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How Sifu's kung fu combat works, with 7 new video clips

Sifu's protagonist slides across a folding table as a goon attempts to hit him with a bat and another stands ready to grab him.
(Image credit: Sloclap)

Sifu is supposed to be about "mastery through practice," which suggests that the singleplayer brawler isn't going to let you beat up an entire apartment building like Iko Uwais just by mashing buttons. Last week, I got a closer look at the 2022 game I'm anticipating most—no, not Elden Ring, I'm still talking about Sifu—and based on that Discord gameplay presentation, I can safely confirm that knocking out goon hordes without aging into dust will take at least a little practice. (And seems pretty fun.)

It's like spinning plates but with punching.

Sifu looks and sounds similar to Absolver, Sloclap's previous game—those thwap thwap thwap hit effects are still super satisfying—but its fighting system isn't a copy. Absolver's combat involves a cool moveset customization menu where players mix-and-match combat styles and build combos that flow between multiple stances, and Sifu doesn't have an equivalent. All of Sifu's moves are inspired by Pak Mei Kung Fu, which its creative director personally practices. 

Sifu does include "over 150 attacks" to work with, though, and a lot of the moves will be unlocked as you play through the campaign. A few of the skills I saw were Pushback Cancel, which introduces a way to negate shoves, Crooked Foot, which adds the option to perform a throw after a successful parry, and Rush Slide Kick, which is what it sounds like. I'll miss Absolver's drunken-style Stagger combos, which I doubt the real life Pak Mei school endorses, but it looks like we'll still have the opportunity to develop a personal fighting style in Sifu.

Basic fight controls

Also like Absolver, you won't have to use your thumb to shine your controller's D-pad with endless Street Fighter quarter-circles; the "mastery" here isn't mastery of complex input patterns. Mapped to an Xbox controller, two of the "base combos" I saw in the menu went X, X, X, X, X and X, X, Y, as examples. Sifu will support mouse and keyboard play with remappable controls, executive producer Pierre Tarno confirmed to PC Gamer. (I'll go with a controller myself.)

I imagine there'll be at least a little sweating over input memorization, but the demonstration I saw focused on timing, forethought, movement, and crowd control. There are just two attack buttons, light and heavy. The other two controller face buttons are bound to 'pick up weapon' and interact/vault. It's more than vaulting, really: At one point the protagonist scurried up a wall, escaping a group of fighters.

Another way to deal with multiple enemies is to take advantage of each combo's "tactical opportunities" such as knockdown, pushback, and stun effects. During a combo, you can bounce between opponents without breaking the chain of attacks, moving on from enemies you've stunned and then coming back to them when they regain consciousness, like spinning plates but with punching.

On defense, the right trigger is bound to dodge, while the left trigger parries attacks when timed correctly, or can be held down to block incoming attacks until a meter fills and your guard is broken. 

Sifu reminds me most of Absolver when an incoming strike is evaded and turns into wind. My hope is that finesse feels even better in Sifu where there are no networking or PvP balance concerns to get in the way of whatever feels best. (The possibilities here might be underexplored given how many fighting games include multiplayer.) As just an observer right now, I love the way the protagonist leaves ghost trails as he slips and rolls under and around punches and kicks; it's not one animation. There's a bit of that in the clip below.

It's genuinely what I imagined the videogames of the future would be like.

When you fill an enemy's guard meter, an on-screen prompt displays which two buttons to press to perform a finishing takedown, which restores a little of your health (and empties theirs). You don't see those prompts in any of these clips, because Sloclap doesn't want to show the temporary UI, but whenever the protagonist takes someone out with a flashy move, imagine that a pair of buttons appeared on their chest first.

There's also a focus mode that slows down time Max Payne style (but without the dual Berettas, because there are no guns in Sifu) and presents opportunities for special moves and damage bonuses—you can see it the fighting ring clip lower in this article.

Fighting with props

The combat basics look fun to master, though not especially surprising after playing Absolver and other fighting games and brawlers that involve blocking until the 'you can't block anymore' meter fills up or empties, whichever one means you're in trouble. The finishing moves (which aren't included in that tally of 150 attacks) look cooler than landing a regular punch that happens to be the knockout blow, but the concept isn't novel.

Sifu did surprise me, however, whenever the protagonist threw an enemy into a wall or over a railing. I didn't catch much in the way of obvious animation cheating—slippy-slidey footwork, sudden camera changes—to bring level geometry into the fight like that. It's not a cutting edge SIGRAPPH machine learning animation demo or anything, but it does seem to effectively generate the kung fu movie choreography feeling Sloclap is going for.

Sloclap's inspirations come from all kinds of martial arts movies, but the name I've heard most often is Jackie Chan's.

During the demonstration, for example, the protagonist finished an opponent by kicking him in the knee and dropping him into a kneel at the foot of a metal bed frame, and then kicking him again in the back, smashing his forehead into the bars—without it going through the bars or otherwise looking ridiculous. It's genuinely what I imagined the videogames of the future would be like back when characters still clipped through every piece of geometry that dared enter their airspace. (Looking back now, daydreaming about how good contextual finishing moves would be in the future was extremely nerdy of me.)

Objects lighter than a bed frame come into play, too. At one point in the nightclub level, the protagonist flicked a bottle at an enemy with his foot and then pushed an ottoman at him for a knockdown. You can see similar moves in the gifs on this page.

