When I saw Sifu for the first time, I knew I had to play it. A game that blended stylish kung-fu gameplay with deep fighting mechanics and a unique take on the roguelite genre sounded right up my alley at the time. Now that I have spent around 15 hours with the game and rolled credits, I am happy to say that Sifu did not disappoint. It delivered on its promises to offer some of the best hand-to-hand combat seen in the genre for some time, create compelling levels that are a joy to dive back into for collectibles and secrets, and, most importantly, give players the feeling of being a complete kung-fu wielding badass.
Sifu is a game centered around a tale of revenge. As we all know from movies like John Wick, revenge is sometimes all you need to get behind a protagonist in media like this. Really, all we need is that first excuse to go down a violent and bloody path of revenge, and we are all set. Sifu does have a bit more to offer storywise than avenging your master’s death, but it never goes too deep with the questions it asks you, and it never has to. The core gameplay is good enough that you never worry too much about the morality of your actions, and while the story does hint at some inner conflict, it never capitalizes on it. This does lead you to question whether the villains’ motivations could have been less sympathetic at one point, but at the same time everyone else seems pretty hellbent on your demise anyways. At the end of the day, you aren’t going to be playing Sifu for its groundbreaking story, and the developers know that. What you’re really here for is its combat.
Sifu’s combat is surprisingly simple for a game that focuses primarily on that and that alone, but simple does not mean dull. While the controls are easy enough to dive into, with there only being two attack buttons, a counter/parry button, and a dodge, the difficulty lies in finding out when to use each tool at your disposal. Chaining together light and heavy attacks allows you to deal substantial damage to your enemies, while also breaking their posture. Every hit feels substantial and weighty, and the damage feedback feels great here. Being able to feel the impact of your attacks is something I value in just about every game I play and Sifu does a great job of selling the blows.
Your combo list is limited at the start of the game, but you can expand it through the use of XP as you progress. You can often dispatch weaker enemies with a combo and a well-timed counter, but stronger enemies may require consecutive parries and a wise use of your attack window after. Run-of-the-mill enemies have a variety of movesets, but after a while you will start to notice that enemies that have the same physical build will use the same types of attacks. This means that after a few runs of certain levels you will have a good idea of what attacks might come your way and how best to deal with them.
It truly feels rewarding to be continuously beaten down by your enemies, only to return later to lay the beatdown on them as you predict their every move and react accordingly. In these moments, Sifu shines, presenting more like a Jackie Chan movie with excellent choreography and perfect framing. At some points, however, that framing is flawed as the camera can be a bit wonky in fights where it does not quite know what to focus on. This problem is at its worst when fighting with your back against a wall, which is probably not a place you should be fighting anyway, but that makes it all the more frustrating.
Boss fights in Sifu should be the highlight, and often they are, but there are two bosses in particular that use ranged attacks far too often. It seemed like these two always had something to throw out at all times. Often, I found myself relying on the Focus mechanic that slows down time and allows you to expend meters to stun enemies. This was my main method for clearing the more annoying of these two bosses’ phases (every boss fight in Sifu consists of two phases), but it never really felt earned. Still, I felt it was the best way forward as these bosses’ attack patterns and telegraphs were simply not well implemented. Sifu is a fast-paced game, and that is understandable, but sometimes attacks are just not telegraphed in any meaningful way. Instead of being intuitively able to read an attack and determine what direction you need to dodge in or whether you can counter it, you have to memorize exactly what the attacks look like in order to stand a chance. That almost always means that you have to go through some trial and error in order to finally nail bosses’ movesets down. That might be a positive to some, but I felt like the difficulty of fighting these two bosses was more artificial than anything.
In contrast, the final boss is a joy to fight. Fighting him genuinely feels like a monumental task, like Neo vs. Mr. Smith, or Daredevil vs. Kingpin. Two equals duking it out, throwing everything they have at each other. Focus is disabled in this final fight (much to my dismay, as I had spent a majority of my upgrades on focus as an answer to the previously mentioned bosses), and the final boss uses nothing but hand-to-hand combat that is clearly counterable or dodgeable. I loved this fight, and I wish more of the fights in this game felt as good as this one did, but then maybe it wouldn’t have been so special.
Another frustration I have with the combat is the sometimes unclear signposting of enemy attacks. When an enemy’s limbs glow red, it means that they are about to unleash an attack that does extra posture damage, but these moves (according to the game’s limited tutorial) should be able to be parried. Additionally, when enemies are about to grab you, their limbs flash red and a circle encompasses them. This move must be dodged. When it comes to the first type of move, I was hardly ever able to counter the hard hits, and when I did it did not feel any different timing-wise than when I didn’t. I never felt like I did something “right” compared to all the other times I tried to counter but failed. My problem with the grab warning is that it looks too similar to the other warning, so in the heat of combat it is very hard to tell the two indicators apart.
