Sifu review: Roguelike martial arts are too complex for their own good

Sifuhas a good pitch. You are a martial arts master, bent on revenge, battling impossible odds in life. But you have a secret weapon: every time you die, you resurrect. You run to complete your quest as your avatar turns frail and gray.

It’s a new concept, so it’s a shame developer Sloclap couldn’t make it work. Sifu is a game full of confusing, inescapable, and infuriating shortcomings, and nearly all of them have to do with its supernatural twist.

Image: Sloclap via Polygon

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, let’s talk about the good stuff: the “badass martial arts master” part of the field is executed with incredible skill. Sifu has the bones of a wonderful action game, giving you all the tools to fulfill your Hong Kong action fantasies. Light and heavy attacks link together in beautifully animated combos that hit with satisfaction strokes and cartoon motion lines. You can finish off stunned enemies with brutal, fast-paced environmental kills that will cause gasps over and over again. From the jump, you are a force to be reckoned with.

But your enemies fought. They can drop you with a few hits and they use their numbers to surround and overpower you. SifuThe henchmen aren’t nearly as polished as we’d expect in a post-Batman: Arkham third-person combat world. They don’t wait their turn or broadcast their intent with flashing warning icons. So you’re always on the move, sliding across tables and jumping over furniture, constantly jostling to deny them the full benefit of their superior numbers.

In an overgrown industrial alley in Sifu, a young martial artist cracks a shirtless man in the face with a length of metal pipe.

Image: Sloclap via Polygon

When the attackers To do catch up, you still have tools – maybe too many. SifuThe defensive resource of is called “structure”, and it works much like “posture” in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. You can block to absorb attacks, but your structure meter swells. When it fills up, it shatters, leaving you vulnerable for a few precious seconds. But if you time your block perfectly, the enemy will take structure damage instead. Sifu adds another layer of technical complexity with its “evades”, which are performed by holding down the block button and flicking the left stick up or down, depending on whether you’re dodging a high or low attack. With the right timing, you’ll escape damage and recover some structure.

Learning the usefulness of each of these defensive tools takes a lot of effort, but it comes with rewards. There’s nothing better than perfectly timing a duck under an incoming baseball bat and watching your opponent hit the poor jerk behind you.

Sifu is at its best when it immerses you in overwhelming scenarios and asks you to use these offensive and defensive tools to overcome obstacles. You’ll push an enemy into a crowd of their allies, then you’ll drive through them, parrying, disarming, striking, dodging, sweeping, and having a good time. I wish I could say that’s the extent of Sifuwithin his reach, and that he is happy to revel in all this kinetic and violent joy.

Alas!

All the other stuff. When I saw the first trailer that revealed the nifty “age every time you die” mechanic, I thought, Oh, nice. I wonder how they will turn this concept into an elegant game system. I’m sad to report that the answer to that question is, “They didn’t.” It’s confusing and unwieldy. Its internal logic is difficult to follow and it taints just about everything it touches.

A young martial artist drives her heel into the back of a nightclub bouncer's head in Sifu.  He collapses to the ground.

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Image: Sloclap via Polygon

So let’s go.

You start Sifu as a 20-year-old Pak Mei master. You must loot the hiding places of five big assholes and kill them in a predetermined order. Each time you die, you get back up with a full life bar and some extra gray hair. the quantity of aging you will do is a Fibonacci sequence determined by your current number of deaths. After your first death, you will be 21 years old; after your second, you will be 23 years old; after your third, you will be 26 years old; And so on.

Hope you’re not confused already, because we’re just getting started.

Each passing decade is a milestone. You will gain some attack power, but your maximum health will decrease. It’s cool. The balance of risk and reward in battle shifts as you age in a glass cannon. Each kill will also grant you access to a small shop where you can spend experience points on extremely useful combos and skills, such as catching thrown projectiles, performing a damaging parry follow-up, or a sliding kick that knocks opponents down. . Cool! Quite simple.

