It's no small feat to become the highlight of a State of Play livestream, but one look at Sifu tells you exactly why everyone was talking about Sloclap's upcoming PS5 game following February's PlayStation showcase. A stylistically breathtaking ode to martial arts movies and Chinese culture, Sifu promises a breakneck fighting game with a unique twist on the Game Over trope, as Pierre Tarno reveals to GamesRadar+ following its appearance in the Future Games Show – Spring Showcase.
"You play the role of a young country student who is on a path for revenge after his whole family were murdered by a squad of five mysterious assassins," he explains. "You're on the hunt for these assassins of your family and you will have to use every tool at your disposal, whether it's your Kung Fu skills or everything that's in the environment to survive and prevail in very dangerous combat situations."
"And as a last resort, you can rely on a magical pendant which revives you every time you die. But this magic has a cost," Tarno continues, "as every time you revive, your character gets a little older, which pretty soon brings in the question of how long you'll be able to keep doing this before your time is up."
That pendant is both a blessing and a curse for your customisable character in Sifu, allowing you to gain mastery of your abilities as a fighter by learning through error, yet also having to reckon with the heavy price of cheating death. Thus, while Tarno cites classic Jackie Chan movies as a key inspiration for Sifu's combat mechanics – wherein players are encouraged to improvise their combat flow through creative use of the environment – the game's story is much darker in tone, often questioning your character's status as the hero of the adventure. In this way, says Tarno, Sifu is "like all good revenge stories, in that nothing is ever black and white."
"Kung fu literally means mastery through practice. And this is really an important theme of the game, because we want players to feel like they've learned kung fu as they've played the game and actually gain this mastery throughout their progression. And so as your character ages, the question is how far will you age? Will you be able to complete your vengeance before it's too late? And, obviously, what is the cost of your vengeance? Because the more you die, the older you are, and so the less life you have after you've sought that vengeance."
Aha, you might think, but what if I just play the game with all the reflexes and prowess of a hardened black belt warrior, and simply avoid death altogether? Think again. While Sifu wants to offer the power fantasy of playing as a martial arts expert, it's also designed to be a relentlessly tough experience that pulls – quite literally – none of its punches. Combat is hyper fast and ultra precise, with the campaign's five boss fights - each based around a different element - posing the ultimate test of your reaction speeds and strategic faculties.
Tarno elaborates: "If the game were too easy, if we gave that fantasy right away to players, that feeling of practice and mastery would not really be felt. So there is a strong learning curve. When you start Sifu, your character is a young kung fu student. But hopefully, by the time you reach the end of the game, you will have become a kung fu master."
Anyone who's played Sloclap's previous fighting game, Absolver, will have a good understanding of the satisfying pulpiness of Sifu's pugilism, though Tarno is keen to stress that its latest title offers several distinguishing factors to its experimental online-RPG. For one thing, Sifu is a single-player experience, which has radically altered the pace and dynamics of its combat flow and structure, challenging Sloclap with the task of creating enemy AI that gives as good as it gets.
"Absolver was very much focused on 1v1 PvP combat," explains Tarno. "Whereas Sifu is a game that focuses on one versus everyone, so you'll be handling situations in which you're always outnumbered. That puts an emphasis on strategic positioning; jumping over a table to put some distance between you and your enemies, or climbing a ledge to fight on a balcony, or using makeshift weapons. Alternatively, you could use a piece of a broken chair as a temporary weapon, throw things at the feet of your enemies to make them fall to the ground, or smash bottles on their heads. Pretty much anything you can lay your hands upon can be used to give you the edge in combat."
Fu for thought
To ensure authenticity in its portrayal of the Pak Mei style of kung fu, Sloclap consulted with real life Sifu (meaning 'teacher' in Cantonese) Benjamin Culos, who also mentors the game's creative director, Jordan Layani, in the martial art. This authenticity extends not just to the depiction of combat itself, but the customs and culture that surrounds it too. Sloclap didn't just want to pay pop culture homage to kung fu, then, but enrich the player's understanding of it, and Tarno reveals some of the challenging questions the studio had to tackle in doing so.
"What are the types of moves that are used in Pak Mei? How can they be chained together? How can they feel super authentic? We've also worked this ambition into the design of our environments, too. The main character's dojo, for example, is directly inspired by real life. Things like where the photo of the master is located, the traditional Chinese and spirit inscriptions next to the photo; details like that are very important for us."
Sifu's art style, meanwhile, balances that authenticity against a more stylised rendering of the world of kung fu, offering a stark, painterly aesthetic that will no doubt look stunning on PS5 (the game is also coming out for PS4 and PC). For Tarno, the goal with Sifu's art style was a visual language that "could be compared to something like speed painting", matching the fast pace of the game's combat. "We didn't want to go for a realistic tone," he continues, "and in terms of violence and bloodshed, we don't want to make a gory game. We don't want to have too much blood all over the place, but we do want it to be super immersive."
With Sifu set to release later this year, Sloclap is now putting the finishing touches on the game as it approaches the final leg of development. We've yet to see more than a few precious snippets of uncut gameplay, but Sifu already has us desperate to head to the nearest dojo and start training in anticipation. How old, bitter, and decrepit our character gets before we see their revenge quest to the end depends on our ability to master its deadly dance of combat, after all, and we can only hope to see it through to the end before death comes knocking for the final time.