Game Review: Going From Student to Master in Sifu
Sifu in Cantonese means a skillful person or a master. This simple title and meaning for Slocap’s newest gaming venture after 2017’s much-loved Absolver is a fitting moniker for an experience that punishes you over and over in an effort to turn you into an unstoppable kung fu master. Practice ultimately makes perfect and Sifu has never been a more fitting representation of this in recent video gaming.
Sifu opens with you assuming the role of a well-versed practitioner of martial arts laying siege to an unnamed dojo accompanied by a plethora of unusual enigmas. It isn’t long before you realize that this prologue is the malicious aspiration of Sifu’s antagonist, and the consequences of this segment act as a catalyst of revenge and forms the basis of Sifu’s tale. As a child, you watch your father die and you are struck down by evil only to rise and seek revenge on those who wronged your family legacy. Eight years later and your training will be put to the test.
Slocap’s Sifu distances itself from usual beat-em ups or fighting game adventures by relying on a death mechanic that makes this kung fu video game a much-needed breath of fresh air. Each time your character fails in their quest for revenge, you will rise from the ashes but with a catch. With each death, years will be added to your counter and quickly you will find yourself becoming more formidable but closer to an eternal grave.
Starting at level 20, die once and you become 21 years of age. Die again and you will find yourself 23 years of age. Die again and you will find yourself reaching 26 and so on. Making sense? You can reset the counter by defeating stronger enemies but when you get too old, well your journey ends unsuccessfully, and you go back to the drawing board again. This interesting mechanic encourages players to go back and better their runs with deathless runs that provide the greatest of rewards for doing so. It is a slick and well thought out mechanic that offers a fresh approach to the usual die and just reload the checkpoint styled fighter.
Gameplay itself is of a simplistic but extremely high standard. Everything here comes across as meticulously crafted and it’s easy to see that Slocap have done their research when it comes to kung fu bludgeoning. Although some variations and differing martial arts don’t quite match or make sense (kicks are heavily underused throughout), Slocap have created a kung fu game that FEELS like a kung fu game. You feel every punch and every takedown with considerable weight and satisfying grit.
Your character can block, parry, kick, punch and use several interactable objects and weapons throughout levels to disarm oncoming opponents. At first, the struggle is real when mastering parrying and blocking but once you do, Sifu is undeniably satisfying as you showcase your skills as a Sifu obsessive with ease and fluidity. But make no mistake, Sifu is tough.
I spent just under 20 hours with Sifu to achieve that shiny platinum trophy. That says a lot given that most of the levels here can be completed in under 15 to 30 minutes if you are a veteran kung fu master with a controller in your hands. You will die A LOT and Sifu’s bosses are the real challenge here. Every first encounter with a new boss is eye opening and takes time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. These are moments that ask you to analyze each encounter and as you unlock more moves and abilities throughout Sifu you quickly learn how to overwhelm every boss. A true trial and error process that takes many elements from rogue-like experiences but is just as rewarding.
I may have touched on it earlier but the plot here is as simple as they come but that’s not a bad thing. Slocap are clearly huge fans of kung fun cinema and martial arts movies and confidently realize you don’t need anything but a simple revenge story to bring it altogether. There aren’t constant cutscenes or character development with every new location but instead, Slocap opts for character development to come directly from you and your unwavering dedication to progression.
Homages and tributes are everywhere in Sifu too. From the early credits tutorial bringing to mind Jackie Chan in Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow to the Squat’s infamous hallway fight that clearly homages Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy . Slocap have also taken clear inspiration from the likes of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and there is even an Easter egg nod to Slocap’s Absolver too. Slocap clearly have a profound love for martial arts movies, and it shows. Touching on it lightly, Howie Lee’s soundtrack is also an absolute joy to behold, and Lee has done a tremendous job of encapsulating Slocap’s need to homage and pay respect wherever they can. When you need things to calm down it does and when you need it to ramp up, Lee has the answer. It has all the flavorsome music you need from a martial arts epic and is a shining example of music done right in a video game.
It’s not all wine and roses though as Sifu will make or break many gamers. Its difficulty curve may prove too much, and the Club level in particular will cause numerous rage quits particularly from the showdown with the second boss, Sean. But as harsh as it may seem, if it breaks you then you are simply undeserving of the jewels Sifu offers up. This is an experience that asks for your unwavering determination and let’s be honest, the best video games are always the hardest ones anyway.
Slocap’s Sifu is undoubtedly one of the best gaming experiences of the year already. It’s tough and the weak will be punished but if you stick with it and tap into that much needed determination you will be rewarded with an extremely high standard of kung fun gaming all its own. Here’s to hoping Slocap follow it up with some tasty DLC. I salute you Slocap.