Video Game Reviews

Sifu Review: Finding Balance

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Sifu is an action beat-’em-up with light RPG elements developed and published by Sloclap (creators of 2017’s Absolver).

Sifu takes place in modern-day China, where you play as an unnamed martial artist out for revenge against the people who killed your family.

Fortunately, you have a magical medallion that will bring you back to life if you happen to die on your journey. Unfortunately, every time it brings you back, it takes its toll in years of your life.

But at least it gives you a sweet beard

This was a game that I was on board with from the start. The combat looked tight, the idea of death having real consequences for your character was intriguing, and I loved its overall aesthetic.

Well, it turns out that Sifu had a lot more going on than I initially thought, and I’d like to share with you the things that make this game both unique and worthwhile.

That Which Unites Us All

In most games, “death” is merely a bump in the road meant to slow you down and make the game more challenging. There are some games that play with having your death mean something, or impact the way the game plays, but usually these elements are curtailed in a way that will let you continue playing, or a way to reverse the effects while still moving forward. 

In Sifu, death has a myriad of consequences and interactions and will change how you approach the game.

Death Counts

The first time you die, and are subsequently resurrected, the game informs you that… 

This would be bad enough, but each death also increases your death counter. The more you die, the higher the counter goes, and with every increase, it takes away more and more years. So, if you die seven times in a row, you will lose six years of your life upon resurrection.

If you happen to age past seventy, your next death is your last.

There are ways to mitigate this. If you defeat enough enemies—or certain harder enemies—your death counter will go down, thus softening the blow of any future deaths. There are also points throughout each level where you can use experience to buy a death count reduction. 

Thus, a large portion of Sifu comes down to managing how often you die and figuring out ways to keep your age as low as possible.

So, now that you’re worried about managing your age-to-death ratio, let’s get into the other ways that age affects your character. 

Just a Number

The most immediate effect of age can be felt when your character turns thirty.

When you pass this threshold, you receive a notification that when you resurrect, you will have less health, but deal more damage. This continues every decade until you get to seventy and you have about half your life but do so much more damage.

Age also impacts which abilities and skills you can learn. Most skills can be learned at any age. However, there are some abilities and upgrades that are restricted by age. Meaning that if you die more than a couple of times, you could miss out on being able to get some very helpful skills and abilities because… 

This is actually where the game becomes both very interesting and much more complex than its simple premise would lead you to believe.

Wibbly Wobbly Time

If you get through the game’s first level and are unsatisfied with your age (I was 57 the first time I made it through), then you can simply repeat the level to try and complete it with a lower overall age, so you’re going into the second level without having to replace your hip first. 

What makes this so interesting, is that you can do it with every level. As an example: if you complete the first level at, say, 25, but you complete the second level at 50, well, you can replay the second level starting at the 25-year mark. Or you could go back and try and get your original age down.

This extends to all of the game’s five levels. So if you feel like you’re too old heading into a particular level, you can always go back and try and shave a few years off.

This structure of going back and forth between levels to get your age down is not only helpful, but necessary if you want to find everything in the game. There are certain items — mostly keys and the like — that you can find in later levels, that open doors in previous levels.

I feel like, maybe, the developers were just trying to give you an excuse to go back that isn’t just…

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

Despite how integral age/death are to the overall gameplay, the combat is what we all came for. You don’t play a brawler unless you’re looking for a fight — or three hundred — and in this respect, Sifu does not disappoint. 

This is definitely a game where combat is easy to learn and hard to master. Your basic starting move-set is:

  • Heavy Attack 
  • Light attack
  • Dodge
  • Guard
  • Deflect
  • Takedown

There are a couple of others, like a palm strike and a throw, but those are the foundation upon which everything else is built.

You can also buy a ton of moves, some of which are offensive, and others that allow you to react to or counter your opponent’s moves.

Once you actually dive into combat, it is somewhat reminiscent of Sekiro—if Sekiro was a brawler.

When you attack, you can damage an enemy’s health, but what you really want is to break their stance so you can land a Takedown. You can absolutely defeat an enemy by depleting their health, but if you use a takedown, you will regain some health—which is essential, since it’s the only way to heal in the middle of a fight.

That’s not to say that takedowns aren’t without their drawbacks. Some enemies will rebuff your takedown by regaining all of their health and becoming twice as powerful.

Basically, every enemy thinks their Obi-wan Kenobi… and some of them kinda are

One of my favorite parts of Sifu’s combat is its use of the Inverse Ninja Law. In essence, the more enemies you face, the weaker they are. Therefore, if you are only fighting one enemy, they are as tough as an entire group of enemies.

So, sometimes you’re taking down a room full of chumps that you can beat in a couple of hits, but then you walk into a room with one guy waiting for you and you can almost feel how tough the fight is going to be.

Fists of Fury

Overall, Sifu is a remarkable game. Despite its short levels and simple story, it manages to be more than the sum of its parts. It could have been a simple beat ‘em up-style game, and that would have been fine. However, the developers managed to create a brawler with an alarming amount of substance, combat that feels amazing, and level design that pendulums between regular action set pieces and reality-bending mazes. 

I’m giving Sifu a masterful 9/10. Honestly, I don’t really have anything bad to say about this game. I had a couple of issues with the camera, and going back through the levels was sometimes tedious, but that’s about it. It was a wonderful, contained, experience that did exactly what it set out to do while simultaneously elevating its genre in a meaningful way.

I usually end with a joke, but this time it’s more of an anecdote and a request.

In Sifu’s first level, there is a table where the enemies were clearly playing mahjong… I have never not flipped that table over — because screw those guys — so, if you happen to buy and play this game, could you just… flip that table over every time you see it.

It would really mean a lot to me.  

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