Sifu Review: As Punishing and Rewarding as Real Martial Arts
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Sifu Review: As Punishing and Rewarding as Real Martial Arts

Sifu Review

I have never made an earnest attempt at learning martial arts. Well, I took a karate class for a few months when I was around 9, I believe, but I’d hardly call that an earnest attempt. The point is, I’ve never known the true amounts of back-breaking hard work that goes into truly mastering a martial art, though after playing Sifu for a few hours, I think I’ve got at least a rough idea. My hands certainly hurt, though that’s more from pounding my desk in fury than anything else.

Sifu Review (PC)

Sifu brings us into the world of Pak Mei kung fu, a real life martial art characterized by flowing strikes and quick responses. Most of the fighting choreography on display here is based on real Pak Mei; barring the occasional obvious magical happening, these are all real movies someone could conceivably learn. You’ll certainly have to learn them, as when the father of our protagonist (who, for lack of an official name, shall henceforth be known as “The Student”) is struck down by a ruthless gang of master martial artists, they dedicate the next decade to hunting them all down and making them pay.

The hideouts of your five targets make up the game’s levels. The Student has been investigating their every move, Batman-style, and is ready to brute force their way to each. Between their point of entry and their target is a veritable army of thugs, each a proficient martial artist in their own right. You’ve got light and heavy attacks, and can mix them up in various combos, but just running at enemies and attempting to mash heavy at them will result in getting your teeth kicked out.

Sifu Screenshot
Image via Sloclap

The true strength of The Student’s style is in their defense. You have a three-tiered defense system made up of deflects, dodges, and blocks.

  1. If you block an attack, you won’t lose health, but your structure meter will decrease, which is like a guard meter. If it drains, you’ll be wide open for major damage.
  2. By holding the guard button and moving the stick, you can juke in four cardinal directions, causing enemy attacks to whiff and leaving them wide open. Of course, this only works if you can tell which direction attacks are coming from, which takes a trained eye. You also have a larger dodge that gets you more distance and has some precise invincibility frames, though this also makes it difficult to maintain pressure on an enemy.
  3. Finally, if you tap the guard button at the moment an enemy swings at you, you can perform a deflect. Not only will this throw them off balance, but it’ll open them up to all kinds of follow-ups, from grabs to shoves to special combo moves.

Sifu is a roguelike game, though the way its particular system works may not be immediately apparent. As you defeat enemies, you’ll earn XP, as well as raise your score for that level. In the event you’re killed by an enemy, you’ll get a chance to spend your XP to learn new moves and abilities, and then revive stronger thanks to The Student’s magical talisman. However, there’s a catch to this: every death, after revival, will age The Student by one year. Every ten years, one of the coins on the talisman shatters, taking an entire section of the skill tree away with it. Not only that, but The Student will also age visibly, taking a permanent health penalty balanced by an increase in damage. Deaths are only cleared from your tally when you clear certain encounters, and even then only one at a time, so if you die too many times in one encounter, further deaths can start aging you multiple years at once. Once all the coins are gone, that’s game over.

What all this amounts to is a combat system that absolutely necessitates patience, timing, and spatial awareness. Rather than flying at enemies in a blind rage, you need to carefully remove them one by one, selectively stunning them, moving them, and separating them in order to safely dispatch them without letting yourself be surrounded and pressured. Of course, even if you do your best, you will inevitably get killed, but that’s kind of the point; one of the game’s messages is that the only true failure is one you didn’t learn from. Every failure is a learning opportunity, every death a chance to grow.

I won’t sugarcoat it, Sifu is an extremely difficult game. It’s difficult enough to just keep regular mooks off your back, to say nothing of armed foes and big dudes that throw you. The timing on the deflect and dodge is extremely precise, requiring your undivided attention at all times. However, if you’re the kind of person that can put hours of lab time into a single fighting game and/or has gotten dodging and spacing in action games down to a science, there is definitely an excellent action experience waiting for you here.

Sifu Screenshot 2

Sifu does have its small mercies. When you progress far enough in a level, you’ll find a special item like a keyring or pass card. These items are permanent pickups, so If you run through the level again (and you definitely will), you can use these items to unlock shortcuts, lessening the time and effort it takes to get to the bosses at the cost of earning less XP from the fights you’re missing out on. You can also return to previously completed levels and try them again in case you burn too many years and can’t realistically progress anymore. If you earn enough XP in a level, you can even permanently unlock your abilities. Just like how The Student is burning years to progress through their vengeance, so too do you need to take time to truly master their capabilities.

Sifu may seem like a straightforward martial arts romp on the surface, but much like learning real kung fu, it requires a sizable investment of time and effort. Not everyone can put in that effort, which means this game’s intense difficulty could prove to be an entry barrier to some. If you can overcome that barrier, though, you’ll be flowing and striking just like the kung fu greats.

Score

8 / 10

"Great"

Sifu officially releases on February 8, 2022, on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and the Epic Games Store on PC. For related content and guides for this game, you can check out our website’s Sifu section.

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