Review: The Unbalanced Sifu Demands Perfection & That’s Precisely One of its Many Pitfalls

In kung fu and many forms of martial arts, balance is key. It’s really the same with video games. Without the delicate give and take, experiences can be exceedingly frustrating and outright obnoxious. Sifu is one such game that has promising mechanics yet suffers from major balancing problems that prove to be its ultimate downfall.

It’s supremely challenging and much less often rewarding. Overall there’s definite highlights, when a combat sequence works it’s a thing of beauty. Though a predictable narrative, humdrum visuals and uneven systems detract from the experience. Sifu is alright at what it does. It just doesn’t do too much.

Developer Sloclap’s sophomore effort after Absolver is most certainly not a game for everyone. Or really most people. Especially not anyone without quick reflexes, dexterous digits and a whole lot of patience and time. The intention, better or worse, is mastery of its levels, systems, encounters and boss fights to complete the ultimate run towards vengeance.

Sifu is openly, unabashedly, a classic revenge tale. There’s very little else to its story, barring quaint mysteries and underlying motivations. Set in a solitary, nondescript Chinese city, it’s way more third-person brawler than flashy action game. It’s all single player. A highly demanding solo dance. An in-your-face combat riddle where one wrong move results in failure.

In a clever twist, the first section is played as the primary antagonist named Yang. Rushing a house with four henchman, Yang murders the father of our playable character who I don’t think has a name so I’ll just call them the protagonist. The player can choose to be a male or female, then steps out of the shadows as a child with false bravery. One of Yang’s lieutenants, the machete-wielding mute Fajar, attempts to kill the playable character yet we resurrect because of a special talisman called The Pendant.

This Pendant is special. Although not quite enough to grant true immortality. The player starts at age twenty. Whenever their health runs out, The Pendant can resurrect. Here’s the rub. It tallies up a Death Counter after each revival, taking that number and adding to the current age. If one has died five times in the same area at age 30, suddenly they are 35. Once hitting the maximum age “group” of 70, the next death is literally a run killer.

If it sounds punishing, that’s because it is. Player damage output increases with age, since older is wiser, though health declines as the body ages which is represented visually with wrinkles and grayer hair. The entire thing is risk-reward. Deaths add up very quickly. Luckily there’s ways to remove them, via beating certain enemies or using experience points for a fresh start. The Death Counter also carries over between levels. This system has so much potential, yet combined with the mechanical challenge, is painful.

The structure of Sifu is the player begins a quest for vengeance in a safe-house preparing to take on five targets: The Botanist, The Fighter, The Artist, The CEO and then Yang as The Leader. Each target has its own dedicated level, really a series of fights that culminate in a boss encounter. The protagonist has a detective board where they map out collected intelligence, forming connections between characters as certain keys will unlock rooms in other levels. There’s also a training area plus a literal Skill Tree, the latter of which is pretty amazing.

Vengeance commences by infiltrating The Squats, a drug-infested slum inhabited by goons and junkies. It stinks of death and flies. Later areas include The Club, a classic martial arts backdrop with neon lights and blaring subwoofers, then The Museum which is the most striking from a visual standpoint. These environments range in quality, from stylish to sterile. There’s an inconsistency in the artwork that takes away from that martial arts movie feel. They are more practical, notably to facilitate frantic group battles, than pleasing to the eye.

The game is its combat and combat is the game. Its camera presses super tight behind the shoulder, limiting one’s view to force tactical movement. Benjamin Culos, a Pak Mei kung fu master, consulted on this choreography of carnage and Sifu prides itself on authenticity. To a fault. Clearly its fighting mechanics were the bulk of development effort, because it lacks so much in other areas. Boasting over 150 attacks, the face buttons control punches and combos while the shoulder buttons offer dodges, blocks and parries. Advanced combinations can be unlocked, such as roundhouse kicks and, my personal favorite, the ability to trip opponents then ground pound.

It’s snappy and crunchy, highlighted by audio claps and DualSense vibrations, yet inputs aren’t nearly as responsive as I’d like. Especially dodging and parrying. It’s continuous pressure. From a mechanical standpoint, there’s really not much else to Sifu besides challenging, constant combat. Which can be grating when it’s this punishing, even soul-draining when inputs don’t do exactly what they should.

Every person in the game has health and structure gauges. Landing hits and successful blocks will eventually break an enemy’s structure, opening them up to a powerful finishing move. These contextual take-down animations are on point, plus gain back some much-needed health. It’s the most satisfying part of combat plus offers a brief respite for the fingers. Of course, there’s a counter. Enemies can execute random reversals and in the process get more powerful like they are going super saiyan. While incredibly annoying, I understand the rationale. Otherwise it’s effectively a win button.

Sifu also features a focus meter, which builds mainly during dodging. Pressing the left trigger will slow down time and offer certain special moves with names like Eye Strike or Strong Sweep. Leveraging these opportunities is absolutely crucial. Later focus abilities will stagger and even apply mortal wounds.

