Rollicking beat-’em-up Sifu is a swift answer to all of kung fu’s deepest questions
The action in Sifu is a glorious homage to the best of kung fu filmmaking. The blocks, strikes, parries, and throws all look choreographed, with no wasted motion, no spammed punches winging at the air. If the hero knocks out a foe partway through her (or his) combo, they’ll simply continue the next two or three motions on the next stooge nearby, before backflipping over a table or scrambling up a wall to higher ground.
What is most intriguing to me about Sifu, from Absolver developer Sloclap, is the questions it will ask of the player and of the character they inhabit. They’re the kind of big, philosophical questions that martial arts movies aspire to sincerely present, but rarely answer. Sifu, as a piece of martial arts pop culture, could be something a lot deeper than the classics that inspired the game’s developers.
“Is one life enough to know kung fu?” Sloclap’s Felix Garczynski asked during a press demonstration a week ago. “How much are you willing to give up, of your life, for your vengeance?”
Sifu, on deck for a February launch on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC, presents these questions in a novel way: by aging the player. Should the protagonist fall to his enemies, they’ll be reincarnated on the spot — continuing the fight, not doing it over, even — but it will take a few years off their life. You’ll see this in the character’s appearance.
As they age, the player becomes more vulnerable to enemy damage, but more precise and effective in their own strikes, Garczynski said. This reflects the character’s progressive knowledge of kung fu — “sifu,” after all, means master (as in a skilled person). This aging is not infinite — age enough, and the character will die, forcing a restart. But I found it a unique way to limit the player and increase the difficulty beyond simply giving them a finite number of tries.
“The object is getting to your vengeance before you’re too old and have to start over,” Garczynski said. He assured us that levels would be appropriately checkpointed, and that by starting over, players could either repeat the level at where they aged out, or go back to a prior level if that one had taken too many years off their life. While Sifu can be completed any number of ways, one imagines the replayability comes in finishing it all as a young woman or man, or perhaps deliberately tackling it as a wizened old master with no room for error.
The Sifu demonstration we got was an eyes-on, recorded playthrough only, but it was adequate enough to show the flow of combat and the system of unlockable combat skills supporting it. In the game, both the hero and enemies have a “structure gauge” above them. The goal: Fill up an enemy’s gauge, and prevent yours from filling. When full, the character’s guard breaks, and a finishing attack can be delivered.
As for defense, basic blocks can take a lot of the sting out of a strike, but the gauge will still fill incrementally. That’s where parries and evasions come in, helping players keep ahead in the ebb and flow of filling up enemy gauges while lowering your own.
The levels we saw looked like they were designed with nonstop motion and combat in mind, with furniture and destructible objects providing barriers or distance between you and attackers, or improvised into attacks as a ramming surface or tripping obstacle.
Fans of the Batman: Arkham series will recognize the main character’s mastery and control of the fight’s tempo and direction, with similar goals of filling up combo meters to deliver temporary perks. The focus attack, which slows the action for key strikes and calls out vital areas to hit, is one example we saw.
“There’s over 115 attacks in the game that we created with a Pak Mei kung fu master,” Garczynski said. “The kung fu style of the game is really based on Pak Mei kung fu, which is a very specific, very efficient, and grounded style. It’s not like the antics of wushu, with a lot of, you know, flying kicks. It’s very grounded. It’s very powerful, very precise.” Garczynski added that players will unlock newer and more powerful combinations and attacks as they progress, especially if they age.
The levels will be themed according to elements traditional in Chinese mythology; we saw wood, fire, and water stages. Fire was an underground pit-fighting club, for example, where the hero plowed through bouncers and goons and tangled with flash-kicking tumblers in a kind of miniboss showdown. The stage ended in the fighting pit itself, finishing off a tanklike boss (for now, known only as “the big guy”), with a hadouken-esque two-handed strike to his solar plexus, courtesy of the focus attack.
“The game is located in a contemporary Chinese city, and so it’s [got] fairly realistic, credible environments,” Garczynski said. “But there is magic in the world. I’m not going to spoil too much of the story, but it’s linked to why you can revive and age. And it’s also linked to your enemies. So as you go closer and closer to the different bosses in the different levels, you can expect the environments to shift from a very realistic, credible urban environment to something that’s actually more infused with magic.”
An art museum representing water or ice as an elemental theme seemed also to illustrate this transition. Garczynski said it’s the home base of the game’s third boss. The playthrough demonstrated the importance of parrying, because the counterattacks make a foe drop their melee weapons — a vital skill against machete-wielding thugs. The hero then picked up the machete and, after filling up their focus gauge, implemented a focus attack with the blade, dealing even more damage.
This video shows focus strikes, parrying enemies who carry weapons, using weapons on them, improvising attacks with the environment, and finishing moves executing tanklike attackers.
Sifu is the story of a single day, Garczynski said, with the character plowing through all of the city’s underworld single-handedly (and -footedly) to bring justice to those who killed his or her family. Dialogue options and a “detective board” that unlocks leads and clues help put together the overall story of who did what and how they’re going to pay.
Some dialogue can allow the hero to avoid combat altogether; other options just cut to the throwdown. NPC enemies are not always aggro as soon as the player encounters them, either. In that case, it’s up to the user to determine whether they want to strike first, talk their way out of it, or talk their way into it, always with an eye to crowd control.
Because Sloclap is already known for a martial arts action RPG, that being 2017’s Absolver, inevitably Sifu will be seen as a follow-on, particularly in its fighting systems. The two games are fundamentally different, Garczynski said. “At its core, Absolver is really a PvP focused, 1v1 game,” he said. “Sifu is really about fighting multiple enemies, although you will have duel situations, typically in bosses. But it’s really been designed from the ground up for, you know, fighting multiple enemies. So, how do you switch targets, how do you use your environments?”
Most of what I saw resembled a modern-day reimagining of straightforward side-scrolling beat-’em-ups like Kung Fu Master — a game I’ve adored for 35 years, partly for the tribute it made to Bruce Lee’s classic Game of Death. Long hallways funnel the player toward enemies and vice versa; goons swarm a room and the doors shut, leaving you to dismantle the crowd one by one.
“Once you finish the game, probably the first time you finish it, you’re going to be pretty old,” Garczynski said. “So there’s a sort of natural objective, which is, I want to finish the game as young as possible. Because I want my character to have their life in front of themselves at the end of the game.
“It’s cool to be a wise old kung fu master,” Garczynski added. “But they are 75 years old, and they took 15 years of their life, in one single night, just for their vengeance.”
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