Sifu Review – I Know Kung Fu

Sifu ponders the question: “Is one life enough to know kung fu?” Based on my own battered and bruised experience, the answer is a resounding “no.” Death is ingrained into every aspect of developer Slocap’s latest brawler, as you’ll die, die, and die again before licking your wounds and returning to the fray for another seemingly misguided attempt at emerging from a fight unscathed. Sifu is a punishingly difficult game that won’t appeal to everyone. Reaching its conclusion requires a mastery of its combat mechanics, so those looking for a challenging game that demands skill and improvement from the player will find exactly that in Sifu. It’s an excellent modern beat-’em-up with deep combat mechanics and a fascinating aging system that sets it apart from its contemporaries by altering the way you progress from one chapter to the next.

Before delving into Sifu’s unique hook, it’s worth noting that its combat provides the basis for everything else that comes after. Sifu is primarily a game where your sole focus revolves around not getting hit. You have a variety of defensive techniques at your disposal, with each one proving pivotal depending on the situation. Holding the block button for sustained defence is the simplest way to avoid taking a crack to the skull, but this only works for a matter of seconds. Both you and your enemies have a meter for “structure,” which functions a lot like Sekiro’s posture system. You can block attacks as long as your structure remains intact, but taking too many hits will eventually break it and leave you wide open for enemies to capitalize on your mistake.

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You can parry attacks to prevent your structure from breaking by tapping the block button before a blow connects, but you need to be aware of when your assailant’s combo ends to have any success of halting their momentum. Parrying the first attack they launch your way won’t leave them open to a counter-attack if they’re going to follow that up with a couple more, so you might have to parry three attacks in a row before you can retaliate with a rapid-fire counter. Being able to recognize and learn the types of combos each enemy type uses is the only way parrying multiple strikes in succession is feasible, which makes it difficult to achieve when you’re first learning the ropes.

Fortunately, dodging doesn’t cost anything to use, allowing you to dash out of harm’s way when the situation calls for a little breathing room. This doesn’t muster quite the same level of satisfaction as successfully parrying an assault does, but both techniques also pale in comparison to the pure elation that comes from avoiding attacks while standing in place. By holding the block button and pushing the left stick in any direction, you can use slight body movements to slip punches and duck under head kicks to avoid taking any damage at all. The timing on this is relatively forgiving, so it quickly becomes a crucial tool in your arsenal, whether you’re fighting a rowdy group of enemies or a single, tough-as-nails foe. Being able to avoid an entire combo without taking a step backwards is a phenomenal feeling, particularly when you follow it up with a devastating counter-attack of your own. When you start ducking and weaving to avoid an enemy’s combo and then combine this with a parry to greet their final attack, everything starts to click into place and you really feel like a martial arts expert.

The only time defending comes undone is when the camera actively works against you, since whenever you’re backed up against a wall, it’s very likely that you won’t be able to see anything at all. This is a tough challenge to solve since camera issues like this crop up in most melee-focused third-person games. It’s just all the more glaring in Sifu when one mistake can prove fatal.

When it comes to your offensive options, Sifu opts for simplicity with most of its combos utilizing two buttons for light and heavy attacks. Performing a leg sweep to take an enemy off their feet requires you to move the left stick up and down before finishing with a heavy attack, but it never gets more complicated than that. It’s all fairly straightforward, almost out of necessity. So much of your time is spent focusing on the defensive side of each fight that being able to strike back with relative ease is a blessing, and combat is no less exciting because of it, either.

Sifu is built upon an aggressive style of kung fu known as Pak Mei. While some kung fu styles are designed for show, Pak Mei is all about putting your opponent on the ground and ensuring that they stay there. It’s not overly flashy, so you won’t be wowed by flamboyant combos and indulgent attacks. Instead, Sifu impresses by capturing the tangible sense of impact behind each crunching blow, effectively conveying how dangerous Pak Mei can be in the right hands. Your attacks are often lightning-fast, breaking through rib cages and jawbones with a wince-inducing ferocity that makes each successful hit feel incredibly satisfying. The environments you’re fighting in serve a function as well, so being aware of your surroundings is a key aspect of Sifu’s fisticuffs. You might roll over a tabletop or scale a mezzanine to create separation from a group of enemies or isolate a single foe. Ottomans and stools exist to be kicked, taking out your opponents at the knees, while brooms and pieces of broken wood act as makeshift weapons.

Sifu is an excellent modern beat-’em-up with deep combat mechanics and a fascinating aging system that sets it apart from its contemporaries by altering the way you progress from one chapter to the next

There’s also a takedown system that activates when you break through an enemy’s structure, giving you the chance to launch into a rapid-fire finishing move that makes contextual use of the environment to finish off your opponents in brutal fashion. Performing takedowns is the only way to refill a fraction of your health bar, but there’s a risk/reward element at play, too. Some enemies will simply refuse to be beaten by reversing your takedown and gaining a buff in the process. Suddenly you’re fighting someone with increased health who hits harder and uses new, more dangerous techniques. For as tempting as takedowns are, the smart play would be to avoid using them when your health is topped up in case you unintentionally activate a tougher foe, but defeating these souped-up enemies has its own benefits by removing a year from your death counter.

