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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PC Review - 'Sifu'

by Cody Medellin on March 27, 2023 @ 7:00 a.m. PDT

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

Sloclap and Kepler Interactive originally released Sifu in February of 2022 on PS4, PS5, and Epic Game Store on PC. Many critics and players loved it at the time; it did a great job in conveying the kind of martial arts fighting you'd see in classic movies but with the level of difficulty that required some mastery to conquer versus mindless brute force via button-mashing. The game has received several improvements and additions since that release, and it's now releasing on the Xbox Series X|S and Steam, so the developers are introducing the game's latest mode, Arenas.

The plot is a simple revenge tale that should be familiar to martial arts movie aficionados. The opening has you play as Yang, a former student of a martial arts school that he is now infiltrating. After he defeats all of the students with the help of his accomplices, he finds his former sifu and kills him with a punch to the heart. Yang eventually finds his sifu's only child and has them killed, but the talisman magically resurrects them. Fast-forward a few years, and the child is a self-taught martial artist, hell-bent on finding those who invaded the dojo that night to seek justice.

After selecting whether the child is a boy or girl, you control them through a very linear adventure where you travel from the slums to the clubs and skyscrapers and beyond to find those you're targeting. While the environments provide ample opportunity to look around and search for helpful items for your planning board, your main goal in every area is to beat up everyone you encounter before going into a fight with one of the game's five bosses. Defeating enemies gives you things like points and XP, which can be used in shrines or in your dojo's tree to unlock upgrades, which start off as temporary but can be made permanent as you upgrade it.

The combat system is quite extensive. Using a gamepad, the controls use the face buttons for attacks and the shoulder buttons and triggers for defensive maneuvers, like blocking and dodging. The basic light and heavy attacks can produce combos via button presses alone, but using this in tandem with some analog stick directions also produces more moves, just like it would in a traditional fighting game. You can also initiate finishing moves if you inflict enough damage on your enemy and are in the right position. If you build up enough super meter, you can also enter focus mode, where you can use another special move, such as a sweep or eye strike. As in traditional brawlers, you can pick up a few weapons to use, but you can't use them forever; they have a limited number of uses before they break.

While you can button-mash your way through some foes, it isn't a method you'd rely on often, since the enemies aren't pushovers. Part of the reason for this is that the enemies are smart enough to block your moves and deliver counters. Another reason is because you'll rarely face enemies alone, as most fights often involve a small mob. Since the fighting isn't like what you'd find in the Batman: Arkham series or Spider-Man games, you'll have to be aware of your settings to ensure that you aren't giving enemies the chance to get free hits. You also must learn to create space, find openings, and master the art of dodging and parrying to inflict more damage than you take. It might be a tired comparison by now, but you really have to treat the game as part standard brawler, part Dark Souls if you want to come away from skirmishes mostly unscathed. This is especially true of boss fights, which may be one-on-one affairs but have enough unconventional scenarios to keep you on your toes.

Dying is inevitable on the default difficulty level, but death also reveals an intriguing continue system. Dying gets you resurrected on the spot, and nothing else changes except that you're at least one year older. It doesn't mean much at first, but subsequent deaths start to age you faster, while doing well in fights reduces that year debt by one per big fight. Getting older changes your appearance, but it also affects your overall stats; you'll be stronger with your attacks but also more susceptible to taking on more damage when hit. It's a glass cannon/risk reward type of scenario, but dying in your 70s spells the end of your run, and you can no longer be resurrected. It is here that the game takes on some roguelike qualities, as you'll restart everything but with all of the moves and techniques that you've permanently unlocked. Unlike most roguelikes, though, paying attention to your environment and getting items like keys or cards ensures you'll unlock shortcuts. This makes going through old levels a little palatable, since it means you won't have to engage in every fight over and over again unless you're grinding XP for moves.

