REVIEW: ‘Sifu’ Is an Unforgettable, Difficult Experience (PS5)

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Sifu

One of the most highly anticipated games for the PlayStation was revealed back in February 2021. A year later, Sifu, developed by SloClap, is nearly here. Sifu is a beat-em-up action-adventure game that puts you in the shoes of a fallen kung fu master’s child whose life’s mission is to avenge their family. With only their family’s teachings, a drive for vengeance, and a talisman heirloom, the time to exact revenge on their family’s five murderers is now.

The story is, at its core, a quest for vengeance. But my god, the intro to Sifu may be one of the coolest intros to a game yet. Starting several years prior to the current day, you play as Yang, as you and your four subordinates proceed to murder every single member of the family that lives there, including a Sifu of kung fu and their child. What Yang didn’t realize at the time was that the child was holding an ancient talisman that would bring them back to life. That loose end trained for years and is now ready to kill every single person who murdered their family.

The rest of the story is played out through a mix of dialogue options, cutscenes, and a detective board. The cutscenes are short and contain very little dialogue beyond the minimal context for who you’re about to fight. These mostly play as you approach a mini-boss or the final boss of a level as an introductory “A challenger approaches” style clip. What was most impressive about these cutscenes, though, is the real emotions shown by the characters. The animation style used is beautifully simplistic, and the characters you fight are emotionally expressive in these moments, particularly when you’re about to deal the final blow. The fear and regret these people have in their last moments are on full display.

As for the dialogue options, they actually influence how the game plays out. Besides leading to new lore tidbits, what you choose could lead to enemies standing aside or critical pieces of information for your detective board. The detective board is something that didn’t feel superfluous one bit. It’s where the protagonist catalogs all of their findings for the five different areas you visit and their bosses, revealing more about the challenge you’re facing, who these villains really are, and potential shortcuts.

Before I get into the gameplay, I want to be very clear about something that’s felt unspoken up until now. Sifu is very challenging. It may be the most challenging game I’ve ever played. Enemies are brutally punishing, the unique aging system is stressful, and the only way to master the game is through lots and lots of practice. However, the challenge doesn’t stop Sifu from being a fantastic experience that rivals Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

One of the biggest advertising points of Sifu was the aging mechanic. Instead of a game over screen appearing when the protagonist dies, they get back up. The catch to this is the protagonist ages every time they die. That’s not all, though. Every time they die, there is a death counter which increases the years they age with every death. For example, at the start of the game, the death counter and starting age are zero and 20, respectively. So when you first die, they age to 21 with a death counter now at one. With your second death, they’re now 23 with a death counter of two.

One other caveat to the death mechanic was never shown in any of the marketing. And this part of the death mechanic takes Sifu from being a challenging game to one that can be frustratingly difficult. There are five levels in Sifu, and your age and death counter carry between them. Meaning if you’re 63 years old with a death counter of 7 when you beat a level, you only have two chances during the next level. There is no de-aging between levels either. The only way to have a better shot at the next level is to retry a previous one. For me, this sometimes meant I was replaying certain levels 4-5 times in a row just to be much, much younger as I got ready for the next area.

Growing old isn’t always a drawback. Every ten years, the protagonist loses health and locks away some abilities that can be unlocked in the skill tree. But the upside is they can dole out more damage. So the balance of what you lose and gain is really impressive and can sometimes be the boost needed to clear an area or beat that boss.

Let’s focus on the gameplay and what you’re going to do while going through the levels beyond dying… a lot. If you’ve played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you’re going to be very familiar with the gameplay formula of Sifu. Every person has health and a stagger gauge, including the protagonist. With the enemies, the goal is to either fill the stagger gauge to perform a quick finisher or take out all their health. Nine times out of ten, you’re going to be taking out just about every enemy with the stagger gauge, which quickly fills with your flurry of punches or parrying attacks.

