Video games have long concerned themselves with the practice of punching people really hard in the face. Decades of beat em’ ups and brawlers have tried to perfect this code-laden craft, but none have mastered it quite like the aptly-named Sifu, Absolver studio Sloclap’s sophomore effort.
Flavours of Yakuza, Sekiro, God Hand and the Batman Arkham games appear in its crunchy combat system, which is tasty from the first bite. Starting in media res, you’re quickly introduced to the game’s controls and narrative through a brilliantly paced tutorial that sets up Sifu’s stakes. A set of kung fu kingpins murdered your father when you were just a child, and you’re going to fight your way through them to avenge him, armed with a mysterious power.
The premise sounds strictly linear, but Sifu’s many twists and turns make it far more complex. My first death hurt, sure, but my grimace quickly turned to a shit-eating grin as I figured out what was going on. You see, every time you die in Sifu, you can come back to life immediately, but you wake up older.
The game’s first level, The Squats, starts you at 20 years old. Get your ass kicked and you will wake up aged 21, with your Death Counter set to 1. If you manage to KO the person who took you down or kill a string of enemies without dying, you can reset your Death Counter to 0. But if you fail to do that and you die again, your Death Counter will rise to 2. Die again, it jumps to 3. Suddenly you’re pushing 30. The next thing you know, you’re 75. So it goes.
You’re gone forever if you push past 75, death counter mitigations aside. And when you die for real, you lose all the bonuses and skills that you unlocked along the way, and are forced to start the level again. But what happens when you do figure out that nasty boss at the end of The Squats?
When you beat a level in Sifu, the game saves the age you did it at, along with any bonuses you chose along the way. 64 might be your best attempt at The Squats, but it won’t be your last. Because when you wake up in The Club with long hair and wrinkly skin, the doorman might send you straight to hell in a handbasket. So you go back to The Squats, permanently trying to improve your earlier runs so you can – literally – make your life easier across the game’s five brutal levels.
It’s a smug twist that turns Sifu into a magnificent roguelike, one that dwells on all of the hot genre’s best features. You might get lucky in The Club as a pensioner and find a key that opens a shortcut for your future runs when you’re a youngster. Sifu has a detective board a la Deathloop that doubles as a lore nugget serving platter and a way to unpick its levels. Explore a bit more and you may find ways to trivialise tricky scenes and propel yourself into the late game.
Sifu also grants meaning to your more geriatric runs by letting you farm XP which you can use to permanently unlock skills across all of your attempts. But get this… certain skills and bonuses have age caps. This means many of the game’s best abilities are only available to players who manage to stay under 29. It’s a dirty little mechanic that goads you into being a better player and engaging with the many intricacies of Sifu’s combat system. The game is designed so you can’t just cheese your way through with the most reliable tactics and there’s a literal brick wall in the middle of the game – its third boss fight – where you’ll have to eat some serious humble pie if you’ve been lazy. I know this because I too slipped into a fighting formula as I approached The Museum, which is Sifu’s best (and most daunting) level.
Hench enemies with bladed weapons guard gorgeous exhibits, each with their own combat puzzles to solve, like hanging Kunai and copious bulbs that explode with colour when they strike enemies. Groups of bodyguards lurk behind wafer-thin walls instead of using an obvious approach, and suddenly each battle is psychological as well as physical. Getting overwhelmed is easy when enemies appear from nowhere, as Sifu starts to pepper in the supernatural to augment the terrifying preamble to a big boss. But once you get the rhythm right, Sifu feels unbelievably good to play. Many clips were saved as I pulled off strings of takedowns while catching metal pipes in midair, pushing stunned strikers off cliffs and clobbering enemies wholesale, haptics reverberating in my palms.
The stylized art direction and carefully designed environments pair well with some dashing cinematography to create fights that feel like movie scenes. Howie Lee’s lethal, thumping soundtrack and the sheer range of the Dualsense’s haptics, from the pitter-patter of rain to the thwack of a meaty staff – elevate Sifu into a true immersive delight on PS5. At first I started the game on PC but I urge everyone who has one to play it on console, as it feels most at home with the DualSense in your palms. It’s more than playable, but controller support isn’t 100% on PC and as you might expect, Sifu is not much fun to play with a mouse and keyboard.
At its best, Sifu can make one enemy feel like your worst nightmare in one arena, and cannon fodder in another. It’s so smart with how it delivers tone and atmosphere, and how each fight is framed. It feels like the game has been tested to hell and back to figure out minute details like weapon placements and combat real estate so that each brawl feels frenetic. It’s a serious achievement, resulting in a game that is hard to put down even when you’re braying against bedrock.
I think it’s because you can always do better in Sifu, and if you go in blind you’ll benefit from several brilliant moments where you realise that you’ve overcommitted and the skills or bonuses that you chose have somehow come back to bite you later in the game. I was constantly starting again and rethinking my strategy, shifting focus to certain moves or defensive tactics, all the while appreciating just how well-made Sifu’s humbling systems are.
As you play, the vendetta that underpins the narrative in Sifu slowly becomes your own, which makes the dying throes of the story resonate even harder. When you get there, that is… there was a time when I thought I would never get out of The Squats under 40, but eventually, I managed it when I was just 22. Getting to the credits? Fucking euphoric.
Sifu took me 15 hours to beat and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. With such replay value and an appealing price point, it’s easy to recommend to everyone, especially if you’re into modern roguelikes or From Software games. And that’s without mentioning how it pushes past some of its inspirations with its cinematographic flair and haptic combat. Sifu is as much a tightly told vendetta story as it is a masterful brawler. It’s an easy game of the year contender, and it’s only bloody February…
- Immaculate brawler combat
- An immersive story told with cinematic flair
- Genius unique roguelike mechanics
- Still a great game on PC, but it feels more at home on the PS5