From the very first punch, Sifu is utterly uncompromising in its design. Absolver developer Sloclap’s latest martial arts beat-em-up is bold, its combat exquisite, its animation top-notch, its music outstanding, and its story – while very simple – is poignant and elegantly told. It’s also unforgiving and unapologetic, with pockets of frustrating moments during which I was certainly not in my happy place. But by the end, Sifu offered me a nearly unparalleled sense of mastery and accomplishment, and I can’t imagine that I would’ve enjoyed it half as much if it pulled its punches.
Sifu begins, as so many revenge-fueled martial arts stories do, with a murder. Your father and martial arts master is killed right before your eyes in what is quite simply one of the best prologue chapters I’ve played in recent memory. It both serves as an excellent tutorial, and a teases at what the future holds for you as you have full access to the entire catalog of unlockable moves. Eight years later, you set off on a journey to kill each of the five people involved.
Screens – Sifu
It’s a very simple premise but it’s executed wonderfully. You begin with very little information about your targets, but over the course of the campaign you start to piece together who they are and what they’re all about by collecting clues and evidence throughout each level. I found myself uniquely motivated to seek out each of them, not only because of the additional lore and context about the main character’s quest for vengeance that they provided, but also because finding one could potentially unlock doors in previous levels that would lead to entirely new sections. Plus, the way new information is added to a detective board that shows how everything is connected is a nice touch.
I Know Kung Fu
Sifu’s martial arts combat is among the best I’ve ever played, plain and simple. The camera does sometimes get squished in the corner and makes it hard to see what’s coming, but apart from that it’s hard to find many faults. I can’t say enough good things about how smooth the animation is, how every hit lands with bone-crunching impact (which is wonderfully emphasized by the DualSense controller’s haptics if you’re playing on PlayStation 5) and how every single counter looks natural no matter what angle an attack comes from or what type of strike is thrown. That’s just talking on a purely surface level; mechanically, it’s just as impressive.
There are two attack buttons that you can go between for a variety of combos, each with their own specific function; a guard button for blocks, parries, and sways; a button for vaulting over objects in the environment; a button to pick up weapons; a button to throw weapons; and a focus button that lets you use a variety of unblockable special attacks with their own effects, all tied to a focus meter.
While the hand-to-hand fisticuffs are great, Sifu really sets itself apart from other beat-em-ups through its use of environmental combat. Stunned enemies can be thrown down stairs, through barricades, and even over railings for instant kills; weapons can be kicked up directly from the ground into a thug’s face; and there are all sorts of contextual takedowns that seamlessly incorporate your surroundings into their animations. More than just being really freaking cool, it all offers a strategic advantage as well, and some fights that initially seemed absolutely impossible to make it through unscathed became much more achievable once I took the time to explore the room and look for opportunities to use the environment to my advantage.
But more than anything, it’s the defensive options that really make Sifu sing. Much like in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, there’s a “structure meter” that governs the guards of both you and your enemies. If you block too many hits the structure meter will break and you’ll be in for a bad time. To avoid that, you can hold down the block button and move the stick up or down to sway out of the way of either high or low attacks. Swaying is ideal for when you know an attack is the last hit of a combo, as it gives you an opportunity to counterattack and even opens the opponent up for a directional throw, but also comes with the risk of mistiming it or choosing the wrong direction. And finally, you can attempt to parry an attack by tapping the block button right when it’s about to hit. Parries are great because they will stop an opponent’s combo dead in its tracks and open them up for a counter attack or throw, but they require super precise timing, especially on the highly damaging power attacks that most bosses like to employ.
It’s great that the enemy AI in Sifu is aggressive enough to really force you to master these deep defensive mechanics. They do not just hang around and wait their turn – they will leap in with Superman punches, attempt to surround you, toss bottles from across the room, leap over bar counters and smash you with an axe kick, and just generally put up a very tough fight across all the levels. Sloclap finds this really nice balance where the enemies are just predictable enough where you can learn to recognize certain combos coming your way and plan a defense off that first hit, but there’s also just enough variation in their attack patterns where you could be caught off guard if you lose focus.
