If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to be Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee in one of their famous martial arts films, Sifu (referring to ‘a master’ in Cantonese) might just be as close as it gets. This new Xbox release by French studio Sloclap (Absolver) first launched on PlayStation and the Epic Store a year ago, and is a 3D next-gen take on the classic beat ‘em up formula. It introduces a unique roguelike element that quite literally ages your character whenever they’re killed in combat, and there are no resets in between levels – so your age carries over until you’ve run out of lives or have completed your mission.
The story feels like a traditional martial arts tale, where an individual sets out to avenge their fallen father who was killed by his former student. The plot runs deeper than this, with a mysterious amulet triggering the aging process, but we’ll refrain from spoilers. What the story does do is send players on a trip through all sorts of dangerous locales – from factory-like drug dens to neon-lit nightclubs that look like they’re straight out of a John Wick movie.
You’re thrown into the action after a prologue level which not only sets the scene, but also stylishly incorporates the game’s tutorials in the opening credits. With this out of the way, you’re now trained and ready to go. The game wastes no time introducing you to combat which is inspired by the Chinese martial artist Bak Mei, with the team at Sloclap apparently consulting Benjamin Colussi – a master of Lao Siu Leung Pak Mei. Earlier fights will no doubt be a little bit scrappy as you get your head around the controls and try to perform the occasional combo, but your training should pay off in time.
Be careful though, as Sifu is not an easy game. Veteran fighting game enthusiasts will even be putting their hands on ice after prolonged sessions. Winning individual battles isn’t necessarily hard, but the sheer volume of enemies you’ll face per level, mixed in with special enemies and bosses means you’ll need to think on your feet about how to efficiently dismantle this army of opponents.
Become a Kung-Fu master
Of course, there are a lot of attacks, and the plus side of aging means you get access to more unlocks – including attacks and combos you can execute in battle and even permanent upgrades. These range from a series of punches and kicks, to the ability to block incoming attacks, weapons and more. There’s also a meter that builds up, allowing you to perform a special attack, and then there’s weapons combat – from a good old-fashioned baseball bat to staffs. You can even mix fights up with maneuvers like table slides, recreating scenes that feel reminiscent of a Jackie Chan film, especially when you’re fighting a dozen enemies at once.
While we would recommend sticking with the normal difficulty as you’ll quickly learn from your mistakes in each run, you don’t actually have to choose this setting anymore. Since the original launch, Sloclap has rolled out an update adding in a ‘student’ difficulty – slowing down the aging process and taking the edge off the overall difficulty. You can still slow aging in other difficulties but it’s not quite as forgiving. Alternatively, there’s also a harder mode, if you really want to struggle.
In terms of other new content now included in the game, there’s a free Arenas expansion mode – this is a main menu option, which allows players to essentially work their way through a series of challenges within dynamic locations, such as defeating a wave of enemies or capturing zones and your performance is then scored. It’s a nice addition outside of the story, but it’s recommended by the developer you complete the main campaign before you give it a go. This whole package is all neatly tied together with fitting sound and visuals, immersing you in the world of martial arts.
Sifu is possibly the best beat ‘em up we’ve played in a long time. It’s a refreshing take on the genre, and in the words of Cobra Kai’s Johnny Lawrence, it will make you feel like a “badass” when the fight is going your way. At the same time, it can be quite ruthless. Either way, you’ll probably be thinking about your next run when you aren’t even playing it, which is a sign of just how great it is.