REVIEW: We need to talk about Sifu.
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Just recently, I wrote about not being a masochistic gamer. Despite learning to love hardcore platformers like Celeste and Meat Boy, I regularly talk about not understanding the appeal of Souls games, of beating your head against something so difficult only to make the tiniest bursts of progress. Even just the smallest stops in Soulstown left me in agony. I resigned myself to never understanding the genre or those who adored games like them.
As if on cue, Sloclap's newest martial-arts-based brawler Sifu came across my desk and helped me to see the light.
I think I get it now.
Martial arts and Souls games go hand in hand. The incremental growth. The patience. Facing impossible tasks, failing, learning, and coming out stronger. One of my closest friends is a black belt in Taekwondo and he's always loved these games. It was right in front of me, but it wasn't until Sifu that I truly understood it.
Sifu has changed the way I approach games like it, but, for a myriad of reasons, it's also one of the hardest games to talk about since our site has launched.
So let's talk.
Just the Facts
Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5* *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Feb. 6, 2022 Early Access, Feb. 8, 2022
Review code provided by Tinsley PR.
Why we need to talk
Sifu was revealed during one of Sony's State of Play events in Feb. 2021, and it garnered interest at the time as one of the few games announced for the PS5. As a follow-up to their multiplayer martial arts release Absolver, Sloclap decided to lean further into its inspirations. Sifu clearly evoked classic kung fu movies and the works of legends like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee and they confirmed as much.
Since its debut, there has been a wariness about its cultural depictions and the cultural makeup of the team behind it. The conversation reached a crescendo in the last few weeks, just before release and after a marketing misstep.
Chinese games critics lamented the lack of nuance and reliance on tired tropes according to pre-release impressions. Some have also criticized a marketing kit sent out to the press and creators, questioning the cultural imagery as well as the items' tie-in with the game. And there was a question as to how many Chinese voices would be involved throughout development; particularly after an announcement that the primary martial arts consultant was Benjamin Colussi, a French-born martial arts master of the game's primary form of Kung Fu: Pak Mei.
While we can report that the game's credits featured Chinese team members and partnerships, we also want to elevate the many valid concerns surrounding this release.
As such, VGG will be writing about things we liked and disliked about the experience as thoughtfully and thoroughly as possible, and ultimately scoring the review based on our experiences separated, but informed, by this issue.
As a Filipino-American writer without a Chinese perspective, it simply is not my place to quantify numerically the negative impact that cultural insensitivity has had on the game overall. I recommend seeking out reviews that represent the community directly impacted. Here are a few to start with. (1) (2) (3) (4)
Tale as old as time
One thing was clear pretty early on: There's not much new on offer in Sifu's narrative. It can be argued that it "honors" the kung fu movies of old, as the development team hoped to convey. But unlike those movies, which often featured heavily anti-colonialist messages, Sifu treads the track of a basic, done-before revenge story.
In its opening, you control the game's villain, Yang, raiding his old Sifu's school on a stormy night with a crew of five. After wiping out the whole lot, Yang calls on the game's unnamed main character (at which point you're prompted to choose a character: boy or girl) and orders their death.
Here, we're introduced to the game's main conceit: the protagonist's immortality. After being struck down, they get right back up, but a little bit older than they were before. Thanks to the power of an ancient talisman, the main character is allowed to continually revive after death, aging up a bit each time.
Armed with this special power and a burning quest for revenge, your character spends eight years training, and at the age of 20, begins blazing a trail of vengeance. With a classic red string pinboard of clippings and items to piece together the lives of their father's killers in the time since his death, the journey begins.
The Botanist. The Fighter. The Artist. The CEO. And Yang himself, The Leader. All need to die for your character to, presumably, find peace. You'll make your way through each character's hideout, face them at the end, and move on to the next.
Our protagonist, "Boy or Girl," lacks any character whatsoever, outside of "must revenge for dad." Apart from a few curt dialogue choices, your character doesn't have much to say or do other than punch punch punch.
One of the biggest shortcomings in the story's entire setup is the void where a relationship with their father should be. What tends to make a compelling revenge story is a sympathetic bond and sense of profound loss and grief. Here, we briefly see a child tear up before hardening into a killing machine. Even a few powerful scenes establishing the relationship that this vengeance quest is built around would have lent more humanity to our character and the story.
While our protagonist remains untethered, the five revenge targets you're meant to hate somehow make up for some of the lacking substance. Their respective hideouts offer a ton of personality and the pickups that you find for your detective board also help fill out their stories. Even in combat, they manage to offer tidbits of lore while taunting and prodding your character.
Sifu's narrative takes all the turns you'd expect from a tale of pure revenge and does little with the format, which speaks a lot to the criticisms folks have had about the general lack of care. There are some fun elements of magical realism and impressive cinematic sequences in between combat encounters. All of the style, but none of the personality from the film genre that inspired it.
Punch your way to the top
It's clear that the bulk of effort went into Sifu's combat systems and it pays off in dividends for the team.
And so begins my complex relationship with this game.
Despite flaws in its messaging, Sloclap has truly mastered the thrill of combat and innovated the traditional beat-em-up format, elevating it to new heights.
Combat is all about reacting and responding. Defending and punishing. Punches hit hard and your openings for attacks get smaller and smaller as you progress, so you have to do everything in your power to keep up.
