The announcement of Sifu was the surprise highlight of the week for me. It's a kung-fu brawler coming later this year from Sloclap, the studio behind excellent online fighting game Absolver. In some ways, Sifu looks similar to that game, but the trailer leaves a lot of questions: Is it singleplayer only? How does the combat work? What's with the aging system? Sifu executive producer Pierre Tarno wouldn't answer all my questions, but did share several key details this morning, including the identity of a real kung-fu master who's helping with the game.
First of all, Tarno confirmed to PC Gamer that Sifu will be entirely singleplayer. The Sloclap team will do more online projects in the future, he said, but for this one, they wanted to "put all the development efforts in the gameplay" without having to worry about the technical complexities of online game development. The result is a "linear adventure" that's as inspired by martial arts movies as the trailer's straight-out-of-Oldboy hallway suggests.
"The fantasy we want is that sort of Jackie Chan movie fantasy where it's one versus many," said Tarno, "whereas Absolver was very much 1-v-1."
Also in the style of Jackie Chan, who due to a fundamental property of the universe is always near a ladder, you'll be able to use your environment to your advantage, climbing on ledges, throwing objects, pushing furniture, picking up makeshift weapons, and so on.
Driving these fights is a story about a kung-fu student seeking revenge against the five assassins who murdered his family, which tells us something of Sifu's structure: We'll be beating up goons on the way to each assassins' hideout, and they'll act as bosses. (Tarno stressed that we only beat up the low-level baddies because they're in the way. The assassins are our real targets.)
One curious thing we see in the Sifu announcement trailer is that it's possible to come back to life if you die along the way, but there's a catch: The character grows older each time. That led me to speculate that there might be some kind of roguelike structure to Sifu, but Tarno says that's not quite right. He wasn't ready to get into details just yet, but pointed out that in the trailer, the character stands up from where they were knocked down. He also said that the character does not become weaker as he ages—he's becoming an old master, after all.
Tarno did answer another big question I had, which was whether or not Sifu will include anything like Absolver's moveset customization system. The "short answer" is no. Without going into detail, Tarno said that the character's moves will evolve throughout the game, but that there won't be an Absolver-like combo editor or different martial arts styles to choose from. There will only be one specific combat style, actually: Pak Mei Kung Fu. That's an essential part of Sifu.
The real Pak Mei Kung Fu
The word "sifu" refers to a master, and there's a real kung-fu master involved with the game. Sifu's creative director, Jordan Layani, studies under Sifu Benjamin Culos, a master of Lao Siu Leung Pak Mei. Culos worked with the studio on both its fighting and matters of authenticity (things like where to put the incense in the trailer's meditation scene, as an example).
Tarno counts both the "movement" and "values" of Pak Mei Kung Fu as the inspirations for Sifu. Regarding values, he didn't want to reveal too much about the story, but hinted that it's not necessarily a straightforward revenge tale. He pointed out that the word "kung fu" truly refers not to combat but "mastery through practice," as in the gongfu tea ceremony. "Is one life enough to have kung fu?" he asked. The aging system is part of the answer to that question.
At the same time, Sifu is about beating dudes up, and it's easy to see how "mastery through practice" can refer to our progression through the game. Tarno confirmed that the theme applies to the difficulty of the combat. "If the game wasn't challenging enough, you wouldn't have that feeling of becoming a master," he said.
What difficulty options may or may not be available is uncertain—Tarno doesn't have any definitive answers on that topic right now—but Sifu is definitely not going to pump the player up with Batman-like strength and endurance. Dark Souls was among the inspirations for Absolver, and though perhaps in a subtler way, it shows up again here in the sense that "mistakes have a cost." Tarno wondered if the trailer should've shown the player taking more of a beating to communicate that.