While Sloclap’s Absolver was a one on one fighter; Sifu is an all-out brawl. The fighting style may be more limited than the developer’s previous martial arts mash ’em up – Sifu’s dedication to Pak Mei Kung Fu lets it shine a light on true mastery of a craft.
Sifu’s preview level is one seen in the trailers. The protagonist has to go to the club and hunt down one of the assassins that killed someone close to him. A short exchange with a bouncer and the fists are flying. The first foray through the level felt like I had just discovered I had limbs for the first time. Each of my attacks was a vague flail and button mash. This could be down to the preview having a limited tutorial and dropping me into a mission mid-game, but I doubt the full experience will differ much. And that’s a good thing.
Sifu’s unique mechanic is age. Technically the protagonist can never die, except from old age. Instead, every death costs time. If you get knocked down in a fight, you get up again. Except you will have lost some years of your life. The more frequently you die, the more time you lose. Get too old, and it’s game over. That first flailing run ended with me at over 60 years old.
I am sure plenty of us wish we could go back to school with the knowledge that we have now, and that is the benefit of ageing in Sifu. You spring up a little less spry but wiser. Your health decreases, but you can hit harder now. In that lost year of life, you learned how to use your hips to put more power behind your punches. In the respawning screen, you can spend xp on new skills and return to the fight, suddenly able to catch bottles thrown at you and send them back.
Ageing up isn’t always a good thing though, while you may be wiser, you can only unlock some skills under a certain age. You also have less health which means that the extra power gained from becoming older will not protect you from mistakes.
This is the experience I had playing through the preview. At first, I was young and naïve. I did not know the best way to eliminate opponents; each fight felt like I survived on luck and guesswork. But by the time I was finished with the preview, I could make it through with only one defeat. I had become the wiser version of myself with a wispy beard and newfound skill.
One of the more exciting components of a fight in Sifu is how you burst into a room and size up the guys around you. As a group of guys circle in to fight you, some will be slightly stronger than the others. Nothing in the game signifies this. They could be wearing the same thing as someone next to them but are far more skilled at fighting. But once you engage a couple and find one who is a little extra aggressive or blocks more successfully, you can identify them as the strong one. The next time you run the fight, you can choose to target them down quickly or avoid getting entangled with them until the very end. This hidden ace fighter in a crowd is a fun mechanic, as it is often something you feel more than see. Taking on four guys and suddenly thinking, “hang on, that guy in the glasses knows what he is doing”, is a very subtle and interesting feeling.
Sifu‘s bad guys will throw one of the less subtle power moves at you when they counter your takedowns. You can throw out finishing moves relatively frequently, but sometimes the foe you’re about to end decides they’d rather keep going. They reverse your takedown and push you back. Suddenly they have a huge health bar, several new techniques and are generally very scary. You can get a sense of when these are likely to happen but avoiding them completely is impossible. These hidden threats add a risk-reward to every encounter that means that using takedowns is always a risk vs reward question.
As for the minute by minute combat, it’s easy to confuse it for something akin to the Batman: Arkham series of games with its rapid attacks and blocking/dodging at the correct times. For the first few attempts, it is precisely that. I felt like I was hitting buttons and hoping for the best, maybe that’s a side effect of a lack of tutorial, or perhaps it came entirely from experience, but eventually, it clicked. By choosing where to insert a heavy attack into a combo of light hits, I can select a very deliberate move to throw out. A turning kick will do severe damage and break an enemies combo. Throwing in a front kick send opponents sprawling backwards far enough that they are either out of the fight for a moment or an isolated target to dispatch quickly.
The environments that Sifu offers are grounded in a Chinese criminal underworld’s reality and become infused with fantastical elements that change the surroundings as you progress. More functionally, the environments are littered with objects that can be thrown or kicked into aggressors to both deal damage and buy space. Takedowns are smart enough to use nearby scenery for brutally satisfying results. Several traversal options can let you evade harm and manoeuver around opponents in classic Jackie Chan style.
While the preview level was fun, I was hoping for more sequences that would stick in my mind for their pure stylish choices. One highlight is the fighting pit where each enemy defeated changes the world’s colour around you. Thankfully the trailers that have been released so far include moments like a paint spewing kunai penduluming around a fight and a hallway fistfight cut straight from Oldboy. As enjoyable as the fighting in the preview was, I am definitely longing for more.
Sifu is out in 2022.