Review: While Paying Brilliant Homage, Sifu Is as Brutal as a Punch to the Face

Screenshot: Sifu I really appreciate difficult video games, and sometimes a game comes along that presents me with a considerable challenge. Sifu is extremely punishing, and required me to take a fair amount of time mastering its gameplay—which marries nicely with Sifu’s theme of time and mastery. Sifu isn’t just a game with brutally difficult gameplay, but one that pays loving homage to classic and modern martial arts films. Sifu is a third person action game. You play as a young kung fu student seeking revenge for the death of his family. To find revenge, he (or she if you choose) will have to fight through hordes of thugs to get to his family’s murderers. It’s stylized like a kung fu revenge film, and features brutally hard hitting melee combat that's spattered with references to classic and modern martial arts movies. It’s also difficult in a way that makes even this Dark Souls veteran surprised. Screenshot: Sifu Following a brilliant training montage that both introduces the game’s bosses and the techniques required to master them (and the game itself) the learning curve of Sifu goes up dramatically. Single enemies have the capacity to defeat you—and each defeat has the potential to cascade into making the game much more difficult. See, you start off in Sifu as a fresh-faced 20 year old, but each time you’re defeated, your death is added to a death counter, and you are thusly aged. One defeat will bring you to 21, bringing the counter to 2, making your next death bring you to age 24. Each decade makes you hit harder, but you also attack slower, with less health and you start each level at the lowest age you ever reached it at. That means that each time you lose, the game potentially becomes increasingly difficult. Sifu doesn’t hold your hand or let up when you need help—it  only gets harder the more you fail. The only way to make it easier is to go back and grind out the skills necessary to make the next stage easier. Sifu made me feel like I was a kung fu student being trained on a mountain by a crazed instructor—one who metes out harsh punishments for the smallest mistakes, and denies me even a full bowl of rice as sustenance. Screenshot: Sifu If that sounds punishing, that’s because it is. Luckily, combat in Sifu is tight—though it’s not exactly as responsive as I would have hoped for. First of all, if you’re expecting the ability to dodge roll with i-frames like in a soulslike, you’ll be disappointed. That isn’t to say that none of my experience with Soulsborne games translated over to Sifu, but I had to rely on another skillset: my fighting game experience. That’s not to say that  Sifu does uses moves as complicated as the ones from fighting games like the Street Fighter series, but it does have a combat system that utilizes combos. This makes for some fun combat, but also requires you to master more than just timing. There is also no way to regain health except through defeating your enemies, so each punch, kick and stab your character suffers requires you to deal back double or more of that damage. Screenshot: Sifu Fights in Sifu aren’t just about reducing your opponent’s HP though. You and your opponent both have a Structure gauge. If your gauge is maxed out, you lose a chunk of health, but if you max out your opponent’s gauge you can take them down (which replenishes health.) Structure isn’t just weakened by landing blows, but also by successfully parrying enemy attacks—making timing blocks crucially important, especially when fighting multiple opponents. You aren’t completely helpless though. While you’re mastering the gameplay of Sifu, you’ll also be accumulating experience points. These points can be spent upon death to purchase skills that you can unlock for that run—or you can put experience towards permanently unlocking that skill. If you age out of a run completely, then any experience you put towards permanently unlocking an ability stays. These abilities aren’t magic win buttons, but they do add some powerful moves to your martial arts repertoire that can help turn the fights in your favor.  Shrines will also help you throughout your run, but they only unlock benefits for your character under certain conditions—and only for that run. Screenshot: Sifu While Sifu could do a better job training its players, I believe most of what it's trying to teach is meant to be learned through (sometimes painful) repetition. In a post-frustration moment of epiphany I realized Sifu’s tough love style of teaching you to play is almost as sneaky as Mr. Miyagi’s methods. Sifu was consistently preparing me for future encounters through lesser, similar encounters, and it’s done in a way that’s pretty brilliant. However, Sifu’s extreme difficulty and steep learning curve are also one of the reasons it’s not quite a perfect game. I appreciate a difficult game, but the type of difficulty Sifu has isn’t really something that appealed to me personally. The addition of a combo system over combat that already required juggling multiple foes was difficult to learn in an unfun way. Replaying Sifu to reduce the age I completed levels, even if I was improving, felt like a slog. Screenshot: Sifu Also, while I appreciate Sifu’s aging mechanic, it’s a little immersion breaking. I wish it were handled differently—like instead of aging, your character would simply awaken more battered and broken, still getting up despite extreme injuries. Or if you’re defeated, the penalty for defeat would require you to escape and come back years later, older and more experienced. As it is right now, your character aging doesn’t affect his or her environment or the characters around them—which is a bit of a missed opportunity, but also was likely omitted due to how complicated and labor intensive I’m assuming it would be to implement. Since Sifu is about mastery, each of its levels are designed to be played multiple times. Each clue you gather is collected on the detective board. These clues include keys and passcodes that allow you access to parts of levels (and shortcuts) you may not have seen the first time through.  This makes replaying Sifu’s levels interesting, and also kept me combing levels over for the next clue to complete my detective board. Screenshot: Sifu Sifu is a good game, but one that won’t be for everyone. You can’t go into it with a brawler’s mindset—even though it probably would be a lot more fun if it was a brawler. Still, Sifu’s difficulty has yielded some genuinely rewarding moments for me. Sifu is also stylish as hell, with combat that looks and sound as brutal as it is difficult.   Sifu is available now for PC via the Epic Games Store and on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.         An Epic Games Store key was provided to us for this review.  
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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.