Sifu is the ultimate Kung Fu power fantasy. I'm not the first person to say this, and I'm sure I won't be the last. I probably will be the first, and likely only, person to compare the seductive learning curve in Sloclap's upcoming action-adventure brawler to getting beaten up in an Ibiza nightclub more than a decade ago. But I promise there's a method to my madness.
Speaking of the passage of time first, it lies at the heart of Sifu, as demonstrated by a neat ageing mechanic tied explicitly to death. That's death as it relates to you, the player, just to be clear, but instead of forfeiting single lives in the most conventional sense – as we're otherwise used to in video games – death in Sifu is a punishment for failure which ages your character a few years at a time. The aim of the game, then, is to overcome multiple waves of baddies in specific settings, lest you be overcome by natural causes as an old, if assuredly wise and combat-savvy man.
Old dog, new tricks
Platforms PC, PS4, PS5
Release March 8, 2022
In the spirit of grand Chinese fables, let me quickly regale you with the tale of my Balearic Islands Brawl. Or, if you'd rather, that time I got a bit of a kicking in an Ibiza nightclub after a strange, drunken man licked his finger and forcibly ran it down my girlfriend's cheek out of the blue. Running with the latter, there's not much more to it than that. This happened, my girlfriend was understandably upset, I saw red, lashed out, before, outnumbered, the man and his friends smacked three shades of shit out of me on the dancefloor. It was hardly heroic.
Some 13-odd years on and I'm hardly proud of the exchange either. But, and I swear I'm not trying to sound overly profound here, it has made me view physical combat in video games through a different lens. During my first playthrough of Sifu, for example, I lost eight years of my life to the bouncer minding the door – the equivalent of draining your health bar four times over.
Starting at the age of 20, your first death in Sifu ages you one single year. Your second ages you two; your third, four; fourth, eight, doubling each time in turn. After starting off in my apartment hub, the demo section I played tasked me with infiltrating a nightclub by forcing my way through the front door, taking out the doorman in the process. He gave me a bit of lip, I saw red, steamed in all fists-and-fury (read: wildly mashing buttons on my control pad), and had my bloodied Gi handed back to me time and time again. I was daft 22-year-old me in that Ibiza nightclub all over again.
And so I took stock. I retired to my in-game apartment, fired up the training mode, and began thrashing out combat combos, linking heavy attacks with lighter advances, punches with kicks, parries with pivots, dodges with picking up a pool cue and giving my sparring partner the pinata treatment. I returned to the club, breezed past security, took down four less than pleasant employees with a volley of fists and flicks, and even managed to incapacitate a disgruntled ticket collector with a flying bottle to the head. I waded deeper into the venue only to encounter new enemies with new movesets, which, unfortunately, presented new ways to die. And then it was back to the drawing board.
One of Sifu's most laudable traits throughout this process is that it never feels unfair. Error is always on you: your slow reflexes, your inability to read your opponent's attacks, your failure to maximise space in what are – certainly in the level I played – pretty streamlined and claustrophobic fighting arenas. Similar to its previous game Absolver, developer Sloclap has done a fine job to the latter end here, whereby each room in the nightclub, and latterly underground fight club, is designed with care and the assumption your brawls might unfold anywhere within each section of the level.
To this end, unlike Absolver, so much of the environment can be used to your advantage – be that kicking an innocuous footstool at your enemies' feet to knock them off balance, scaling a wall to get the drop on them, or going all-in with a plank of wood ripped from the breakable partition you hurled a different foe through moments before.
Add slow motion focused attacks into that mix – whereby focus energy accrued via regular fisticuffs can be used to target specific enemy body parts – and you have a thoughtful, nuanced brawler whose penchant for flowing chain attacks echoes everything from Devil May Cry to Rocksteady's Batman Arkham series and old school Bushido Blade.
In motion, Sifu is wonderful, and despite barely scratching the surface so far, I cannot wait to get my hands even dirtier as a young-ish Kung Fu master, assuming everything goes to plan. In reality, I'm now too old to get my own back on the Ibiza nightclub man, but I have no shame admitting Sifu lets me relive the memory with a different ending. And Kung Fu power fantasies don't come much better than that.
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