Getting repeatedly beaten up soon gets old in the unforgiving Sifu. Here’s our review of a stylish, incredibly harsh brawler…
When it comes to difficult games, the second boss is often the true test. In Sifu, that boss is Sean, a martial artist who comes at you aggressively with fast attacks from his polearm. When I finally landed the killing blow after many agonising attempts, it wasn’t followed by a celebratory punch of the air, but despair that I’d have to do it again, only better. That’s because by the end of my fight, my young kung fu master had transformed into a bearded old man, destined to snuff it for good on his next defeat.
Let’s back up a bit, though. Sifu (literally ‘teacher, or ‘master’) takes place in an interpretation of China that magpies from the iconography of cultures and cinema from across the Asian continent that has reached to western audiences, with an eye on the kineticism of Hong Kong kung fu flicks. Incidentally, its revenge plot is more Kill Bill – a classic example of Hollywood Orientalism. You play a martial arts student who witnesses their master’s brutal murder at the hands of a former student and four of his cronies. A mystical pendant in your possession, however, means you survive the massacre before spending the next eight years training your skills in order to exact revenge on all five.
This isn’t a typical beat-’em-up where you’re living the power fantasy of effortlessly taking down goons, though. Instead, Parisian studio Sloclap knuckles down on creating a brutal kung fu lesson, based on the ruthlessly efficient Pak Mei style, accentuated by its sound design, which while not simulating the realistic sound of a metal pipe against a cracked skull, nonetheless leaves a wincing impact. Whether you’re facing adept martial artists or low-level thugs, everyone is capable of hitting you hard, and they can be deadly in groups.
You also have just one life to get through it all. By that, I mean the protagonist’s lifetime. The pendant’s power allows you to get back up again after defeat, but at the cost of you ageing by a year. If you fall again, the counter will go up one, so you age two years, then by three, and four, and so on. On the upside, as each decade passes and you’re visibly greyer, your attacks become slightly stronger, but your max health is also reduced. By the time you’re in your seventies, the next death is permanent.
If you’re already an old-timer before you’ve reached Sifu’s third level, then, your chances of reaching the end are nigh-on impossible. You’ll find statues that let you unlock perks and upgrades, and even reset your death counter, but there’s no getting back the lost years (some perks and skills are also gated once you’re past a certain age). It’s soon apparent that you’ll need to return to earlier levels, mastering them until you can clear them with as few deaths as possible. But the bosses toss aside the rules, so you’re not really playing a fighting game against a fair opponent but one whose relentless attack patterns cut through any combo strings you’ve worked so hard to unlock (a sore point when you have to spend so much on the same move multiple times before you’ve learned them permanently). At least regular bouts against minibosses or certain other enemies can reduce that death counter, but when you’re banging your head against an already impenetrable boss, it’s made worse when each successive failure literally shaves more years off your life until a decade flies by in one fell swoop.
Yes, through dogged practice, you can eventually recognise attack patterns and attune your muscle memory to parry and counter (though both are susceptible to mashing inputs rather than precise timings) in order to break your opponents’ structure, which like Sekiro’s posture gauge is more important than whittling down their health. Yet some of Sifu’s mechanics are poorly explained, such as avoiding attacks, which can be easily confused with a different dodge input, but if the training montage tutorial went over your head at the beginning, you never get to see it again.
In repeating levels, other annoying quirks also rear their heads – the messy camera that fails to keep track of you and your most immediate threats, a unique combat system that also reminds you why fighting games with complex command inputs stick to a 2D plane, and those annoying random enemies who come back from a takedown with full health and berserk status. Even shortcuts grate due to their inconsistency, such as how the Museum’s elevator will take you straight to the boss, whereas another makes you wade through the second half of the level, where you’re forced to go through the same fights again and again, since this is neither a roguelike with variation nor a Soulslike where you can beeline for the boss door.
Naturally, the hardcore nature means Sifu won’t be for everyone, though I suspect many masochistically inclined players will gladly submit to its tutelage. The intent is that you’ll come out on top feeling like an enlightened kung fu master yourself – a sifu, in other words. By the time vengeance was finally mine, though, all that remained was a big F U.
If anything compels you to keep playing Sifu, it’s the striking painterly style that complements each level, as you move from squalid drug den to bamboo forest, from towering modernist corporate office to caverns deep in its foundations. A combination of traditional, modern, and surreal aesthetics also make a great fit for the score from composer Howie Lee, though it’s a nightclub brawl where the electronic musician lets the beats rip.
Unforgiving kung fu action awaits those able to suffer its wilfully ruthless master.