You can find Seasoned Gaming’s review policy here
Revenge. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that’s been told in countless ways. SIFU, the latest title from developer Sloclap (Absolver), is another such journey. In fact, it’s been one of the most trying, yet rewarding, journeys I’ve taken through a game in some time.
SIFU opens with an introduction cinematic that will feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a martial arts movie before. After witnessing a murder as a child, you are set on a path of revenge as an adult against those who harmed your family.
The core structure of SIFU is rather straight-forward and reminiscent of games of a younger era. There are five main levels, and each level features one of the core antagonists from which you seek revenge. In a way, it reminds me of a videogame adaptation of Kill Bill as you work your way through waves of enemies until you reach your primary target. As you would imagine, each of the five nemeses has a unique arena and combat style, and they pose a formidable challenge.
Artistically, SIFU is a beautiful game. The art direction is simple on the surface yet detailed in various aspects that combine to create a striking impression. Inspiration was clearly taken from some martial arts classics (Enter the Dragon comes to mind) for a few instances within the levels. There were several moments throughout which were especially distinct and memorable. In particular, the Museum level was exceptional and easily my favorite overall.
The levels themselves feature a nice array of locales with alternate paths and collectibles to discover that provide further context to your targets. They also feature a variety of shortcuts that you can unlock to increase the efficiency of subsequent playthroughs. And trust me, you will be very thankful for them. After completing a level, you are taken back to your home where you can spend experience points, track each level’s collectibles on an investigation board, and progress to the next level.
Now let me get to the crux of SIFU: it is an immensely challenging game. In fact, even as someone who prides themselves on completing difficult games, I didn’t expect SIFU to push back so strongly. There was a point where I audibly muttered, “I don’t know how I’m going to beat this game for the review.”
However, to Sloclap’s credit, SIFU is also an incredibly well-designed game. It asks a lot of you, but if you dedicate yourself to it, it is one of the most rewarding and fun games I’ve played in some time. And it’s all thanks to an extraordinary combat system.
SIFU’s combat system is notably built around Kung-Fu, and learning the intricacies of the systems at play is critical to your progress. Blocking and parrying are imperative, as is learning a very deep set of attacks, combos, and counters. More than anything else, timing is crucial. The difference between life and death often comes down to a few milliseconds of input reaction time. And to be exceedingly clear to those who may have assumed a different interpretation from early gameplay videos, there is no way to button mash your way through SIFU. The game almost seems to exude joy in punishing mistakes.
Now, before I scare you away from playing the game at all, let me provide the counter to the above. When you do acclimate to the timing, learn the patterns of the enemies, and master various attack combinations, SIFU is glorious. Chaining parries and combos into sequences of enemies crashing through the environment is likely the closest any of us will get to the feeling of conducting a symphony orchestra. Combat animations are beautifully fluid, and the choreographed finishing moves are sublime. Even after dispatching hundreds upon hundreds of enemies, I never grew tired of feeling as though I was a martial arts master starring in my own movie.
It’s this depth of design within SIFU that makes the game incredibly rewarding and kept me coming back, time after time. It challenges you to improve, to perfect your methods, to overcome what initially seem like insurmountable odds.
The most notable of these challenges is put forth by the five nemeses, each of which are wholly unique and feature two-phases. These battles have you sweating in the palms while struggling to comprehend the correct series of dodges, parries, and attacks that will propel you to victory. They certainly gave me a similar feeling to bosses in some other series featuring souls, but I won’t be specific because I, too, feel it’s a tired comparison.
At its core, SIFU features what could be considered a unique take on rogue-lite elements, including an aging mechanic. You begin the game at age 20. Upon dying, your death counter will increase by one, and you will age that amount. Die once, you age by one year. Die twice, you age another two years, etc. Your goal is to complete a level at the youngest age possible as, by doing so, you can then begin the next level at that age permanently.
Naturally, then, your final goal is to beat all five levels before you die of old-age. As I noted previously, it’s almost like a modern take on classic games that featured a set number of lives.
As you work your way through the levels, you will earn experience points as well as a level score. You can spend each intermittently during the levels to improve some of your attributes. However, you can also spend experience points to permanently unlock a wide-range of new attacks.
These attacks are the only permanent unlocks in SIFU. There are no options to increase your strength, health, or defense which would in-turn make the game easier over time. Additionally, permanently unlocking new attacks requires a good amount of experience points, which you may not always accomplish before dying. Thus, I’m afraid to say, it is possible to play SIFU for periods of time which result in having made zero progress (outside of further learning the enemy patterns, of course).
My one major qualm with the game is its camera. You can adjust the camera with the right thumbstick at all times, and given the combat scenarios, its essentially a requirement. However, you’re often in very tight areas and needing to hit the face buttons to counter the barrage coming your way. And, very quickly, you can be put into a situation where the camera interacts with the environment and obscures your view. This can swiftly get you killed, and it’s maddening, every single time. I wish in those situations that the camera would auto-correct to a perspective that allows full vision of the player.
Playing on the PS5, I experienced no issues at all. The game always felt fluid with no framerate drops or other notable issues. And it feels almost surprising to type that I experienced zero bugs. SIFU is a very well polished game. For those wondering, the DualSense is utilized to a degree, but not in any remarkable way.
SIFU really took me by surprise. I expected a rather straight-forward beat-em up, but instead was pleasantly surprised to find a much deeper, challenging experience. It’s not to be taken lightly, and I fully expect SIFU’s audience to be smaller due to the challenge it presents the player. But should you overcome it, you’ll find a game that has few peers, which will stick with you long after beating it.