If it’s not obvious already, there’s a steep learning curve combining all of these capabilities together to be fluid and effective. Especially trying to execute multi-hit combos. Some require pausing, others simultaneous button presses. Luckily they are all in the menu for easy access, a smart offering from the development team. It’s also hard to know when the timing is right for parrying or nailing the more advanced combos. Sifu is going for a realistic feel as a choice at the risk of cutting off a portion of its potential player base.

Button mashing is not an option. There is no easy path to victory other than the most basic of one-on-one duels. A major skill gap exists between regular enemies compared to crowds and bosses. Every one of its five bosses has multiple phases, the second will transform an arena to showcase the game’s best environment work. It’s impossible to proceed without intense pattern recognition. It’s brutal when that just isn’t clicking and there’s really nothing else to do.

I admit there can be magic in the “ah ha” moment of recognizing a series of fast-paced moves, executing a defense then fortuitously counter-attacking. It’s just how long the game takes to teach that results in frustration all along the way. And it’s not soulslike in nature, where there’s interesting tidbits to see along the way, elaborate locales to explore or mysterious lore to find. It’s one fight to the next. It’s unseasoned meat and plain potatoes.

One tool that helps drastically is a small arsenal of available weapons. Starting after the first level, these are absolutely critical. Game-changing. There’s throwables like bottles and bricks, capable of stunning or creating distance. Machetes, bo staffs, pipes and even broomsticks are placed strategically and necessary for survival. The downside, naturally, is enemies will pick them up and become even more devastating. Luckily they can be disarmed. Except for bosses, most of which have a unique weapon and corresponding move sets.

All the usual enemy archetypes are represented in Sifu, from common fodder and towering Juggernauts to strongmen with haymakers and, my ultimate nemesis, the lightning-quick female assassins. Certain attacks can’t be blocked, indicated by an orange glow. Juggernauts will grab the protagonist or stomp them to bits. There’s mini-bosses falling in these categories and more which drop access codes or keys upon defeat. Sifu’s most devastating encounters, both for the protagonist and my spirit, throw all these types at once while mixing in weapons and throwables for good measure. Tight spaces prove to be the most annoying of all.

Set in a solitary, nondescript Chinese city, it’s way more third-person brawler than flashy action game. It’s all single player. A highly demanding solo dance. An in-your-face combat riddle where one wrong move results in failure.

The best way to describe its core challenge is solving rapid-fire puzzles in real-time. Akin to turning up the gravity in Tetris except with martial arts instead of falling blocks. It escalates quickly, oftentimes for the worse and at the player’s expense.

An irony of Sifu is how long it takes to master its mechanics yet it’s not anywhere near the type of game I’d want to marathon. The repetition of redoing levels with the same enemy spawns, their predictable gimmicks and dialogue that rarely changes, gets tedious over longer sessions.

One way it alleviates that monotony is offering alternate paths and shortcuts, a true godsend from the designers. Certain items up can open areas in other levels. Having a key in one’s inventory will even open a room in the same level when replaying it, offering opportunities to skip areas. These sorts of shortcuts are absolutely essential to actually completing the revenge cycle. It avoids entire fights, with the tradeoff being less experience both in-game and building up the player’s skills.

As I mentioned before, there’s a literal Skill Tree that works based on experience points (XP). It provides rewards for completing encounters or levels, accumulating throughout a given playthru but lost upon reset or that game over. There’s a few different times to unlock skills: at the safe-house, during mid-level shrines or when given the chance to resurrect after a death. These skills are always first unlocked temporarily. Then there’s the option to invest more XP towards permanently unlocking them for five times the price of the initial cost. Basically it’s a way to “bank” XP across and maintain skills for future attempts.

As with many parts of Sifu, this is defined by its risk-reward profile. There’s a level score that builds with a multiplier while fighting, almost like a fighting game or Devil May Cry however it’s nowhere near fully baked. Certain unlocks at shrines, often after difficult areas, are locked behind having a high score. Such buffs only apply during that particular run, such as more focus or structure from dodging. There’s also age-based upgrades at these shrines that phase out as the player gets older, from increasing one’s structure gauge to gaining more health during finishers. I found myself tending towards weapon durability and health regeneration, and away from using XP on these one-time benefits.

Within these various upgrade systems reveals another place where the balancing is plain off. Skills are mightily expensive, and it’s not very clear where to invest. Everything can, and will, be gone in one lousy sequence of combat losses. There’s no way to regain it other than to try, try again.

When it comes to narrative, this is the weakest part of Sifu. The storytelling “method” is via minor context clues and environmental pick-ups as opposed to cut scenes or meaningful conversations. There’s dialogue “choices” that didn’t seem to matter at all. hardly any character development or major twists and turns. It presents a small bit of intrigue around Yang and his motivations, centering on “miracle healing” and how he runs a sanctuary. This ties into The Pendant. The real narrative arc is fighting literally everyone the player sees until finding Yang.

Collectibles fill out the detective board and draw lines between characters, yet it’s all very surface level. The only part in Sifu with any real depth is its combat. Every boss victory opens a new area of the hub area, but they are lifeless. There’s no collectibles or lore items. It doesn’t fill out backstory or even hint at anything. A remarkable waste of opportunity. As is the ending, anticlimactic and unsatisfying. I only learned there’s a hidden reason to play after finishing by reading PlayStation trophies. The storytelling itself and general presentation are quite lackluster.

