We've spent a bunch of time punching and kicking our way through Sloclap's Kung-Fu revenge tale.
Ever since Sloclap first revealed its martial arts brawling game, Sifu, I have been very intrigued. On the surface, this is a title that seemed to pay homage to great martial arts movies, thanks to impressive set pieces and a broad, complex combat system that requires the player to train and learn to become a more capable combatant. This is the sort of game that seems to offer up a similar experience to what the studio's former title Absolver did, in that it puts out what you put into it, and with that in mind, I've been waiting eagerly for a chance to dive in myself. Now, with release only a few days away, I've been trying my hand at being a Sifu, and I have some conflicting opinions about it.
But, before I dive into those opinions, what exactly is Sifu about? This game sees you play as a warrior with a talent for Kung-Fu. Using your abilities, the goal is pretty simple, you have to hunt down and eliminate the gang of murderers who killed your family and left you for dead when you were a child. The catch is, this group of five individuals are the leaders of various criminal gangs and to get to them, you have to fight through hordes of criminals, skilled in martial arts, to be able to reach the boss. It's a typical revenge tale in this regard, but Sifu sets itself apart from the rest in its unique and challenging ageing system that really does punish you for making mistakes.
The idea behind the ageing system is that every time you die in combat, you become a little older. This is done through Death Counters, which are essentially extra lives that also act as the number for how much you age during each death. For example, you start the game at 20 years old, and on the first death, you will gain a counter and become 21 years old when you resurrect. If you manage to survive for a while and rack up a sufficient score, you will gain the counter back so that on your next death you will simply become one year older, and turn 22. However, if you don't manage to do that, and die again with a counter in hand, you'll age two years and will become 23 instead, and this system develops further depending on how many counters you have (i.e. if you are 53 and have six counters when you die, you'll be 59 when you resurrect).
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The player can amass up to eight counters before it's game over and you have to restart at the beginning of the level, meaning you can be almost 100 years old before the end screen pops up, or rather in your early fifties, it's all dependent on how well you hold your ground in combat. The main thing to know is that while you can re-acquire Death Counters by racking up points, ageing is permanent and can only be reduced by restarting a level, and that as you age, you sacrifice health in favour of harder hitting attacks, which leans into the old master trope of age not exactly being a weakness.
To build on this, as I alluded to earlier, Sifu also serves up one of the most complex and impressive hand-to-hand melee combat systems I've ever experienced. It's a brawler type system where you have to manage facing multiple opponents at once by using the environment and combos to work your way through enemies. As you are simply a person however, the combat expects you to be patient and to really think about what you do, as assuming you can just plough your way through hordes of enemies (cracking skulls like Rocksteady's Batman) will result in almost instantaneous failure. You need to perfectly time your attacks, blocks, parries, combos, everything, or simply put, you'll die... a lot.
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Sloclap deserves a lot of credit for this system as it's very well designed and really nails the feeling of the precision and flow of martial arts. And this is helped by the great environmental design and the set pieces (the side-shot corridor scene that reflects Oldboy is an instant classic), which takes Sifu and turns it into a truly standout Kung-Fu tale, one that you could invision on the big screen with Donnie Yen or Jet Li in the lead role.
But here's the thing. All of these points are great, and the game does play brilliantly and looks genuinely marvellous, but they don't diminish the fact that Sifu can be overwhelmingly difficult to play at times. The combat and the ageing system is designed at their very core to create a crushingly hard experience. You don't really get a taste of this until you initially meet the first boss at the end of the first level, as he will break your spirit and take years off your life as you struggle to stop his infallible onslaught of flips and kicks that strike for chunks of your health bar. But this fight is manageable, and more than possible. It's what comes next that will take the wind out of your sails. You need (and I can't emphasise 'need' enough in this situation) to get through this first level without dying too many times, without ageing too much, and without amassing too many Death Counters, as otherwise, you simply will have no chance at having a serious run through the rest of the story. Why, you ask? Because the first boss is an absolute walk in the park compared to the second chap, and so forth, since you start the next level at the age you finished the previous one.
This is the thing, if you don't exit the next level as young and with as few Death Counters as possible, you may as well just kiss your chance of completing the next level goodbye. If you aren't properly prepared, then you basically have to repeat every level beforehand again to shave off (or rather save) years of your life wherever you can, so that everything perfectly aligns, level after level so that you can complete the storyline. Don't get me wrong, the repeating nature does do wonders in helping you master and become a better Kung-Fu martial artist, but at the same time, you're bound to become a better combatant when you are simply repeating the exact same fight scenarios time and time again to discover the best way to overcome it, as Sifu doesn't differentiate the enemies you face at all. Once you've been through a level once, you know exactly what will be awaiting you in each room when you return, which does reduce the challenge a bit, but at the cost of quite unfulfilling and repetitive gameplay.
This isn't helped by the progression, which is kind of 'roguelikey', meaning any upgrades you acquire are taken away when you start a level again, unless you invest in the permanent upgrades (which require you to sink a lot more experience in to acquire an ability/combo), which keep that ability available beyond death and level restarts. It's not a particularly fulfilling system either.
And all of this leads me to why I'm still quite torn on Sifu. On one hand, this is a truly impressive game that has so much potential and plenty of reasons to fall in love with it, but on the other, it really does feel like it's designed for the very small number of players who have the patience and willpower to fail and fail, time and time again before they start seeing any meaningful improvement in their own gameplay and also any major new developments in the narrative. If you do have ironclad determination and can come to terms with getting the life kicked out of you for hours upon end, then Sifu might just be the perfect game for you. Everyone else: beware and understand what you're getting yourself into.
7 / 10
Combat system is brilliant and diverse. Set pieces and visuals are top-notch. The Ageing system, while punishing, is well implemented.
Very repetitive. Progression is dull and unfulfilling. Challenging nature can be off putting.