Sifu Review: It Comes Down To Feel
When it comes to action games, nothing matters more than how it feels to play. Story, style, game design, progression, graphics, and much more are important, but if the game just feels good, all of that is negotiable. Within minutes of starting Sifu, I knew that this was an outstanding feeling game. The impact of your blows, the timing of the counters, parries, and dodges, its implementation of the DualSense controller, it all comes together to provide a game that feels wonderful to control.
That’s important, because some of those things I mentioned above? They’ll need to be a bit negotiable for you to really love Sifu. If you want an action game that just feels great to play, though, you’ve found your next addiction.
A Tale Of Vengeance
You start Sifu as Yang, who, along with a group of allies, is storming a kung fu school and destroying all who stand in his path. Through the tutorial, you’ll power your way to the school’s dojo to confront your former master. Along with four allies, you’ll achieve your victory, settling old scores. Upon your victory, though, you’ll discover the son or daughter of the master, depending on your choice as a player, and realize they too need to die.
That child doesn’t die, though. Instead, thanks to a mysterious pendant, they’re capable of surviving terrible wounds, and they live another day. At this point, Sifu morphs into a tale of revenge, with your character seeking out the five people who killed their father in order to find vengeance.
Five Enemies To Defeat
Each of Sifu’s five levels leads to one of these killers, many years later, each of whom has found a new life and wants to put what they did that day behind them. Your character is having none of it, though, and is determined to seek them out. Doing so takes you through warehouses, clubs, high-rise buildings, meditation spas, and much more. Despite their new stations in life, your father’s killers have many willing to stand between you and them, seemingly glad to die for them.
You’re not without tricks of your own. In addition to your rejection of death, you also have a wide variety of attacks. Early on, you’ll mostly be using a combination of light and heavy attacks, perhaps combined into some basic combinations. Throughout Sifu, you’ll be working to unlock a wide variety of additional abilities which round out your arsenal, some of which will greatly help your chances of making it to the end.
Not A Button Masher
Combat in Sifu requires precise timing and attention to detail. Despite being grounded in the beat ‘em up genre, you won’t win by button mashing. Even basic enemies are capable of defeating you if you aren’t careful, and you’ll often take on rooms with nearly a dozen of them at a time. These areas require planning and timing. Getting surrounded is a quick way to lose a life, which can go fast if you aren’t careful. Unlike in some action games, your foes aren’t coming at you one at a time; they aren’t afraid to team up. Using the environment, keeping the group on one side of you, and picking your targets allows you to take these groups on. A variety of weapons such as bats, swords, sticks, bottles, and more help you quickly take down members of the crowd as well.
You can’t just power through most foes. Both you and each enemy have a stamina bar which is depleted as you take hits, even if you block them. Mastering the timing of blocks, parries, and dodges becomes crucial to surviving crowds and especially the game’s difficult bosses, but just turtling will see your stamina quickly depleted, which leads to a break where you’ll take a ton of damage. Pushing back and going on the offensive is crucial and helps you build focus to use powerful moves which can devastate foes. Breaking your opponents’ stamina will give you the chance to do a powerful finishing move as well, a great way to quickly take people out.
Your Fight Isn’t Over
When you die, your game isn’t over. Instead, thanks to the mysterious pendant you wear, you’ll age slightly and get back up. How much you age depends on how often you’ve died. Each death raises the counter by one. So the first time you die, you’ll only age a year. The second time two years, the third time, three years, and so on. Defeating powerful foes and bosses can lower this counter, so you get back to not aging as much upon death. While you can die quite a bit, if you die while in your seventies, it’s game over, so you can’t go forever. As you get older, you’ll also turn into a bit of a glass cannon. You have less life though you’ll do more damage to help compensate a bit. You’ll need to manage your age to get to the end of the game.