Sloclap does apply select nice touches when it comes to certain details, even if much of the broader game is lacking in meaningful themes and points. The protagonist will comment on taking alternate routes when they already have the key. Boss environments reflect certain personality traits of that particular foe. The visual flair of The Museum with its flowing exhibits and grandiose installations is a good break from the lower quality other levels.

If there’s a standout other than combat complexity, it’s audio, sound and music elements. Sounds are crunchy and nasty. Just how it should be in a brawler setting where everything is close quarters. Major hits echo through the DualSense speaker, a fantastic decision. The original soundtrack from Howie Lee escalates the hype, especially during hallway sequences or dance floor skirmishes. The more chaotic the scene, the better the music.

On the other hand, character barks are comical. In a hilariously bad way. And there are times of quiet while fighting, which always felt oddly out of place when it happened. Plus, I wish there was an option for Chinese dialogue with English subtitles right from the start. The English vocals in a Chinese setting kill any sort of immersion. The voice acting is pretty mediocre. There will be an update sometime after launch to include Chinese voice over, a vast improvement over characters speaking English, sometimes even with random British accents.

Sifu unfortunately lacks the sort of options and accessibility features that I’d like to see in modern games, even indies. The best is how it offers custom input remapping, total flexibility on that front. Beyond that, it’s limited to the usual camera and subtitle opacity basics. It doesn’t offer text size changes. I didn’t see colorblind features. It’s also a third-person game where there’s no ability to swap the camera shoulder location, which would be useful.

The natural progression here is to dive into its lack of difficulty options. While I always prefer different levels of difficulty, I respect designer intent and understand the desire to make things challenging. These days even without an “easy” mode, there are ways to make it more fun and forgiving. Time dilation. Clear prompts. Auto combos. Button holding instead of repeatedly tapping. Sifu is an exceedingly difficult title that could be more approachable even without traditional difficulty assignments.

I’m happy to report that performance was near perfect. I had minimal complaints, which is reassuring since this is a crucial part of any game that operates at these speeds. Sifu runs at 60 frames-per-second on PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4, similar to PC of course, and even outputs 4K resolution on PlayStation 5 which is where I played it.

From a mechanical standpoint, there’s really not much else to Sifu besides challenging, constant combat. Which can be grating when it’s this punishing, even soul-draining when inputs don’t do exactly what they should.

Sifu is one of those games where I can point to exactly what it does well. It’s a straightforward beat-em-up with arguably too much adrenaline and not much besides its never-ending fighting. The promise of becoming a deadly kung fu artist in this stylish, slick setting is there. The execution isn’t.

I started to sour in the second chapter, within its nightclub region when working my way towards facing the game’s second boss. I didn’t have any real skills unlocked because I hit a roadblock. I racked up a serious amount of deaths, kept losing XP and had to reset multiple times in order to progress. I found it unforgiving and brutally difficult in the way that makes the player feel bad rather than badass. Every death felt like a personal affront.

It was clear what I had to do: Keep playing the same part of Sifu to get better. Even if I didn’t really want to at that moment. I couldn’t even distract myself with collectibles, side activities or audio logs. There was nothing else but facing the same enemies in a row and getting used to what the game wanted from me.

As one would imagine, I turned on the game pretty quickly. Its aging mechanic and game over function feel a relic of inferior arcade game models designed to eat quarters. Except here it just eats precious time, and my will to persevere.

Then, my critique was solidified in one of the final areas. There’s a gauntlet of the game’s toughest enemies right before a major encounter. Like a mob boss throwing all available underlings at the player so that they are too tired to care if they live or die. This technique is a cheap one to me, and kills any momentum it built until then.

Sifu wishes it made the player feel like Keanu Reeves in the first Matrix film. Duking it out with Morpheus as he slowly and surely realizes he knows kung fu. It ends up feeling like Chris Farley’s character in Beverly Hills Ninja, stumbling and bumbling while ultimately pretending to have a clue.

There’s similar critiques here from me for many run-based games. Except Sifu is much less dynamic, riveting or intriguing from a narrative standpoint and has much less going for it. It’s a revenge tale straight out of a B-movie, in its most distilled form without much substance to back it up.

I swear, I do like individual elements. There are moments of genius, of exhilarating flow state gameplay. Then it’s another slog through multiple deaths just to find out what’s behind the next door when I already know. I wanted more out of Sifu. I wish it was better. And sure, I eventually beat the game. But it had beaten me long before that.

Title: Sifu

Release Date: February 8, 2022

Developer: Sloclap

Publisher: Sloclap

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC.

Final Score: 6.5/10

Recommendation: Maybe to those itching for a no-nonsense, level-based revenge tale where the martial arts is unforgiving, the time investment is too draining and the resolution doesn’t pay off. There’s enjoyment in Sifu, mainly for masochists.

Disclaimer: Advanced review code provided by the publisher.

Sources: Publisher Press Kit, Certain Screenshots from PlayStation 5.