It's time to get good all over again. Sifu is hard, and only through mastery of this action game's fighting mechanics can one succeed. I was initially put off by the difficulty, even though I wrote a favorable preview several months ago. But, after gritting my teeth, becoming patient, and taking time to learn the various combos and mechanics surrounding Sifu, I got good, alright, and I haven't felt this satisfied with beating a game for quite some time.
Sifu is an action-packed melee action game where you take the role of a protagonist out to get revenge for the death of their father. You're a master of kung-fu and as such, you're handed a game with many different combos and abilities in order to tackle every obstacle in your way.
Sifu's Masterful Combat
There are five levels in Sifu, each increasing the challenge more and more as you progress. You'll take on junkies in a dilapidated apartment complex, fight guards in an art museum, and brawl in and on top of elevators in a skyscraper. Gameplay-wise Sifu is an action game above all else, but at times feels like a fighter due to the combos and combat mechanics. Combos are, thankfully, accessible and nothing quite like the strings you might pull off in Street Fighter. Light and heavy attacks are the bread and butter of your attacks, but certain combos requiring more complex prompts also allow you to sweep an opponent off their feet or unleash a deadly palm strike.
It's an accessible game, even for those without much fighting game experience. You should not be put off by the combos in Sifu. It does, however, take a lot to master combat in Sifu. You're going to get your teeth kicked in a lot, and the only way forward is to learn from your failures, death after death. You will be dying a lot in Sifu, but this is one of the game's core mechanics. With the help of a magic medallion given to you by your late father, you can rise from death and fight on. With your first death, you go from age 20 to 21. Your death counter will rise as you die more and more, so from 21 you go to 23 (because your death counter is now two), then from 23 to 26. You can use simple math to see where this goes. You'll want to complete all five levels and beat all five bosses before the age of 70 because after you reach that age and are defeated, your medallion runs out and you're finished for good. Your character visibly changes during this process, and each decade you advance in age increases the damage you deal but lowers your health pool. I do adore this idea and it creates a fun twist on the gameplay.
You can reset this death counter to prevent yourself from aging so much after each death. This is done by killing certain enemies, and they are usually tough as nails. But taking them down is essential and, consequently, immensely awarding. Sifu is a game with many different challenges, as you now have to contend with your death counter as you fight enemy after enemy. Advancing each level will only get more and more difficult. The result of each death and all the trial and error is an immensely gratifying third-person action game.
I do have a few gripes, though. The mechanics of this death system aren't explained in great depth and a lot of it is up for the player to find out on their own. Even the combat tutorial was minimal at best and doesn't begin to touch on the massive importance of parrying and dodging in Sifu. There's also some ambiguity regarding the metaprogression of Sifu. You can unlock new abilities with experience, but the user interface for this system is a bit of a jumbled mess.
Players may also happen across numerous shrines throughout Sifu, which are used to enhance your character in each level. Upgrades include more health regeneration when you do a takedown on an enemy, an increase in durability of weapons like knives and staves, and more. It's a complex system to explain because, like other aspects of Sifu's metaprogession, it's clear as mud and isn't explained well at all. From shrines, you'll be able to unlock one upgrade at a time as long as you're within a certain age, or through spending experience or points, you gain from your overall score. I wish there was a simplified version of this because Sifu has three different ways to unlock different upgrades. One universal currency would be more to my liking because the current system in place seems unnecessarily complicated.
Sifu and the Art of Patience
The key to success in Sifu is not just learning your combos to dish out damage, but to learning how to parry and dodge. You can parry and dodge most enemy attacks, and in doing so, you reduce an enemy's structure gauge. Structure is a gauge that coexists with health, so as long as you diminish an enemy's structure or health in full, you can take them down for good. You also have a structure gauge and that can be diminished, leaving you vulnerable to attacks as well, so you must be cognizant of a few variables in order to succeed. Overall, the key here is that it is much easier to diminish an enemy's structure while making sure yours doesn't run out. Realizing this, Sifu clicked for me and my enjoyment skyrocketed.
Boss fights in Sifu are definitely the most difficult part of the game. These bosses are ruthless and unleash a hail of combos and attacks that are, at times, quite ridiculous. I think the difficulty curve on these bosses were tuned a little too high, which lead to a lot of frustration on my part. Bosses -- and even stronger enemies, too -- let loose attacks that are too fast or difficult to read. As a result, it becomes hard to dodge. Diminishing their structure is still the best course of action, but some attacks make this overly difficult to do.
During the review period, developer Sloclap released a patch that actually made Sifu easier after I beat the game. I like to call the version of Sifu I played "Game Journalist Mode," and it's a shame that some players won't be able to experience this more difficult version. The effects of aging were in turn buffed, so you deal even more damage the older you get while losing less health. The first boss, which was a roadblock for only a short while, was also tweaked to be easier overall. So while I did just gripe about difficult bosses, they were still exciting and entertaining. I wish players would experience the same level of difficulty that I did.
Sifu | Final Thoughts
Playing Sifu on the PS5 is a pleasure. The implementation of advanced haptic feedback creates a much more impactful experience. Through your hands, you feel every punch and kick you're landing. There are even instances where your controller makes sounds, which is always a treat when playing on the system. Indeed, Sifu excels in sound design and graphical fidelity, as well. It's hard not to feel bad for the various enemies in Sifu when you're hitting them with a metal bat or staff. Like how you feel every attack through your controller, you hear it too. It's one reason why combat feels so damn good in Sifu.
Graphically, Sifu is also a very pretty game. It has this, I suppose, brush-like quality, so parts of the environment look like it's been painted on. There are times when levels become more abstract and take you on a literal trip. I don't want to spoil it, but many of these levels are much more than meets the eye. You'll be taken places you don't really expect, and it's hard not to take in the sights and appreciate the creativity of it all, even while surrounded by half a dozen armed thugs. To keep it concise, Sloclap went ham with the visuals and delivered a feast for the eyes.
Last December I called Sifu a non-stop adrenaline rush, and it certainly delivered. I also theorized it would be one of the best hand-to-hand combat games ever made, rivaling that of the Batman: Arkham series. I stand by that statement as well. While I have issues with vagueness and lack of explanation for much of Sifu's mechanics, I was left very satisfied once I beat the final boss. It might be a painful first few hours, but once you grasp the mechanics, you won't want to put Sifu down.
TechRaptor reviewed Sifu on PlayStation 5 with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC and PlayStation 4.
- Accessible Yet Complex Combat System
- Aging Adds a Unique Twist to Gameplay
- Once it Clicks, Difficulty Feels Just Right
- Sound Design and Visuals Are Excellent
- Some Gameplay Systems Need Better Explanations
- Initial Difficulty of Bosses Leads to some Frustration