When I started my demo of singleplayer kung fu brawler Sifu, the protagonist was 20, not even old enough to buy alcohol in the US. By the time I'd punched out a nightclub bouncer and beat up the goons on the dance floor, he was in his 50s. Silver lining: Zero chance of being ID'd at the bar.
Sifu is the thrilling sort of game that holds you two mistakes away from defeat at all times, with the twist that getting KO'd ages the character rather than sending them back to a checkpoint. At first, the protagonist's age only advances a year each time they're stood back up, but the cost of resurrections increases as they get older. Hit 70, and it's game over. I went from 20 to 60 faster than a Bugatti on my first try, so I feel safe in saying that Sifu won't be easy to beat. The nightclub level I demoed didn't even include the area's boss, one of five assassins the protagonist is hunting to avenge their father.
Sifu remains the early 2022 game I'm most excited for, although the hands-on demo brought my excitement down to earth. It ain't perfect. The camera can be a bastard, for instance, and I'm not enamored by the atmosphere. The thing that most excites me about Sifu remains the same, though: the high level of skill that seems to be possible. It's about taking on five or six goons at once and strolling out of the pile unscathed. When developer Sloclap (makers of the excellent fighting game Absolver) told me that Sifu is about "mastery through practice" earlier this year, it wasn't kidding.
The goal of boxing is frequently said to be "hit and don't get hit," and the axiom applies to Sifu. Holding the block button for sustained defense works for about as long as it takes to think "oh, no." Taking or blocking hits fills a meter, and when it's full, your block is broken. Only a few punches or kicks have to connect to drop you.
Or throws. Every time I'm proud of myself, I'm instantly punished, as illustrated in the clip below:
It's possible to parry strikes by tapping the block button just before a blow connects, but that won't necessarily stop a goon from finishing their combo. Sometimes you have to parry three strikes in a row before you can safely retaliate, which isn't sustainable, at least at my skill level. One missed parry can break my concentration, and it isn't long after that before I'm on the floor celebrating birthdays.
Parrying feels good, but not as good as not being hit at all. Dodging doesn't cost anything, so you can dart left, right, forward, and backward as much as you want. Even more fun, though, is standing in place and using torso and leg movement to slip punches and roll under high kicks. That's accomplished by holding the block button and pushing the directional stick one way or the other. The timing is pretty forgiving, but it feels like it should be: You're fighting multiple opponents, so it's still pretty damn hard to hit without getting hit. Evading a combo without backing up an inch is an exquisite feeling—I hadn't realized that it's what was missing from so many melee combat games that only give you a dash or a dodge roll. If you follow MMA or boxing, you've seen fighters enter a zone in which they're always where their opponent's strikes aren't—it's mesmerizing to watch, and fun to do in Sifu. (Enjoy these clips of Canelo Alvarez, my favorite golfer/boxer, as an example.)
The attack inputs are uncomplicated, which I like (I was never good at complex Street Fighter inputs), but so far offense in Sifu has been less exciting than defense for me. I fell in love with certain attacks and combos in the customizable Absolver, but so far I feel mostly indifferent toward Sifu's straightforward punches and kicks.
An exception is a comedically casual behind-the-back baseball bat flick that I can't get enough of (see the clip above, which takes place in a training mode). Hopefully there's more of that to discover in the full game, which contains "over 150 attacks," Sloclap told me earlier in the year—the demo I've played is just a taste of it.
At least in the nightclub, Sifu is structured sort of like a Max Payne game. Each room is a combat puzzle to master with a mix of improvisation and foreknowledge from previous attempts. Like Max, you can trigger slow-mo bullet time—punch time, I guess, since there are no guns in Sifu—when you need more time to assess a situation. When using your slo-mo meter, a menu appears over nearby enemies, enabling you to select distinct special moves that target specific body parts. I didn't use the feature much, because I wanted to focus on mastering the real-time combat before resorting to a superpower. Nice to have a free eye poke at the ready when needed, though.
(I also didn't spend much time with the mouse and keyboard controls, although they do exist for those who absolutely refuse to use a controller.)