My last qualm with combat comes in the form of enemy dialogue. At different points where you are either fatally injuring or just outright killing their friends, your opponents will cry out absurd things like, “he’s amazing!”, or, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” While this would be funny to hear every once in a while, after your tenth time hearing it in a level it begins to make you wonder why they are taking the time to laud your performance when their friends are falling at their feet. And those friends of theirs aren’t just falling; you are dealing all kinds of damage to them as you smash their heads against walls, take their feet from under them as you land blow after blow on their face, counter their blows and strike them with careful precision in all the wrong places. The moment-to-moment combat and the violence of the animations make this game a must-play. Every animation feels handcrafted and special, and as you put more hours in you will start to have favorites among the finisher animations and learn how to more consistently trigger certain ones. These finisher animations are most akin to the combat takedown animations in the Batman Arkham games, except they somehow feel even better in Sifu than they ever did in Batman.
Moving on from the game’s combat, Sifu is a great-looking game. That is not to say that it’s graphics are cutting edge, or that it utilizes ray tracing or some other fancy piece of tech. Instead, Sifu is fairly simple graphics-wise, but it gets its beauty from the use of contrasting colors, creative level design, and intricately designed environments. Each level has a color scheme assigned to it. The first level is filled with green, a fitting choice as the boss is known as The Botanist. The second level is more purple and neon-drenched, slowly transitioning to a fiery orange backdrop as you progress through the level. Each level may have its own aesthetic, but all of them together feel entirely unified thanks to the natural progression of the game. They become more minimalistic in their style as you move from the city, to a club, to a museum, to a business building, to a sanctuary in the hills. It fits thematically, and it also serves to help you dial into the combat when all the color and pop of the previous levels is stripped away. Later levels still have interesting visual twists and beautiful environments, but they choose to do a lot more with a lot less.
I cannot talk about the game’s art without also mentioning the score. The music is almost always used to mirror the game’s visuals. At one point near the start of the game, you are introduced to a new enemy type. He looks formidable, and as soon as he rises from his seat the score shifts to a more electronic synth-heavy beat, and instantly the energy rises as you ready yourself to take on this new foe. Other times, the music is quite literally synced up to objects in the environment. For example, in one room in the Club level, there are these blacklights on the ground that flicker in time with the beats of the song. The music never stays the same throughout any given level, and it always evolves and twists as the visuals do and the levels reveal themselves more fully. While playing, I noticed that at different points the music would be super quiet before instantly turning back up to where it was supposed to be in the first place. This was usually jarring, but it never really affected my enjoyment of the game in any meaningful way, and I assume this is a problem that can be easily patched out.
Lastly, progression in this game is handled interestingly. You start the game at the fresh age of 20. When you die, you add one death to your death counter. Every time you die, your death counter is added to your age, and that becomes your new age. So let’s say you are 28, and have a death counter of four. You die again, that number becomes five, and you are 33 when you wake up again. You can reduce your death counter by defeating minibosses or boss phases, but you can never reduce your age mid-level.
Now, the older you get, the more damage you do and the less health you have. This is not a typical roguelite in that you have to start the entire game over when you finally truly die after turning 70 and dying one last time. Instead, you can start over each level at the youngest age at which you reached it. This means that if you get to the second level at the age of 40, you can either try and rush your way through the rest of the game, or go back to the first and work on perfecting it before moving on. I got to the point where I realized I needed to go back when I was already pushing 60 at the start of the third level. This design choice creates one of my favorite innovations in the roguelite genre as the game can still be pretty punishing at times, but it creates an achievable pathway to success by giving you bite-sized chunks to perfect one at a time. And, if you still want to try and run the gauntlet without optimizing each run just to see how far you can go, you are still welcome to try that. As I talked about above, throughout the game you can unlock skills either permanently or for your current run through the use of XP, but there are also two more methods of progression.
Throughout the game, you will find Jade statues that are interactable. These statues will automatically refill your health and allow you to choose from a variety of different upgrades. These upgrades range from increasing your posture bar, increasing your posture damage with weapons, or allowing you to regain more stature from dodges and parries. There are nine different upgrades in total, with tiers to upgrade within themselves. This system is not too deep, but it doesn’t need to be, as this gives you plenty of options to mess around with as you make your way through runs. That being said, these upgrades are not permanent, however you do keep the bonuses you had at whatever age you made it to each level. So, your progress never truly has to be reset unless you choose to reset it to aim for a more optimized run.
The placement of the jade statues themselves is static in every level, and after a while you will chart out paths in each level that allow you to get the maximum amount of upgrades and face the minimum amount of enemies, at least, that is what I did. As you take down minibosses in each level, they will often drop some kind of item that allows you to access shortcuts. Items like these take the form of keys, keycards, or passcodes and allow you to circumvent tons of enemies on later runs. These items persist even after completely failing a run, meaning that once you have mastered a level you are not constantly asked to prove your worth over and over again. Instead, you can skip straight to the “good part” and beeline it to the jade statues and the boss fights.
Sifu is a ton of fun, and no one part carries it to victory. Instead, every part of the game feels unified in forming a great, kung-fu filled revenge story with stunning visuals and a surprisingly good score. It’s a game I fear might be overlooked in the absolute behemoth of a gaming month February 2022 is shaping up to be, but I think it will definitely find its audience.
Sifu delivers on its promises of being one of the best Kung-Fu games ever made. With incredible animation work, flowing combat, a beautiful art style, and great music; this indie beat-em-up, roguelite game deserves more than the cult following it will probably receive.
- Crisp and clean combat
- Great Art Direction
- Makes you feel like you are a Kung-Fu Master
- Serviceable story at best
- Some frustrating enemy archetypes
- Minor audio bugs