Sloclap's inspirations come from all kinds of martial arts movies, but the name I've heard most often is Jackie Chan's. I'm not sure a videogame has ever really captured the way Chan so efficiently and comically frustrates multiple opponents with props. If Sifu can stick the landing on that, it could truly be great, especially if the slaptstick component comes through. The bottle throw in the clip above hints at potential there. (RIP to all the videogame enemies who've ever walked into a room moments after the player found a throwable object.)

Age is just a number (of failures)

Like in Absolver, enemies have the same kinds of abilities you do, so your best tricks will be thrown back at you (including bottles, probably). Absolver's AI enemies were tough, and I expect the same from Sifu—hopefully they feel clever enough that we won't end up wishing Sifu had a PvP mode like Absolver. I did notice that enemies sometimes gather in a circle around the fight and wait for their turn to jump in, although that happens in martial arts movies, too, so Sifu is arguably just being true to its inspiration there. 

I'm pretty sure Sifu will offer a healthy challenge. The player in the demonstration I saw never died, but Tarno says that's just because they're already good at the game. The expectation is that new players are going to fail pretty often.

When you 'die' in Sifu, the protagonist is resurrected, but they come back a bit older than they were before. As they age, their maximum health decreases, but their blows start to deal more damage. The idea is that they're becoming an "old master" whose technique is more and more precise, but whose body can't take as many blows. Get too old, and it's game over.

That's meant to happen: Sifu is the sort of game you're expected to play across multiple runs, and with some effort it'll be possible to unlock abilities permanently, so that they're available at the start of new runs. Otherwise, abilities and buffs are only unlocked for the current run.

Tarno isn't sure where the studio will land on difficulty settings. They're still honing the default level of challenge, he says, and while modifiers are on the table, he doesn't feel that a mode with a "very low level of challenge" would be in keeping with Sifu's theme: mastery through practice. Failure and repetition are part of how Sifu tells its revenge story. It'd be nice to see some 'break glass in emergency' options, though, just in case players get impossibly stuck due to unforeseen combinations of variables. (Why not old school cheat codes or console commands? It's too bad they mostly went out of style, since they're both fun to mess with and helpful accessibility features.)

Other interesting details

Along with everything revealed above, Tarno mentioned a few other interesting odds and ends about Sifu's story and systems. Here's what stuck out to me:

  • You can choose to play as male or female versions of the main character. (It makes no difference to the combat or story which you choose.)
  • If you dispatch enemies efficiently, other enemies in the area might cower instead of fighting back. Cowering enemies can be interrogated.
  • At certain points there will be multiple dialogue options that can change how a confrontation plays out, sometimes resulting in combat being avoided altogether.
  • (Most of the VO hasn't been recorded yet, though, so enemies made remarks such as "no freaking way" and "holy shit" in a flat text-to-speech computer voice throughout the demonstration. Sadly, Sloclap would rather not publicly share clips that contain those placeholder voices, so you'll just have to imagine lightly chuckling at them.)
  • The last enemy standing in a room will sometimes go into a frenzy that "creates a miniboss situation in a semi-random way."
  • There's a "detective board" which "collects all the information gathered by the player throughout their different runs" and can open up shortcuts and secret areas.
  • There are shrines where you can heal and unlock skills.
  • In between levels, you return to your kung fu school, or "wuguan," where you can practice moves.

References and homages

I can hear my enthusiasm for Sifu—a game I haven't played—boiling over in some of the paragraphs above, so I'll take the pot off the heat with some light criticism here before I conclude. We've seen some cool-looking scenes so far, particularly in the nightclub, but I'm hoping that Sloclap is saving its best levels for release. Rather than dramatic, the apartment level inspired by Old Boy looks washed out in the studio's signature planes of pale colors. It's a little boring, and I'm not sure it helps that during a hallway fight, the camera switches to a side perspective to make the Old Boy homage unambiguous. It's cute, but isn't it more fun to notice subtle references?

There'll be other overt movie nods in Sifu, but Tarno says you're not going to be barraged with them. That's probably for the best, although if there happens to be a clever reference to the original 1978 Drunken Master, I'm sure I'll turn around and declare that references are good and cool, actually.

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(Image credit: Sloclap)
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(Image credit: Sloclap)
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(Image credit: Sloclap)

In the demonstration (but not the clips above), Sloclap also showed off a museum level which invites the player to use priceless artwork as weapons. I'm happy to accept that invitation, but the plain, slate grey museum walls weren't used to any interesting effect that I saw. I wanted exaggerated blood sprays to pop off that neutral ground, or for big art pieces to shatter, or maybe for it to go all the way into the stark minimalism of Ape Out, or back to charming strangeness of Absolver and its masks (that game featured top-tier videogame fashion). 

Tarno did hint that there are surreal scenes in Sifu that we haven't seen yet, so that's a good sign. I also have to mention that the museum contains a room with a giant swinging pendulum that knocks people on their asses—also good.

Sifu is scheduled to release February 22, 2022. Between all those 2s and now, Sloclap has to get the final user interface in place, record the dialogue, and presumably tie off lots of other loose ends. There are a few more details about the structure of Sifu's campaign and story in the interview with Tarno I posted shortly after the first announcement.

Seeing roughly how Sifu's kung fu will interface with my thumbs hasn't changed my outlook for it, but it did confirm some assumptions and raise some new questions. How big do the fights get? How many ways are there to slam someone's head into an object? Are there any ladders, and can you humorously place them over someone and then punch their face through the rungs? (There I go daydreaming about videogames of the future again.)

Tyler Wilde

Tyler has spent over 1,200 hours playing Rocket League, and slightly fewer nitpicking the PC Gamer style guide. His primary news beat is game stores: Steam, Epic, and whatever launcher squeezes into our taskbars next.