Every now and then a game is announced with such a weird concept that you would never believe that it could work. Thankfully, that is not the case for Sifu. From developer Sloclap, the studio behind Absolver, Sifu is a unique take on both roguelikes and martial arts games. While it takes many risks with its odd mechanics, Sifu succeeds in many aspects. Amazing combat and beautiful environments overshadow the few shortcomings that the game has.
Age is But a Number
Sifu follows the story of a martial arts student betrayed by one of his fellow students. In order to enact revenge, you must kill all members of the group that killed your father and master. The only problem is that you need to kill them all in one day. In order to aid in this quest, you’ve been given the ability to revive after death, only every time you revive, you grow older. This aging mechanic is the main draw of Sifu and plays out very interestingly.
Every time you die you add one to your death counter. Once dead you have the option to use experience points to add new skills and moves to your character. When you’re ready, you can choose to revive yourself, adding your death counter to your age. You can keep reviving and adding to your age until you get to seventy years old, at that point any death is permanent. You can start a level over after a permanent death, but you lose all of your upgrades. Usually you’re better off starting back from the beginning in order to build up your abilities and upgrades. It’s also possible to lower your death counter by defeating difficult enemies and spending experience at certain shrines.
This aging mechanic turns Sifu into something similar to a roguelike. Age also has other factors on gameplay as well. As you get older, your attacks become much more powerful, but your health bar gets smaller. In addition, some of your abilities and attacks are locked at certain ages. Some of the more powerful attacks you perform can only be used when you are at a younger age. While this is a cool a concept, it would have been nice to see it work in the other direction as well. I would love to have certain moves only available once you reach a higher age.
I Know Kung-Fu
While the aging mechanic is one of the highlights, the real reason to play is the amazing martial arts action. On the surface, the combat seems fairly simple. You have light and heavy attacks, blocks and parry’s, and finishing moves. You also have something similar to super moves that can be performed once you build up a focus meter. What makes the combat so amazing is the fluidity and responsiveness. Combos come naturally and can be chained together with ease, taking out large group of enemies in a steady fluid motion.
Timing attacks is also a key factor. Opponents attacks can be interrupted with a well timed attack of your own. It’s even possible to dodge an attack using one of your own attacks. For instance, a low spinning kick can dodge an enemies roundhouse kick, knocking them off their feet in a spectacular fashion. Combat is gradually improved as you gain experience points as well. Each new unlock adds a new move to add to your repertoire. Once you eventually unlock everything, you feel like a true martial arts master. You have so many options to combat every enemy that comes your way. To spice things up even more, you can pick up improvised weapons along the way. From bottles and bats to staffs and blades, picking up a weapon makes you an absolute terror on the battlefield.
One of the highlights of combat, the takedowns, also serve as a way to keep combat fluid. Once an enemy loses their stance, you can perform a takedown on them. These stylish finishers look amazing, but also recover some of your health. Performing multiple takedowns one after another keeps your health full in the middle of combat and just looks amazing in the process.
Bright Lights, Big City
Sifu takes place in an unnamed fictional city in China. While not much is said about the city itself, the game does a great job differentiating the areas of the game and making them feel part of a big city. In between each level, you can explore the home where your master was killed and use it as a home base. In order to start a level, you must approach the window and stare out at the city to select the area you would like to go.
Each area feels very different from one another, with their own distinct styles. You’ll visit everywhere from abandoned warehouses to burning clubs. They all feel very alive and lived in. The starting area is littered with trash and truly feels like a junkies paradise. One of the more interesting areas is an art exhibit. The venue is gorgeous and is filled with various art pieces. In between beating up enemies I found myself slowly walking through the exhibits staring at the art. To top it off, each area has great music that really fits the tone of the environment.
It’s Not All Fun and Games
Sifu got many things right with both gameplay and environments, but it is not without its flaws. One thing that you will notice right away is how punishingly difficult combat can be. In the beginning, I had my first death about two fights in. My first permanent death was about halfway through the first level. With how death and healing works, all it takes is two or three enemies to take you out. The timing for attacks feels amazing, but without practice, it can easily get you killed. To make matters worse, the bosses will usually add a few years to your death counter. Their parry timing is very different from all other enemies, and the weapons they use can take most of your health in one combo.
While the story drives the combat forward, it never really feels too important. Most of the time I ended up questioning why I’m going this far for revenge. Some of the enemies even ask you the same question, only to not really give an answer. There is also some dialogue options scattered throughout, but they never really amount to much beyond basic info on the next area. An aspect I found missing was enemies commenting on your age. With most of the game revolving around the aging mechanic, I never once heard an enemy comment on the fact that I was aging. It would have been nice to hear at least once, that the enemies are concerned that the kid chasing them looks like an old man.
With Age Comes Wisdom
It’s not very often you come across a game with a concept as unique as Sifu. The aging mechanic is an interesting take on roguelikes that provides some serious challenge. The difficulty may be a little high at times, but satisfaction of overcoming the challenge is worth it in the end. With its fast paced action and amazing environments, Sifu is an incredible game that all gamers should give a chance.
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