SIFU is a single player 3D brawler that is inspired by Kung Fu movies and beat ’em ups of old. Despite its roots, SIFU borrows some conventions present in more modern games, such as collectibles, a bit of exploration, and a type of game progression that takes some cues from rogue-lite titles such as Hades.
There’s been a resurgence of beat ‘em ups lately. As with most niche genres, this renaissance of brawler games is a result of passionate projects from indie developers. Spearheaded by Streets of Rage 4, we now have titles such as River City Girls, The Ninja Warriors Once Again, and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. But if there’s a type of beat ‘em up that didn’t seem to stick, even back when they were still kind of popular, it is 3D beat ‘em ups. Hopefully, that’s about to change with the arrival of SIFU, the best of its kind since God Hand.
The story begins as the protagonist’s house is invaded by a gang of martial artists. Their intention is to not let anyone escape alive. As a young kung fu apprentice, the protagonist witnesses the murder of his Sifu and father. The young boy is also found and killed. Thanks to a talisman that the boy carries with him, he’s able to live again. Eight years have passed since the incident, and the boy, now a young adult, is ready to exert revenge on the people that destroyed his life.
SIFU, which means master in Chinese (or at least that’s the meaning when talking about martial arts), tells a tale of death, revenge, and the relationship between father and son, and master and student; themes that are ever recurring in martial arts movies in general. Throw in a bit of mysticism, and you have all the elements necessary to tell a story for a game such as SIFU. Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of information and lore that you can discover. Even if most of this information is optional or missable, they enrich the experience enough to be pursued.
SIFU’s gameplay takes cues from other 3D beat ‘em ups such as Sleeping Dogs or the Yakuza series. Every blow hurts like you could feel them, especially if you play on headphones or have a good sound system. What sets SIFU apart from the aforementioned titles is that SIFU is 99% pure beat ’em up goodness, with no need for ridiculously long cutscenes. There are some collectibles that you can procure while taking on a stage and a bit of dialogue to better convey the lore and characters, but these are implemented sparingly and won’t distract the player from what really matters: breaking some bones.
At first, you’ll have a limited number of moves. But as you defeat enemies, you earn experience and can choose between a number of new moves to unlock. These moves include new throws, combos, etc. The initial experience cost of a skill is generally cheap, but you’ll lose it if you get a game over, or if you restart from a previous stage. There’s the possibility of unlocking skills permanently, but the exp. cost is high. It is a good idea to experiment and see for yourself which skills are the most useful.
SIFU’s progression may remind some players of rogue-lite games a bit: It’s very easy to die in SIFU, but differently from your usual rogue-lite game, you’ll lose every perk and skill that you didn’t unlock fully if you get a game over. The death and retry system is very peculiar, and an interesting take on an old formula: The talisman that the main character carries, grants him a limited number of “lives”, but each time you revive, the main character will age by the number of deaths that you’ve accumulated. When your character reaches or surpasses the 70-year-old mark, it’s game over. To alleviate the game’s difficulty, there are shrines that can grant bonuses such as higher weapon durability and damage, among other perks. The shrines will also replenish your life.
Even with your initial moves, there’s no shortage of possibilities when it comes to delivering pain to enemies: combos, throws, parries and dodges are all part of your default move set. You could parry a punch, and after that, throw the opponent against a wall, down a set of stairs, or onto other enemies: This is just a small example of what you can do in SIFU. The variety of options when it comes to resolving battles is one of SIFU’s best qualities. Taking on enemies and proceeding to the next area is fast, and encourages the player to keep going run after run… and one more before you take a break.
There are five stages that the player must conquer, each with its boss. While you normally fight a huge number of enemies during stages, the boss fights are one-on-one duels, and the hardest part of the stage as it should be. The stages are varied in terms of locales. Those include a drug warehouse, a nightclub and so on. In each one of the stages, you can also find weapons such as a staff, or bat. In the club level, there’s no shortage of bottles and chairs that you can throw or kick at your enemy.
SIFU uses simple graphics to convey its world and characters. Everything is rendered using a low polygon count and simple textures, giving the visuals a cartoonish style. It’s in SIFU’s art design that its graphics really shine. Each stage has its own theme, and they are detailed, varied, and dynamic: There’s a lot happening during and between fights, with areas constantly changing. The animations feel true to life thanks to the use of motion capture technology. Enemies will most of the time attack in high numbers, and can easily overwhelm you.
The audio design in SIFU is nothing short of impressive. The soundtrack never stays the same, and that’s during one single stage: Besides the general theme of a stage, the audio compositions always try to fit what situation you find yourself in: It can go from a quiet or suspenseful track to a more energetic one during battles. The soundtrack mixes Retrowave, upbeat electronic music, and, of course, more traditional Chinese music that is normally present in Kung Fu movies. The fighting sound effects have a lot of weight to them, and are very satisfying: Especially when you’re on the winning side of a run-in with a group of punks.
SIFU is a masterclass on how to make a good 3D brawler with the limited resources of an indie developer. SIFU is, hands-down, the best beat ’em up to be released on any system in recent years. It’s fast-paced, brutal and a delight to play. Don’t let the apparent overwhelming difficulty stop you; with a bit of persistence and practice, it’s a very manageable game. Add into the mix a brilliant sound design, and you have one of the best action games ever released.
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