Difficulty in video games is often a hard thing to fully conceptualise. Is a game tough when enemies do as much damage as you? Is it about the sheer volume of enemies on screen? How much should the game's mechanics cater to you? I don't really know what makes a game hard but I do know many will struggle with Sifu.
This is both its biggest deterrent and greatest strength. It is so caught up in what it is trying to do that it rarely caters for the audience. You simply press start and get to work. Sifu is a game initially defined by tropes. You start off playing the big bad, only to have a perspective shift to the weaker character you actually play as.
The power of tropes
This works to show you how powerful you can be versus how powerful you actually are. In this same stretch, Sifu received some criticism earlier this year for orientalism, the fetishisation and the essentialization of eastern culture.
The story is rather vapid and filled with tropes of revenge and a wise young student, out to hone his powers and take on the world that has punished him up until now.
Looking at it as a caricature of Chinese culture is perhaps a reductive lens to look at it through though - operating much better as a homage to kung fu movies. It looks to Chinese American media like that propagated by the likes of Jackie Chan - someone the team paid particular attention to.
This being said, for a more thorough analysis of the culture underlying it and the way that informs the story, it is worth checking out a writer with a little bit of a better understanding than myself.
Luckily, the gameplay feels great, really nailing that feeling of a fighter taking on the world and coming out the other side victorious. You won't often die to one fighter, instead dying from one thousand cuts. In its basest form, the gameplay is fairly simplistic, only ever requiring the joystick and a handful of buttons but what it does with that limited arsenal of inputs can be quite impressive.
You start off with a handful of punches, kicks and a parry. However, you'll slowly unlock new moves and combos as you continue to play. This leaves the gameplay feeling fairly similar to the likes of Street Fighter, with your joystick being more important than your buttons. The team behind Sifu worked with Bak Mei master Benjamin Culos to bring an authentic feel to the fighting that makes it seem structured and brutal at the same time.
A tired loop?
This being said, with the difficulty of the game and the similarity of enemies, it can often reward you for doing the same few moves over and over again. Learning how certain items and combos work, I rarely felt encouraged to get creative with my move set. I settled into a run and went for the same thing until I perfected it. You are often destined to try the same thing over and over again until it just clicks.
This leaves us in a good space to talk about Sifu's single biggest selling point - the age system. In Sifu, due to the use of a special talisman, you can resurrect after each death. While you could escape your own death, you could not stop the brutal murder of your family and you use this talisman to your advantage to hunt everyone responsible down.
This leads you down a sequence of varied levels, fighting through hundreds of enemies to get to the boss at their core.
The death and resurrection system is tied to your character's age, meaning every time you come back, you age just a little more. Starting at just one year older, things start to snowball quickly, leaving you old and fighting off that boss with the last of your strength.
It balances this system by letting you stop the ageing process just a little. Every time you beat a particularly tough enemy, your counter rests, meaning you only age one year at a time again. If you die a handful of times in a row, you could end up moving four or five years at a time.
Alongside this, there are regular chances to upgrade your move set and some stats. You can use experience built up in each level to give yourself new traits or better ways of handling situations and regular shrines throughout the map let you upgrade item efficiency, health regen and so much more.
This all being said, you can't over-level or prep so much it becomes easy. Sifu is an action fighter take on the roguelike genre with some very small permanent upgrades if you've put in the time to unlock them.
You take each level one at a time and can restart from the start of a chapter if you die or don't like your run so far. In this way, winning the game will look like an amalgamation of your very best runs on each level.
The atmosphere and overall aesthetic work rather well in the grand scheme, feeling cartoony enough to fling an enemy with ease or take on six people but serious enough to look cool when you really try.
Small rumbles and sounds coming from the controller add to the scrappy style of everything in front of you in tangible and interesting ways. Though it likely won't blow you away with how well its graphics come together, it does serve the overall experience well enough to hold its own.
Sifu's difficulty isn't just justified in its story, it is one of the central pillars of its design. You play a young kid aiming to become a master (or Sifu) in kung fu to take on those who have wronged you. The game is designed to punish you over and over again until you finally overcome it. It is brutal, sometimes rather inaccessible, and its design may leave you doing the same things but it just feels so good and satisfying that it's hard to care that much about it. Sifu has its own problems but its moment to moment gameplay is a real knockout.
RealSport Rating: 3.5 out of 5
We reviewed Sifu on PlayStation 5, with code provided by Sloclap.