Corn! Each of these skills has a specific age limit. I guess I can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You also have the option of buying back a skill you already have. You don’t unlock a better version of it, but if you buy it five times, it will unlock on all subsequent runs. Hmm.

an image of the Sifu upgrade screen.

Image: Sloclap via Polygon

This system is cumbersome to digest, and even the interface struggles to make sense of it. The upgrade screen is a deluge of black, gray, and pink dots; XP costs; tooltips; and terms and conditions. The process of transferring experience into already unlocked skills is not rewarding. It’s like paying off my student loans.

You can also increase your base stats with Shrines, which are scattered throughout each level. While the other upgrades are mostly skills and active attacks, Shrines give you passive perks: things like increased weapon durability, health recovery from takedowns, or even a chance to reset your death counter. Each shrine allows you to invest one point in one of nine of these boons, each of which has three tiers. What currency do you use to unlock these perks? Well, it depends on the benefit. Some are unlocked with experience, some by simply being under a certain age, and some with the abstract third currency of “level score”.

Right now, you might be thinking, “Why are you telling me all this? Many games have obtuse and difficult to understand progression systems. I played Dark Souls. And you’re right. Complex and tricky progression systems can be really fun when elegantly grafted onto the gameplay.

But it is not the case here. Not at all.

I haven’t even dug into how the bosses work, or how you have to start a race again once you die past age 70. I spent a lot of energy analyzing Sifuopaque network of rules and systems, and I want to spare you, dear reader, the same form of exhaustion. Trust me when I say no matter how hard you try to understand Sifuhe won’t meet you halfway.

Like underworld and Return, Sifu is a racing-based game where each attempt is an opportunity to go further than the previous one. But unlike those games, it’s unnecessarily complex to run, and it’s really, really hard to tell if you’re making permanent progress.

In underworld, the weapons and perks you choose during a given run are constantly reinforced onscreen with weapon icons and effects. In Sifu, there are no external reminders of the skills you have equipped. I can’t count how many times I’ve overwritten a technique’s input, only to realize I hadn’t unlocked it on that particular run. Unless you go through the tedious and boring process of permanently unlocking a skill, you’ll never get a chance to build your muscle memory. In short: SifuThe visual language of does its convoluted systems a disservice.

Likewise, boons you’ve gained from shrines are reset and overwritten with each new attempt, making it nearly impossible to easily plan your build, or even maintain a reliable understanding of your own abilities.

Sifu is a very difficult roguelite, and you will, of course, have to replay levels over and over again. However, it’s worth mentioning that the level layouts and enemy placements are identical in every run. I have enjoyed games where this is the case. Part of the Dark Souls experience is learning effective routes to boss fights, evading enemies, and fighting only when necessary. In Sifu, it’s impossible. The fights are scripted. The doors remain locked until every lowly moron is defeated. Getting back to a boss can take 10-15 minutes if all goes well for you. The benefit of these no-surprise races is that they increase your sense of control. But when you’ve seen the same scripted events and heard the same inescapable dialogue for the twelfth time, it sounds horribly rote, and all that’s left is drudgery.

An elderly martial artist drives her foot into the back of a collapsing goon, smashing it into a nearby nightclub stall in Sifu

Image: Sloclap via Polygon

It’s such a shame, because there are some beautiful sequences in this game. You wander through psychedelic tableaux full of gorgeous colors and haunting sounds. It’s amazing – the first time. But with each rehearsal, I grew more and more frustrated and in disbelief. These level designers did a great job, but didn’t anybody tell them what kind of game it was? Has anyone pointed out that the player would have to run through this beautiful interactive art installation over and over again, just to have the privilege of being beaten to death by the enemy on the other side?

Sifu is incredibly frustrating because beneath all of its messy and clumsy contrivances there’s a fantastic action game that I reallyreally want to play. Corn Sifu can’t handle himself, and his lofty design ambitions spoil his basic pleasures.

Sifu will be released on February 8 on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC; Early Access for pre-order customers will go live on February 6. The game was reviewed using a PS5 download code provided by Sloclap. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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