Sifu garnered plenty of pre-release buzz for its cinematic, martial arts action. Coming from indie studio Slocap, it gives players the sort of rapid-fire, fist-to-face fighting skills usually reserved for the likes of Jackie Chan and Jason Bourne.
But while Sifu serves up stylish, snappy kung-fu fighting in spades, it's much more than a mindless beat-'em-up. Its combat is accessible, but also layered with plenty of strategic depth and nuance, putting the game squarely in the “easy-to-learn, hard-to-master” category. Toss in a roguelike progression system, a stylized visual presentation and a vengeance-driven story, and Sifu's bone-crushing encounters barely scratch the surface of what you can expect from the full package.
Sifu’s challenging combat and focus on repeating levels to progress might not sit well with those expecting a more traditional action-adventure, but the game is worth a look, even for the faint of heart. Read on for our full Sifu review.
Sifu review: Gameplay
Sifu is, first and foremost, a martial arts action game. By mixing light and heavy attacks, players can deliver nearly nonstop beatdowns to an endless parade of underworld thugs. The polished, lightning-quick mechanics feel as good as they look. Every punch, kick and weapon blow lands with a weight that perfectly mirrors the brutal impacts that unfold on-screen.
Of course, spamming standard attacks will only get you so far, as your targets are also skilled in the martial arts. Avoiding attacks and parrying are paramount, lest you want to permanently become one with the pavement. A number of combos are also available, allowing you to put more damage — and style — behind your lethal limbs.
The structure bar, a meter that slowly fills as you successfully land attacks on an enemy, also adds depth to the game. Once the bar reaches capacity, your target becomes vulnerable, often to the point where you can finish them off with cinematic flair. But this works both ways, as the player also has a structure bar, which enemies can exploit with smart attacks. Monitoring your structure and ensuring it doesn't dip into the danger zone is as integral, as is filling your enemies' structure bars.
Sifu's layered, fine-tuned fisticuffs feel great when you're fighting a single threat, but the adrenaline really kicks in when you face off against enough enemies to make John Wick nervous. More often than not, you'll find yourself severely outnumbered, with entire rooms full of goons anxious to prep you for a body bag. In these moments, you'll need to not only isolate and eliminate the biggest threats, but also use the environment to your advantage. Pin-balling around rooms while beaning punks with bottles and weaponized furniture, essentially choreographing your own fight scenes on-the-fly, is an absolute blast.
These dynamic encounters can grow a bit chaotic, especially when the game's camera can't quite keep up with the frenetic action. You can slow things down a bit, though, with focus moves. These consume bars built up over time, and deliver devastating, slo-mo attacks that put some welcome distance between you and your aggressors. Utilizing stronger weapons, such as bats, blades and pipes can also help clear a crowded room.
Sifu review: Death and aging
Sifu's combat is as challenging as it is deep, but it still manages to feel pretty accessible. Where the game feels slightly less approachable is in its roguelike progression system. It's a game that encourages players to try over and over again until they get good — or run out of patience.
The protagonist carries a magical pendant, granting them the ability to revive upon death. Returning from the other side spawns you where you left off, but with slightly less health, and the ability to deal a bit more damage. More importantly, you come back older. Every death equals a year of aging. After you die five times, for example, you'll return five years older, complete with longer, graying hair.
The catch is you can age only so much before the pendant depletes, and death kicks you back to the start of whatever stage you've reached. In my first run, for example, I started the second chapter at the ripe old age of 72. Confronting a bouncer – who'd denied me access to a club – as a senior citizen felt fantastic. On the flip side, there was no way I could make any significant progress at that point without starting fresh. Even so, when I finally faced that same cocky doorman as a spry 23-year-old, I appreciated the appeal of the player-punishing progression system.
There are also a number of clever wrinkles to consider. Progress earns XP, which you can spend on new moves and abilities. You lose these skills when you die, unless you save enough points to permanently unlock them. You also retain any keys or shortcut items, giving you a small advantage on future runs. These two elements, combined with the fact you generally become more skilled with each replay, offer just enough incentive — and hope — to keep your fists and feet flying.
Make no mistake: While the game won't be everyone's cup of tea, it puts a fresh spin on the roguelike and beat-'em-up genres. It's also just forgiving enough that, when combined with the wholly absorbing combat, it could potentially attract players who wouldn't otherwise consider tackling such a steep challenge.
Sifu review: Setting, story, and characters
Sifu's other elements generally take a backseat to the face-breaking action. But everything else, from the vengeance-fueled story to the seedy environments, does more than enough to serve that focus. There's a fun, Kill Bill-esque flavor to the main objective, which sees your protagonist hunting down a colorful crew of assassins.
Some welcome narrative nuggets also appear via collected items that live on a “Detective Board.” On top of building in some lore and backstory, these pickups — including posters, pamphlets and trinkets — can help create shortcuts. These collectibles also construct an engaging, permanent through line, as the board's contents remain intact, regardless of how often you meet an untimely demise.
The game's five levels begin in familiar-feeling settings, but they offer surprises, too, veering off into a number of imaginative directions. Earthy elements, such as fire and water, also play interesting thematic roles. Without spoiling too much, we'll just say that you might want to pack an umbrella before entering the museum.
These inspired settings, as well as the game's bosses (and their sinister transformations) benefit from Sifu's absorbing artistic style. Landing somewhere between stark realism and a softer, painterly vibe, the visuals are always easy on the eyes. Some standout moments, including a few stretches that pivot the perspective to an almost-2D view, display the game's ability to take some admirable risks with both its gameplay and its presentation.
Sifu review: Verdict
Sifu's combat delivers the sort of kinetic thrills we've seen in plenty of action movies, but rarely get to pull off in games. Its dynamic, bone-crushing encounters are worth the price of admission, even if its camera occasionally drop-kicks the immersion.
While the visceral bouts are enthralling, gamers who crave a more traditional action/adventure title may be put off by the demanding, repetitious progression system. The dying-and-aging mechanic is in no way a deal-breaker, though. In fact, the system is intrinsically part of Sifu's structure and pacing, ultimately offering a new take on both beat-'em-ups and roguelikes.
If you don't mind the grind, Sifu's a no-brainer for martial arts fans craving a cinema-style romp. But even if roguelikes typically send you running for the hills, this smart, stylish brawler's rewarding combat might be enough to make you a believer.