Sifu is a third-person roguelite beat em’ up from Sloclap, the team behind Absolver. It carries on their last game’s detailed martial arts combat system and puts you in the shoes of a young fighter looking to avenge his or her murdered father.
Sifu’s story uses the well-worn revenge premise to excellent effect as its opening does a great job of combining gameplay tutorials and cinematic exposition to set the tone. It’s more than enough motivation to set you out on your quest, but it weaves a compelling mystery throughout the plot as well. You’ll fill a detective board with sketches, notes, and clues that you find from the locations you visit that piece together a larger picture. The eclectic group you’re hunting has come to control all facets of the city, from the underworld drug trade to the corporate elite, and if that weren’t enough to deal with, they each possess mystical powers. Luckily, so do you.
Sifu’s roguelite gameplay stems from its revive system represented by your charm. Starting at age 20, should you die in battle, it will revive you and add that number of deaths to your life. For example, if you die once, you’ll age one year; die twice, you’ll age two years, and so forth. Every time your age crosses a decade, you’ll gain a bit of attack power at the cost of your maximum health, but one of the five coins on your charm will break, generally ending your game once you’re past 70 years old. You’re also able to spend accumulated experience points to unlock new attacks on a skill tree upon death or at dragon statues along your paths that allow you to purchase boons like increased stamina or weapon damage. Your skills can become permanent with enough investment, but boons only carry over to the next stage on your run.
Your age at the end of a level will be the age you start on the next one, so it becomes extremely important to replay earlier levels to get that number down, as your youngest age is saved for each new level. Your death count can be reduced by defeating specific mini-bosses or the occasional regular enemy, which encourages you to explore areas for hidden pathways or secret rooms. Sifu’s level design is wonderfully interconnected in that there are shortcuts to reach later areas much faster after you’ve fought your way through the level proper. Taking on a boss at a younger age but with fewer boons is a viable strategy to reach the next stage young enough to unlock shortcuts there. It’s a gameplay loop that nails the sense of risk versus reward, but your ultimate success lies squarely on your mastery of its amazing combat mechanics.
You have quick attacks and heavy strikes with powerful combos, a quick step, and a multifaceted guard. Holding guard can block attacks if you have enough stamina, but you can parry with a well-timed tap or weave out of the way entirely with the proper directional input. It makes mastering good defense just as fun and rewarding as offense. Using your environment is also key; enemies can be pushed into walls, off ledges, down stairs, or into each other. But what sets Sifu’s combat apart is primarily the quality of its animations. Whether you’re taking on a large group or just a single enemy, the fight choreography is on par with that of some of my favorite movies like Flash Point or The Raid. Enemies will sometimes even overconfidently tell others to fall back so they can embarrass themselves fighting you one on one.
I do have minor gripes with the visibility of some attacks. It can be difficult to know what an enemy, especially a boss, is getting ready to throw at you, and their orange glowing power moves can take you by surprise in a large group. The camera can also get you killed when pushed into corners, which is never a great way to go out.
Nonetheless, I found myself completely enamored with Sifu. It’s absolutely dripping with style, from its painterly aesthetic to its incredible sound design that uses dynamic music to heighten and lower the tension like a well-paced film does. Sifu is the new gold standard for the beat ‘em up genre, and if you don’t mind meeting the challenge, you’ll absolutely love this game. Sifu is out February 8 for $39.99 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and the Epic Games Store.
Watch the Review in 3 Minutes for Sifu.