“Sifu”: Game of Death


Source: Polygon

Will Teare

Developer: Sloclap

Release Date: February 8, 2022

Platforms: PS4/PS5/PC

Played on: PS4

Rating: 4/5 

Sifu is a martial arts beat-em-up game made explicitly for Kung-fu fans and experienced gamers. In Sifu, you play as a 20-year-old son to a murdered martial arts sifu (master in Chinese). Use an assortment of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees (or perhaps the occasional brick, barstool, bat, or bo staff) to beat down your enemies and work your way through a gorgeous Chinese backdrop on your quest for vengeance.

Now, the title of this article isn’t just a fun kung-fu movie reference (this game is full of those, by the way); there’s a little more to it. This video game handles death like nothing I’ve ever played before. When your health bar is depleted in your typical game, you restart the level or your most recent checkpoint, and you give it another go. In Sifu, you have a magic pendant that allows you to rise to your feet right from where you last fell to fight once again. Nothing is mind-blowing, but here’s the catch: every time you die, years get added to your life. This is where Sifu stands out among the crowd. Not only that, but you have a “death counter” that counts one more year every time you die. For example, you begin at 20, and you die, your death counter is now 1, and you revive at 21. Then, you die again, your death counter is now 2, and you become 23. Then 26, then 30, and so on. 

As you exponentially age, your player character ages. Both in looks, voice, and internally. Your character ages by getting longer, white hair and a fitting beard. The voice (despite some shoddy voice acting here and there) actually changes as the character gets older. Now, this is another interesting part, internal changes. The health bar gradually gets smaller as you get older, but your punches hit harder. Aging forces you to get better at precise dodges rather than blocking and playing very aggressively. Some players might enjoy the high damage and low health bar, which rewards precise players with quick reflexes. Still, some may be easily frustrated and even turned off by that difficulty. 

The game even changed my playstyle. I like when enemies come at me, I parry their opener with a block which will open up a stun window for me to punish with a combo. However, if I miss that parry when I’m, say, 64, that hit could seriously bring down my chances of survival. Not only that, but the only way to regenerate health is by finishing off my enemies. I can’t retreat to find a nearby health pack; I have to throw myself further into the abyss to come out alive. This incentive for aggressive gameplay makes it extremely difficult but keeps you very engaged. I might put quite a while into finally completing one level only to say, “No, I can do it better,” and diving into the same exact stage again and again so I can finish it at a younger age. 

In fact, Sifu has now become notorious for its difficulty; this game is for people experienced with the game mechanics of this genre and video games as a whole. Be prepared for a serious learning curve as it does have a tutorial but a lot of the secret ins and outs of the game have to be discovered on your own as you experiment. What happens if I replay this level with the shortcuts I’ve unlocked? At what age can I not unlock this skill? How can I get my death counter down? How many revives can my pendant handle? What happens when I’m old, and I die without my pendant? All questions are answered by studying all the movie sets, secret pathways, and combos. 

Graphically, Sifu delivers on some truly great art direction that grounds the combat in a tangible yet cinematic sense. But on the other side, boss battles specifically deliver on getting into the mysticism of all the bosses’ powers and abilities. The Artist boss may be my favorite of the bunch as you have to fight your way through statues of The Artist, trying to find the real one and these beautiful hazy, neon environments after fighting through an already gorgeous museum. 

All in all, Sifu packs a massive punch, and I can already tell it will be an easy end-of-the-year favorite for me and most gamers. After this and Absolver, Sloclap cements itself as an excellent indie developer in the gaming industry (not to mention one killer trailer). Although it lacks in the voice acting department and has little emotional involvement storywise, Sifu knows precisely what it is. Its highly polished combat system, excellent art design, and well-executed concept make it a very easy GOTY contender.