If nothing in games is more exhilarating to you than a bone-rattling punch, Sifu is right up your alley. An action game where you play as a kung fu master on a quest for revenge, Sifu feels like a return to form for a genre that's been beaten to death.
Beat ’em ups used to dominate arcades and retro consoles, but martial arts-focused games have lost their luster over the last 20 years. Action games like the Devil May Cry series lean into flashy combos, while on the other end of the spectrum, you get the excruciating difficulty of Dark Souls.
Only the occasional indie game like Streets of Rage 4 recaptures that classic genre’s magic: intense and satisfying gameplay with balanced encounters that can make the player feel powerful or outmatched depending on their opponent.
Inverse played a preview build of Sifu on PC, and it feels like the next stage in the evolution of beat ’em ups. Ratcheting up the visceral intensity requires the player to wield more skill and precision than most modern action games. We’re a far cry from classic side-scrollers.
Kick! Punch! It’s All in the Mind
You have an extensive moveset of punches, kicks, parries, and combos at your disposal. The real skill comes from choosing the right attacks for each situation. Thanks to outstanding choreography and sound design, each punch is gratifying.
That comes in sharp contrast to many other recent action games, where individual attacks can feel useless if the enemy has an enormous health bar and doesn’t react to your strikes.
The superheroes in Marvel’s Avengers feel a lot less powerful when they have to spend two full minutes chipping down a robot’s massive health bar. While enemies in Sifu do have health bars, it feels more like classic beat ’em ups in the vein of Streets of Rage.
Your opponent will beat you to a pulp if you don’t engage strategically. Button-mashing is useless. Blocking, dodging, parrying, and precise timing of attacks are just as important as landing individual blows. It’s much faster-paced than something like Dark Souls, but can be just as tough.
You will lose and die a lot in Sifu, sometimes to the point of frustration. Thankfully, like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Hades before it, Sifu finds a clever way to incorporate death into its narrative and gameplay mechanics.
Live Die Repeat
Sifu is a classic revenge tale in which a young unnamed man trained in martial arts hunts down the group of assassins that killed his family and destroyed his school. He wears a magical pendant that gives him strength but also causes him to age every time he dies.
Attacks get more powerful as you age and you’ll respawn right where you were defeated, but your health also decreases. Your age increases by the number of times that you die, so you’ll quickly see diminishing returns until you die permanently around age 80. After every death, you can upgrade your abilities. If you die too many times, you’ll get a game over, and you’ll have to start the level over from scratch.
While Sifu isn’t a roguelike, the more you play, the more you’ll learn about new abilities, enemies, and shortcuts within individual levels. This makes every playthrough and death a valuable learning experience.
In this preview build, we ventured through a neon-drenched nightclub, hunting down our target and defeating everyone in our way as dubstep blared in the background. The game’s aesthetics can make you feel like a badass just as much as the gameplay, which seems like it will only get better the more a player invests in it.
We’ve come a long way from pummeling scores of identical pixelated thugs, but Sifu keeps the beat ’em up spirit alive while incorporating familiar elements from roguelikes and soulslikes. Developer Sloclap clearly recognizes that delivering a real power trip in a game isn’t just about giving players strong abilities, but about encouraging the player to learn the skills needed to take on the most formidable of opponents.
Earned victories are always more rewarding. Now we need to see if Sifu can keep that momentum going throughout the whole game.
Sifu will be released for PC, PS4, and PS5 on February 8, 2022.