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At its best, Sifu has the goofy grace of a playable Jackie Chan movie

Sloclap’s fast-moving kung-fu game has its flaws, but its cinematic ambitions are hard to resist

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Image: Sloclap

The key moment to understanding Sifu, the glossy new martial arts game from Absolver developer Sloclap, arrives about 15 minutes into the game’s story of kick-and-punch-based vengeance. That’s when your player character barges into a hallway in a rundown tenement, only to see a dozen or so goons arrayed along its length, primed for murder. With a certain inevitability, the game’s camera quietly slides from behind your hero’s back and into a mid-distance side shot. The baddies rush. And you (hopefully) proceed to systematically dismantle them in a display of bravura hand-to-hand violence.

All that’s really missing is the hammer.

Not that Park Chan-Wook’s is the only filmography Sloclap is cribbing from here; Kill Bill, for instance, is baked right into Sifu’s structure, down to a list of comic book-ish assassins that slowly gets crossed out as you progress through its simple story of a child seeking revenge on their parent’s killers. And that’s to say nothing of god knows how many more authentic kung-fu movies the game lifts its various fights, locales, and moves from.


At its best, Sifu manages to accurately replicate the high-energy, tightly choreographed grace of those classics, going full old-school Jackie Chan with its improvised broom combat and casually hurled bottles into mooks’ faces. There’s a powerful high that comes from ducking under an enemy’s kicks in the middle of a crowded club, knocking their feet out from under them with a quickly propelled footstool, and then proceeding to pound them into paste. Or getting knocked back through a table in a secretive drug lab, grabbing a broken piece of furniture as a weapon, and rallying a high-speed counter-offensive. As the game teaches you to scale its increasingly brutal learning curve, it only becomes a better and better action movie, transforming from the blunders of “Guy Who Keeps Getting Smacked In The Back Of The Head By Low Level Thugs” into something much more flowing and balletic.


That difficulty is aided (sometimes overly so) by the game’s strangest system: A mystical amulet that brings your hero back to life every time they die, at the cost of them being aged an increasing number of years with every revival. A particularly bad fight—and you will have some particularly bad fights, especially before you’ve learned how to manage the game’s vital defensive move set—can see your nameless protagonist age 40 years in a single bout. (Hilariously, no one ever comments on the fact that they guy they’re fighting just sprouted a foot-long gray beard and crow’s feet over the course of a five-minute battle.)

The metaphor is simple and a little dumb, in a way that kind of works: Your protagonist literally spends years of his or her life in pursuit of vengeance. The mechanical effect, meanwhile, is strictly poor-get-poorer: Every decade of life increases the damage you take and shortens your health bar, while also cutting down on upgrade options. Reach 70, and the amulet breaks outright; die then, and you’ll be restarting from your last uncompleted stage. (Or earlier, if you want to replay levels to try to beat them at a lower age; there’s a lot of arcade energy baked into Sifu’s structure.) The idea is to impose a sense of desperation, as you push to beat one more boss or unlock one more permanent shortcut before your body finally gives out. The effect, though, is often to instill a sense of despair and frustration.

Because Sifu, in case it wasn’t clear, is damn hard. The weakest enemies go down easily, but anyone beefier will require a blend of reaction time, watchfulness, and upgrades (which only persist between lives if you pay a healthy multiple of their experience cost to make them permanent). It’s the price of replicating that movie magic mastery, and of taking the game’s combat beyond that of a more simple brawler: Taking a lot of lumps learning how to dodge, parry, or otherwise avoid attacks often dispensed at lightning speed. At times, it’s strangely reminiscent of From Software’s Sekiro, with its similar focus on using your defensive skillset as a form of offensive attack. But that game was rarely, if ever, this unforgiving, or as willing to chip away at your precious resources with every death.

Is it worth the effort? Like we said: The highs here are very high, the sense of potential mastery potent. (Game looks great, too, with a fluid, slightly cartoonish style.) But progress will take a certain bloody-minded persistence—and a willingness to overlook the game’s various crimes against authenticity. (To be clear: This is a team of French developers making a video game about what they think an Asian martial arts movie looks like; it’s so divorced from anything resembling a story about real people or cultures as to land somewhere at the intersection of stereotype and cliché.) With those caveats in mind, though, Sifu remains the kind of game it’s hard to stay away from for very long—for no other reason than a desire to take vengeance on it for what it did to you the last time you played.


Update, 5:44 p.m. on 2/6/22: Sifu’s PR team reached out with a statement today in response to this review; we’re printing it in its entirety here for the sake of transparency:

1. The game is not about Asian martial arts, it’s specifically about Chinese Pak Mei Kung Fu. The region of Asia covers a lot of countries that may have different fighting styles vs the Chinese Kung Fu styles, and this is specifically about one style, Pak Mei.

2. The team employed a number of Chinese development consultants through their partners at Kowloon Nights. The feedback from the Chinese developers touched on topics from character animation, narrative, character design, environmental design, and the combat choreographer, Benjamin Colussi is a master at Pak Mei, who lived in Foshan and studied as Lao Wei San’s chosen disciple. He is considered the heir to Pak Mei Kung Fu.