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Sifu review: A rewarding action game with lots of passion and kung fu

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be Jackie Chan. Not the real guy, but the version of him in those movies, where he could clear out entire rooms using luck, martial arts, and whatever else he had at his fingertips. Well, with Sifu, my childhood dream has come true. You don’t have to be a kung fu movie fanatic to enjoy this action game, though. It’s not a tired bundle of tropes packed with ironic detachment. It’s a passionate celebration of what makes the genre so good. He looks at the classics, then the modern descendants of this style, and finally brings his own unique touch to the whole thing.

When Sifu begins, however, something seems slightly off. It’s ominously raining for one, and (perhaps more immediately noticeable) you don’t play like the guy on the box art. In fact, you are the main villain. You get into a kung fu school with four of your best friends, kill everyone you meet, then make like a tree and get out of there. One of the victims caught in the murderous rampage happens to be our actual main character, who was 12 at the time. Luckily, our unnamed protagonist possesses a magical talisman that has the power to bring them back to life, and as you’ve probably guessed, they choose to devote the rest of their lives to training in kung fu for the purposes of revenge. Eight years later, it’s time to hunt down the original five attackers and exact that revenge.

As a story, it fits the structure of a segmented video game perfectly, and each assassin, now equipped with their own form of magic, becomes a separate level through which you can play. Your goal is the same on every level: keep moving forward, defeat anyone who gets in your way, and kill the boss at the end. You technically have to complete all five levels without dying, but there’s a huge asterisk attached to that.

Each time you die, your aforementioned talisman brings you back to life. The only catch is that each time you resurrect, your age increases. The faster you die in succession, the faster you age. You start at 20, and after every ten years of artificial aging, your health bar goes down, while your damage goes up (likely because you’ve taken a shortcut to increased kung fu proficiency). Your age perpetuates between levels with no way to undo it, and once you hit 70, that’s it, your race is dead. Even a magic talisman cannot prevent you from being over 70.

Once you hit 70, that’s it, your run is dead. Even a magic talisman can’t keep you from being over 70

You can replay these levels at any time in Sifu, which is not only encouraged, but pretty much required to beat the game. So it helps that they’re all absolutely great. Sifu is set in a fictional city in present-day China, and the levels are a jarring mesh between modern and ancient. I don’t really want to spoil it, but you’ll be battling it out in places like a city apartment or a busy nightclub, all presented with a touch of literal magic. Each frame is both a beautiful piece of atmospheric level design, drenched in color and gorgeous lighting, and a battlefield to ruin. Rooms are filled with tons of props and furniture just waiting for you to send enemies flying through them. Things explode, get thrown across the room, and shatter into pieces, and that adds an element of visual chaos that I really enjoy.

You also don’t just walk into a room and fight random people. They’re always doing their own thing before you rudely interrupt them, whether it’s playing backstage, an illegal cage match, or even sitting around drinking. Everything seems authentic. Similarly, there will sometimes be very small sections of dialogue between fights that can be surprisingly punchy. Sometimes you can even avoid fights or engage in bonuses. I got a lot out of it as a role-playing tool, as the choices each convey a slightly different personality. I could choose to be either a smooth talker, or someone who only cares about the facts, or maybe someone who chooses to skip the dialogue entirely by punching the speaker in the face.

The levels are a treat, but they are also extremely long! But as you progress, you will find shortcuts to speed yourself up. Maybe a miniboss was carrying an access card that lets you use a previously locked elevator, for example. On top of that, the first time you play a level, you’re probably going to get your ass kicked, which prolongs the time it takes. I was 60 when I finally managed to beat the first level, but later narrowed that down to my early 20s. And you’re going to want to be as young as possible to get into a new level, just to have more opportunities to learn what’s coming and develop the skills you already have.

It’s all backed by a dynamic soundtrack that perfectly suits the style of the game, and traditional Chinese instruments with modern electronic music to create something unlike anything I’ve heard. It stood out at the nightclub level, where a DJ played the music I fought for. But as I progressed through the level, the music shifted to a more traditional score. I felt like reality was melting away as I got closer to the boss’s lair.

Sifu's protagonist approaches a building.  The lighting indicates that it is golden hour.

Rhythm is at the heart of Sifu’s fight. It’s amazing how fluid the game is in motion. You can launch any attack and they will chain together naturally. I ended up being sent into a pseudo-meditative flow state for most fights, not too dissimilar to the Batman: Arkham games. All encounters carry a sense of action and reaction, as if you are following a dance partner’s footwork and trying to match it. Wonderful motion capture animations also bring this house to life; I remember seeing my character throw a bottle from the ground into his hand and release it towards an enemy’s head in a split second. I was so impressed with what I had just seen that I wasn’t even mad when I died right after.

Don’t get me wrong, though, Sifu isn’t easy. Combat uses a set of moves best considered a toolkit. You have a light and heavy attack, dodge, block, parry, and two dodges. Dodging gets you out of a fight if you get stuck, blocking will swallow the blow but can eventually break your guard and leave you wide open, and parrying an enemy stuns them, which you can then follow up with a counter or a throw. Finally, a dodge in Sifu is a special state where, if you do it right, you can either duck under a high attack or jump over a low attack. This leaves enemies caught in the backswing of their animation and gives you a chance to punish them for their hubris. This doesn’t even include all the weapons in the environments either. To cross Sifu, you must collect all your knowledge blocks and build them together to make your fighting style a well-rounded and impenetrable wall.

Sifu's protagonist trips an enemy by sweeping his legs under him.  It's in a dark room with a blue backlight, and it looks really cool

There’s also an upgrade tree for combat, of course, but that adds more complexity than it helps. You buy new moves through an XP system, and they’re all handy, but every time a run ends, you lose the attacks you bought. There is a way to keep them permanently by spending more XP, but it’s ridiculously expensive and I’ve only used it for a few skills. I wasn’t even close to unlocking half of what’s in Sifu at the end, and the main way to progress is to spend more time with the game.

As complicated as that sounds, Sifu is incredibly good at encouraging experimentation and balancing difficulty. It always feels fair, fast and by its rules. I had the impression that all my failures were due to the fact that I did not master my tools enough yet. The unique death system in particular goes a long way to avoiding the feeling that you’re stuck. It gives you plenty of chances to see exactly what’s killing you, and once you’ve learned enough, you can defeat your killer and move on.

If you get good enough at Sifu, you could probably go through the entire game without dying once. It’s the ultimate, get excited, put the game down, come back later and make tons of progress, type of game. I will say though that at one point I was so frustrated with myself that I thought I was going to eat my controller. Either way, it nails so much on the first try that I desperately want this to be the start of a new genre. Sign me up for more. Do a Matrix spin-off if you’re feeling crazy!