Sifu features a classic Kung Fu revenge tale where you play as a young Kung Fu student who has spent their life training to get revenge on those who brutally murdered his family. You’ll hunt the assassins down one by one while exploring gang-ridden suburbs, the dangerous corners of the city and even the hallways of corporations. The game itself plays fast and loose and feels tighter than Absolver, giving players the ability to tackle enemies head-on early.
There’s a lot to love about Sloclap’s latest release and for the most part, Sifu delivers a tale of revenge worth telling. However, there are a few things that the game stumbles with that will make this a divisive release in a few days. Unlike Absolver, the latest offering from Slopclap is a single-player affair so don’t go in expecting to meet other players.
The Curious Case of Sifu
The game begins with a flashback that moves to establish the situation your character will face. Once settled, you’re able to choose between a male or female avatar who will then set out on their revenge spree. Sifu works like a roguelike in a lot of ways, so each run will begin you aged 20, with every run adding years to your tally depending on how well or terrible you’ve done.
My first run was successful enough and I felt like I could master whatever was ahead of me. I quickly learned how to parry and to block incoming attacks, I learned how to strike enemies, I learned how to survive. Continuing through to the next stage, I was quickly dropped down a peg or two as I went from a spry 20-year old to a debilitated 75-year old within minutes. I was wrong in my assumption that not only would Sifu be an easy game, but one that wouldn’t challenge me. I was wrong and I paid for my callousness.
What’s My Age Again?
Each level in Sifu offers several clues for you to discover and add to your conspiracy board. The main menu features a tab of the items you come across with details for you to piece together the truth of your family’s murderer. This area serves as the hub for your character to train and look over any clues you’ve collected in each level. You can also select the level you want to go to from here.
The way things work in Sifu is you have light and strong attacks that can be used together. Each enemy you defeat in battle will add experience to your person, with rewards being unlocked to purchase new skills. Combat begins with a few moves unlocked as well as the option to parry or block incoming attacks.
My biggest issue was learning when to parry and when to counter. I’m a bit disappointed that even after spending several hours trying to nail the timing down, it rarely seemed to matter when I tapped L1 to parry. Instead, I’m relegated to blocking the barrage of kicks and punches before finding a moment to breathe. To make things harder, you have a sort of stamina bar that allows you to be hit several times before breaking. Once this happens, you’re essentially open to incoming attacks with no way to protect yourself.
As it were, Sifu is much harder than I anticipated it to be. I’m not one to become visibly frustrated when playing video games. During my review period, I was not only flustered because the game’s difficulty lacks a worthwhile learning curve. It’s hard for no more than the sake of being hard and I’ve cleared every FromSoft title I’ve played as far back as PlayStation 2. And yet, I can’t find another game that has frustrated me as much as Sifu has. Combat can often be graceful and brutal, especially when finishing an enemy, and while this works here, the biggest counter to the compliment is the parry mechanic doesn’t work well at times.
What I would end up doing in battle is seeking out any of the bottles, bats, and batons to ensure I was able to defeat the forces in front of me. Some enemies will be able to counter you and it can be surprising at times when you’re about to land the finishing blow to see the same enemy recover and then proceed to pummel you. Pair this with a group of enemies and you’ll fall to them in no time. Unlike say the Arkham series, the enemies have no visible prompt to tell you when to counter — instead, you’ll need to pay attention even when the camera works against you to dodge or parry.
Some enemies can even gain a second health bar if they recover from your attacks and basically gain a second wind to take you on. Some of these mechanics are refreshing in a genre that usually adds a respectable power fantasy where the more powerful you become, the weaker enemies become.
Older and Wiser
You can do well enough up to a point and then after that, the enemies seem to dogpile in such a way that the game feels unforgiving. Sure, the battles are fun when hits connect and for a game where timing, dodging, parrying, and striking at the right time is imperative, I feel like I’m missing something. Sifu is a game about mastery and improving through practice.
As I write this review, more than a week has passed and I’m feeling a bit more confident in my approach to Sifu. Each time I play, I learn to hold back – going on the offensive will usually lead to being surrounded by a group of enemies and that is the worst thing you can have happen to you. Instead, I’ve begun to pull offenders away from the mob and engage each enemy one on one. This has led to better results in each level — and you’ll need to be as young as ever when moving to the next level. Sifu doesn’t reset the age counter as I thought it would between levels and you’re essentially screwed if you end up at age 64 when finishing a boss.
The aging mechanic is a bit confusing at first. In Sifu, the idea is your character returns from death by gaining a year each time you fall in battle. The faster you die in battle, the faster you age. Every time you KO, you’re taken to an upgrade screen where you learn new moves including new parries and commands. Some moves will even become permanent unlocks and are usually worth investing in when you’re upgrading.
To the left of your upgrades is a charm with five beads. Every death adds a year to your tally, making you grow older on your path to revenge. To make things harder for you (and trust me you’ll see what I mean), if you die three times before clearing the area and ending the loop, you’ll add three years to age. Every subsequent death will come with a growing penalty however can reset this by defeating the same number of enemies to bring the tally down. The mechanic itself is wonderful and I applaud Sloclap implemented it so well, as it’s a lot of fun trying to figure out what to unlock with each death.
Sloclap’s follow-up to Absolver has a lot of great ideas but the execution falters. I can say that as much as I like playing this game, I was equally as frustrated. For all the solid mechanics powering Sifu, the brutal challenge is the biggest hurdle you’ll have to overcome. For a roguelike, the aging mechanic is more than a gimmick and plays an integral part in getting your revenge and learning patience to master your skills is crucial. Still though, for all the frustrations I encountered, learning to take my time and being mindful of my surroundings led me to greater highs than if I’d play this as a power fantasy. Sifu thrives once you learn to take your time and rewards you for mastering your instincts.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]