Sifu Review – I Know Kung Fu

In this, the month of Elden Ring, the discussion around the difficulty in games was always bound to resurface. Little did we realise, it’s a burden that Sloclap is prepared to shoulder alongside From, as chatter is sure to be borne courtesy of Sifu, the studio’s brutal, hand-to-hand kung fu tale that exists as a natural extension of their debut title, Absolver. 

Much like From’s back catalogue, Sifu is an exercise in attrition and mastery. In seeking revenge against the quintet who murdered your family, you’re guaranteed to fail a lot. But there’s learning to be found in the stumbling, as attack patterns once alien to you become all-too-familiar and you rise again to overcome the odds. After eight years of pursuit, our stoic protagonist has tailed the gang to a nameless slice of metropolitan China to enact his revenge.

In Sifu’s world, the pursuit of revenge carries a heavy price as every death you endure sees you reanimated in place only several years older thanks to a powerful family talisman. It’s a tremendously clever mechanic that introduces us to the idea of mysticism and magic within Sifu’s universe while turning the closing moments of any life into a pressure cooker of desperate, hand-to-hand blows. A death counter on-screen, which is added to with each demise, indicates how many lives you’re throwing away per death until the talisman exhausts its magic and you meet your ultimate end. 

Many waste their entire lives grinding axes from their past, and it’s a message that is at the heart of Sifu. It’s unbearably sad to see someone running in place and literally throw the years away over something so dark and all-consuming.

The first level, The Squats, sees you tear through apartment blocks in suburbia searching for Fajar, a botanist for the drug cartel and the man who cut your throat the night of your family’s murder. Your revenge plot begins at the ripe age of twenty and should you exact vengeance on the machete-wielding, green-thumbed wildman, you’ll be able to pursue your second target at the Club at the age you triumphed at. There’s a motivating factor here that encourages a return trip to levels to better your standing heading into subsequent stages. It felt insurmountable at first—and I still haven’t beat Sifu entirely—but improving from dealing the deathblow to Fajar well into my sixties and on my last legs to losing only five years at the hands of The Squats felt like a victory on its own. 

The game is so unforgiving, and that’s especially true of the game’s bosses, so you’ll certainly need to keep your youth intact if you’re going to go the distance.

Although it’s incredibly stylised, Sifu’s core promise is an authentic and punishingly difficult kung fu experience and it delivers on that promise entirely. With over one hundred unique attacks to learn, master, and utilise in the heat of battle, Sifu’s system isn’t one that’ll see button-mashers prosper. Chaining together precise combos and breaking an opponent’s structure—which acts similarly to posture in Sekiro—to render them vulnerable to the killing blow really is the name of the game. There’s a real depth to the systems at hand, and it’s unsurprising given the team’s previous work with Absolver which had keen attention to detail. I eventually found that a defensive approach, using the parries and dodges on offer to study the patterns and move sets of the decent variety of enemies, worked best. Your wuguan, or kung fu school, serves as an interstitial space to practice your competency, consult the world’s lore and secrets through a detective board, and unlock abilities. 

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Unless they’re unlocked permanently—which occurs when an ability is unlocked five tiers beyond its base level, which can be cumulative across lives—abilities will reset with each new life. While there’s one or two that are undoubtedly powerful, like the charged backfist, I wouldn’t say any of the abilities will particularly save the day if you’re struggling to grasp the core tenets of kung fu. The only tangible head starts Sifu dangles in front of you are the shortcuts that open up as a result of gathered intel, or found access cards. Being able to ultimately bypass gruelling arenas to b-line for the stage’s boss is a reprieve, but it’s one that only comes from besting said arenas first. 

While combat is at the forefront, the level design is another of Sifu’s strong suits. It’s entirely complementary of the environmental artists, and designers in general, that, even after several repeat journeys, none of the game’s levels have grown tiresome. The game is truly gorgeous and feels like it’s drawing on a lot of the genre’s innovators—including a corridor scene that draws heavy inspiration from Oldboy, as well as a nightclub that wouldn’t be out of place in John Wick. The rhythmic choreography is magnificently realised and Sifu’s clean, fluid animation goes a long way to honouring the swift brutality of kung fu.

Sifu is one of the few games that I feel could have really benefited from the DualSense’s advanced haptic responses. While it cements the revenge-thriller’s mood seconds in as the bleak evening’s downpour heard through the controller’s speaker, accompanied by a subtle pitter-pattering through the rumblings, it doesn’t really do enough with the controller’s more decadent features. For a game so focused on countering, timing, and stamina, Sifu could have done some cool things with the triggers. I could forgive underdeveloped concepts in that regard, but for no attempt at all to be made is a bit of a shame. 

I imagine it has a bit to do with the studio’s size, but it’s a great shame that Sifu, for all of the iconography included throughout menus and the world itself, doesn’t feature any Chinese localisation at all. Granted, the game isn’t terribly dialogue-heavy, but to not include a culturally-authentic performance is a bit of a shame even if it is coming after launch. 

A lot of Absolver’s ideas around melee and close-range combat were groundbreaking, and it feels like they’ve been refined here thanks in large part to Sloclap’s preparedness to step back from an online experience and focus primarily on a tight, focused linear single-player game. When it comes to profile, I think Sifu is in the box seat to be this year’s Returnal. It’s polished and boasts confidence far beyond its team’s pedigree, but it nails what it sets out to do. Even though it’s a game most people won’t beat, Sifu is an absolute must-play with a surfeit of style.  

Through neoteric ideas around what combat can be, many of which were conceived with Absolver, Sloclap has carried the classic beat ‘em up into the present with Sifu. It might be brutal and unforgiving, but it never feels cheap and it’s a pleasure to continually learn the complexities of kung fu while bathing in the world’s surplus of flair and ferocity. So push through and persevere, because there’s one hell of a game on offer here.
The representation of kung fu is unmatched
Tremendous level design
Carries on the developer's signature style
The aging mechanic complements the combat so well
Unfortunate lack of Chinese localisation at launch
The difficulty might ultimately push some away
Underutilises the DualSense's features

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