An early 2021 State of Play event showcased an impressive lineup of games that were visual powerhouses, but I’d hardly say Sifu was one of them. While it was hardly anything visually striking, the game set itself apart from the rest of the pack with its hard-hitting style and tone, and now that it’s finally here, we’re happy to say it hurts so good.
What Is It?
Sifu‘s story is simple. The game follows a young martial arts master who watches his own sifu die at the hands of a character you actually take control of in the game’s tutorial. Immediately after those events, you take control of the young boy as he decides to enact his revenge at the people responsible for the sifu’s death.
At its core, the game is a linear beat-’em-up much in the vain of classics like the Streets of Rage series, with the main difference being in the fact that this game is in 3D. Countless titles have tried coming close to the charm of a 2D beat-’em-up and most of them fail, but Sifu is the rarity that properly navigates those waters.
Why Should I Care?
In addition to combat that’s fairly simple to pick up and play while also being insanely difficult to master, what truly sets Sifu apart is its gameplay loop–I’ll put it out there right now: Sifu is hard. The game is so hard, that I’m already here with a completed review before I even beat the game. Despite the fact that it’s been kicking my ass because I suck so bad, the loop is enough to keep me engaged even though I’m having all sorts of trouble just imagining that I’ll roll credits.
Back to what makes this game different–when you die in Sifu, you can continue the action right from where you died in exchange for at least a year of your life. So to paint the picture, you start the game at 20 years old. When you die, you can respawn and come back at age 21, and you can keep dying and continuing until you reach an age over your 70s–die again in your 70s, and it’s a Game Over.
What’s the big deal there? While you don’t have to go all the way back to the first level after a Game Over, you do get to restart the level you died at, except you start at at the youngest age you were at when you first tried it. So for example, when I finally beat the first level, my character was 33 years old, which means I’d always be starting the second level at age 33. Of course, if things are too hard at age 33, you can always go back to the first level and try to get through it at a younger age.
As much as you want to avoid dying in the game, it’s also essential to help with your main character’s overall progression. It’s only when you die and in between levels where you have access to your character’s ability list, where you can use XP to learn new techniques. When you learn certain moves a bunch of times (due to deaths or what have you), you eventually get to buy it permanently to further help with your adventure, typically at three times the cost. There’s an even bigger catch though. While you obviously can become more skilled after dying, there’s the fact that coming back older makes you more susceptible to danger. Older age results in your character’s maximum health and energy decreasing, making it easier to die if you’re not careful.
To make matters worse, if you string deaths and don’t do any murder yourself, the rate at which you age compounds. So if you died four straight times without killing an enemy, your next death will cost you four years. The only way to bring this death count down is by killing enemies and praying at shrines you’ll find throughout each level.
Getting back to the overall combat, again, it’s easy enough to learn. You have buttons for weak and strong attacks, as well as the ability to block or parry with the left shoulder along with an evasive ability tied to the right shoulder. Learning the ins and outs of combat is essential to survival along with understanding and timing the movements of the enemies. To further make it comparable to a game like of Streets of Rage in its approach, there is also no shortage of weapons to wreak havoc with as well, and not only do they make fights much easier, they’re also key to breaking blocks and are harder to parry.
At the end of the day, the reactionary system sort of has a Dark Souls feel to it because you’ll want to play defensive, and this in turn also makes it feel like a 3D fighting game, especially since there are a bunch of moves at your disposal that can only be performed using specific buttons in succession, and you’ll want to know what moves you have quick. There will hardly ever be a time where you’ll want to run into battle with wild fists–not to mention the fact that if you’re crowded, you’re screwed. In times like these, it’s easier to run away and have some enemies come at you alone so you can take them one-on-one. After all, every enemy you kill gets you some of your health back, and it’s beyond essential in the game.
Every level also has sort of a Metroidvania secret to it that allows you go to get through a huge portion of the level assuming you find certain essential items. In the first level, for example, there’s a door that can shave you about 10 minutes of action after finding a key deeper in the level. These shortcuts are huge, because they remain open even after a Game Over, so it makes the ordeal of getting to each level’s final boss that much less punishing, and in all honesty, you’ll need all the help you can get.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
2022 has proven to be quite a year in gaming so far, and if you’re thirsting for something difficult that blends old-school gameplay with modern concepts fairly seamlessly, Sifu should be right up your alley. It’s undoubtedly gonna kick your ass, but there’s nothing more badass than finally surviving after so many tries. Again, the game is still kicking my ass (I’m at a point where I think I’m barely just halfway through it), but it hasn’t reached a point where I’ve broken anything yet… except my spirit. This is the best beat-’em-up game I’ve played since Streets of Rage 4, and I cheesed through that too.