Life Is Endless Conflict

HIGH Executing a perfect set of dodges and then walloping a goon.

LOW Minibosses showing up whenever they want.

WTF Sucker-punching is the ultimate technique.

Sifu is constructed around an ambitious concept that I suspect appeals to extremely few people.

In many ways, the ‘brawler’ genre its apotheosis with Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequels. They found a way to make a fight look and feel like a martial arts film, with a single hero battling scores of enemies simultaneously — and they did it all without getting into the minutiae of specific mechanics for every blow.

The innovation that made this possible was the ‘counter’ button, a single tap of which interrupts whatever the player is doing, and has them deliver a punishing blow to the foe about to attack. Dozens of other games have copied this structure to great effect, and it’s one of those indisputable evolutions in game design which feels so natural that in hindsight, it’s amazing that someone didn’t invent it sooner.

Sifu‘s angle is to go in the opposite direction by sweeping that elegance off the table and asking the player to map out every single blow and micromanage every detail of a fight in an attempt to simulate realistic mechanics of battle… and then it doesn’t give the player any of the tools necessary to make that possible.

A third-person brawler/roguelite set in the kind of locales where one might expect to see a martial arts fight take place, the nearly-plotless Sifu puts players in the slippers of a martial arts student who witnessed their family being massacred eight years earlier, and has spent the intervening time preparing themselves for a vengeance quest.

They’re aided in this quest by a set of magic coins that resurrect them any time they’re killed. The price? Years are tacked onto their age with every revival. Failure, in this case, costs time, with the player starting at 20, and failing their run if they die over the age of 70.

While that may sound like a huge number of chances, in practice, players can go through that lifetime incredibly quickly as the penalty grows each time. After the first death they’ll be 21 years old, the second will put them at 23, and so forth. That counter can be lowered by defeating powerful (sometimes optional) enemies, but for the majority of players, Sifu will frequently star a grey-haired master of Kung Fu.

This time passage mechanic has interesting effects on gameplay. The older the player gets, the more damage each individual strike does, and the shorter their health bar becomes. Health can be recovered by performing finishing moves on weakened enemies, so the general idea is that at the beginning of a run the player the player can absorb a few hits as they learn enemy patterns, but the further they get, the more they’ll have to rely on dodging. Any random enemy can kill the player with just handful of strikes, and bosses put the hero down with just a couple of solid hits.

Sifu lets players learn new moves through runs based on a ‘sample before paying’ kind of system. Killing enemies awards experience points which can be redeemed after death or at bonus shrines that appear a few times per level. Skills are fairly cheap to unlock, but if players want to keep them unlocked in all future runs, they’ll have to pay five times the base price. Sifu wants players to be absolutely certain before they commit to any one technique. This isn’t excessively punishing, however — in a nod towards old dogs and new tricks, every skill has an age beyond which it can’t be unlocked, so by the end of a run, there’s literally nothing for the player to spend their experience points on other than permanently unlocking their skills.

Perhaps Sifu’s greatest strength is its fantastic environments. From slums to art galleries to burning rural villages, each location is gorgeously rendered, packed with minute details that make them a pleasure to run through over and over again. In a departure for a roguelite, locations and enemy positions aren’t randomized, so players will be fighting the exact same battles in the exact same order. While there’s a certain degree of tedium inherent in this design, it gives the players a chance to attempt different approaches to a fight until they come across one that works for them — it adds a sort of ‘puzzle’ feel to the fistfights.

While what I’ve described so far seems well and good, but as a combat game Sifu’s biggest problem is a huge one — the combat.

Here’s the thing — Sifu’s developers wanted to take the incredibly precise, reflex-taxing combat of a fighting game and move it to the world of brawlers. The problem is that those things don’t fit together at all.

Players don’t only have to worry about attack and defense in Sifu, they have to be concerned with every minute bit of the action. Holding the block button protects from blows, but raises the player’s break meter, which will eventually leave them staggered and open for attack. They can always dodge attacks, but that requires them to move in the correct direction based on the enemy’s attack — and given how quickly everyone throws punches and kicks, telegraphing basically isn’t a thing.

Theoretically, players can stagger enemies by intercepting their attacks with parries, but the timing required is the most strict I’ve ever encountered. Games generally give players a third of a second before an attack lands to tap the parry button and stagger their opponent, but in Sifu it’s closer to 1/10th of a second, and only the lowest-level enemies are staggered with a single parry. Most enemies ask the player to intercept a whole flurry of attacks before they’ll get a chance to strike back! Also, tougher enemies will regularly throw out attacks that can’t be blocked or parried with no advanced warning. It’s a mess.

All of this can be manageable (even thrilling!) during one-on-one fights, but when multiple enemies attack at once, the mechanics simply can’t support what the game asks players to do. The big problem is a lack of crowd-control options.

When there are four enemies charging, I should have an option for hitting all of them at once, or at least separating out the one I want to focus on. Sifu has nearly no options for this, and instead encourages the player to constantly vault over waist-height obstacles, forcing foes to chase them around the arena. It works most of the time, but it also creates a situation where the player will have to constantly dodge out of the way, get a few hits in on one enemy, then dodge again, and this is repeated this until everyone is taken care of. It’s tedious and tiresome.

Sifu even finds ways to make foundational tactics frustratingly ineffective. When faced with a horde of enemies, the most effective tactic in most titles is to take out the fodder quickly so that one can focus on the toughest opponents. In Sifu, nearly any enemy can reveal themselves to secretly be a miniboss when the player tries to perform a finishing move on them. Remember, finishing moves are how the player regains health, so the act of trying to heal oneself will frequently spawn the second-toughest class of enemy in the game.

If all of that weren’t bad enough, the camera works to actively sabotage things.

Let’s say that players have the reflexes necessary to read their opponent’s moves and perfectly dodge or intercept them, but all of that is only possible if they can actually see their foe’s arms and legs. If the player gets anywhere near a wall, doing this becomes nearly impossible.

While the game can visually ‘phase out’ the waist-level obstacles and furniture, it can’t do that to walls, so any time the player gets close to one, the camera zooms in to the point where all that’s visible is the hero’s back. In order to have a chance of seeing what opponents are doing, the player has to stay in the middle of any room and give up the tactical advantage that walls provide. There are setpiece battles where the camera pulls back — such as a stunning tribute to Oldboy — and the boss fights tend to take place in open areas with good sightlines, but other than that, the camera proves to be one of the most implacable foes.

There is certainly an audience for Sifu — it’s stylish as hell, and the kind of people who are happy to spend the dozens of hours it takes to master a fighting game character might find the same sort of precision-based pleasures here that the developers’ previous game, Absolver, offered. However, Sifu’s developers set out to make the player feel like they were actually doing the fighting, but instead gave them tools suitable for a one-on-one fighting game and expected them to work against six enemies at once.

They don’t.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Sloclap. It is currently available on PC and PS4/5. A copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on PC. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. The game was completed.

Parents: This game was rated M by the ESRB, and it contains Blood, Drug Reference, and Strong Language, and Violence. It’s a game about a martial artist on a murder spree, so no, it’s not appropriate for kids. Also, the crime syndicate he’s up against is involved in a drug-manufacturing concern, along with other hideous crimes.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played almost the entire game without sound and encountered zero difficulties. No audio cues are necessary for play. All dialogue is subtitled. Subtitles cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, the game’s controls are remappable.

Daniel Weissenberger
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1 year ago

When it clicks, this game does stuff no other does. The contextual nature of the combat mechanics is superb. I think Sloclap should be praised for that.
Sadly, it demands a lot from players and the camera does not help, I agree.
I appreciate your take on the game anyway, thank you for the text!