Sifu, from Absolver developer Sloclap, stands out. This game is the textbook definition of Orientalism. That really stands out as someone in the US, who is surrounded by both surging anti-China sentiment and propaganda, and countless souvenir shops and restaurants selling stereotypes to clueless Americans who probably don’t know what China actually looks like.
This stuff leaks into the gaming community too, as every time Tencent does anything you see people getting irrationally angry about it. China is taking over games and movies and it’s bad! But also, here’s this Kung Fu videogame about doing badass martial arts and being real dour and serious about it. This clumsy dichotomy is one of the reasons appropriation is considered a bad thing.
Like Ghost of Tsushima, Sifu takes a lot of inspiration from eastern imagery and particularly movies in their respective genres. But neither game really has anything to say. It’s just an aesthetic being used because it’s cool, telling a boilerplate story about revenge, or honor or some other vague morally-charged keyword. And sometimes the absence of substance in this context leads to issues.
Does all of this mean Sifu is a problem, that it’s doing harm and is deeply offensive? No, not really. It’s a cool action game with a roguelike-adjacent, run-based structure. It’s just kind of boring, an extremely tropey premise not doing anything to elevate the material that inspires it. It’s obvious everyone involved with the project meant well, and took the setting as seriously as they were equipped to. Sifu is simply a byproduct of dopey pop culture history. That’s going to negatively impact some people for legitimate reasons, and those for whom this isn’t an issue are gonna have to accept that.
What isn’t dopey is Sifu’s difficulty curve. This game is hard as hell, and really doesn’t care what you think. Well, it cares a little bit, since Slocap did some tweaking during the review period. But when you make a mistake in this game, you are severely punished for it. If you’re looking for something challenging that isn’t another Soulslike, Sifu has got you covered. That said, I think there’s a parallel universe version of Sifu that eases back a little on the Roguelikeyness, and is a much better game because of it.
See, the big gimmick in Sifu is that your character, on their quest for revenge, has stumbled upon a powerful but deeply flawed kind of immortality. If you die you can get right back up and keep fighting, but there’s a catch. Each time you die, you age right on the spot. And it’s a cumulative effect, meaning the first time you die you age one year, then two, so on and so forth. There are a limited number of chances, and burning through them also means burning through your human lifespan.
As you age, you grow more powerful. But you take a lot more damage when you mess up. And you also can’t really learn new techniques. It takes a younger, more creatively charged mind to come up with sick new moves. So if you die a lot early on, you actually get locked out of certain upgrades. And when you lose, you’re starting over from square one. Sort of.
Sifu does have some “progression,” in the Roguelite sense. As you play through each level you can open up shortcuts, which will stay in place across runs. You lose all your moves when you die, but if you pump a required volume of XP in them, you get to keep them permanently. Of course there are drawbacks in place as well. You can pick up upgrades, but tons of variables impact your options. You also lose all of those anyway upon a game over.
The most daunting and intimidating part, however, is how the level select is a giant monkey paw. You can start from any level you’ve made it to, but you can only start levels at the youngest age you’ve been to them. So if you get your ass kicked on level two and start level three at like 50-60 years old, starting back at level three later is going to be stressful from the jump.
That’s a lot, and normally I don’t spend chunks of review-writing explaining how things work. But the systems here are implemented in such specific and deliberate ways it’s hard to even talk about what Sifu is without establishing the rules first. This game is a serious uphill battle, especially because of how fragile your character is. Racking up deaths and age can happen shockingly fast, and while the damage bump is nice, only being able to continue without all the options you missed can be disheartening.
But that’s where the high score chasing comes in. I had it pointed out to me that looking at Sifu as a Roguelike and approaching it that way makes all the oppressive systems feel worse. But if you look at the bigger picture, Sifu rewards you for taking your time, learning the game and mastering the ol’ Kung Fu. Starting later levels at older ages feels like a punishment, but from another perspective, getting to start levels at younger ages is a big reward. As you get better and die less and get way hella more points, you’ll have a much smoother ride. It’s like a really macabre personal leaderboard.
The part I really don’t like is, well, the game’s pace. This is a punishing, run-based game. So you’re going to be playing the same levels and sections over and over. The shortcuts are nice, but the thing about Roguelikes that really makes them work for me is variables. The raw combat is fun, but the levels, enemies, upgrades, so on and so forth don’t change. The “loop” isn’t really there; it’s like doing a static exercise routine.
There’s the rub. Sifu starts off incredibly difficult and punishing. But you’re rewarded well for determination and practice. There’s no breezing through, no difficulty options, no safety nets. Sifu requires work, not unlike an actual Sifu, I guess. That’s gonna shut a lot of people out. I stubbornly continue making my way through, but it makes my wrist hurt if I play too long. This is not an accessible game whatsoever, and that’s a bummer. The combat is really fun to engage with, but you have to have a base level of skill and dexterity (and patience) in order to do that.
Like I said, Sifu stands out. And it’s really for better and for worse. It’s a game driven by a fast, complex combat system that’s a blast to learn. But the structure built around that is oppressive, to say the least. With a high barrier to entry and not much of a story to tell, Sifu is going to have a limited audience. That audience will love it, but a lot of curious onlookers will be turned away at the door. I’m somewhere in the middle, loving the combat but not loving the premise. Sifu sets out to accomplish something specific, and it certainly does exactly that.
- awesome combat
- Incredibly difficult for various reasons (YMMV)
- Can choose the protagonist’s gender
- Tropey orientalist vibe
- Incredibly difficult for various reasons (YMMV)
- Minimum physical dexterity required to hang; poor accessibility
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review