I’ve never struggled to make it through a game’s opening credits — until I played Sifu.
After a fantastic cold open which sees you amble into a rainy mountaintop compound with an insatiable hankering to kick some ass, Sifu doles out a handful of tutorials for the game’s combo-driven martial arts combat. Silhouetted on a blood-red background, you meet your five mortal enemies while learning basic attacks and parries.
It’s elementary control scheme stuff. Then comes a (seemingly) simple palm strike into a down attack while the enemy’s on the ground. Baby stuff, right? Wrong! For some reason it took me about a dozen times — complete with an “angry break” — to get it right.
This was the first of many such “angry breaks” I had with Sifu.
As is fitting for a story with a martial arts training facility and an enemies list at the center of its universe, Sifu is repetitive and unforgiving. This is not Yakuza 0 with more martial arts, where you help granny find her handbag between karaoke sessions. This is a game that wants to kick you in the nuts and rub your face in the dirt, over and over again. And there’s certainly an audience for that. But Sifu’s singular focus on the perfect run leaves that essential feeling of incremental progress too far out of reach.
Cut to the chase
Sifu tells its story economically. Your protagonist (male or female, it’s up to you) is hellbent on revenge against the mutinous gang who rebelled against his or her father. Their leader, Yang, has four daunting henchmen, each with titles like The Botanist, the Artist, and the CEO. You must take down each of these lieutenants on their home turf before challenging Yang himself. It’s a simple, but effective way of marrying the game’s story and mechanics.
Much of Sifu’s story is told through the investigation board located in the hilltop muguan that acts as your home base between brawling sessions. You’ll discover lore from found objects in each level and refer back to as you progress, but the game doesn’t beat you over the head with it.
As much as I appreciate indie studio Sloclap’s move not to overexplain its lore or wander too far down the tedious path of origin stories, I also suspect this minimalistic approach serves two ends. On the plus side, it spares players the blather they don’t want and foregrounds the action they do. But it’s also a way of keeping China itself at arm’s length.
Once you learn Sifu was made by a team of mostly white developers based in France, it becomes awfully hard not to notice evidence of that. It takes place in an unnamed, generic city. English-language graffiti spatters the walls. Everyone speaks English (though Sloclap is working on a full Chinese localization to come out post-release). In contrast, Sega’s Yakuza games and their spinoffs are unabashedly Japanese, tossing you ass-first into a culture you might not totally understand and trusting you’ll come along for the ride. It would have been nice to see more of this approach in Sifu.
Despite its straightforward approach to storytelling, Sifu has a supernatural concept as its core mechanic — your protagonist can “die” repeatedly and immediately come back a little bit older. The first few losses won’t cost you much; you’ll only go from 20 to 21 after your first demise. But the toll increases each time you fall, compounding the challenge. As you age, your ability to take a punch decreases, but your attack power increases. That latter part doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you’ve ever met a real-life old person, but it’s a promising conceit on paper.
In practice, what this often means is the more that you suck at Sifu, the more you get punished for it. This punishment is compounded by the fact that your age carries over to the next stage. That means squeaking past a boss by the skin of your teeth is only marginally better than losing, because you’ll have to go back and complete each level at as young an age as possible. Perfection is the only path to meaningful progress in Sifu, and having to immediately go back and replay a level you finally cleared after a dozen attempts is pretty darn demoralizing.
Repeating the same stages and boss fights wouldn’t be so bad if Sifu’s combat felt more fair and less finicky. You’ll need to block and dodge a lot to avoid a speedy demise, but short bursts of speed feel sluggish and gummy. Instead of a quick backstep, too often your character will slowly rotate around like something out of the OG Resident Evil, leaving you vulnerable. In boss fights or scenarios where you’re surrounded, a couple hits you can’t avoid can mean the difference between victory and defeat. A floaty camera that constantly needs wrangling doesn’t help matters, either.
You’d think that the ability to die and come back to life would be a huge advantage, but Sifu offsets this by seemingly making almost everyone you encounter ridiculously tough. If you’re carrying a weapon, you’ll usually drop it after taking one or two punches. But many faceless grunts will manage to hold onto their bats and pipes until you render them unconscious. You can’t jump in combat, but the game’s very first boss can traverse the length of a warehouse in single leap to kick you in the back of the head. It never quite feels like a fair fight.
Sifu would benefit enormously from a few optional difficulty modifiers, like a more generous XP system that makes permanent skill upgrades accessible sooner, more weapons in each level, or even the ability to start each stage at age 20. I’d definitely jump back in if the team at Sloclap added more of these to the game. But for now, the game’s lack of flexibility limits its appeal to a niche subset of difficulty die-hards.
Inverse reviewed Sifu on PlayStation 5. It comes to PS4, PS5, and PC on February 8.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? And, are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure. And as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.