’s earned in the crucible of combat, and you’re always one wrong move away from defeat.
Fortunately, death and defeat are woven into the very fabric of Sifu. The plot sees your unnamed kung-fu ass kicker witnessing the death of their father and master at a young age. You’re then murdered on the spot, but thankfully, a magical talisman brings you back to life. Eight years and plenty of intense training later, you’re ready to take down the five assassins responsible for his death.
Sifu plays out like a mini-roguelike, as you try to complete the game’s five levels in one “run”. Players can earn skills and abilities that’ll help you on your run, and skills can even be purchased permanently if you’re willing to spend enough XP. If you die during your run, your death counter will increase by one and your age will increase by the number on your death counter. As soon as you hit 70 and die again, it’s game over and you have to try again.
The aging system has a lot of nuances to it. You start the game at age 20. Getting older means you’ll have less health, and with the death counter increasing with every death, mistakes begin to pile up quickly. These mistakes also mean you’ll lose out on certain upgrades, so it pays to stay young and healthy, though the trade-off is that the older you are, the harder you hit. You might be 70 years old and one combo away from pushing up daisies, but you’re going to hit like a truck every single time.
Mercifully, Sifu’s run system doesn’t mean you have to go from start to finish in one full sitting (though that would make for an interesting mode in the future). When you reach a level, your age and shrine upgrades are saved so the player can jump in from that level at any time. If you decide to return to the previous level and improve on your outcome with a lower age, you’ll start the next level in an even better state each time.
It’s a nice checkpointing mechanic that saves a lot of frustration down the line, though curiously there’s no way to manage your level saves. It seems like the game uses the first time you earned that record as the basis, so if you achieve the same record with a different, more preferable loadout, it won’t be saved as a proper checkpoint. You’ll carry your temporary loadout over once, but if you need to restart the level, you’ll default back to the saved loadout. It’s a minor fault, but did lead to a slight moment of frustration during the review.
Still, the way Sifu’s runs are structured allows for constant learning and re-iteration. While the new skills allow you to get the upper hand against certain enemies, it’s the knowledge that comes with repeating a level a few times, memorising enemy placements and attack patterns and becoming more comfortable with your skillset that’ll see you through the game’s many challenges. And there are plenty of challenges — Sifu is a hard bastard of a game at times.
The knowledge you learn also feeds into the game’s level design. As you make progress through the levels, you’ll unlock keys which grant access to various shortcuts that’ll give you constant risk vs reward decisions. You could skip straight to the end of the level, removing the chance to age up by taking on unnecessary fights, but you won’t be able to access upgrades or earn as much XP.
In earlier levels, the risk is easier to take, because the enemies are weaker and easier to take down, but as you reach the late game, those shortcuts become more and more tempting. Is that one shrine really worth taking on a dozen guys, all of which could do some serious damage to my death counter, when I could just avoid it entirely?
Showcasing this in action, my first experience in Sifu was pretty difficult. Trying to become accustomed to the game’s nuances and controls led to some pretty quick deaths, especially against Sifu’s first boss, Fajar. Still, perseverance and sheer grit meant I survived at the grand old age of 67. Naturally, I hit level two and got a game over by the time I reached the second or third room.
With a fountain of knowledge, some newly unlocked skills and a shortcut to utilise, returning to the first level wasn’t quite so disastrous the second time around. After beating the boss at the age of 30, I stood a better chance later on, but subsequent retries of that same first level saw me adopt new strategies while shaving off the years. Before long, I’d taken out the boss and glanced at my age counter: 20. No deaths. I’m not ashamed of the level of fist-pumping that occurred, so imagine how good beating level two as flawlessly as possible would feel.
It’s this emphasis on learning, the constant decision making and the clear evidence of your own improvement that’ll keep Sifu embedded in your brain, even when you’re not playing it. During work, making food or even lying in bed at night, you can find yourself plotting strategies on how to deal with Sifu’s challenges, and if that’s not the sign of a good game, I don’t know what is.
Sifu’s one larger issue (aside from the story being undercooked, but who cares when the gameplay whips ass?) is that the longevity will vary from player to player. If you love the idea of challenging yourself to perform flawlessly under increasingly difficult levels, Sifu will be in your gameplay rotation for a long time. This is one for people who love to undertake those no-death/no-hit player-imposed challenges, but if not, you’ll likely be done once the credits roll. There’s little reason to stick around beyond personal satisfaction, though the challenge that Sifu offers means even getting to the credits will keep you occupied for a good while.
Sifu feels like it’ll be a watercooler game, with those who experience it trading war stories on how they managed to conquer a particular boss after a hard fought battle, or players sharing tips on how to get past certain roadblocks. Each of the game’s levels is structured exactly the same during every run, but the individual experience of those who play Sifu is likely going to be very different, making Sloclap’s latest martial arts epic a nigh-on essential purchase.
A Deluxe Edition digital copy of Sifu for PS5 was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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A potential GOTY contender already, Sifu is martial arts excellence that’ll challenge and delight in equal measure.
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