I can count on one hand the number of games I think have good third-person, hand-to-hand combat. The Batman: Arkham series arguably set the standard for what a solid brawler-type game should feel and play like, with weighty, brutal animations and attack moves. Marvel's Spider-Man came along years later with fast-paced, accessible combo-oriented gameplay that made you feel like a veteran brawler. Here comes a new contender, which might just surpass both of these games. The preview for Sifu, an upcoming martial arts title by Sloclap, blew me away with its complex combat systems and absolutely merciless animations. It's not a game that'll hold your hands by any means, but if you become a master of the martial arts, you're in for a good time.
The Way of the Fist: Sifu Style
Going into this Sifu preview, I had some hesitance that Sloclap could pull off authentic martial arts combat without it feeling like meaningless button mashing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an expert in martial arts by any means, but the feeling I got is that Sloclap not only did their research. They implemented said research into their game extremely well.
During the demo, I was given a relatively brief stretch of gameplay where my character, a young martial artist, had to make his way through a nightclub. With the music roaring in the background, I arrived at the man at the front counter. I promptly bopped the poor sod with my fists of fury, only to be welcomed by two of his goons. This is where I learned that I was not an overpowered master or black belt; at least, not as a player.
While you are able to dish out a fury of forceful hits to your enemies, they are equally proficient in their attacks. Dodging, parrying, and other techniques are key to your survival. I found that it is easier to dodge than parry, but parrying opens up the opportunity to counter-attack. Parrying is rather difficult, though, as the timing has to be just right. The open window for a successful parry isn't identified like in Batman, either. What's more, the window to attack right after a successful deflection is also short. If you can adjust to this technique, I find that it's incredibly useful, but there is a lack of visual clarity as to if you parried an attack or not.
As they say, the best offense is a good defense. But, you're still going to have to unleash some attacks of your own. There are heavy and light attacks in Sifu, and by stringing together a sequence of these attacks, you can create combos. Some attacks patterns resemble that of fighting games, too. A sweeping leg kick, which knocks down your opponent, requires the flick of the control stick and a specific button press to pull off. If you're able to understand what your attacks and combos do, you're in for a rich and rewarding experience.
My God, though, your attacks in Sifu are just relentless. Finishers are vicious, and you're met with a multitude of jaw-dropping moves to incapacitate your opponents for good. Your character does not hold back at all, and you might even wince at the beatings you unleash on any poor fool that tries to get in your way. The sound design combined with the weighty feel of your attacks creates an adrenaline rush like no other. Every combat encounter is an exhilarating one.
I think Sloclap set out to create the ultimate martial arts game, and they're definitely on their way to succeeding in that regard.
There are a few twists the developers layer into Sifu's gameplay; some of which, unfortunately, I'm still trying to grasp and understand. There's an aging mechanic to Sifu where, as you are defeated in battle and killed, your character can revive. Upon revival, your character's literal age advances. Each death changes your player cosmetically, as they go from their early 20s, 30s, all the way to becoming some geriatric master of Kung fu.
As I understand it, there is a limit to how many times you age, and once you hit the peak of that limit, it's game over. When you age, your attack and health stats change, too. As you grow older, your health pool gets smaller (you know, because the older you are, the more "frail" you become), but you deal increased damage. The latter is likely because, if you're a martial arts master, your craft will only get more potent as time goes on.
The aging system becomes a bit muddier as you dive deeper into it. Since this demo throws you right into the middle of a story, there's no tutorial. It seems you gain experience which can be spent on upgrades when you die. I also found an object in the middle of the level I could interact with that allowed me to upgrade other aspects of your character. I'm a bit confused as to how this system works. Are these upgrades permanent? Do they only apply for one level? Who knows. While this lack of explanation could be my own ignorance, I hope they take the time to properly explain it at the beginning of Sifu. Other than that, you can practice on an AI dummy before you begin the mission, which was appreciated since it gave me an opportunity to get a handle on the controls.
An additional complaint would be Sifu's performance. During most of this preview, it ran pretty well, but not without some graphical settings being tweaked. I well exceed the minimum specs required for Sifu and can run all modern games on high settings at the very least. Sifu had some intermittent stuttering here and there, especially near the beginning of my demo. I'm not sure why, because while it is an aesthetically pleasing game, it's not the most cutting edge thing out there. As Sifu still has a couple of months left before release, I expect that it will run better down the road.
When it comes down to it, I was sad when my preview with Sifu finished. I was sad because I wanted to play more, and a lot more. Sifu is extremely fun to play and the combat feels like it's hitting right in the sweet spot. The weighty feel of attacks and accessible, yet complex fighting system makes for a game I will definitely check out when it releases. If you're a sucker for some good ol' adrenaline fuel, Sifu should be at the top of your list in 2022.
TechRaptor previewed Sifu on Epic Games Store with a copy provided by the publisher. It launches on February 8, 2022, for PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5.