In a month with releases like Elden Ring and Dying Light 2, one of the most eagerly anticipated games was Sloclap’s Sifu. It’s the first of February’s “big releases” we’re covering, and it doesn’t disappoint. Here’s our take on the game, based on our time with it using a PlayStation 5.
We’ve actually been a bit surprised at all the interest that Sifu’s been getting from the general public. After all, Sloclap’s only game prior to Sifu was Absolver, which wasn’t universally loved and ended up being more of a niche hit. To us, it stood out because it dared to be different, and the developer isn’t shying away from that with Sifu either. We can see Sifu resonating with a much wider audience though, for a number of reasons.
The game is firmly rooted in the tradition of old kung fu films with their stories of betrayal and revenge. This particular story revolves around a fighting style called Pak Mei and a young martial artist seeking revenge against the man who killed his entire family years ago, back when the patriarch of the family was still the killer’s Pak Mei master. But while that could have easily been the setup for a brawler not too unlike Streets of Rage 4, Sifu is a martial arts action adventure that was heavily influenced by soulslike mechanics while infusing it with its own unique aging mechanic.
Starting with that one before we dive into the combat itself, you’ll find yourself resurrected when you die, but you’ll have aged in the process. At first, by a year, but every subsequent death adds another year to the penalty you receive upon death. In order words, your sixth death means you’ll have aged six years when you return to the scene. And while the effect isn’t strong at first, once you get older you’ll find that your health bar get smaller – though your years of experience also improve your combat abilities.
It’s a loop that’s made possible by a magic pendant that you carry, but obviously it can’t help you forever. Death eventually becomes permanent, but upgrade certain skills enough times with the XP you gather and you’ll keep the skill the next time you start all the way at the beginning again. Yes, that makes for a soulslike grind, but the aging mechanic certainly makes for a nice dynamic approach to it, even though the prospect of having to defeat all five of the game’s bosses and plough through all five areas will feel daunting for quite some time. At the same time, progress is extremely rewarding, and the urge to keep pushing tends to outweigh the desire to give up.
Although you’ll quickly pass through decades of your own life yourself, the story in Sifu transpires within the scope of a single day – one that you eventually have to live through as if it were an action movie once you’re gotten good enough to tackle the five districts that are home to the people that stand between you and revenge for the death of your father. If it weren’t for the dramatically different gameplay, it’s a five level setup not unlike that of a classic arcade brawler.
Combat is very different here though, and button mashing won’t get you far. You have four attack buttons that include a light and heavy attack, a block and parry option and a special attack that acts like a finisher. A “structure” bar signifies how solid your footing is, and if you ignore it, it’ll act like a stamina bar that leaves you vulnerable when depleted. Enemies can be taken down with the same system, so effectively using combos and timing your attacks and moments of rest is crucial, while a slo-mo effect that you can trigger adds another layer to the fights – both in terms of fight tactics and visual flair.
Weapons (mostly of the swinging and striking variety) complicate matters when your enemies grab them, but can also turn the fight’s momentum in your favor if you grab them. They do bring the risk of making you feel overly confident though, as a bunch of enemies swarming you at once is usually a very bad sign no matter how well armed you are. Perhaps more so than any other martial arts-inspired game thus far, Sifu is a thinking man’s brawler. And a patient man’s, as you’ll frequently hit a wall and will lose (parts of your) lives at the worst possible moments.
What helps in that regard is that Sifu is wonderful to look at, without resorting to the usual super-realistic visuals we see in many of today’s biggest titles. Its cell-shaded look is attractive, though at the same time minimalist enough to make sure you keep a good overview of the battle at all times. The one thing that sometimes stands in the way of that is not the visual style, but the camera – which can sometimes work against you, and which is something that can hopefully be optimized in a future patch.
One final element we haven’t touched on yet is that Sifu isn’t as linear as we originally thought. Yes, you’ll have to fight your way through the same five districts and bosses every time, but exploration is encouraged – which can yield both rewards and shortcuts. The first will help you to (permanently) level up faster, while the other might be a good way to pass by a tough section or get to a boss faster, although taking the long way also usually means a chance to gain more XP.
Sifu is brutally challenging, but supremely rewarding at the same time. The game received a few balancing tweaks just before launch and we are guessing the grind will still be too much for many to enjoy, so we can see more tweaks coming in the near future. It’s already an excellent game though, and one that lives up to the impactful trailers we saw in the leadup to the release. We felt more satisfaction getting past the game’s first big boss fight than we usually feel at the very end of a game, and that can only be a good sign.