Sifu - Review
From the very first punch, sifu is utterly uncompromising in its design. slo-clap's latest martial arts beat-em-up is bold; it's combat exquisite. Its animation is top-notch. Its music is outstanding and its story, while very simple, is poignant and elegantly told. It's also unforgiving and unapologetic, with pockets of frustrating moments during which I was certainly not in my happy place, but by the end.
Sifu offered me a nearly unparalleled sense of mastery and accomplishment, and I can't imagine I would have enjoyed it half as much if it pulled its punches. Sifu begins, as so many revenge field martial arts stories do, with a murder. Your father and martial arts master are killed right before your eyes in what is quite simply one of the best prologue chapters I've played in recent memory.
Eight years later, you set off on a journey to kill each of the five people involved. It's a very simple premise, but it's executed wonderfully. You begin with very little information about your targets, but over the course of the campaign, you start to piece together who they are and what they're all about by collecting clues and evidence throughout each level.
I found myself uniquely motivated to seek out each of these clues not only because of the additional lore and context about the main character's quest for vengeance that they provided, but also because finding one could potentially unlock doors in previous levels that would lead to entirely new sections.
Sifu's martial arts combat is among the best I've ever played, plain and simple. The camera does sometimes get squished in the corner and makes it hard to see what's coming, but apart from that, it's hard to find many faults. And how every single counter looks natural no matter what angle of attack comes from or what type of strike is thrown, and that's just talking on a purely surface level, mechanically.
It's just as impressive. There's a light attack A heavy attack on a guard button for blocks Parries and sways a button to vault over objects. A button to pick up weapons. A button to throw weapons and a button to enter a focus mode for a variety of unblockable attacks tied to your focus meter while the hand-to-hand fists The cuffs are great.
Sifu really sets itself apart from other beat-em-ups through its use of environmental combat. Stunned enemies can be thrown downstairs through barricades and even over railings for instant kills. Weapons can be kicked up directly from the ground into a thug's face, and there are all sorts of contextual takedowns that seamlessly incorporate your surroundings into their animations.
This is more than just being really freaking cool; it all offers a strategic advantage as well. This fight right here seemed impossible to make it through unscathed, but once I did some scouting of the environment, I was able to lure enemies up here and just toss them off the edge. Sifu is full of moments like these that reward thinking about combat in ways beyond just punching, blocking, and dodging.
But more than anything, it's the defensive options that really make sifu sing, much like insecure shadows die twice. There's a structure meter that governs the guards of both you and your enemies. If you block too many hits, the structure meter will break and you'll be in for a bad time. To avoid that, you can hold the block button and move the stick up or down to sway out of the way of either high or low attacks.
You can also attempt to parry an attack by tapping the block button right when it's about to hit. Each defensive technique has its own use; blocks require zero timing and will keep you from taking too much damage at the cost of your structure. Meter Sways will restore your structure meter and are especially effective at the end of an enemy's combo string, but they run the risk of being mistimed or swaying in the wrong direction.
Both parries and halts will stop an opponent's combo dead in its tracks, giving you an opportunity to counter-attack, but have incredibly strict timing. It's great that the enemy AI in Sifu is aggressive enough to really force you to master these deep defensive mechanics. They do not just hang around and wait for their turn.
They will leap in an attempt to surround you, toss bottles, leap over bar counters, smash you with an axe kick, and just generally put up a very tough fight across all levels. So clap finds this really nice balance where the enemies are just predictable enough that you can learn to recognize certain combos coming your way and plan defenses off that first hit, but there's also just enough variation in their attack patterns that you could be caught off guard if you lose focus.
On paper, sifu is actually a very short game. Its five levels can be completed in just a handful of hours, even right from the first time you start a new save file. I would be very impressed if you actually managed to pull that feat off on your first playthrough. It took me about 10 hours to reach the end for the first time, but it isn't impossible.
More than likely, you'll die along your quest, and the way sifu handles death is truly unique. With the help of a magical talisman, you'll be able to revive right from where you keeled over and continue fighting, but you'll age up by however many years your current death counter is at, so while your first few deaths may only age you up by one, two, or three years.
If you continue dying to the same enemy or boss, you'll quickly find yourself aging by 5, 6, or 7 years or more each time you go down. The only way to decrease it is to defeat some specific and tough enemies, which naturally poses its own risks of making it go higher in the process. As your body becomes more frail, your skills and experience become sharper.
Once you hit your 70s, the magic of your talisman will run out, and the next time you die, it's game over. Here's where things get tricky. You can restart a level and try again, but you'll maintain the skills, age, and death counter of your best playthrough of the previous level, so if I barely scrape by against the boss of the second level at age 65.
I will be 65 years old and only have two lives for the rest of the campaign, unless I dramatically manage to reduce my death counter, which is not easy to do, obviously not an ideal scenario. This is the one pain point in sifu's design. Similar to a roguelike, it demands that you replay levels repeatedly until you're able to basically master them, but unlike a roguelike, there's no procedural level generation or randomized loot to alleviate some of the repetition involved with playing the same levels over and over again.