We got hands-on with the upcoming beat-'em-up from Absolver developer Slocap.
For those wondering where the title comes from, "Sifu" is a Chinese honorific meaning "master"--much like the more well-known "sensei" from Japanese culture. It's a fitting name for developer Sloclap's upcoming beat-'em-up, not just because of the game's kung fu stylings, but also because Sifu demands a mastery of its combat if you're to have any hope of reaching its conclusion. At least, that's the impression I took away after playing the demanding brawler for the first time. The hands-on preview build we were given only features a small slice of what's to come when the full game releases in February, yet this is still more than enough to showcase the depth and potential brilliance of Sifu's hand-to-hand action.
A back alley nightclub provides the setting for this single-level preview, its ambience shifting as you move between neon-lit social areas and dim backstage corridors. A thumping soundtrack emanates from the pulsating DJ booth positioned at the head of the dancefloor, while a secret fight club is tucked away in the basement for those with exclusive access. I swiftly dispatch the lone bouncer on the door with a few incisive strikes, but things aren't quite as smooth once I descend into the club's busy underbelly.
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Much like the martial arts movies that inspired it, Sifu often positions you as a lone fighter facing off against an overwhelming number of foes. This is the case in most games, of course, and at first glance, the setup for Sifu's brawls looks reminiscent of the Batman: Arkham games. The similarities basically end there, though. Playing as the caped crusader is an exhilarating power fantasy: The glowing blue counter indicator provides a safety net that requires reactions more than anything else--and having access to a utility belt's worth of gadgets is certainly welcome. Sifu's combat is grounded in reality by comparison. You'll barely scrape by in most encounters, even when utilizing the full potential of your fighting skills, awareness of the environment, and ingenuity.
This all begins and ends with the martial art of Pak Mei, an aggressive style of kung fu that's adopted by Sifu's protagonist. Slocap has its own Pak Mei expert in fight choreographer Benjamin Colussi, who spent his youth practicing the style under a Chinese master before opening his own martial arts school in Paris. While some styles of kung fu are designed for show, Pak Mei is focused on putting your attacker on the ground and ensuring that they stay there. This is evident after a few short minutes with Sifu, as its lightning-fast strikes connect with wince-inducing ferocity. It's not overly flashy, but the sense of impact behind each animation effectively conveys how dangerous Pak Mei can be in the right hands. Devastating flurries are seamlessly chained together, flowing naturally into parries and throws, while contextual actions turn the environment into more than just a simple backdrop for kung fu action.
Being aware of your surroundings is a key aspect to surviving Sifu's punishing fisticuffs. You might hop over a coach to create separation or isolate a single enemy; scale a nearby wall to reach the mezzanine and engage your foes from the top of a staircase; or launch an unfortunate soul through a partition before using a broken piece of its wood as a makeshift weapon. Each fight feels unique due to the layout and placement of different objects, and that's just taking into account a single level. Glass bottles are a frequent and easily accessible weapon in a nightclub, and sweeping an enemy off their feet by kicking an ottoman towards them will never not be fun. It's exciting to know that these options will only expand in the full game as the locations change. Being able to shift the balance of power by making smart use of what's around you is inherently gratifying.
When it comes to defense, Sifu uses a familiar stamina system known as "structure." This works a lot like Sekiro's posture, where blocking too many attacks in succession will leave you stunned just long enough for enemies to capitalize on your mistake. Mixing blocking with dodges and parries is essential, but only certain attacks can be followed up with a rapid counter. This forces you to learn each enemy type's moveset in an attempt to anticipate what's coming.
You'll be facing off against the same opponents time and time again, after all. Aside from being punishingly difficult, Sifu also dips its toes into roguelite territory. There aren't any random elements, so it's not traditional of the genre, and the latest preview build is focused on combat, so it's tough to gauge how the other systems coalesce. Sifu's unique approach to death is felt throughout, however, as each time you die you're able to get straight back up thanks to a magic pendant. The only caveat is that each time you do so, the pendant adds more years to your life.
You might begin the game as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, but you'll quickly grow older as your health bar trickles away. During my first run I hit the ripe old age of 32 before reaching the end, while other runs concluded with vastly different ages. Aside from altering your appearance, getting older has some significant gameplay implications, too. By advancing in years, you're able to deal more damage, yet you're also unable to sustain as much--the idea being that it takes years to master kung fu. Age comes with experience and improved proficiency, yet brittle bones introduce a weakness that wasn't present in your youth.
Slocap says there will be story connotations related to your rapid aging and the price of vengeance, but this isn't present in the preview build. Instead, this snapshot of the game offers a brief glimpse of the intriguing elements wrapped around its rousing combat. My anticipation for Sifu was already high just based on its trailers, but after getting a taste I can't wait for more. Sifu releases on February 22, 2022 for PS4, PS5, and PC.