Sifu is every Martial Arts film you’ve ever watched, but now in playable form. Unfortunately actually playing Sifu isn’t quite as pleasant as that might sound.
I’m under the impression that Fight Choreography for film is hard. It’s long sessions of repeating the same moves over and over again, taking bruises from missed swings or bad falls. Sometimes you have to roll with the punches, or make an awkward angle work. But when the end result ends up on screen. It’s worth it. The moves flow, the strikes connect with sickening thumps and the audience can feel the ebb and flow of every duck and weave.
It’s also ultimately, entirely dependent on whether or not that action manages to tell a story or whether it’s simply superficial swinging.
That’s Sifu. Lots of work, lots of repetition, hoping the end result looks cool for a moment and captures the imagination for longer.
Developed and self published by Sloclap (previously of Absolver). A beat ’em up with Roguelike elements, Sifu is martial arts movies set in China as translated by the western team of Sloclap. The mocap and martial arts consultation was performed by Sifu Benjamin Colussi. There’s also the (brilliantly evocative) score composed by Howie Lee, infusing an electronic soundtrack with traditional instruments. In a fictional Chinese City, your character watches as their Sifu (Master/Teacher) is murdered by a gang of former students. Striking out for revenge years later, they must track down and take out each of the five gang members. To do so, the player will have to fight the many lackeys the gang has accrued, across a set of five levels each with their own unique art/music direction and style.
What’s probably worth noting from the above is that this is a game being very explicitly marketed as a game that uses ideas from China and Chinese Culture as a setting. Much like the stereotypical tea set they put in the influencer promo packages. Sloclap are a French Studio, and by the credits, a lot of people worked on this game in some capacity. They have, at least, gone to the effort of partnering with consultants on Character Art and Cultural review. 8 of them in fact. From my time with the game, I’m unable to say whether it trades in any further orientalism/harmful stereotyping beyond simply aping every Kung Fu/Wuxia movie/animation/comic you’ve ever seen, and all the implications that brings. It’s endemic by replication, not really interrogating any of that.
So with regards to Sifu, I’d suggest reading widely, especially from the folks with a better grasp of the culture which is depicted in this game, because their feelings on those matters will be singularly more valid than mine. Especially on the basis that there are simply now more and more games about Chinese culture from Chinese studios. And especially on the Chinese text present throughout the game, because that’s already something that’s come in for criticism.
What I will say as someone who deeply enjoyed Absolver’s fantasy inspired martial arts setting, I don’t think the Chinese setting of Sifu actually ends up adding to the game in any significant way. If you strip all of the detail out, the core of the game isn’t inherently drawn from the setting There’s lots of text everywhere in levels, and I suppose there’s plenty of typical Chinese environmental details. But again, nothing that hasn’t been cribbed from other mediums or couldn’t be anywhere else in the real world.
The exception is maybe when some of the more fantastical sequences are playing out to contrast with the “realistic” modern setting. But the problem is that those are visually impressive enough that they could stand alone.
And that’s especially frustrating because there’s very few art/design teams in the industry I’d respect as much as Sloclap. They have such a beautiful paint stroke style, and a great use of colour and shade. Both Absolver and Sifu end up being visual feasts. They’ve gone to extensive lengths to make Sifu look incredible, and to capture the spirit of all the media that inspired Sifu. It’s just disappointing that all that creativity here is just aping other media. Absolver had such a unique world design and sense of fashionable style. You’ve seen everything in Sifu before.
It’s something carried over onto a fairly boilerplate story about Revenge. Which is especially frustrating because some of the absolute best sequences in the game being cribbed heavily from other stories. In particular, the first level is frontloaded with an entire setpiece taken from Oldboy. A South Korean film itself adapted from a Japanese Manga. (We don’t talk about the American version.) The selling point of Sifu is that this time rather than watching the action, you get to play through it.
To be fair, this is coming from the developers of Absolver. If we can expect one thing from Sloclap, it’s spectacular, satisfying combat.
On both those counts, Sifu seems to succeed.
Initially very simple. Parry/block on the right bumper, dodge on the right trigger. Light attack on X, Heavy attack on Y. A basic set of combos and tools gives the player enough to get started with, and then it’s into the fighting.
Smooth animations, satisfyingly chunky hits and impressively rendered hitboxes that allow for expert dodging. It should be a surefire win.
Why isn’t it?
It comes down to the systems that sit behind the combat. Every character has a structure bar. Every hit on an opponent or successful dodge/parry against them, fills their structure bar. Fill the structure bar and they’ll be stunned for a second.
Every fight becomes about hit opponent until their structure bar fills, they enter a stun animation, you press B+Y and your character enters an invincible contextual finisher animation. Make no mistake, these contextual finishers are invariably very cool, and the tech is impressive. But the overall effect becomes frustratingly samey and essential.
