In the last few years, game developers have put a number of different spins on the rogue-like genre. But by and large many of those games follow a familiar set of rules, whereas Sifu, from developer Sloclap (Absolver), feels like a fresh take on the genre.
Infused with kung fu third-person action, Sifu uses a revenge tale as the basis for setting up its rogue-lite concept. A nameless player character (male or female) is on a quest for revenge against five accomplished fighters that stormed their home when they were young and killed their father.
There is more to uncover regarding the “why” of it all and a detective board to help keep track of the larger story, but Sifu smartly uses that revenge quest to establish five distinct levels and five key villains. Each level is its own self-contained playground of sorts, where the player character is tasked with eliminating any and every enemy that gets in their way, before eventually challenging the boss.
As with any rogue-like, each level offers a general and incremental sense of progression. To start, players will earn keys or keycards that unlock shortcuts throughout the level, and on subsequent playthroughs, they can skip whole sections or even move right to the boss. Then, once a level is complete, the player can avoid that level altogether, with one key caveat.
Sifu uses age as both a marker of progression and a punishment for failure. Each time that the player character dies, they will gain one year on their age. They start at 20 and cannot gain any more years after crossing the 70-year-old threshold, making that the final death and restart. However, that doesn’t mean the player has 50 chances to complete the entire game – to run through all five levels. Rather, deaths can compound based on their frequency, where two deaths in a row actually add 3 years onto the player (1 year for the first death and 2 for the second). Players return right to the thick of it, so there is no progress lost, but those deaths can add up very fast if players aren’t careful and considerate, which is a general theme of Sifu.
Though Sifu is a kung fu action game in the spirit of a Bruce Lee movie or John Wick revenge thriller, the combat in the game is closer in style to a fighting game with fluid, contextual animations that make everything flow together beautifully. Players will not be able to button mash their way through even the most basic fights without taking damage, and the game can be punishing when it comes to doling out the hurt. One wrong move and a large chunk of health can be lost, or years put onto the character’s lifespan.
There is a basic light and heavy attack that are the bread and butter when it comes to offensive moves, but the game offers variations that fit different situations. Players can sweep the leg of a blocking opponent or throw a staggered opponent into a group to help manage the mob. But a good offense is only as good as its defense, and this is where Sifu shines brightest. The game does offer a dodge, but this is not the type of experience where players will be rolling out of the way of attacks constantly. I-frames don’t seem to exist in Sifu, or at least they are not there to be exploited for success.
Like a fighting game, a good block, parry, and avoid are the best tools for opening an opponent up for attack. Blocking will get the job done early on but eventually, players will need to learn to time the parry for basic enemy attacks. The avoid then becomes an essential tool, as it can prevent more damaging moves (the unblockable or the un-parryable) from landing.
Blocking is the easiest line of defense, but it also comes at a cost. Both the player character and enemies have a meter called “Structure” that defines how long they can withstand punishment before they are staggered and left open to a stronger attack. In an enemy’s case, broken structure opens up a button prompt that is a one-hit kill and heals, or on the player character, it’s about the closest thing to certain death. Still, blocking gets the job done at a basic level.
Avoiding is harder to pull off but it’s also a more satisfying move in Sifu, as a well-timed avoid can actually slow time down slightly and allow for a strong offensive response. When an enemy attacks with a power move an avoid is the only thing that can keep from taking structure damage, if not real damage. It takes a while to get adjusted to depending on experience – avoids are done by holding the block button and then either moving the joystick down to duck or up to lift the leg – but it is essential. Players can survive without ever learning the timing of a parry but without avoiding, it’s nearly impossible to make it through Sifu.
Weapons in Sifu will help players get the upper hand against larger groups, so it’s always best to keep an eye out. By the same token, many enemies will come into fights with weapons in-hand, so being mindful of one’s surroundings is equally important. The devs have crafted dynamic spaces that are bursting with style and personality. Standouts like a side scrolling hallway or a museum exhibit with a swinging paintbrush highlight the creativity on display, and the game even blends some fantastical elements into the environments from time to time.
Players will develop their offensive and defensive skills as they go, but to say that Sifu can be difficult is putting it mildly. Some will simply find the game too hard to be willing to learn the mechanics, and the rogue-like setup is such that it’s difficult to “beat the game” without refining those skills. Pattern recognition and quick reactions are essential tools for making it through Sifu. Neither brute force nor button mashing are never going to get players far, and definitely not past the later bosses.
The game has a variety of enemies that are quick to punish the wrong move and others who are simply very fast. It would have been nice to see the variety of attacks expand a bit more, as many of the enemies tend to use similar moves over and over. Greater variety would make the learning curve steeper but it would also allow for some more surprises over time. Instead, many of the enemies feel like reskinned (or resized) versions of those seen previously.
Boss fights are a whole other beast in Sifu and easily one of its highlights. The spaces created for the fights, which oftentimes change as it progresses, are incredibly inventive and fitting of an epic showdown. Not to be outdone, the bosses themselves bring a lot of challenge to the proceedings, with their own weapons and move sets. If Sifu is hard at a baseline, the bosses can be punishing. It’s arguably the element that might frustrate players the most if they struggle – knowing that cool boss fights are a key selling point but are very tough to get to and complete.
Yet, there is something satisfying about putting it all together. Making that incremental progress in the game is still rewarding, even if it costs the player a number of years just to defeat a mid-level mini-boss and earn a shortcut key. More than that, the sense of accomplishment when beating a boss is elating. It feels as if you truly bested an opponent by learning their moves – with or without the help of magical resurrection powers – and exploiting them.
Progress comes in many forms in Sifu. The obvious is beating a level, which can take 10-20 minutes depending on familiarity and skill. Once players defeat a boss, the game “locks in” their age and they can jump to the second level at any time, only at that specific age. Players are free to repeat the prior level(s) to try to make those runs more efficient and get out younger, but moving on has its advantages too thanks to shortcut unlocks.
Within that larger progress, players can unlock upgrades on individual runs or permanent moves that carry over to subsequent playthroughs. Each time that the player character dies, they can spend XP (earned by defeating enemies) on different moves like a charged punch or powerful leg sweep that costs a focus bar (the meter charged by dealing/taking damage). One purchase of the move unlocks it for that run, but subsequent purchases within the same run will unlock the move permanently, once done 5 times. These moves give the player character a lot more versatility when it comes to opening an opponent up, but they feel more like bonus tools.
Shrines are peppered throughout each level as well and these unlock upgrades that are more meaningful but only last during a run. Players only get to purchase one, but they can either buy things like more health on those finishing moves, more structure, more weapon durability, or a larger focus bar. These unlocks carry different costs – XP or score – but they feel like the most meaningful upgrades for each run.
When taken all together and punctuated by the watercolor-esque art style, unique level designs, and thumping music, Sifu presents an action game that mimics that feeling of one man/woman against the world. It doesn’t shy away from punishing the player but rewards learning in a way that is addictive and fulfilling. There is no question that the difficulty will be a turn off to a lot of players, but without it, the detail that Sloclap put into the combat and the animations would be lost.
Sifu is a one-of-a-kind rogue-like that marries an engaging setup with sublime combat mechanics. It scratches that integral itch that fuels subsequent runs, and it tries its best to avoid the feeling that time has been wasted. Progression exists in many different forms, but Sloclap’s standout title pulls off one of the more impressive versions of it. Sifu shows players they are actually getting better at the game.
Sifu releases February 8, 2022 for PC and PS4/5. Game Rant was provided a PS5 code for this review.
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