Even though I am very familiar with Sekiro, I found Sifu‘s parrying to be much riskier while also being much harder to pull off. It’s such a small window that, even if pulled off, sometimes builds your own stagger gauge. While this led to very frustrating moments, I loved how it made me learn just about every enemy’s attack pattern. I couldn’t just spam the block button to pull of parries, hopefully. Instead, I had to know when exactly to press it. That doesn’t mean I came out of fights unscathed by the end of the game. Enemy cheapshots were fairly common. Or blocking at just the wrong time led me to get pummeled to death on the ground because of a stun.

Sifu

Altogether, this leads to the greatest strength of Sifu. I felt like a complete badass when pulling off successful parries, using the environment, and flowing through combos while pulling off the many unlockable abilities. Right out of a kung fu movie, I’d find myself quickly tearing through a room of enemies, blocking or dodging all kinds of attacks and retaliating. Quickly, a room full of people holding rusty pipes, bottles, or bamboo sticks, are all lying on the ground unconscious while I walk away without a scar.

To even reach that point, though, requires lots of learning and finding the right build for each and every level. Most of the upgrades unlocked reset whenever you reset a level. This led to a lot of experimentation on my part. From the dragon shrines that give basic stat boosts to health regained from takedowns to having a bigger impact on an enemy’s stagger gauge, I was only limited by myself trying the same thing over and over again. As for combos and focus abilities, those can eventually be unlocked permanently through replaying levels and getting enough experience to reach permanent unlock status. What I initially considered frustrating ended up being something that I didn’t mind. I devoted runs of levels to just farm experience, so I didn’t have to devote the same experience later to just having that ability available.

I’ve mentioned these levels a lot so far. There are five in total, and each feels distinguished from the last. Each is brimming with secrets as well as enemies. They’re so fantastically themed to match who the boss of that level is and even tell a story in their own way. For instance, the third level, the Museum, is the hideout for the artist, Kuroki. Kuroki lost her sister, and her museum is full of art pieces and the history of her and her sister. You slowly delve into the mind of Kuroki and what she’s feeling, leading to a showdown on a snowy mountaintop. Each level plays out like a story, leading to the climactic battle against the leader. The levels are short, though, which helps when going back and collecting everything or getting more experience for upgrades. Without too many deaths, I found each one taking me about 20-30 minutes to clear, and that’s before taking into account shortcuts that halve the length.

There are two key issues I had with Sifu. The first is the camera. It usually follows the protagonist around just over the shoulder. But I frequently found it getting caught in the environment or being pushed into a wall leaving me with nothing to see during intense boss fights. I don’t know how many times I died just because of the camera. I tried countless times to spin the camera away from a corner just to have it in an even worse angle that prevented me from seeing an enemy’s attacks. Plus, with the camera switching to a more cinematic mode during fights, I thought it’d follow fights better.

The second key issue is the entirety of the second level, The Club. This is by far the most challenging level in the game, with the second hardest boss to boot. I’m not sure why the developers designed the second level to be this hard, but I hope it gets balanced. This level almost made me quit the game because of how painfully hard it was. Not only does the level’s shortcut lead to about the halfway mark of the level, but it leads to an even longer time to get to the boss again during my MANY attempts to just take him down the first time.

Sifu is surprisingly difficult, at a level that will deter most players. However, getting past that wall will reward you with an amazingly crafted game that stays true to the developer’s vision, one that celebrates kung fu and its core meaning. While the story isn’t presented as something truly impactful, it too pays off near perfectly during the true ending of the game. It’s going to be VERY hard for Sifu to be topped as one of my games of the year this year. My one request is for the developers to add an option to allow anyone to experience Sifu to its fullest.

Sifu will be available on February 8th, for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Epic Games Store.


Sifu
  • 9.5/10
    Rating - 9.5/10
9.5/10

TL;DR

Sifu is surprisingly difficult, at a level that will deter most players. However, getting past that wall will reward you with an amazingly crafted game that stays true to the developer’s vision, one that celebrates kung fu and its core meaning.