The key moment to understand Sifu, the brilliant new martial arts game from absolve developer Sloclap, arrives about 15 minutes into the revenge game’s story based on kicks and punches. That’s when your player character bursts into a hallway of a dilapidated building, only to see a dozen goons lined up along its length, ready to commit murder. With a certain inevitability, the game’s camera quietly glides behind your hero’s back and into a mid-range side shot. The bad guys rush in. And you (hopefully) proceed to systematically dismantle them in a display of bravery and hand-to-hand violence.
All that’s really missing is the hammer.
Not that Park Chan-Wook is the only filmography Sloclap spits from here; Kill Bill, for example, is cooked directly in Sifu, down to a list of cartoon killers that is slowly crossed out as you progress through its simple story of a child seeking revenge on his parents’ killers. And that’s to say nothing of God knows how many authentic kung fu movies the game raises with its various fights, locations, and moves.
To his favorite, Sifu manages to accurately replicate the energetic, tightly choreographed grace of those classics, through to old-school Jackie Chan with his improvised broomstick fight and bottles tossed casually into mooks’ faces. There’s a powerful high that comes from ducking under the kicks of an enemy in the middle of a crowded club, knocking their feet off with a quickly propelled footpad, then pounding them into a paste. . Or get knocked through a table in a secret drug lab, grab a broken piece of furniture as a weapon, and rally a high-speed counteroffensive. As the game teaches you its increasingly brutal learning curve, it just becomes a better and better action movie, moving from the mistakes of “Guy Who Keeps Getting Smacked In The Back Of The Head By Low Level Thugs” to something much smoother. and ballet.
This difficulty is helped (sometimes too much) by the strangest system in the game: a mystical amulet that brings your hero back to life each time he dies, at the cost of aging an increasing number of years at each rebirth. A particularly bad fight – and you will be having particularly bad fights, especially before you’ve learned how to deal with the game’s vital defensive verbs – can see your nameless protagonist age 40 years in a single fight. (Hilariously, no one ever comments on the fact that they fight each other with a foot-long gray beard and crow’s feet in a five-minute battle.)
The metaphor is simple and a bit silly, in a way that works: Your protagonist literally spends years of their life chasing revenge. The mechanical effect, meanwhile, is strictly poor: each decade of life increases the damage you take and shortens your health bar, while reducing upgrade options. Reach 70, and the amulet breaks downright; then die, and you’ll start over from your last unfinished stage. (Or earlier, if you want to replay levels to try and beat them at a lower age; there’s a lot of arcade energy built into Sifu‘s structure.) The idea is to impose a sense of desperation, as you push to beat one more boss or unlock one more permanent shortcut before your body finally gives in. The effect, however, is often to instill feelings of despair and frustration.
Because Sifu, in case it’s not clear, is thin hard. Weaker enemies fall easily, but anyone stronger will need a mix of reaction time, vigilance, and buffs (which only persist between lives if you pay a healthy multiple of their experience cost to make them permanent). It’s the price to pay for replicating that mastery of movie magic and taking the game’s combat beyond that of a simpler brawler: taking lots of pieces to learn how to dodge, parry, or avoid attacks often delivered at lightning speed. Sometimes it’s eerily reminiscent of From Software’s sekiro, with its similar emphasis on defensive verbs as a form of offensive attack. But this game was rarely, if ever, so ruthless, or so willing to nibble away at your precious resources with every death.
Is it worth it? As we said: the highs here are very high, the feeling of potential mastery is powerful. (The game looks great too, with a fluid, slightly cartofinishing style.) But progress will require some bloody persistence and a willingness to overlook the game’s various crimes against authenticity. (To be clear: this is a team of French developers making a video game on what they think looks like an Asian martial arts movie; it is so separated from anything resembling a story about real people or cultures that it lands somewhere at the intersection of stereotype and cliché.) With these caveats in mind, however, Sifu remains the kind of game that’s hard to stay away from for very long – for no other reason than a desire for revenge for what it did to you the last the time you have played.