The hot new martial arts action/adventure game from Sloclap, Sifu, is undeniably a great game, and it’s certainly fun when you know what to do. It’s also the most frustrating game I’ve played in years. A game where my usually fairly happy-go-lucky approach to gaming and nonchalance towards failure is whisked away, replaced with genuine disdain towards the game. And yet, this isn’t really the game’s fault, it’s mine.
Top Tier Martial Arts Combat
Much of this frustration is towards a gameplay experience that pivots itself away from fast, fist-flying button mashing and favours patience and knowledge. The aim of the game is to run through a series of uniquely themed and beautifully designed areas, defeating a flurry of opponents in a cordial bout of street fisticuffs, with the occasional metal pipe, bottle or wooden stick mixed in to bring that extra beatdown power.
Your character has a litany of moves they can unleash, a roster that expands as you unlock new skills. The fighting is ridiculously fluid, I have never had a single issue with the inputs being sluggish or wrong, and ultimately, it is the best hand-to-combat in any game I’ve played.
These maneuvers are effortlessly integrated into the environment around you. Throughout the game you will consistently be doing takedowns, which are little cutscene finishers. The game incorporates items, furniture and infrastructure to give a seemingly infinite number of unique depictions of death. This helps to keep the fights feeling very specific to your situation and not just a repetition of inputs and animations while immersing you deeper into the world.
The game also supplies a variety of combat conditions, sometimes giving you rooms of many enemies, which all gang up and overwhelm you, or other times you’ll face individual elite enemies or bosses, which you will find yourself punching for minutes on end. These different environments are great and keep the combat fresh.
Incredible Game Design and Incredibly Frustrating
This diversity of combat encounters is also a contributor for the frustration. This is a game that punishes players for hosting a singular style of gameplay. The various enemies and scenarios force you to approach situations differently. If you go into every combat doing the same collection of moves, the same tactics every time, you’ll find certain occasions where you are dying over and over as your particular style is being hard countered.
This is the genius of the game because it makes you learn the patterns of the enemies, devise new strategies to defeat them and then effectively employ them across the wide range of combat encounters. If you don’t, you will be blockaded from making significant progress.
The Game Requires You to Actively Learn
The catch here is that when you go to relearn the patient and studied approach that is required of you to be truly good at this game, you are likely to be much worse than when using your go-to approach. This means that you will have to struggle more, fail more and ultimately perform worse with a new, more effective style, which is inherently very difficult to accept. Most people expect to get better at a linear rate, and the fact most players won’t is likely a huge hurdle for many of them (including myself).
The other reason the game is frustrating is because when receiving the aforementioned punishment, it can often be really difficult to understand what you’re doing wrong and, moreso, what you need to do to fix it. I was consistently confused about why one style of combat wasn’t working and just found myself floundering as I tried to invent new ways to fight this enemy that was killing me again and again.
However, once you do know how to get through a certain room effectively or how to beat a boss without dying, the game is amazing. Clearing encounters with ease as you implement all the techniques and knowledge you’ve learned to just cruise through rooms is incredibly satisfying. When I first beat the first level without dying, I felt I had genuinely achieved a huge feat.
Beautiful Level and Character Design
I have mentioned it a bit, but the art style and design for this game are great. I’m a massive fan of the semi-comicy, sort of cel-shading design of the characters. It also matches really well with a more realistic and detail-heavy design of the world. The intricacies of the level design make the stylised characters feel a lot more real and make the characters stand out in their environments even more.
This is particularly important for Sifu because you want to always be able to see your enemies easily, especially when moving the camera fast or when there is a flurry of colours from the world and a group of enemies. I’ve never had an issue with being ‘lost’ with the camera or not knowing where my character ‘is’ during a fight, except when the game is doing this very purposefully as part of that room’s difficulty.
Moments of Proper Beauty
The game doesn’t just rest here though. There are particular moments in the game when they go all out for beauty and play with the medium of a video game, giving you almost an art exhibition on-screen; one that you are a part of and interacting with. On top of being amazing to look at, these widely vary and create hugely different moods between encounters. Specific fights are notable not just because the enemy has unique animations. No. They’ll also have a unique environment, captivating visual design and even play with the sound.
One example of this is a fight in The Club, when you fight in the actual club. The game is blasting high-paced EDM-style music, with a flashing lightshow spraying across the fighters. Another fight in The Museum has the screen entirely red, with you and the enemies being entirely silhouetted.
I’ve never been one to sit in a video game and read a page of backstory or lore. If it’s more than three sentences long, then you’ve lost me. This is definitely a ‘me issue’, but that’s the truth. Sifu, to me, has a wonderful exhibition of its backstory and lore. It’s simple yet deep. It gives you small snippets to provide you with enough information to get the picture without lecturing you with the chapters of backstory the writers wrote.
So, when the game did provide me some information on the characters or the world, either in a cutscene or through the collectibles that are scattered throughout the levels, I would actually take the time to engage (mostly).
An Incredible Tutorial That Connects You to the World
All of this is really set up by the tutorial (super mild spoilers). During the tutorial you are thrust into the game and made to make your way through a dojo complex, taking out enemy after enemy as you learn the controls. On the way you talk and meet a few allies, but the mission or reasoning behind what’s going on is unknown. At the end of all this, you murder your old master in a fairly difficult fight, which feels great.
That is until you realise you were actually playing as the villain. Your character is the child of that master and only 12 years old at the time. After this, the child, you, are killed. However, your character is able to defy death (a central game mechanic I haven’t mentioned), and you cut to eight years later when you are ready to begin your quest for vengeance. You make your way through the various ‘allies’ you meet, which act as the levels’ big bosses, until you get to your old protagonist.
This tutorial could have been trite but instead made me connect with the characters and the world. It may have been short, but that 15 minutes made me more engaged with the plight of the protagonist, as well as with the journey and emotional arcs of the antagonists we defeat along the way.
Definitely Worth Playing, but Be Ready for Frustration
There is so much more going on with this game that I haven’t mentioned, from the central death mechanic of the game to the skill tree, to the ever-active goal of self-improvement, which you can discover yourself. Overall though, this game is amazing, and I would suggest playing it.
Before that, however, I would, of course, massively warn that you are likely to be very frustrated while playing. If you are keen for a fast-fighting, dive in, beat em’ up game, then you will be humbled. To progress you will need to learn how the game works, watch some YouTube tutorials and fail over and over again. This is also quite small, but my hands/fingers would also hurt after playing the game. So, be aware if you have any hand injuries or RSI.
Once you do get on top of it though and have the mechanics down pat, along with the animations and gambits of the enemies, Sifu has some of the best combat I’ve ever experienced and is an absolutely gold star game.
Publishers: Sloclap, Microïds
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Microsoft Windows
Release Date: 8th February 2022
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Sifu was provided by the publisher.