That’s where I start to have a few more issues with Sifu. While there are only five levels, which aren’t terribly long, it will take some serious time for most players to conquer this one. That has as much to do with the game’s strange design choices as it does with its relatively high difficulty. As you go through runs, you’ll often simply get to a point where you run out of years. If you’re already sixty going into the third level, the odds of you completing the game are slim. Instead, you’ll need to return to the earlier levels, replaying them to carve back some years. Use new abilities you’ve unlocked and your new experience to defeat these levels at a younger age to carve back time to move forward.
Turning Back The Years
You can’t just take the years you got in the first level and jump back to the third, though. You’ll have to play through each one of them again. The early levels of the game I played dozens of times before I could finish them each with only a couple of years lost. When you’re eager to see more of the game, it can seem like a bummer to have to keep going back to those early levels you’ve already completed a ton of times, even if they remain a ton of fun to actually play. Even with experience, you can’t just run through most of them either; you’ll have to stay on your toes because even a powered-up character can die before long against a crowd. Each of the levels has a number of shortcuts you’ll find or unlock as you play through them, which allow you to skip large parts of them on replay, which also helps you save years in them, but at the expense of missing some of the resources, you find in them. The early levels have less of these as well, there are certainly shortcuts in each, but you’ll still be playing a good chunk of the level, while a couple of the later levels allow you to skip most of the path to the boss.
Those bosses are some of the biggest challenges in Sifu, as they should be. A few of them initially seemed almost impossible to overcome. At one point, I managed to reach the second boss at 24 years old, only to still lose the fight. Watching their patterns and learning their maneuvers will help you find what you need to defeat them. Still, they’ll be the part of the game most likely to drain your years, and they perhaps could use a bit of balancing as they often feel like huge difficulty spikes from what comes before them and even what comes after. In a game where keeping your deaths low is important, this can lead to a lot of frustration. I wouldn’t want them to feel too much weaker, though, as defeating them is just so satisfying.
In each run, you’ll gain resources from chaining enemy defeats together, allowing you to unlock new powers and abilities. The combos you unlock, however, aren’t permanent, at least not at first. You’ll unlock them initially only for that run. By pumping more resources into them, you can unlock them permanently, which is another big help in getting through earlier levels at a younger age. I found this mostly annoying, though. By making you use the same resource to unlock moves for the current run that you do for permanent unlocks, I felt forced to choose between going all out on my current run to try and win or basically just grinding for the future. I wish these used a separate resource so that doing the smart thing to eventually win the game didn’t feel like I was cheating myself in the moment.
Not The Master Of Everything
The other issue I ended up having with Sifu is the camera. In open areas, it mostly works well, and there are times the game even plays with perspective in a fun way, but if you go up against a crowd in tight corridors, it can often be trouble. There were plenty of times when I was low on health and afraid that even taking the time to adjust the camera was going to get me killed. Instead, I felt a need to punch wildly into space I couldn’t see. Not a great feeling and one that takes you out of the power fantasy the rest of the game provides so well.
If you want to feel power, though, the DualSense helps. Right from the opening, when I could feel the patter of the rain in my hands while making my way through the tutorial, I knew I was in for a treat, and Sifu doesn’t disappoint. The impact of your attacks and the environments are beautifully presented through the controller’s feedback in a way that few PS5 games have matched. I also loved the use of the controller’s speaker to help set the atmosphere. Sifu may not look amazing, but it has a strong style which helps present the vibe the game is going for, and fantastic animation also drives home the power and grace your character fights with.
Despite some frustrating design choices around progression and a camera which isn’t as consistent as I’d like, I had more fun with Sifu than the vast majority of action games on the market. At the end of the day, it just feels too good to play for me to deny. Even as I replayed levels dozens of times when I really wanted to see what was ahead, I couldn’t put the controller down. That’s the sign of a master right there.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS5(Reviewed), PS4, PC; Publisher: Sloclap; Developer: Sloclap; Players: 1; Released: February 8th, 2022; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Sifu provided by the publisher.