Sifu’s unnamed protagonist can never technically die, aside from succumbing to the natural perils of old age. Whether you choose to play as a male or female character, you’ll find yourself in possession of a magical pendant that allows you to get back up and continue fighting after your health bar has been fully depleted. The catch behind this apparent indestructibility is that each time you do so, more years are stripped away from your life. The more frequently you die–raising your aforementioned death counter in the process–the more your age will increase with each subsequent demise. Die four times in a row, for instance, and your age will increase by four years the next time you fall. You might begin the game as a fresh-faced 20-year old, but by the end of the first chapter you’ll likely find yourself rocking the salt and pepper look as you heave into your 50s. Once you hit the ripe old age of 70, the next death will be your last, as the pendant’s magic fades and sends you to a game over screen.

Sifu pulls a lot of its inspiration from classic kung fu cinema, so adopting this aging mechanic is a logical thematic choice. You’re essentially growing from an impulsive young kid to an elderly kung fu master, hitting all of the genre’s character archetypes in the process. Aside from being able to see the physical changes of this rapid aging, the decades-long transformation also has some gameplay implications, too. As you reach the twilight years of your life, your maximum health decreases while your damage output increases. The idea is that, as the body ages, those fragile bones can’t quite sustain as much punishment as they could before, but you’re also wiser and able to dish out more retribution with the learned experience of a lifetime of combat pulsating behind each fist.

In a lot of ways, this journey is reflective of the one you’re likely to take to reach Sifu’s final boss fight. At the beginning of the game, I was that headstrong and naive kid, surviving by the skin of my teeth with a combination of guesswork and luck as I grew accustomed to what Sifu was demanding of me. By the time I finally defeated the first boss, I was a 60-year old man because he bested me so many times before my eventual triumph. Now, after putting in the hours and gaining a greater understanding of Sifu’s mechanics, I can go back and handle what once seemed like an insurmountable obstacle without aging more than a year or two. There’s a fairly robust skill tree that lets you spend XP to add things like new combos or unlock the ability to catch projectiles out of mid-air, and these upgrades are certainly useful–while also diversifying your move set–but they’re not integral to your progression. Your own skill level will dictate how far you’re able to make it through Sifu’s five chapters, with success predicated on the ways in which you’re able to adapt and learn how to approach each enemy type and situation.

Every room you enter is like a combat puzzle that needs to be solved and then mastered. You might scrape through an encounter on the first attempt, but if you took a few lumps or died a number of times, did you really solve anything? Sifu’s aging mechanic means you’ll inevitably replay most fights multiple times until each room is approached with a mixture of improvisation and foresight. Completing a chapter means you’ll begin the next one at whichever age you finished the last, whether that means you’re 31 or 68. The youngest age you start a chapter at is always saved, so you can return to previous chapters without having to worry about losing a vital checkpoint. This is key, since you need to complete the entire game before dying in your 70s. You’ll regularly return to past chapters in order to try and finish them at a younger age and give yourself more leeway moving forward. This sounds like a daunting task, but Slocap isn’t devious enough to not add a few shortcuts along the way.

The environments in Sifu are regularly sprawling, whether you’re fighting through the underbelly of a nightclub, hurling pieces of art at the security guards in a striking art gallery, or vertically navigating a towering office building. To break up the combat and provide a little breather, Sifu touches on some investigative elements by scattering pieces of evidence within each level. This might be a pamphlet for a healing sanctuary owned by the final boss, or a magazine profile that offers some background on another one of the bosses. Most of this stuff is superfluous since the threadbare story still isn’t fleshed out by these tidbits of information. You will, however, also find keys and door codes that will regularly open up shortcuts, allowing you to bypass huge sections of a level on repeat visits. This makes Sifu’s structure more palatable since you’re not forced to replay entire levels over and over again.

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The story itself is your boilerplate revenge tale, as our unnamed protagonist is out for vengeance against the five kung fu masters who killed their father. The protagonist is a personality vacuum, and you don’t spend enough time with each of the five bosses for them to leave a mark. Ultimately, this isn’t any sort of deal-breaker since the basic setup is all you really need to justify Sifu’s compelling gameplay loop. However, it is disappointing that the narrative doesn’t delve into the ramifications of using the magical pendant and confront whether vengeance is worth an entire lifetime. Maybe it doesn’t need to be quite so blunt and the aging mechanic can speak for itself, but this comes down to a matter of personal preference.

Sifu will likely ignite the difficulty debate once again, and it’s certainly a shame that more people won’t get to experience the game because of the barrier for entry. There’s design and mechanical justification for having such a steep learning curve, though, and it’s part of what makes Sifu so compelling. Your journey from student to master is thrilling, mainly because it’s governed by your own improving skill level rather than traditional character progression. There are memorable moments that stand out throughout, such as the boss fights and an enjoyable recreation of the iconic hallway scene from Oldboy, but it’s Sifu’s combat that shines through most brightly. For as unique and interesting as its aging mechanic is, it wouldn’t work without the combat carrying the load and ensuring that each replay is just as engaging as the last. Is one life enough to know kung fu? Maybe not. But I would happily spend mine playing Sifu to find out.

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