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★★ | All the annoyance of learning kung-fu without any of the real-world payoffs.
(Sifu is out now on PC and PlayStation. The distributor provided a review copy.)
During the filming of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman refused to sleep, bathe, or eat to get into the exhausted mindset of his character. Watching from the sidelines, Laurence Olivier remarked: “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting? It’s much easier.”
In an interview with GamingBolt, Félix Garczynski, marketing manager for Sifu, compares playing Sifu as an experience equivalent to learning Kung Fu.
Kung fu or “gongfu” can refer to any discipline or skill achieved through hard work, practice and patience. Kung fu as a martial art carries the concept of endless self-improvement, of a mastery kept alive and relevant by permanent practice. It is a strong theme of our game that mastery can only be developed through time and effort as we feel it’s one of the core teachings of Kung Fu.
Dear Félix and SloClap, I don’t want to learn Kung Fu. If I did, I’d go out and train. That’s why I play video games. It’s much easier.
Sifu is a martial arts film where you get to play the punching bag. It sets the stage twice. First, you get to see what the game feels like for the villain. It’s a thrilling and fun opening, which seems to deliver everything this genre has promised since Jackie Chan’s Stuntmaster. It’s only after the prologue that we get a taste of what the actual game feels like. And that’s a whole different story.
Make no mistake, when SloClap says they’ve made a love letter to old martial arts films, they’re not kidding. It’s just that much of said letter is dedicated to the training montage, where our hero gets beat to a pulp repeatedly. Unlike a training montage, this one doesn’t end.
That’s because Sifu is a rogue-lite first and everything else second. You will die, repeatedly and brutally, and there’s no escaping it. Each death adds a year to your life. The more knocks you take, the higher that multiplier rises. Once you hit 70, it’s game over, and the cycle begins again.
There are no two ways around it, this aspect kills the fun out of Sifu. This is a punishing mechanic in an already difficult game, and it eats at any power fantasy the game otherwise delivers. At its best, Sifu feels like your personal Jackie Chan or Jet Li epic. Bottles and furniture turn into weapons; bones break and goons fly off balconies. There’s even a shoutout to Oldboy, even though it makes no sense.
But it doesn’t matter. In those fleeting moments, Sifu is a dream. A wild, over-the-top ballet of punches and kicks that gets the adrenaline pumping.
And then, it really isn’t.
The problem isn’t that Sifu is hard. Lots of games are difficult, yet still completely passable. It’s that Sifu feels like a chore to even get into, let alone master. There’s barely a tutorial to speak of, and most of its concepts are poorly explained. It requires you to learn a slew of combinations to succeed in fights but then takes them away upon death. As a result, you might go into a level trying to remember a particular combo, only to realize it’s not unlocked anymore.
Skills can be unlocked permanently, but this requires purchasing them five times with experience points. That means more grinding, which means risking death all over again. The power fantasy gives way to monotonous repetition.
Even this would be palatable if it felt like Sifu gave you a fair shake. But in its haste to ramp up the difficulty, it forgets even the basics of accessibility. Attacks are barely telegraphed, visual cues are minimal, and sound barely registers. For anyone with physical or mental ailments, Sifu is basically unplayable.
This isn’t even something that needs to be a default, but even an option for it would be nice. As it stands, Sifu has nothing that would make gameplay kinder, let alone easier. It’s a weird choice, and one SloClap is entirely entitled to, but one that baffles me to no end.
Especially since Sifu even seems to be aware of this. Takedowns pause the action, leaving your opponents doing The Danger Dance until you’re done. At all other times, they’ll gang up on your mercilessly. It’s an incongruous mix. A moment of safety for the developer to showcase their flawless animations. Yet the player is afforded no breathers of their choosing.
But let’s say you’re a glutton for punishment. Maybe you want to learn the extremely convoluted blocking mechanics. Is it still worth getting?
Maybe. I guess.
It’s a gorgeous game with some of the smoothest, most accomplished sets of fight animations ever put to binary. Fans of Kung Fu films will find dozens of easter eggs hidden within the levels. Others will be far less impressed at the mishmash of stylistic elements and cultural iconography. Sifu is, to put it kindly, well-intentioned, but clumsy.
There’s also very little to see in the levels after the first run. Unlockable shortcuts make the progression easier for returning visits, but they require progression through harder areas first. But once you start to grind for levels, you’ll notice just how little Sifu offers underneath the shiny coating. Dialog repeats itself and the ballets turn routine. After all, you’re looking to improve stats for quick and efficient runs. Not reliving your favorite action films.
I’m sure some will find joy in the former. Based on the first two levels, I expected the latter.
Personally, I doubt I’ll return to Sifu that often after this. I want to love it for the fantasy it provides. But it doesn’t seem to want to deliver that fantasy, to begin with. Instead, it forces you to play the way it wants, taking away the joy of discovering what you can accomplish yourself.
I already know I will never be a martial arts master. I don’t need a game to remind me of it in the way that Sifu does.