You can’t not use them because they’re instant crowd control, they give health back and while they’re playing your structure meter cools off. It is simply too much efficiency.
Especially because crowd control is vital. Enemies will absolutely take swings while you’re looking at someone else. It’s chaotic, and rewards a player who can wrangle the camera and engage accordingly, but it does evoke the feeling of a mass brawl effectively. As such, you prioritise learning moves that let you manage how many foes attack at once, and from what direction.
The issue is that by prioritising this, you’re not getting skills useful for the other half of Sifu, boss fights.
For example, one of my favourite tools was the slide kick. Starting any fight by sending a standard henchman straight to the floor meant an easy first takedown. Absolutely great.
Every boss ignores it. As do about half the advanced henchmen. To get it I had to unlock it by spending 1250 experience. Then to permanently unlock it in every playthrough it would cost that five times with an extra 1250 to unlock access to that skill for a run if I started my playthrough over.
For an ability that can’t be effectively used on the bosses, which are the core of a full playthrough. The bosses do this with loads of abilities, effectively no selling the players attacks, while dealing death in only a few blows.
I lost a lot of years to the bosses, even when a run through the level was perfected.
This is exacerbated by one boss literally just turning off a game mechanic you can put significant effort into, wasting all the time you’ve spent to that point.
The bigger problem then is the surrounding mechanics of Sifu.
Sifu is inspired by Roguelikes in a couple of ways, and has the unique story feature of the aging mechanic.
Your first run of Sifu, you’re gonna die as an Old Person and be angry.
When you die, your death counter is added to your age. So the first death means 20+1. Then 21+2, 23+4 and so on exponentially. But you can help yourself by earning deaths back from the counter by taking out enemies and keeping your combo high.
You don’t deage, but the penalty for dying is lessened. Die lots in quick succession, and you’ll be in trouble though.
The age issue means you make things more difficult for yourself later by not having the ability to die and learn. And thematically, this is excellent. Limited opportunities, limited opportunities for growth, absolutely brilliant mechanical storytelling.
It’s also really frustrating because of how it interacts with the roguelike elements. I spent a significant amount of time replaying one level because learning the enemy encounters and boss patterns took a little while. I had gone into the level at age 53 with 3 deaths to my name. This meant I couldn’t die more than 4/5 times in the whole level if I was lucky. It’s a minor point too, but if you pass a decade threshold,(30/40/50 etc) your health decreases while your attack power increases.
Again, thematically a really cool idea that means you are encouraged to play smart and strike hard as you age. But in reality it simply means learning boss fights is really difficult. The patterns you’ve just learned at age 52 suddenly become less useful when you’re age 32.
Which meant either I play each encounter, mini boss and phase of the final boss in any brand new level perfectly, or I have to go back to an earlier level and hope I’ve unlocked a shortcut or can play perfectly there.
Because the improved play has to be retroactive to matter.
Which then grates even further against the roguelike style progression. Finding Shrines in levels gives you additional benefits. More damage with weapons, additional structure etc.
If you have to go back and work through a prior level (and you Will.), The shrine bonuses collected to date are lost.
There is a sense of development of skills over time, through the permanent unlocks system. Any part of your run, you can unlock a skill. Should you find that skill suits your fighting style and improves your odds, you can try to make it permanent. This means it’s available across all lives and all deaths. But it’s an investment, requiring you to purchase the skill another five times.
For certain, high cost skills, they may functionally require multiple levels worth of playthrough. It requires grinding. Especially because every 10 years gained, you age out of being able to purchase certain skills. The slide kick I mentioned earlier couldn’t be purchased post 30. So I simply had to play the first two levels over and over again to earn it.
And then the final point that makes the whole progression angle even more irritating; The Shortcuts.
Board information consists of collectibles that carry over between death. This includes keys and objects which allow for shortcuts, which means repeat playthroughs to the boss don’t feel as laborious. Sometimes an item found in a later level opens something in a previous one.
It’s a great idea. Lets players immediately skip to the boss fights. Also a really frustrating design choice because it means a more efficient run through a level ignores most of the normal enemies. It actively undermines the bit of the game I really enjoyed.
So regardless of how gorgeous Sifu looks, how entertaining the music is and how enjoyable the combat can be, it hits certain problems:
- Successful runs avoiding most of the combat through shortcuts
- Most combats you do engage with becoming immediately about repetitive takedown animations.
- The aging mechanic completely undermining learning encounters by changing what you’re capable of.
To go back to the initial simile, there’s a perfect take of Sifu in this game, ready for the screen. It’s just going to come after hours and hours of false starts, learning patterns and taking hits. For some people, the process of learning those patterns, mastering that system is enough. They’ll be able to overlook the messiness of the systems interacting, and the repetitive unoriginality of the story. For me, I just didn’t find enough to hold onto. The work put into achieving the perfect run, mastering every encounter simply for the sake of style wasn’t enough.