You've got light and strong attacks, which can be chained together into unique moves and combos on the offensive side. Defensively, it's all about timing. You can block blows or slide out of combat with a dodge, but with the right timing, you can stand your ground and parry attacks or narrowly dip under/over an attack with an avoid with flicks of the left analog stick.
The key to combat is stunning your opponents, which you do by breaking their structure bar (essentially a stagger meter) and performing takedowns. Takedowns are the only way you can heal in Sifu, so they stand out as particularly important.
At any point, you can activate Focus, which slows time and allows you to use the game's unlockable skills. These range from moves that knock opponents down to moves that automatically stun them. Utilizing your skills and building up focus are extremely valuable tools when handling dangerous encounters.
Sloclap nailed the weight of a trained hand's blows and the momentum that builds when chaining attacks against a wall of opponents. Each encounter could end in an instant, with your opponent(s) overwhelming you or vice versa. That threat (or promise) fuels a constant adrenaline rush that keeps you on your toes from beginning to end through the main story's cool 5 to 6 hours.
Though, I think that report was for the truly talented because it took me nearly 20 hours to roll credits and unlock 90% of the game's collectibles and the game's secret ending. I cannot stress this enough: Sifu is hard. At times, I was staring ahead at the challenges awaiting me, genuinely unsure if I would be able to pull it off. There are no difficulty options and no accessibility options and that hurts the overall experience. I truly had to transcend my perceived gaming ability to be able to beat this game. I know that means others will simply be unable to get through it and that's a shame.
But the challenge is not insurmountable, because every death is a learning experience.
Grow as you go
Sifu's main death and revival gimmick is much more involved than you might first imagine. Every time you die in combat, you add one year to your age counter and mature the total number of years it displays. ex: Die once, age once. Die again, age two years. Die again, age three years. You'll get back up every time, squishier but stronger every ten years of age, until you stay down when you die at any age over 70 years old.
As you progress through five hideouts, the game locks in your final age in an area as your starting age for the next one. So if you died a whole bunch and ended a section at age 70, you're probably in for a rough time in the next chapter. The only way to clean that up is to go back and refine your route and approach to each combat encounter, limiting your deaths and entering the next chapter younger.
Completing optional encounters allows you to upgrade your abilities and unlock shortcuts that make future runs safer and quicker. Based on how well you do in those runs, you earn XP that can unlock a variety of new moves and skills to your combat style. If you purchase a skill five times over, you can permanently unlock them for any and all runs of any hideout.
Sifu stands somewhere between a roguelike and Souls-like in its design, never quite feeling like it lands in either camp, but borrowing more than a few elements from both. It's a fairly convoluted system — but when properly learned stands out as being one of the game's greatest innovations.
All this contributes to a deeply-appreciated synergy between narrative and gameplay. Seeing your character take revenge into their own hands with graying hair and a wild look in their eyes helps sell the idea of their all-consuming revenge.
It's about aging, learning, growing wiser but frailer. Constantly getting better through repetition, refining your style as your progress. Finding deep satisfaction in finally making your way through an area without a death.
Framing gameplay around the discipline and learning styles of martial arts helped me to persist through Sifu's hardest bits and to appreciate extremely difficult combat games in a way I never have before. As I said, Sifu helped me "get" Souls games. A genre I thought I'd never touch in my life. And that's as big a statement as I can make about what it's like to play Sifu.
Outside of the gameplay, one of the best aspects of the game is its soundtrack. Beijing-based composer Howie Lee lends his incredible talents to the experience with a blend of traditional Chinese instruments and pulsing electronic beats. There's a dark tone to the soundtrack, with its thumping bass and traditional Chinese percussive instruments anchoring the generally moody vibes of the story. Lee's soundtrack did much of the heavy-lifting narratively, helping to sell a scene more than any single line of dialogue ever did.
Sifu runs and looks great on the PS5. There's a clean and flat-painted style to both characters and environments that keeps the visuals easy to follow in otherwise hectic action scenarios. Some of the game's moments of magical realism are beautifully otherworldly, including a scene that brings the fight into the eye of a storm at sea.
The PS5 Effect
Sifu takes full advantage of the PS5's unique hardware, including the Dualsense controller. There is specially tuned haptic feedback all throughout the game, from the pattering rain to the hard-hitting blows of your character's fists. There were also a decent amount of hints in the PS5's hint system, some of which actually helped us better understand what tactics to employ in some of the game's harder fights.
Animations never feel herky-jerky either, even considering the number of contextual animations needed to match the game's versatile and varied combat system. The fluidity helps place you in the carefully choreographed flow of a great martial arts flick — all without the clever film cuts.
My view on Sifu is so complicated. Sloclap clearly has a lot of talent and their team has made something special on the pure gameplay side of things, although some decisions have been a bit misguided.
Even with the best intentions, the impact is clear. We need to be more thoughtful with the stories that we tell and I hope that Sloclap takes this moment to listen rather than push away. Utilizing imagery of a culture carelessly is a bad look through and through, particularly in a time when members of the AAPI community are facing unprecedented harassment and violence.
Ultimately, it's your decision to buy this game or not. I loved a lot about Sifu, in learning and growing through its death mechanics; in its musical and visual artistry; and in its deeply satisfying combat systems. But we can't ignore the conversation surrounding the game and its impact on the communities it claims to represent.
video games are good and Sifu is . . . GREAT* (8/10) *baggage notwithstanding
+ a versatile combat system and unique death system that makes for an experience that got us to understand the appeal of souls-likes
- critiqued for its cultural representation, lacking in story, and no accessibility options
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