Age Is More Than Just a Number
On paper, Sifu is actually a very short game. Its five levels can be completed in just a handful of hours, even right from the first time you start a new save file. I would be very impressed if you actually managed to pull that feat off on your first playthrough (it took me about 10 hours to reach the end for the first time) but it isn’t impossible. More than likely, you will die along your quest, and the way Sifu handles death is truly unique: with the help of a magical talisman, you’ll be able to revive right from where you keeled over and continue fighting, but you’ll age up by however many years your current death counter is at. So while your first few deaths may only age you up by just one, two, or three years, if you continue dying to the same enemy or boss you’ll quickly find yourself aging by five, six, seven years or more each time you go down. The only way to decrease it is to defeat some specific (and tough) enemies, which naturally poses its own risks of making it go higher in the process.
The aging isn’t just for show, either. Every time you age 10 years your maximum health will shrink but you’ll deal a little more damage, as your body becomes more frail but your skills and experience become sharper. Once you hit your 70s, the magic of your talisman will run out, and the next time you die, it’s game over.
Here’s where things get tricky, though: You can restart a level and try again, but you’ll maintain the skills, age, and death counter of your best playthrough of the previous level. So if I barely scraped by against the boss of the second level at age 65 with a death counter of five or six, every time I restart the third level I will be 65 years old and only have two lives for the rest of the campaign (unless I manage to dramatically reduce my death counter, which is not easy to do). Obviously, not an ideal scenario. Basically, what that means is that it’s not enough to just beat a level – you need to beat the level and have enough of a lifespan leftover so that you can realistically tackle everything after it.
This is the one pain point in Sifu’s design: similar to a roguelike, it demands that you replay levels repeatedly until you’re able to basically master them. But unlike a roguelike, there’s no procedural level generation or randomized loot to alleviate some of the repetition involved with playing the same levels over and over again. You always have the same weapons, the same enemies, and the same bosses to contend with. That isn’t to say I would have prefered procedural levels, because Sifu’s hand-crafted ones are bursting at the seams with creativity and style, especially at the points where each level leaves the confines of reality and ventures into the realm of the surreal. However, the emphasis on repeated playthroughs feels at odds with how static everything is, resulting in some tiring repetition.
Mercifully, there are shortcuts you can unlock on subsequent playthroughs, so you will rarely ever have to play an entire level over again. In one particular stage you’re actually pretty much able to beeline straight to the boss once you’ve fought her for the first time. But in other cases, like the second level in particular, you’ll still have to play through 10 to 20 minutes before you even get a chance to attempt the boss again. I know that all sounds bad, and it surely was a substantial hump that I needed to clear – but once I did, I truly fell in love with the masterful combat and moment-to-moment gameplay of Sifu. Not to mention the excellent dynamic soundtrack, the cool ways it uses ambient noises from the controller’s speakers, and its gorgeous watercolor art style.
You begin Sifu with all the skills you’ll need get to the end: a handful of basic combos, a sweep that can knock enemies down, a grab against grounded foes that lets you deal two quick strikes and them pick them back up on their feet, a push that shoves enemies away from you, and an eye-poking focus attack. In addition to those basic skills, though, every time you die – or every time you find a shrine that offers a number of buffs you can purchase for that run – you get an opportunity to add new skills to your repertoire to give you some situational advantages. That includes options like the ability to catch incoming projectiles, a counterattack that can be used while you’re on the ground, or a ducking strike that lets you slip under a high attack to punch an enemy straight in the crotch.
The catch is that when it’s game over, all of your skills reset to zero. There is some roguelite-style persistent progression, though, in that you can make a skill a permanent fixture on your loadout once you’ve bought it a total of six times. So you need to make a choice on any given run about whether you want to spend your points doubling down on a skill that you really want for future playthroughs, or spread your experience around to give yourself the best possible chance on that particular run.
I find myself torn on this, because on the one hand I do think it’s a well designed progression system given Sifu’s unique take on death and its focus on replaying its levels. But at the same time, most of the skills are so situational that I often found myself spending hard earned XP on a skill that I never got an opportunity to use, or a skill that never really provided any sort of new solution for a problem I was facing at the time. Having that duck-and-groin-punch move is cool, but it feels redundant when I can already duck under attacks and counterattack to stun an enemy. There are a handful of exceptions, but many other skills follow suit in that they are cool attacks that aren’t really any more useful than your core set of abilities.