Sifu isn't just a fighting game, but an engrossing lesson in risk versus reward. It's a stylish single-player action brawler, where every punch, every kick, block, parry, dodge, and glass bottle crunched into the skull of its scores of hostile adversaries matters. It's a thinker, like old-school arcade beat 'em ups, and it's effortlessly cool, like any one of the myriad Chinese martial art films it's inspired by.
Button-bashers beware, though: Sifu will eat you up and spit you out faster than an ankle-snapping Ground Counter swiftly followed by a Crooked Foot takedown. These expert maneuvers may not mean much to the uninitiated, those green-horned half-pints to whom age is just a number. But to the grizzled digital Kung-fu veterans among us – those who've earned their grey hairs, who fight with one foot in the grave by way of Sifu's exquisite aging mechanic – expanding one's combat repertoire is vital in keeping our heads above water.
Sleep when you're dead
Release Date: February 8, 2022
Platform(s): PC, PS5, PS4
I speak from experience, of course. Or, rather, I speak with experience. During my eight or so hours with Sifu from start to finish, I became so well-acquainted with death that I'd have no qualms calling up the Reaper himself and inviting him out for a pint of Tsingtao now that the credits have rolled. In other less capable games, being forced to restart time and time again might have turned me off, but Sifu frames death in such a compelling way that I couldn't wait to dust myself down, hit 'Rise' and go again.
In Sifu, you see, every time you die, you age. Rising from the ashes sees you reincarnated on the spot, but while you start off as a plucky, fresh-faced 20-year-old, you could be shown the door to eternity as a punch-drunk geriatric of 75 after too many missteps before you know it. With each death, a death counter jumps up a notch, meaning your next demise might cost you two years, or three or four or more, depending on how many times you've slumped to the asphalt. With age, you become stronger, but less vitalic. And while there are a few ways to slow the hands of time (besides, you know, being shit hot at martial arts), the most obvious happens in real time – where you juggle your tactics on the fly, where you commit to offence and defence as each melee dictates, and where you consider every single decision in battle with half an eye on how it might impact you in the future. Let your guard down too often, and that future comes at you fast.
Your past, on the other hand, is what drives Sifu's narrative. After watching your father murdered in cold blood as a child, killed at the hand of his former protege, you swear revenge on gang leader Yang and his motley crew of nefarious agents who're spread across the city in the present day. From Fajar The Botanist to Sean The Fighter, Kuroki The Artist, Jinfeng The CEO, and, ultimately, Yang The Leader himself, your quest to avenge your old man unfolds over the course of the same in-game day against bosses who leverage an array of special abilities and fighting styles.
In doing so, you'll dispatch wave upon wave of non-descript thugs in drug factories situated in impoverished inner city neighbourhoods, illegal underground fight clubs, modern art exhibitions, luxury office buildings and, latterly, a wellbeing sanctuary for the terminally ill – a thrilling ride that's Kill Bill-meets-Kojima with an eye-watering art style akin to Sloclap's previous game, Absolver. Whereas its predecessor was rooted in PvP, though, Sifu is solely single-player and adopts a more fluid approach to its XP skill tree and unlockable special moves. These, of which there are 25 to mix and match, can be unlocked on a one-off basis within each of the game's five respective locations, or can be permanently secured across the board by being purchased and re-purchased a pre-set number of times.
This, once again, underlines the gravity of decision-making in Sifu. Do you splash your XP on this move or that one? Do you double down on one specific combo to unlock it permanently, or do you spread your skills across a number of movesets knowing that if you do wind up pushing up daisies, you'll need to spend more XP to buy it back down the line? How you handle these choices can, and will, have a tangible impact on success as you fight for every single one of your lives.
During one end-of-level boss battle, for example, I got hammered by the same throwing knife attack so many times that I came close to round-housing my PS5 out the door. I didn't, and instead discovered Weapon Catch – a low-cost special ability that lets you grab projectiles mid-flight and return them as fodder against your foes. Suddenly, I was snatching steel from the air like Scottie Pippen on turnovers, tossing blades back at my target, staggering then charging at them to re-engage close-quarters combat. And it's in this vicinity that Sifu shines.
Put 'em up
Because none of the above works if combat isn't fun. And Sifu's combat isn't just fun, it's satisfying and addictive, it's nuanced and intuitive, it oozes charisma and it's damn challenging – all the while powered, for the most part, by just four buttons: light attack, strong attack, block and dodge. Still, players can expect to unleash over 150 moves through a variety of combos – many of which harness the special abilities noted earlier, some of which involve activating a range of slow-motion, limb-targeting Focus Attacks – while making use of environmental weapons such as wooden staffs, table legs, bricks, bottles, baseball bats, katanas, and malleable iron pipes to name but a few of the tools at your disposal.
A stamina-like focus bar builds with every successful block you make in action, while leaving you vulnerable each time you get struck and it empties. Enemies leverage the same precarious line of defence, who, upon having their own focus broken, are given incapacitating takedowns that are rewarding and gratifying in equal measure. Seriously, I did not once get fed up with slamming some faceless bozo's head against a brick wall, or smacking them pinata-style across the jaw with a two-by-four.
There perhaps isn't quite as much environment manipulation in Sifu's full release as was showcased during prior demo events – enemy types also lack variety beyond regularly-built, super-tall and super-strong derivatives – but when the world around you looks so gorgeous, and when the unforgiving but never unfair combat within it is so enjoyable, that's an easier pill to swallow.
The best measure of Sifu's combat is tied to age, bringing things full circle. When I first completed The Squat, the game's opening level, I did so having aged from 20 to 30 years old. When I blitzed my way through The Club, the game's second arena, I was 42; and when I reached location number three, The Museum, a particularly challenging boss battle left me staring at the church ceiling aged 75. When I returned to The Squat, this time familiar with enemy placement, and equipped with keys that enabled handy map shortcuts, the latter of which can be tracked in your Wuguan training hub's Investigations board, I left aged just 25. Which meant my return to The Club saw me exiting at just 30, meaning I had more years left in the bank for later, more challenging levels.
The fact that being forced to tread old ground on completed locations can be so much fun speaks volumes for the confidence Sifu possesses in itself. That's well-earned, and the thrill of knocking your death counter down a few notches as a reward for your skill on the battlefield is second to none. I've now toppled all five of my father's killers and have finally sought vengeance at the ripe old age of 69. What is the cost of revenge? I couldn't say. But what I can tell you is that I've just cleared The Squat, and have dispatched The Botanist without conceding a single life. And that feeling of unbridled triumph is priceless. Now it's back to The Club and Sifu's other three remaining levels for me, and I'm targeting a finish sub-40 years old. I just wish there were more locations to plunder and explore.
Reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by the publisher.
Sifu straddles more than one genre, but if you're looking for the best fighting games out now, give that link a punch