Kickass Kung Fu
Since its initial reveal during a PlayStation State of Play broadcast last year, I’ve found myself heavily intrigued by Sifu, a Kung Fu action brawler with a unique death mechanic that sees you get older each time you perish and subsequently revive. Such a mechanic is interesting and helps Sifu stand out, as does its deeply rewarding combat and strapping sense of style.
The story is one of vengeance, with a plot reminiscent of John Wick. Instead of a cute little puppy being murdered, Sifu sees the young protagonist’s father and students at his martial arts school massacred by a collective of powerful underworld figures, spearheaded by Yang, a former student at the school.
After seeing his father bloodied and being found by Yang and his subordinates, the child is also slaughtered by one of Yang’s minions. Despite having their throat slit, they escape without even a scratch, having been saved by an ancient talisman that grants revival at the expense of rapid ageing. Eight years on from the attack at the age of 20 with far more strength and Kung Fu mastery under your belt, it’s finally time to track each of the five underworld members down and avenge your father.
Sifu’s opening is particularly profound and springs the game into action with grace and elegance, providing a worthwhile reason to seek out revenge. The opening also serves as a tutorial where you play the role of Yang, which teaches you the basic concepts of the game's combat, before placing you in the shoes of its protagonist.
The quality storytelling present from the offset manages to remain as you make your way through the five distinct locations taking out members of Yang’s group and ultimately Yang himself. You come to discover more about each person in the group as you fight your way through their dedicated levels, with more information provided in the collectibles scattered throughout each locale.
Visually, Sifu’s art direction is also great yet simplistic in a way. I’d say in a way it’s low-poly, with a sense of smoothness across characters and the world at large, and yet at the same time it’s brimming with detail, in its environments especially. It’s not a graphical powerhouse and it doesn’t need to be, as its bold visual look is stylish enough.
Sifu’s soundtrack is also awesome, with multiple tracks sure to further draw you into the Kung Fu chaos. My favourite track would have to be the one that plays in the nightclub level when you first start beating down on those chilling by the club’s lounges. The song kicks off and amplifies the moment, making you feel like you’re part of an epic action film. Tracks are a welcome mash-up of traditional Chinese and electronic music, with composer Howie Lee well and truly executing the blend.
Once you get into the weeds of Sifu’s gameplay, it will pretty quickly become clear just how challenging this action brawler can be. If I had to describe the combat in one word, that word would be “busy”. There’s a lot going on while engaging in fisticuffs throughout Sifu, and while you can mow down plenty of the lesser enemies by mashing buttons together, managing to take down boss enemies requires a high level of mastery and familiarisation with the game's mechanics.
There are heavy attacks and light attacks, alongside parrys, dodges and blocks that assist on the counter-attack. While this is largely explained in the excellent fighting montage that takes place at the end of the game’s opening scene, it's understanding how to combat enemies' high and low attacks that will pose the biggest learning curve for most players. Taking time to analyse the enemy attacks to know when best to dodge, parry or block is crucial if you want to make it deep into Sifu.
Both the protagonist and every enemy you face have two distinct bars that appear to highlight their health and structure. As one would expect, emptying the health bar will kill the individual, while fully filling the structure bar will leave you vulnerable to enemy attacks. The key way to avoid issues with both is to avoid taking too many hits. Parrying is a great way to both lower your own structure damage, whilst heavily increasing your oppositions'.
Melee weapons such as bats, bottles, and broomsticks can be used to take out enemies at a much faster rate, quickly filling up the structure metre allowing for quick and efficient takedowns. Destroying your foes will also help you get XP and up your level score, allowing you to upgrade things such as your weapon proficiency and ability to regain structure and focus, which can be used to let out special attacks. This can be done at shrines that are placed throughout each level. XP can also be spent on new skills present on the skill tree, such as different focus abilities and combo attacks. There’s lots going on in Sifu, and it can be rather difficult and frustrating as you learn the game's mechanics.
Speaking of mechanics, we haven’t even discussed Sifu’s ageing mechanic. You start your journey aged 20 and have to make it through all five levels in a single lifetime. For example, if you clear the first level at age 33, you will begin the second level at that age. If you were to go back and clear the first level aged 20, the age at the beginning of the following level will drop down to 20. Having to manage your age between levels becomes more important the closer you get to facing Yang in the final level, as he is a challenging individual to say the least.
Every decade you age, your damage output will increase, but your health as a result will decrease. One of the coins that adorn the ancient pendant will also fade away, and once you hit the age of 70 no coins remain, meaning that your next death will spell the end of your run.
Each time you die in Sifu, you age by the amount of years present on your death counter, meaning that if you’ve died 5 times and your death counter is at 5, you’re ageing a significant chunk in just one death. A sizable death counter can spell doom for your run, but it can be shaved down by taking out special enemies, which when defeated will drop the count by 1. There’s also an expensive upgrade present at the shrine that can be purchased to wipe your death counter back to zero.
If you feel you may need an extra few years to clear a level you’re struggling on, it may mean going back to a level you’ve conquered before and completing a more efficient run. I for one got addicted to shaving my age down to as low as possible, and while it isn’t always necessary, doing so can make getting through the latter levels a bit less stressful.
Thankfully, subsequent runs can be made easier if you’ve managed to get a hold of items such as keys or keycards in previous runs. These items can be acquired by defeating a particular foe, and often let you to skip a decent portion of a level, allowing you to keep both your age and death counter low. The smart design to have shortcuts for future runs also minimises the frustration that could otherwise arise from having to run through previous levels again and again.
Plenty of things are done well in Sifu, but I did still find a couple of visual bugs. The punching bags found in the club were flailing about and clipping into the roof in what was a funny glitch, while I also managed to kick an enemy and make them clip under the floor, resulting in me having to restart a run. While this one was a tad more frustrating, the run was only a minute old and I couldn’t replicate the error again. I did also encounter some frame stutters that would occur when executing a structure attack on an enemy. This did only happen a handful of times, but it stood out in what is otherwise a well performing experience.
Sifu can be frustrating, but hiding behind those initial frustrations is a mechanically deep and satisfying experience that oozes style. Its combat is tough but rewarding, its visual look and soundtrack work in tandem to enhance the strong sense of atmosphere, and its simple revenge plot narrative is engaging without being overbearing. Sifu’s difficulty isn’t for everybody, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most check out early, but for those keen for an addictive and fulfilling journey, Sifu is a must play.