Reviewed on Playstation 5
There was a time when Kung Fu “Martial arts movies coming out of Hong Kong were everywhere. The 70s, thanks to Bruce Lee especially and his popularity saw increasing curiosity by worldwide audiences to absorb and request more of this genre. The 80s and 90s created further stars such as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh who cemented their demand in Hollywood and Hong Kong with worldwide appeal and this also propelled other media to get a feverish interest in Kung Fu Fighting to put it aptly.
While we have had games in the past very few, close to none are memorable or revolutionary. Names such as Absolver (extremely complicated fighting system), Yakuza 0 (mostly brawler ), and Sleeping Dogs which is my personal favorite are the few who have attempted but remain underrated or not able to immortalize what a true game should look like, Sifu is the very first title to completely immerse and come out as a benchmark in my opinion. Let’s have a look at the different facets of this IP.
In true Chinese Martial arts fashion, our story starts as a revenge tale seeking redemption for the protagonists’ loss that is witnessed by the player at a younger age. Simple it may sound but it works effectively from the start in setting expectations and a true feel of what this genre has been mostly popular for. As the game progresses, we unlock more titbits and details as to why once a student came after the master and we are on the journey to become a master from a student.
There is an interesting detective board where we piece together information as we tackle more opponents, infiltrate hideouts and find hidden shortcuts and collectables which is a nice addition to the narrative style of the game. You will not receive a story-heavy-driven game with long cutscenes as I believe the pacing and focus of the game aptly sit with gameplay rather than heavy storytelling, and rightly so.
Since the onus is on combat and gameplay, the story is quite short and there are only Five stages that have to be replayed to uncover everything, therefore replayability is embedded into the core of the game.
Gameplay is what stands out, especially as a brawler/Kung Fu fighting game and I categorically believe this IP by Slocap revolutionizes the genre.
Embedded in the gameplay is the concept of your age increasing as every death occurs, as you resurrect due to a magical pendent and come back older which is a beautiful way to introduce difficulty while rewarding with higher damage as you grow older.
The issue with previous games in the genre is that no developer in the past was able to distinguish the difference between a traditional beat ’em up game or brawler as opposed to a kung fu fighting game. The Devs here were able to understand how free-flowing and agile your character needs to be while also balancing their move set without it becoming complicated for the player. Sifu presents just two attack buttons which are light and heavy but coupled with the directional buttons you can do more moves as you unlock them with XP gained in the game.
Structure is a very important part of SIFU which is a sort of posture bar that was introduced in Sekiro. The aim of defeating opponents is not only depleting their HP, but you can if parrying at the right time, increase their structure bar gradually to break it, allowing you to do finishers decimating your opponents.
The structure bar works against you as well, therefore if you just hold the block button without parrying and or avoiding/deflecting attacks at the right time you are open to a death blow. This truly transcends this game from any that have come before in this genre and has infused into the gameplay a missing element. I think moving forward, all games in this genre should have a structure/posture bar.
To expand on this succinctly, imagine a scene where a fight is about to begin in a Bruce Lee movie where the opponent sizes our hero. The hero takes his stance, looks for a weakness and instead of going for straight punches or kicks to the torso trying to tire his rival, alternatively inflicts a crushing blow to the shin of the opponent thereby stunning them to give a chance to inflict a crushing blow to the cranium knocking the opponent out cold! I hope that gives you a sense of what I’m stressing about the importance and ‘use case’ for Sifu’s excellent application of this technique.
Visuals are a treat for fans of hand-drawn Okami-style comic book-esque looking art style. While some may dismiss the game if looked at briefly, they are doing themselves a disservice as it adds depth and perfect marriage to the free-flowing blistering fast combat that follows this martial art beauty.
The visuals also give a distinct look that somehow exhibits what you would expect from a saga of our protagonist going on a revenge mission that looks like something that could exist in the modern world while evoking nostalgic vibes from the yesteryears of the 70s-90s.
Sifu has a distinct advantage using this painted world come to life looking game because some breath-taking fight scenes pan the camera outwards to show sometimes an iconic alleyway fight or a backdrop to a snowy mountain; sublime and artistic.
Audio is expertly conceptualized to create a mixture of elements consisting of funk 70s retro, black exploitation action film soundtrack mixed with a light Chinese flavour: several Chinese instruments were used in the mix to create a lively light-hearted track to compliment the game.
Expectations were exceeded and Sony decided to release a digital EP simultaneously with the release of the game to capitalize on the good reviews highlighting the music by the media.
Every punch and kick, every time you smash a bottle on an NPC’s head, break a wooden bat or slash someone with a sword evokes a sense of immersion into the world. The Devs have taken extra care to cater to the world-building of Sifu and the audio plays its important part to pump you up when rushing to fight a group of 10 thugs or when sizing up your boss fight at the end of every stage: a marvellous treat.
What I don’t like
SIFU was initially released with one difficulty called disciple and due to its challenging nature which demanded you to learn and evolve with each death without being able to switch to an easy mode, the game struck a chord with reviewers and gamers who agreed how the concept of dying and retrying made the gameplay unique.
SIFU moulded the players who kept coming back and re-trying into a rewarding experience, unlike most other games, especially in a brawler.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, a later patch introduced an Easy and even harder mode which allowed everyone to play the game not how it was intended and applauded for initially, but now altering the very DNA of SIFU which I will elaborate further.
What was before a requirement to master the game and combat now became an easy handicap you could switch to whenever you want, without any repercussions of progression, trophy/achievements or in-game.
This is exactly the reason why my enjoyment of the game was hampered and instead of buckling down and learning the combat to a tee, I succumbed and went to easy mode sadly just because I had the option; thereby breezing past what made this game unique and rewarding. The difficulty part works in tandem with the concept of martial arts and is embedded in the name of the game SIFU which means Master / Sensei in Mandarin.
The patch allowed you the player, to just lower difficulty when the going gets tough, the antithesis of what this game came out as and what made it a hit with critics and reviewers, a satisfying rewarding experience, not another soul, like I would like to stress.
While some might say why not just play on original difficulty, I did, but just the option to have an easy mode without any repercussions to trophy progress or 100% completion is the biggest issue for me and to experience the intended way to play as the developers wanted it to be.
What I like
Sifu almost feels like a love letter to everything we have seen in cinema and TV regarding Chinese martial arts, perfectly encapsulated into a video game.
I consider this an achievement, as many have come before with the idea and notion, but none achieved the execution and top-to-bottom near-perfect embodiment of what such a game should be.
While it might seem, that a game focused on kung fu combat might be simple, most previous games are just button-mashing beat-em-up clones with few options to combat variation, overplaying the theme and aesthetics of how such a game should look like and never nailing what the narrative and setting should be.
Sifu does an exceptional job of addressing these and delivering an organic, fresh take from developers, SloClap, that shows they put in the research, work, and most importantly genuine passion.