Sifu Preview: Rumble in the Club
Sloclap is quickly becoming one of my favorite developers. It started with Absolver, the studio’s first game, that captured my attention with stylized design and fluid, somewhat realistic, combat. And while Absolver didn’t land every punch upon release, I felt that for fans of the genre, it was — and still is — worth checking out.
Now we have Sifu on the horizon, an upcoming beat’em/action-adventure game from the same developers. Like Absolver, it too looks great in trailers. The anticipation of something grand is palpable at times. Thankfully, based on my recent time with a preview build, I can wholeheartedly say that Sifu doesn’t just look good: It’s also pretty damn fun to play!
Sifu follows the story of a kung fu student — a seemingly young practitioner of Pak Mei — who’s looking for a group of assassins responsible for murdering his family and martial arts teacher. The goal is to hunt these assassins down to learn why they attacked his home and potentially dispose of them. This, of course, is easier said than done. The assassins can be tricky to find, are protected by strong fighters, and are far more seasoned at this than he is. At least, for now.
Sifu’s premise is interesting enough. What makes Sifu so compelling, though, is its combat and self-resurrection systems. The physics-based fighting is designed to be somewhat realistic. Flashy attacks look great, but it’s their relative nature and how they impact your surroundings that really stand out.
On paper, the resurrection mechanic is akin to the system found in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice; when you die in combat, you can use a magical pendant to resurrect, continuing the fight immediately. The difference in Sifu is that our nameless protagonist grows older with each resurrection. Grow too old before completing your quest, and the game is over.
All of that sounded good to me before playing Sifu. After spending a few hours in-game, I got a better understanding of its story and how these gameplay mechanics work together. The demo build I was given starts during the first half of the second chapter. And while it didn’t offer all of Sloclap’s planned features – a tutorial, photo mode, certain progression-based elements, and so on – it did have enough systems present to give me a good impression of what’s to come.
Sifu opens inside a Wuguan, which looks to be a living space or dojo of sorts that you can visit between missions. A notes-board highlights important figures and locations, a window acts as mission select, and a wooden training dummy allows you to access a training room among a few other odds and ins. After spending some time familiarizing myself with the buttons and combos in the training room, I dived headfirst into the available mission, an assault on The Club.
I died — a lot. I was able to parry attacks, chain together a few combos, and even dispatch a boss in a stylized fashion. But I still died way more than I thought I should have before the preview build ended. The enemies you’ll face in Sifu aren’t exactly pushovers, and blindly whaling on them isn’t smart. Waiting to parry every attack, done by blocking right before enemies land a hit, wasn’t the move either. Playing conservatively and going all out were both equally detrimental to my efforts. It wasn’t until I remembered how Sifu incorporates physics and relative interactions with the environment that I stopped getting thrashed.
During my second playthrough, I was far more methodical. I’d move around to not to get surrounded, toss items at enemies, dodge more – I started to control rooms better. I still died a few times, but it was mainly because I wasn't familiar with a particular enemy’s attack pattern, not because I was being easily overwhelmed like before.
In Sifu, knowing how and when to use your different abilities is critical. Parrying leaves enemies vulnerable to follow-up attacks. Dodging negates incoming strikes but, like parrying, has to be timed well. Blocking is also an option, but doing so damages your posture, and once broken, it's impossible to negate attacks for a few seconds. What you choose to do during any fight depends on preference and circumstance. Parrying is risky, especially when surrounded, but trying to block everything will get you killed much faster.
Your offensive options are similar in that regard. Fast attacks soften up enemies while slower/stronger attacks usually send enemies flying. If you miss an attack or have your attacks blocked, you’ll pause for a moment before following up.
Items around the environment can be thrown or kicked into foes, knocking them down so you can focus on someone else or create space to catch your breath. That said, these same items can be picked up by enemies, potentially making matters worse. A focus move that slows down time can get you out of a sticky situation, but it’s regulated by a focus meter that needs to be refilled by landing basic attacks.
Sifu’s various enemies can do most of what you can. That includes parrying, dodging, and using items. They can even use your abilities against you. Damage an enemy enough, and you’ll have the opportunity to perform a powerful finishing move by pressing two buttons simultaneously, ending the fight early. However, if an enemy parries this move, they’ll evolve into a stronger version of themselves. What were initially tough fights are now mini-boss encounters.
That's is why situational awareness is so important in Sifu. Sliding into combat range and throwing a few punches can work. Or you can parry an attack, pick up a bottle, and knock a foe silly. Or you can kick them into someone else, causing them enemies to fall over a railing. But your choices are dependent on the situation at hand.
Because enemies react to the environment realistically, you can often manipulate them into situations that put you in a better position or cause them to harm each other. This idea applies to every move you make. Grabbing someone presents a simple throw. Grabbing them while close to a wall might have you slam their head into it.
I enjoyed my time with Sifu after these things clicked. The dynamic and inventive ways of approaching combat are enthralling for the most part. Playing Sifu is like being in a Jackie Chan film; the ability to use anything and everything to dispatch foes makes each brawl feel fresh, even after revisiting the same location multiple times.
The aging mechanic bolsters this. Every time you die, you get older. With that comes experience. Not only will your character hit harder, but they’ll also have the opportunity to learn new moves. You’ll rise from death as a more significant threat with more options at your fingertips. You’ll be weaker in stature (for balance’s sake) but still a potential beast in battle.
But combat isn’t without its faults. Namely, Sifu treats its established rules unequally. One of my favorite things to do is counter an enemy’s attack. For instance, I performed a leg sweep as an opponent was about to throw a punch. Connecting first, I knocked them to the ground, creating a domino effect. Another character, who was running up behind the one I had just dispatched, tripped over the fallen body. Instead of just throwing punches, I used my head and took out two foes with one move. It was brilliant. Unfortunately, this sort of thing doesn’t work with certain telegraphed moves.
Some enemy attacks are powerful enough to withstand anything. A bottle to the face may not stop someone from performing a spinning kick. And it probably wouldn’t be possible to stop someone who’s flying through the air with a kick of my own. But there were times I thought I could counter a particular punch only to be sent flying through a table.
For whatever reason, certain enemy attacks are prioritized to the point of breaking Sifu’s physics-based rules. This often results in what feels like cheap shots, a gamey mechanic that arbitrarily increases how difficult the game can be at any given time.
Unchecked, this sort of uneven treatment could tarnish an otherwise great experience. Not so much because it creates "cheap" moments, but because Sifu's roguelike elements alter how one approaches any given mission. It is possible to age out and permanently die, requiring what amounts to a restart. No one wants to start a new “run” after being killed while adhering to established rules.
Thankfully, some other aspects of Sifu somewhat negate this. The protagonist’s note-board documents important information, which carries over after death. Learn the password to a secret entrance or snag a keycard from a minion, and you’ll be able to use that info/item on your next run, potentially avoiding needless fights.
Dragon Shrines can unlock boons like health regen whenever you subdue a foe. Aging allows you to learn some new abilities. Achieving a specific overall combat score gives you others. Essentially, there are a ton of options to improve your character’s chances of staving off death.
I believe Sloclap has outdone themselves. Even in this early state, Sifu stands over Absolver as I did a defeated foe. Respect was given, but one was clearly superior.
A few things need to be addressed to make Sifu’s combat feel consistently challenging but fair. Beyond that, though, I’m pleased with what’s here. And that’s before even mentioning the stylish visuals, solid soundtrack, and interesting story bits. Sifu’s February 8, 2022 release date can’t get here soon enough!