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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Sloclap
Release Date: Feb. 8, 2022


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PS5 Review - 'Sifu'

by Redmond Carolipio on Feb. 6, 2022 @ 4:00 a.m. PST

Sifu is an artful and true-to-combat kung-fu game exploring themes of revenge and redemption.

I think Sifu is trying to teach me a lesson. It's not Bruce Lee's "art of fighting without fighting" from "Enter the Dragon" — that would be impossible. Somewhere in Sloclap's brilliant fighting cocktail of simple storytelling, exotic ideas and complex, punishing combat is a beat-'em-up that feels less interested in the player actually defeating it and more about the personal journey one would take to get to that point. It could be a lesson about — dare I say it — "getting good."

In the way I thought Ghost of Tsushima was game for people who like samurai s**t, Sifu is the kind of game for people who watched everything from "Enter the Dragon" to "The Raid" to the hallway fight scene in "Oldboy," possibly with Wu-Tang playing softly in the background. It taps into both the romanticized and concrete parts of the "kung-fu" ethos and adds a little dash of magic for fun.

The narrative is a refreshingly uncomplicated revenge tale, with the tone artfully set through an interactive tutorial prologue that familiarizes you with the basic control concepts. You play a kung-fu student (who can be a boy or girl, your choice) who witnesses a shadowy group of badasses pillage his/her school, attack or kill a lot of the fellow students, and then kill the master — the student's sifu and father — in front of you. Then, they kill the student — or so they thought. The student, still a preteen, awakens from death, thanks to a magic pendant clutched in hand at the time of their end.

Thus begins a truly brilliant opening credits sequence, as the student, now 20 years old, trains alone. The screen is red, and shadowy versions of the five assassins emerge one by one to face the student in his or her mind's eye: The Botanist, The Fighter, The CEO, The Artist and eventually, the Leader. Each mental practice exchange leads to the teaching of a few more techniques: parry, counter, evasion, misdirection throw, leg sweep, etc. These are just a handful of tools in what turns out to be a massive yet intuitive arsenal of techniques.

The game's structure outside of combat had an intriguing design twist or two. For instance, it reminded me of Hitman. Similar to what Agent 47 would do, the student has assembled an investigative board of targets complete with background intel on them. It serves as a good source of lore on the game's characters and surroundings, all symbolized by classic clippings and sticky notes. The board fills up with more stuff as you play, fight, succeed and fail in each of the game's levels. You can open doors, find shortcuts and obtain more insight into some of the enemies, such as what roles they might play within the level or, perhaps more importantly, what techniques he or she likes to use. The levels are extensions of the assassins themselves: a club for The Fighter, a business tower for The CEO, a growhouse in the slums for The Botanist. You get the idea.

What you're also going to get is multiple ass whippings. For each level, in classic style, your sole job is to fight everyone you run into en route to the level boss. Combat and your mastery of it is the beating heart of the Sifu experience, and a lot of that experience comes when your enemies make sure your heart stops beating. To prevent that, you have access to an organically sophisticated combat system that eventually helps you resemble the fighting machine you're supposed to become.

The face buttons serve as your strikes, and the shoulder and trigger buttons control dodging, blocking, parries and counters. There's a "focus" feature that turns the screen blue and slows down time just long enough for you to rotate the right thumbstick around a target reticle on the target's body, where — depending on where you target and press a button — you cut loose with a damaging technique, like an eye strike or a powerful sweep. Enemies come at you in a variety of ways, and some are stronger than others and/or are armed with melee weapons. Everyone has the ability to guard, and a lot of what you do centers on breaking that guard so you can put them away.

What struck me (no pun intended) about my combat experience in Sifu was that the energy of each skirmish danced between being able to button-mash my way through some people and end up in a nearly Sekiro-style duel with someone else. If you're armed and have the right timing, you might be able to take out some sub-level boss in two moves, but then you end up getting kicked in the head by a few minions and lose chunks off your health meter on the way to your doom. So much of how you fight in this game deals with spatial awareness and reading what everyone is doing, or about to do, on the screen — down to the way some people wind up before they kick. And you're going to meet your doom many times.

If combat mastery is the game's beating heart, then the way it handles death and aging is its brain and/or soul. When you perish, the pendant brings you back to life, but you age every time you get back up. The number of years you age increases every time you get dropped; first, it's just one year, then three, then six, and so on. There are also a limited number of times you get up. Because a lot of martial arts philosophy is about balance in all things, you can knock down how many years you could age as you fight by defeating enemies and, you know, not dying. What this death and aging dynamic also did for me was crank up the pressure and force me to think long-term. If you enter the fight versus The Botanist as a 23-year-old and are in your mid-50s by the time you finish him off, what do you think your chances are going to be when there are at least four more levels and bosses to contend with? Your age carries through as you progress through the rest of the game — there's no reversing it. Thankfully, even if you beat a level, you can replay it for better results, especially if you don't want to be a 70-year-old trying to face down The Artist. Also, with age comes less health and more damage as well as techniques you can "purchase" with points every time you die or encounter a shrine.

If there's anything that might make me hesitate from recommending Sifu to everybody, it's that its difficulty clearly makes it not for everyone. In addition to being a beat-'em-up, it's also a roguelike in some ways, where repeated failure is to be expected and almost embraced. Not everybody is going to be into that, and it's a shame because in addition to all the action, it's got a very cool art style and outstanding soundtrack. It also just "gets" fans of fighting movies and kung-fu. There's a sequence in the game's first level in an abandoned building where the camera perspective shifts from over-the-shoulder to 2D, left to right, in a nearly spot-on replication of the hallway fight from "Oldboy." You get to fight a hallway full of people; that alone gave me chills and makes the ensuing hardcore, hand-cramping fights worth it. Perhaps one of the best compliments I can give to Sifu's essence is this: Playing and improving in this game actually seemed to make me better at other games. What's more kung-fu than that?

Score: 8.5/10

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