Android Central Verdict
Bottom line: The aging mechanic in Sifu presents an engaging challenge, while the visuals and combat keep you invested. The backtracking and slow progression can be frustrating though, and the story could be better.
Deep, satisfying combat
Interesting aging mechanic
Slow sense of progression
Occasionally frustrating camera
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French developer Sloclap first saw success with 2017's Absolver, a martial arts-themed game praised for its deep and well-realized combat system. The studio has built on these foundations with new PS5 release Sifu, adding roguelike elements alongside the stellar combat while providing a tough but fair challenge throughout its five areas, or hideouts.
Players assume the role of a young Pak Mei Kung Fu student, set on a quest for revenge after witnessing the murder of his/her father and mentor (or Sifu). After training for years, the unnamed protagonist is ready to face the five people responsible, who are now located in various places that are overrun with enemies. A mysterious pendant is carried throughout the game, which results in the character aging each time they die.
This unique mechanic is simultaneously refreshing and frustrating. You have to try and keep the student as young as possible across all five hideouts while trying to avoid maxing out their age, otherwise you get a game over. Learning how to overcome enemies through repetition is key to success in Sifu, which will result in many satisfying moments of triumph. However, the grind and periods of slow progression means it isn't a game for everyone.
Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Sloclap. The company did not see the contents of the review before publishing.
Sifu: The good
The aging mechanic is the driving force behind the game. It not only fuels the player's desire to constantly improve their skills but it also changes up the concept of video game "lives." Each death adds a plus one to the death counter, which in turn directly relates to how many years you age upon respawning. The pendant that allows the protagonist to rise from death gradually breaks with every respawn, and the damage that each regeneration inflicts on the pendant depends on how high the death counter is. Keeping this counter as low as possible is therefore key since it doesn't reset between hideouts, with the run ending after the pendant breaks completely and you die a final time.
|PlayStation Version||PlayStation 5|
|Play Time||10-20 hours|
After a game over, the player can resume from the last unlocked hideout at the age they were when they first started it, or choose any previous levels in a bid to lower their overall age through an improved run.
The roguelike elements really shine here, with gained XP able to be spent on permanent skill points that offer powerful combos, and shortcuts obtained from mini bosses allowing you to skip parts of each hideout after getting to a certain point. The latter is of particular importance for progress, as are shrines. These are rare, but offer a reward, with various enhancements tied to XP, combo score, and character age. Experimentation at these shrines offers players variation in approach and keeps runs feeling fresh, particularly when you inevitably go backwards in order to improve your age.
Visually, Sifu is extremely impressive, with a distinctive art style and engaging color palette. The setting of each location is strikingly different from one another, with each boss being tied to a color that is also reflected in their respective hideout.
Each combat area within a hideout is also visually unique and rich in detail. Some are filled with melee weapons, while others contain objects that can be destroyed during fights. This attention to detail keeps things fresh as you go from one combat area to another, and allows you to better keep track of where you are in a hideout during repeated visits.
There are other examples of excellent visual cues, with the pendant gradually breaking on screen and the protagonist looking older and wearing different clothes while aging. These both give clues as to how close you are to a game over. More powerful enemy attacks flash red and yellow depending on how dangerous they are, while stronger opponents appear with a fiery aura. Sloclap clearly knows how to give players information through visual presentation, which is vital for players to succeed. Sound is also used well in keeping the locations memorable, with Beijing-based composer Howie Lee crafting music perfect for the tone of each hideout.
Combat is undoubtedly the main focus of Sifu, and it is here that the game shines brightest. There is a real sense of fluidity when fighting, with seamless movements, attacks, blocks, and dodges thanks to well-crafted animations. Weapons are also used, with baseball bats, knives, bottles, and even bamboo sticks feeling weighty and satisfying to wield.
Despite your character being highly proficient in kung fu, there is quite the learning curve, with many enemies able to inflict serious damage if you're not paying attention. Gradually, you become more efficient at dispatching enemies, and more used to positioning yourself correctly, avoiding opponent's attacks, and parrying. The latter move is especially important when trying to stay as young as possible. Similar to the likes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice or Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, parrying is one of the key methods of depleting the stamina of an enemy, and can quickly lead to a finishing move. Being too offensive can easily result in death, and the game does a brilliant job of making you approach fights in a more careful manner, with more emphasis on skill and timing rather than mashing a combo.
Sifu: The bad
The precision and fluidity of combat is, unfortunately, not matched by the camera, which can be unwieldy. Many fights occur in large areas, with plenty of room to maneuver the camera around the character and the enemies you face. Occasionally though, fights take place in small spaces, with the camera getting stuck on the environment when turning. You might take damage specifically because you can't tell what's happening. This may seem nit-picky and may be patched in the confirmed day one update, but in a game with such small margin for error, this can be frustrating.
The slow sense of progression can be disheartening at times. While the game has a well balanced learning curve, beating a hideout while you're old results in having little chance to make meaningful progress in the next, meaning you will likely have to go back into the same hideout you've just beaten to improve. As you age across all hideouts, you might even find yourself needing to go back to the beginning hideout and play them all again in order to improve your overall age. The shortcuts do help to offset this, but if you are stuck on a boss or haven't made it far enough in your newest hideout to unlock a shortcut, the repetition may occasionally hamper enjoyment.
Shortcuts mostly come in the form of keycards and keys that open previously locked doors, but that isn't all you can find in Sifu. Intel can be found in each location and it attempts to flesh out the characters and hideout itself. However, these are mostly skippable and clearly not a focus, nor is the story outside of the game's opening. The five bosses are not well developed and some characters have optional dialogue, but this mostly contains throwaway lines. Sloclap say that the story becomes clearer and richer on multiple playthroughs, but the game offers little motivation to seek it out.
Sifu: Should you play it?
4 out of 5
Sifu is well worth the price of admission with its deep, satisfying combat, stunning visuals, and unique aging mechanic. While progress might feel slow at times, unlocking new moves and improving your fighting skills is very satisfying, particularly when you work out how best to defeat a tricky boss. Shortcuts are well placed and help to break up the repetition, while lowering your age across hideouts represents a fresh goal to chase when diving back into a location. This PS5 game is also visually stunning, with beautiful colors and lighting throughout.
While the game does have some problems, these are not enough to detract from what is an expertly crafted game from Sloclap. Unfortunately, it may get overlooked in the midst of February's other heavy hitters, but going on a kung fu rampage in this well-executed brawler is well worth your time.
Bottom line: Sifu's rewarding combat is a joy, as are the visuals and unique mechanics. Progression can feel slow and frustrating at times, but its innovative take on progression is worth seeking out.