Sifu absolutely whips.
It’s been clear from day one that Sifu was an effort to build something that lasts. Sloclap’s last game, Absolver—a persistent online fighting game where you could create your own fighting styles from several others—was nothing if not ambitious. It just didn’t have the legs to stand for as long as it’s been. Sifu has always looked like a different beast though, an assessment I’m only more confident in after finally being able to play a short preview of it.
Sifu is another fighting game, much like the studio’s previous effort, but a dozen times more laser-focused. The multiplayer is gone and the multiple fighting styles with it. Instead, Sifu is a kung fu revenge flick of a game. Driven by the desire to right the murder of his family, Sifu’s protagonist seems to begin the game as a young man on a war path in search of their assassins. In his wake, he leaves countless bodies, probably some shattered bones, and at least a broken table or two. It’s here, where the game dresses itself in the garbs of martial arts and revenge movies, that it’s most compelling.
Sifu almost instantly feels, and I hate saying it, cinematic. Its reveal trailer hones in on a fight in a hallway, instantly invoking Oldboy’s most famous and now iconic scene, which was then adapted to death by western cinema to some success and some failures. Every intricately choreographed motion you make is animated fluidly and every blow that lands sounds 10 times harder than it should, adding to the drama. By the time I was done, the nightclub level I played through looked as torn up as a set at the end of an exhaustive, but thrilling, action sequence. The best part: Like most great action films, Sifu knows you’re here for the action, letting precious few bits of dialogue stand between you and the next fight.
The level available in the preview, The Club, is the perfect distillation of the game’s eagerness to be an ode to action’s cinematic tropes; it’s a fantasy straight out of an action flick, perhaps most recently from the popular John Wick films. Beginning on the street just outside, you immediately launch into a fight with the bouncer at the front before ruining the days of every single person standing between you and the target you’ve tracked back here. You beat the crap out of the coat check, the sleazy guys by the door and the first mini-boss on the dance floor before making your way to the actual fight club in the back. But in that sweet middle, you hear the bass pounding, see the panels on the dance floor light up and get to look incredible as you’re transported to a scene not unlike one you were likely enthralled by on the big screen.
This is obviously due in large part to the fluid kung fu combat of the game. There’s no lock-on feature, meaning combos of fists and feet will fly freely and connect with your opponents or not. You know, like a real fight. A simple list of strings at the pause menu give some early pointers, like leg sweeps, and signal that you will learn more techniques to layer atop one another throughout the course of the game. These skills, as well as a separate upgrade menu (for passives like increased health gain from takedowns), can be upgraded at the odd statue or upon death. Some of these upgrades seemed more meaningful than others, while the skill tree pointed to a progression system I’m a little mixed on.
You can unlock abilities and new combos but only temporarily. In the case that you die for good (more on that in a bit) you will lose access to those that you don’t double down on with more XP to permanently unlock. While XP didn’t seem scarce, having to invest in a single technique more than once to retain it seemed like an unnecessary hassle when I could be spreading out those gains. Working to unlock the same moves over and over if I’m running into a wall might be something the developers are trying to communicate about mastery through systems, but it falls frustratingly short in practice. I’d rather they just gate the abilities I can unlock at any given point in the story than repeatedly make the same investments.
In the meantime, get comfy at dodging and parrying, since that’s the only way you’re going to come out on top of this deceptively tough game without those upgrades.
That last bit’s important to note because as you fight your way through this game, you’re likely to get knocked around. Sifu is after all a fighting game, meaning it’s tougher than it lets on and happy to knock you on your ass if you don’t work to understand it. This is where the game adds its most interesting wrinkle. When you die in a fight, you come back older. How much older? Approximately as old as the number of deaths you accrue.
When you first go down, you’ll see a few golden medallions (which seem to be the magical key to your resurrections) and the aforementioned level up screen, but you’ll also see a total of your downs and a prompt to rise again. Interestingly, you can slow the encroachment of old age and your untimely demise at its hands by seemingly defeating the opponent who felled you, allowing you to hold onto your youth for at least one more fight. Otherwise, the years go zooming past you as you rack up deaths.
The first time I died, I aged one year forward to 21-there was little discernible difference. The second time I got back up, I aged up to 23 and that was when I began getting concerned. By the time I hit 30, my worst fear was confirmed and text appeared announcing that my damage had gone up, but my health had lowered. As a cool visual companion to this system, my guy started sprouting grays in his hair and freshly grown beard, since your character model ages up with you. I’ll admit here to you all that my first run through actually did kill me, aging me past 70 years old. Understandably, my guy didn’t get back up after that, but at least he died a silver fox.
This difficulty, in tandem with the aging mechanic, does worry me about how accessible Sifu will be. The developers have already come forth to say there’s no difficulty settings (via MP1st), though they’ve also stated they could add some in a post-launch patch. This means the experience I played through is at least indicative of the challenge Sifu’s hoping to provide at launch, when arguably the most people will play it. The preview wasn’t impossible for me, but I could see how some might find it unapproachable without those options, a thing developers really ought to stop taking away from their audience. As Dia Lacina has noted here at Paste before, “pushing back on difficulty options is a misguided, losing battle.”
Despite the possibility for an overwhelming difficulty, Sifu could prove an interesting analog for how vengeance warps someone. Or it could just be a sick-as-hell revenge story with a neat mechanical hook. I don’t very well know the answer after a 20-minute preview, unfortunately. But after going through it, since I did eventually beat it, I’m itching to see what the game’s ultimately angling for, and if nothing else, to get back to practicing my roundhouse on some unsuspecting clubgoers. Sloclap’s definitely onto something with Sifu, and I’m all in on it when it comes out next February.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.