Sifu offers smooth Kung Fu combat that's easy on the ears and eyes. While it probably won't win any storytelling awards, who cares? We're here to punch.
Full disclosure: I didn’t play Absolver. So if you’re looking for me to compare Sifu to Sloclap’s previous title, I can’t help you. What I can tell you is, I had a blast with this one.
Melee combat has always been challenging for games to get right. For every Sekiro or Tekken, there are at least two or three Skyrims or Cyberpunks — it seems like if a developer doesn’t really focus their efforts on their game’s melee combat, it shouldn’t even be included. Well, Sifu is all about the melee combat, and let me tell you, they freakin’ nailed it. I challenge anyone to name a game with more fluid, impactful punching and kicking (no really, I want you to, because I want to play it). All you have to do is play a minute of Sifu’s prologue to know you’re in for one heck of a Kung Fu adventure.
When it comes right down to it, feel is the most important part of action games, since piloting your character is where this kind of game begins and ends. Sifu feels great, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that developer Sloclap motion-captured a real Kung Fu master to create Sifu’s animations. I was literally shouting at my monitor in excitement while watching my first finishing move go off — and I never got sick of them either. Usually, I end up avoiding using finishers in games after the 3rd or 4th time watching the same dull animation, but Sifu’s contextual combat means you’ll see a ton of different moves depending on how and where you land that final blow.
The combat system strikes the perfect “easy to learn, hard to master” balance, and I found the learning curve just right. You can probably make it through the first level just holding block and pressing the light attack button — but the boss of that level will force you to learn how to either parry or dodge attacks in order to progress. There were a few big jumps in difficulty, but the way the game handles death and dying makes them less frustrating than they would be in a conventional game.
You see, Sifu’s yet another game doing that thing I love: they acknowledge — and explain — the fact that your character keeps coming back to life after you let them get beat to death for the twentieth time. Your character is rocking a magic pendant, one that gives him or her the ability to get up and die again. However, each time you die you get a death added to your total death counter, and your character ages one year for every death on your counter. Every 10 years, one of the coins on your pendant breaks, and you lose some max HP and gain some damage.
This system cleverly reflects the weakened body (but increased skill) your character has after another decade of hard Kung Fu living. This also means that, yes, this is yet another indie roguelike. Levels have shrines where you can get both passive upgrades and active abilities, and you can also spend your XP on abilities each time you die. After unlocking a skill once on a run, you can then spend that XP on it again to work towards permanently unlocking that ability — it will then be available on subsequent runs.
Each time you beat a level, you unlock the ability to start the next level at whatever age you unlocked it at. It’s a clever twist on the roguelike progression system, and encourages you to replay levels with less deaths. There are also secrets on each level that you can’t access until you find a key on later levels, giving you yet another reason to go back and do better. I’m usually a one-and-done kind of guy, but I found myself trying over and over again to beat levels without dying, and found myself having fun in the process.
A big part of that fun undoubtedly comes from the fantastic soundtrack, courtesy of Beijing-based electronic artist Howie Lee. Each area has a unique sound and vibe, and it’s easy to get pumped up while jamming out to the excellent music that permeates Sifu. When combined with the rhythmic slaps and thumps of your Kung Fu, it’s an incredibly satisfying sonic experience.
If Sifu has a weakness, it’s the story. While there is some solid environmental storytelling, and I appreciate how you’re never forced to sit through ten minutes of talking to get to the action, I would have liked a little more background on the player character. As it was, I found it hard to put myself in my own shoes, and I never really connected with the protagonist during my playthrough. Still, the overall plot and message is solid (if a little sparse), and it doesn’t detract from the overall experience in a meaningful way.
I “beat” Sifu in about 10 hours, but getting the best ending will take even longer (and beating it without dying is still on my to-do list). Considering its $40 price tag — and how gosh-danged fun it is — you’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal, at least until the next Steam sale rolls around. If punching people is your cup of green tea, Sifu’s an easy game to recommend.
Sifu releases February 8th (February 6th for Deluxe Pre-Orders) on PlayStation 4 & 5, and on PC via the Epic Games Store.
Should I have played Absolver? What’s your favorite Kung Fu movie? Let us know in the comments!
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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.