Initially, the mention of a Dark Souls-style combat system along with some roguelike traits meant that the game was focused on catering to those dedicated enough to learn the enemy tells and fighting system, and others would fall by the wayside. Some saw it as detrimental, but the patches have opened up the game to those who might not reach the level that the game demands. Sifu now has an easier difficulty level and the option to turn on modifiers, like having all skills unlocked from the beginning or activating bullet time when blocking to score a parry. These don't turn the game into a cakewalk, so you're still expected to have a basic understanding of the combat system. On the flipside, the game also has a higher difficulty level and modifiers that work against you.

As mentioned earlier, the game's release on Steam and Xbox Series X|S coincides with the release of the new Arenas mode. Accessible once you finish the story prologue and return to the main menu, the mode charges you with completing different scenarios and using earned stars to unlock more levels. The levels you fight in are a mix of existing areas and brand-new ones for the mode, and the challenges you face can be split into five different categories. Time Attack has you trying to clear out a given number of enemy waves. Survive doesn't end when you die, but it challenges you to wipe out all of the enemy waves without aging into your 70s. Performance takes the enemy wave concept but attaches a score threshold that needs to be beaten. Manhunt tasks you with defeating specific enemy types until you reach the numerical goal, while Capture has you trying to hold control of a given part of the arena for as long as possible.

Part of the mode's appeal is seeing how many memes and movie references the team has added. For example, one of your first missions is titled Praise The Sun, where you need to defeat enemies so the rain clouds can clear out and the sun can come through. There are settings and scenarios that'll remind you of The Raid when you storm through a dingy apartment complex or The Grandmaster when you fight large mobs in the rain while wearing a white hat.

Get past those nice little Easter eggs, and you'll find that this mode is probably just as difficult as the main game, if not more so. Even though you can select the difficulty in the options menu, each of the challenges have their own modifiers, so there are moments when choosing the lowest difficulty level doesn't help you much. The game warns you that the mode is intended for those who have finished the story. Completing the first five challenges can be a Herculean task if you only have a basic understanding of the fighting system. It's still great fun, and the promise of more future (and free) arenas makes this a mode you'll want to revisit, but it is best to tackle the story first if you want to prevent frustration.

The presentation is absolutely solid. Graphically, Sifu goes for a stylized look with a deep color range that lessens the impact of a low-polygon count for the environment and characters. That low overhead ensures the game runs at 60fps on a variety of configurations, which is necessary considering the timing needed for most of the fights. The animations are slick, and the only gripe is with the camera, which can sometimes cut in too close when you're against a wall; it obscures things just long enough for enemies to start a good combo on you. As far as audio goes, the voice acting for both English and the dual forms of Chinese are quite good, so you won't mind the repetition of some lines upon dying and being resurrected. The sound effects hit hard, while the soundtrack does a great job of mimicking modern martial arts films.

While the Steam Deck could run the Epic Games store version of the game, it did so with loads of stutter (possibly from caching), so those who want to play on Valve's handheld were waiting for the Steam version for something playable. That waiting has paid off, as the Steam iteration is indeed playable. While the settings are taken from a cloud save file rather than being automatically tailored for the Deck, the game runs at over 60fps with no slowdown or hitches, even during busy scenes. Keep in mind that you'll want to turn down the settings to save on battery life, as the system can only run this title for 90 minutes. One thing we'd like to see addressed is that the first boot asks you to install UE4 prerequisites and related Windows programs before you continue. It'll run fine afterward, but it's awkward when compared to most other games that do this sort of thing without manual intervention.

Sifu is still a solid action game that feels tailor-made for those willing to put in the time to learn the systems. The subsequent patches have opened up the game to more players who lean on either side of the difficulty spectrum, but it remains challenging even if you try to make the game as easy as possible. The main adventure is a more than satisfying romp thanks to the deep fighting system. The new Arenas mode adds loads more life to the game, even if your only interest is seeing which movies get referenced in a given scenario. Players on both the Xbox platforms and Steam are rewarded for their patience with a very good game, while the Arenas mode alone gives owners on other platforms and stores a big reason to return to Sifu.

Score: 8.5/10

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