I'm not sure yet how I feel about the takedown system. When a prompt appears over a weakened enemy, pressing two buttons simultaneously performs a finishing move. The animation provides a moment of mental rest before engaging the rest of the fighters in a room, and it also refills some health. That's pretty vital given how little health you have.
It's kind of cool when my dude grabs an enemy and bashes his head into something, but I don't find long hands-off animations all that gratifying. I didn't love the concept in the new Dooms, either. It interrupts my flow, and it's the character doing something cool, not me doing something cool. I can already imagine who's going to rebuff me and say that Doom's takedowns are cool—this isn't going to be a universal feeling.
The aging system is a nice thematic choice. Sifu openly draws from kung fu movies for its characters and revenge drama. You're transforming from a headstrong kid into the genre's best archetype, the old kung fu master: technically more fragile, but so wise and badass that it doesn't matter. Sifu represents that change by decreasing the character's max health as they age while increasing the damage of their attacks.
The aging magic might also lead me to wonder whether revenge is worth a lifetime, although I suppose an ultra-skilled player will skip across the finish line without having aged a day. Perhaps Sifu will have multiple endings? The story seems pretty complex.
Right now, though, I can't consistently beat the nightclub level without becoming eligible for senior's discounts. You're clearly not expected to beat Sifu in one go. Certain abilities can be permanently unlocked for future runs, adding to the protagonist's kung fu repertoire as you try and try again.
While they still have room to age, though, I like that failure steals time from the protagonist's life rather than the player's. When resurrected, the hero stands up on the spot, and enemies don't reset or regenerate health, which allowed me to chip away at tricky combatants by paying an age toll. If in the full game I bungled things and turned 40 by the second level, I'd at least be able to use my remaining lifespan to preview what's ahead. And if I encounter a boss or section I just suck at, maybe I can build that age toll into my runs, accepting that I need to perfect what I can so that I have years to spare for the stuff I struggle with. Having only played through one level, I'm speculating about how well this system will work, but the concept is smart.
If the kung fu combat is intrinsically fun enough (seems like it will be), I can see achievement-chasing being the real game here. Beat it without getting KO'd once, or without ever taking a hit, or with no takedown moves. Or age yourself on purpose and beat the entire game as a 60-year-old master.
Waiting for a turn
I'm disappointed by the way enemies stand around waiting to attack. They do have to stand around to some degree, the same way kung fu movie goons take turns getting their asses kicked. Sifu would surely be an impossible game if enemies dogpiled you. But there's no illusion to it: They look like a bunch of AI subroutines that have been tuned for my benefit, standing blank-faced and staring while waiting for the go-ahead to attack. Even in one-on-one fights, enemies sometimes space out. They don't sell it.
Their taunts don't make them seem more human. Stuff like "He can't keep up!" is just so weird for someone to yell while punching that it distracts me. (Granted, maybe it would be weirder if they all just grunted, since we've grown so used to yapping enemies.) In general, I wasn't particularly convinced by this underworld and the generic lines of its inhabitants, although I was dropped into it without context for the preview, so I'll withhold further judgment until I've played the full game.
The camera can be a pain, as I mentioned. Backing up to a wall in a third-person game is almost always disorienting, and it's a bad tactical position in a fight, so the awkwardness makes some sense as punishment for overusing the free dodges. But why does it have to be so zoomed in when I'm just walking around? It feels way too close to the protagonist for me, a habitual FOV increaser.
The demo I played was put together in October, so it's certainly possible that Sifu will have changed by its February 8 release date. And I like it a lot how it is, although I should caution that Bushido Blade tournaments in my high school friends' basement conditioned me to be a sucker for this kind of thing. I like 3D fighting games, and I like it when they emphasize fragility and footwork.
It's a good sign to me that I quickly I started judging my performance in Sifu on style. Have I really won a fight if I won sloppily? If I blocked too much, or missed too many dodges? If I awkwardly dashed over to punch someone when it would've been cooler to kick a bottle at their head? Maybe for a first run, but not for a master. Sifu seems like a game you could repeat many times without ever being completely satisfied with your kung fu.