Sifu is a fast-paced and brutal action game that pushes you to get back up from every defeat -- but at a steep cost. It takes a more thoughtful approach martial arts action that you might have seen in other games. Sifu puts its focus on getting you to master your skills, face formidable foes, and learn from your defeats -- which there will no doubt be many of. And it does so in a compelling way.
I got to play an early build of Sifu, which put me through the wringer in one of the game's opening levels set in a nightclub. This stage turned out to be a compelling way to exhibit Sifu's fantastic combat gameplay while also showing off its most defining feature -- which is that your character will age with every defeat.
In Sifu, you play as a nameless student who comes into possession of an ancient relic that allows him to defy death at the cost of his youth. The student will trek through the seedy underbelly of a large city to seek out five ruthless assassins and defeat them in combat, gradually improving their fighting skills and gaining knowledge of a larger conspiracy along the way.
While Sifu is very much about a student's journey to becoming the master, the stakes in the quest are very high for the protagonist. If you suffer too many defeats and reach the end of your life before your mission is complete, you'll have to start the entire quest over from the beginning. This conceit of age (and death) bringing wisdom is at the core of Sifu, and I did find it to be a satisfying element of the game's story and gameplay, with every battle being an opportunity to adapt and get the best of your foes.
Developer Sloclap's previous game, 2017's Absolver, also had a particular focus on martial arts action and how adapting your combat tactics is crucial to survival. Sifu feels like an evolution of those concepts, but with the added style of movies like Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive or Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy. The plot of Sifu unfolds in a very minimal fashion, but that ends up working in its favor, letting the action and dynamic events that occur in each area speak for themselves. The level in the nightclub was a great entry into the game's moody and harsh world.
The combat of Sifu is where the game shines, and I found most fights to be smooth yet still tense affairs that can create some fun moments of finesse when you manage to find your flow. Mixing up light and heavy attacks, you can strike at enemies to soften them up, opening the opportunity to use crushing takedowns to finish them quickly. Along with your growing set of skills, you can also use objects in the environment to batter or knock opponents off balance -- which can be clutch in a pinch.
Despite how slick and accessible the combat gameplay is, the battles themselves can be quite unforgiving. You're always outnumbered, sometimes painfully so, but you do have the means to overcome each fight. When I found myself getting into the flow, I was dodging and parrying enemy strikes and clearing out rooms in a quick fashion. It felt so satisfying being about to clean house quickly. But even if you feel you're at the top of your game, it can be easy for enemies to take you down if you're caught off-guard. These moments where you meet your defeat is when you'll come face to face with your mortality, it'll be a constant reminder throughout the game.
When you die, you'll receive a point on your death counter. With one point on the counter, your character will age a year upon getting back up in the fight. However, if you die without resetting your death counter, you'll add another point to the death counter. Depending on how many points are on the death counter, that's how many years you'll age upon respawn. Potentially, the student can age several years during one tough fight -- which can be a tough pill to swallow. If you age enough, you'll enter a new stage of the student's life where they'll become visibly older, along with a drop to their health, but an overall boost to attack power as well.
While I like the concept of aging in Sifu, which fits well into the game's themes, this demo left me doubtful about its execution in the actual gameplay. Given the unforgiving nature of the combat, it can be easy to land in some situations where you have little room for error. During my second run of the demo, a battle I was able to finish in my first attempt easily, turned into a chaotic and intense bout that downed my character three times. By the end of the fight, my character had aged nearly a decade. Knowing that aging is permanent in Sifu, hitting a wall during a run through the game left me feeling a bit frustrated at how brutal failure can be.
Perhaps this was due to the nature of a short demo that's essentially just an isolated chunk of the game, but I often felt like I was getting annoyed with the coupling of the unforgiving combat and the permanent penalty of adding years to your character. I might feel more at ease with it in the final game and how it might better communicate and present these clashing mechanics. For now, though, it did come off as an overarching layer that seemed more of a hindrance than something to encourage better play.
That said, I can't deny that I was still impressed with Sifu's combat and atmosphere. It blends the grittiness of an urban action film with the spectacle of an old-school Kung-fu movie, and it's an entertaining and potent mix. The combat's flow and satisfying sense of speed left me feeling energized, and I'm interested in seeing the kind of battles and twists that this Kung-fu fable still has in store.