Sifu is an incredible martial arts game that has scratched many gamers’ ‘I just want to kung fu some dudes to death’ itch. And through all its praise, one description has been consistent: This game is really hard, and well, I don’t think that’s quite accurate. I mean, yeah, this game isn’t easy, and you should expect many failures, but I don’t think the game is hard as much as it just doesn’t follow standard rules for difficulty progression.
There is a classic agreement that most games have with players. The more you play the game, the better you get, and the easier the game will be. And Sifu sort of follows this trend but not really. In Sifu the most important factor to improving isn’t skill, it’s knowledge. If you don’t learn how to use the combat mechanics effectively, if you don’t learn the level layouts, and most of all, if you don’t actively learn specific enemies’ animations and correspondingly how to deal with them, you are very likely to fail over and over again, and you won’t be able to brute force your way to victory.
Sifu tackles improving at the game differently from what most players are used to in two main ways. Firstly, the game makes you play the way it wants, and secondly, the game forces you to learn through failure.
Makes You Play It the Way It Wants
The first major reason this game feels hard is because the game more or less makes you adopt the specific playstyles it wants you to use when fighting certain enemies or ruff-housing through specific encounters. For example, the second boss, ‘The Fighter’, aka: Sean, is brutal and, for many a massive impediment.
Up until this point, most elites or bosses have glowy limb attacks at the end of their combos, which means to not get hit by them, you need to dodge. So, when fighting most enemies, you learn to dodge. On top of this, dodging is a classic gaming mechanic most players are comfortable with and have relied on to beat numerous other games.
However, if you use this strategy against Sean, then you will just get beat down with a stick over and over again. The five quick attacks, combined with the distance the stick provides, make it really hard to avoid damage by dodging, and if you do successfully backwards dodge all the attacks, then you’re too far away to get off any real damage.
The solution is to actually stay close while guarding, outlast the barrage, then hit while in this dude’s grill. Once you know this is the strategy to get through this battle, it’s still tricky but not anywhere nearly as punishing as before. When I first met The Fighter, my previously good run quickly got destroyed, and the whole time I was super frustrated and confused because I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong or what I needed to do. It wasn’t my skill that was an issue, it was my knowledge.
Most Games Allow the Players to Determine Their Own Success
Most games don’t work like this. Most games allow players to succeed using their preferred playstyle. Often games with skill trees will facilitate the player’s agency, letting them build characters that strengthen their playstyle; letting the player succeed on their own terms.
And yes, this game has a skill tree and a second talent tree that allows for the players to have quite a large choice in how their characters operate and approach situations. But the strength of the enemies and the specificity in their animations and attacks still mean that to beat them, it’s at least highly encouraged to approach the fight in a specific way that the game gets to choose, not the player.
The game does aid you in improvement as you are able to permanently unlock abilities on the talent tree, which is nice. Even so, getting new abilities doesn’t come too close to aiding you as much as actively learning about the levels and combatants. Knowing what to do is way more valuable than having a fully maxed out character. Having every ability doesn’t ensure an easy run or even victory, so you can’t fully rely on it.
You Learn Through Failure
The second design principle that makes Sifu seem relentlessly brutal is that the game expects you to learn through failure. This isn’t unique to Sifu, lots of game have this feature. I mean, this concept is bread and butter game design for platformers, but Sifu is explicitly created in a way that expects you to lose. When you first fight many of the bosses, you will likely lose that run, or at least die a bunch of times.
But your first couple attempts aren’t really about trying to win. You’re supposed to use those attempts to learn the patterns of the enemy. You’re supposed to learn the geography of the room. You’re supposed to gather information that will make future runs easier.
The first couple times against ‘The Botanist’, the first level’s end boss, I suffered a litany of deaths because I was too preoccupied with simply trying to do as good as possible and win. It wasn’t until my third fight that I decided to explore the battlefield. I ran to the outside of the arena for the first time and noticed a bunch of sticks. Once equipped with the weapons, the fight became way easier, and I beat the whole level without dying once.
You Need to Take the Time to Learn
When I started playing, I got frustrated that I was getting slapped down and that my age was going up. My mentality about each room was to beat it without dying, but this was the wrong approach. What I needed to be focusing on was taking my time to learn what each challenge was and how to beat it. This would allow me to beat it without dying in the future. This also means that dying isn’t really an issue, all of which is hard to adopt as this mentality is largely unintuitive.
Furthermore, you’re unlikely to get positive results when changing your style for the first time. When I realised that the guard technique was better than dodging against ‘The Fighter’, things didn’t instantly improve. No, I was much worse and unpracticed with that strategy. So, the battle was harder, and I was dying more. This might have frightened me enough to make me go back to my comfort strategy of dodging, which was a less effective tactic, and I eventually would have. But I recognised that in order to beat this boss really effectively, I would just have to get on board with a style that the game was making me use.
Once I flipped my approach to the game, it became a lot easier but also a lot more fun. I wasn’t concerned that I was dying a bunch or upset that I wasn’t going through sections super effectively because every run was really just preparing me for one ultimate run through that section.
Playing for One Perfect Run
This intention from the game is fully on display as the game will save the progress of the best run through a section. It then allows you to start the next section from that age, rather than starting each run from level 1, The Squats. After beating The Squats at age 40 my first time, I went back and made sure I beat it at age 20. Similarly, my first run of The Club level was completed at age 63, then I later brought it down to a solid age 25, and I’ve done this process with all the levels.
I think it’s natural to think that each run needs to be the run, the one you win. But that’s not the case, you only need to have one. The rest of the time, you should really just be learning the combat encounters and practicing how to beat them. You should spend your early runs exploring, experimenting and expecting death.
I think we all have the natural inclination to try to make sure the current run goes as smoothly as possible. So, allowing yourself to maybe die more times in order to gather more information or to practice a new playstyle may not seem intuitive and might make the game feel punishing, but in reality, it’s just not rewarding players for the things they’re used to being rewarded for.
A Great Game Once You’re Onboard
I really love Sifu, but when I first started playing this game, I was incredibly frustrated. I was annoyed that I was dying, and I didn’t understand why certain enemies were burying me in the ground and making my death counter fly up. However, once I realised that I needed to take the time to learn from these encounters and not prioritise winning, in conjunction with allowing myself to complete the encounter the way the game wanted rather than by forcing my own style, the game became way, way more fun and, honestly, not that hard. Well, I mean, it’s still hard but certainly not the brutal punisher it seemed to be at first.