Every time you die, you get older and wiser. Starting at age 20, you're on a quest for revenge against the people who killed your father. You need to defeat them all in a single lifetime.
It's a compelling premise. Sifu comes in hot with a unique twist on an action game I haven't seen before, and given that it's game's primary selling point, it needed to come off well.
The Cultural Context
Before getting into the mechanics and gameplay, I'd be remiss not to mention the context in which Sifu was created. It's a kung fu game created by a Western studio, taking a lot of inspiration from Chinese culture and tradition. The martial arts expert hired to perfect the game's choreography, who also consulted on the cultural elements to Sifu's setting (such as the Feng Shui of the Wuguan), Benjamin Colussi, is a white Pak-Mei expert from France.
As shown in a behind-the-scenes video, it's clear that Sloclap had the best of intentions when it came to representing the culture of Sifu's setting respectfully. Benjamin is clearly extremely knowledgeable and holds what he does in the highest regard with credit to the people he learned from. Still, it can't be ignored that even when the goal is to positively represent a foreign culture, studios still fail to get the very basic aspects right: actually hiring members of that culture and community to work on the game. Over at TheGamer, Khee Hoon Chan goes into more detail in a very well-written piece you should take a look at.
I would strongly encourage you to seek out critique and writing from Chinese and Asian critics and journalists. Their views on this matter are far more important than mine in understanding how the gaming and entertainment industries in the West can better represent minority cultures rather than using them as set dressing.
When it comes to how Sifu feels to play, there's initially plenty to like about it. At first, you'll be enjoying trundling through a level, learning kung fu skills, fighting groups of baddies, and marvelling at the unique animations that come from the intense ways you finish your enemies off. You'll be taking hits, but giving them back, and in groups of enemies there's a fairly satisfying rhythm to the combat. Getting through a room of enemies unscathed and leaving them writhing after you’ve either broken bones or stabbed them in the belly feels great. That's not weird, I promise.
The experience you're going to have with Sifu becomes clearer when you get towards the end of the first level of the five. As you run through passages, picking up little bits of backstory to add to your detective board, corridors become more and more sparse. And there he is. The first boss.
I first got there at a fairly advanced age, as I was just learning the game's controls and am happy to fully admit to being below average when it comes to mechanical skills in gaming. Still, I was confident I could make a dent in The Botanist.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Getting there was tough, but I was excited to get my mitts on the first of the five big baddies I'd be facing off against.
I got utterly beat down as soon as the boss started attacking. I got to the second phase of the fight (every boss has two health bars to deplete) but had no chance. I was too old. As you age, your health bar gets smaller and the damage you deal gets higher. It seems like a fair trade-off, but I found the health depletion a far larger hindrance than the meagre increase in damage. So, without beating the first boss, it really is a case of grinding against the easier enemies throughout the level, who you've already fought a bunch of times until you're able to unlock some permanent upgrades and get to the boss without being too elderly.
This is when I started to feel nervous about Sifu. You'll be seeing the same levels a lot. Over and over again, you'll trudge through them, trying to get that perfect run with as few deaths as possible. The unlockable abilities are nice to have, but far from the bread and butter you'll be using on a regular basis, so being able to permanently unlock them by spending five times the regular amount of XP points doesn't really mean a whole lot.
You get to the point where if you take too much damage or die at a certain point in a run through a level, you might as well quit: it isn't the perfect run.
This would be fine if it weren't for the combat becoming stale after you've fought through a level multiple times. The animations looked great at first, but once I'd knocked an enemy down, punched their face twice, then helped them up (why do I help them up after grounding them? It's so weird) for the hundredth time, I started to wonder if this is all Sifu had to offer me.
Hard, But Not in a Fun Way
Again, I'm not an expert at video games. I'll beat most of you at Smash Bros, but aside from that, I'm about average. I get that Sifu wants to be a true challenge, and the goal to beat all five levels in one run is well worth pursuing. When you're actually trying to do it though, it's such a slog. Fights against groups are solid enough, if a bit repetitive, and if you're going for a good run, you're better served to take the long way around to unlock more run-specific upgrades.
Bosses are a completely different story, though. You can't chain attacks together or find ways to weave in the fancy new moves you've spent your hard-earned XP to unlock. It's a war of attrition. If you find yourself fighting the first boss for a while and thinking to yourself 'this feels asinine and annoying', there's a whole lot more where that came from. Once you learn the boss' patterns, it still doesn't feel particularly responsive. When fighting a boss and learning their attack patterns and how to dodge each time, battles were inconsistent and overly punishing when something went wrong.
Sometimes I'd dodge to the left to evade the final blow in a string of attacks from a boss, hoping to have the chance to retaliate. It worked. The next time on that same string, however, it doesn't seem to work and half my health is gone. When a game is hard, the satisfaction comes from learning its systems and utilising them to the best of your ability. All too often, Sifu punishes the player for trying to engage with its systems in good faith, and the best option is to fall back on trying to cheese the bosses with focus attacks and taking off minuscule bits of health at a time.
I certainly didn't feel like a master of kung fu. Far from it.
The True Ending
I don't want to spoil too much about Sifu, but in order to get the true ending, you need to fight your father's killers without actually killing them. If not, you'll never truly break the cycle. A lot of games have this feature - you have to play in a very specific way in order to get the true ending - but most of them work to signpost the player in this direction. As far as I was aware in Sifu, I was never given the option or told it'd be possible to spare an enemy. Maybe that's impatient play on my part, but I don't remember ever being told that the way to victory was through not killing bosses.
This is particularly bizarre because in fights with groups of henchmen, you're clobbering their skulls in with baseball bats, breaking bones, and stabbing them in their bellies. Non-violence isn't the way for any of the rest of the game, but it seems required with bosses.
Here lies the crux of Sifu's problems. It wants to be so many things. You're fighting groups of enemies, you're upgrading your abilities as though you're playing a roguelike, you're facing off against bosses who far outweigh you in strength, with an ageing mechanic working against you the entire time.
It all meshes together into a game that's far too difficult and without the satisfaction that comes from making progress in a difficult game. It's like bashing your head against the wall, and unlike other games with this approach, the wall isn't starting to crumble. The wall has grown a smug, laughing face as it prepares to take away one of your character's most important abilities, just in time for the final boss battle.
Reviewed on PS5. A code was provided by the publisher.