I’ve awaited Sifu for a long time. Ever since its reveal trailer nearly a year ago, it stayed consistently on my radar. Growing up with the likes of River City Ransom and Streets of Rage, the beat ’em up genre has held a special place in my heart for decades. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the genre, it can feel a little too consistent from time to time. Button mashing in most of these games all but guarantees victory. I can safely say that Sifu not only breaks this convention with its lightning-fast action and tight controls that require strategy, but its staggering difficulty may just break you as well.
A Tale As Old As a 1970’s Karate Flick
A short introduction is more than enough to kick start this revenge tale rogue-like brawler. Starting off a tutorial chapter as the antagonist, you and some cohorts raid your former training school. This will guide you through basic controls as you tear through the students of the kwoon (I had to stop myself from calling it a dojo, as the setting is China).
This tutorial level also serves to give the player a false sense of security. The students of the tutorial level are, by orders of magnitude, the easiest enemies you will encounter in the game. Upon defeating your former Sifu (Chinese equivalent of Sensei), you encounter his child. It is at this point you choose from a boy or girl protagonist. They are killed, but brought back through the power of a talisman threaded with several coins. Naturally, they want revenge.
Eight years later, at the ripe young age of twenty, the protagonist’s story truly begins. If you remember anything from ’70s Asian Martial Arts cinema, you won’t find this story deviating much from that formula. You have a board with the five people responsible for both yours and your father’s deaths, and you must fight your way through all five of their stages.
Unfortunately, there is a mostly linear path through the five domains, and you must go through them in order to progress through the story. It would’ve been nice to see the stage select be optional with the final boss locked until the end, al a Mega Man, but Sloclap was determined to give us a grueling experience, so you are left to play it on their terms. You can revisit beaten stages for extra experience, and utilize shortcuts unlocked by items from previous playthroughs. However, given the way death is handled in Sifu, most will not want to risk it.
Die Young? No Getting Out That Easy
The way death is handled in Sifu is a novel but unforgiving approach. You start at age twenty, young and energetic, but lacking the strength of experience. When you die (and trust me, you will die), a Death Counter goes up by one. You come back aged one year. Die again in that same encounter? Death Counter goes to two, and the cost of resurrection is now two years. These add up quickly. You can reduce your death counter by defeating certain mini-bosses and each stage boss, or spend XP at a Jade Dragon Shrine. As you age through the decades, you lose health but gain strength.
Sets of skills and upgrades are directly tied to your age. Every decade, you are locked out of a set of skills that you did not permanently unlock. I found the requirement for permanent skill learning to be unreasonably high. For the cheapest skills, you will spend 500 XP on just learning the skill. You must buy that same skill again five additional times to learn it permanently. So the cheapest of skills will cost 3,000 XP to learn throughout your entire playthrough, and that’s only if you managed to stay young enough to learn it.
With every decade passed, a coin on the talisman breaks, along with the skills tied to that decade of age. Were you just that last 1500 XP away from permanently unlocking weapon mastery? Well, hope you didn’t hit age 30 before then, because that other 7500 XP you spent learning it is now gone. Poof. Never to be seen again. Did I mention this game is hard?
You Know Kung Fu? So Do They…
Sloclap definitely put its pedigree to work here. As the developers of another martial arts title, Absolver, the team put their noses to the grindstone and honed a finely-tuned fighting title. The action in Sifu is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Pulling off cinema-level martial arts action in a game is not an easy feat. Even more so, one that controls so tightly.
It handles only somewhat like the Batman Arkham games, but cranked to 11, with no button prompts for countering and unforgiving timing for blocks and counters. You won’t see a button on top of a head telling you to look out. The best you’ll get is a quick wind up motion from the attacking enemy or a glowing limb. You have very little time to react at that point, and failing to do so will always cost you dearly. Swaying and dodging mastery here is far more valuable to you than mashing the attack buttons. Doing that will just get you killed.
Nearly every encounter in Sifu can go south very quickly. Some enemies are quick fist fodder, but they are often mixed in with more rugged and skillful fighters in the melee. Most one-on-one and two-on-one encounters are against higher skilled enemies.
You will find out, frustratingly, that the protagonist in Sifu is not particularly sturdy. In addition to Life, you also have a Structure bar. You take Structure damage as you block and get hit. If your Structure bar fills up, you stagger and take additional damage. If you get staggered in a many-against-one fight, your chances of recovering are slim, but not impossible.
Adding on to the already near-masochistic experience, random enemies will parry your finishing move, only to come back with an aura, additional full health and structure, and a sudden burst of speed and skill. The game does not see fit to give you this random opportunity, either.
Sifu Rewards Patience and Skill
So, reading through this review, you may think I have a bone to pick with this game. I won’t lie to you. I’m nearly forty years old, and this game made me throw my controller for the first time in over fifteen years. Okay, maybe not throw…more like drop it on my couch cushion at a force only slightly higher than gravity. Controllers are expensive nowadays, what can I say? But I huffed with frustration. I cursed at the screen. I called BS at the TV more times than when my dad’s favorite team was losing.
However, this forced me to get better. Much like learning a Martial Art, I learned through pain, misery and utter defeat. Again, and again, I fought the same enemies, the same battles, the same insanely hard bosses (looking at you, Sean “The Fighter”). But through all of that, in the end, I felt a satisfaction with myself I hadn’t felt in some time. Through the low-poly watercolor characters and environments and well-crafted music, Sifu is a masterfully-made fighting game that demands you earn it.
Its unrelenting approach woke up the stubborn kid in me again. The only way to get better is try, and try again. You have to learn it. You have to master it.
As the teenager in me would say: “You gotta git gud, scrub.”
Final Score – 8.5/10
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 Premium Edition. Sifu is available now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC via the Epic Games Store.