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The Fulfilling Frustration of ‘Sifu’

The kung fu brawler from the makers of ‘Absolver’ has a high barrier to entry, but its demanding beat-’em-up gameplay is a punishing pleasure

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I’ve quit my fair share of things. Sports. Very long books. Vegetables. For me, discipline and dedication can sometimes come after knowing how good I felt after finally completing something for the first time. Proof of improvement can be proof of success. There were plenty of times when I wanted to quit playing Sifu, the action beat-’em-up game by developer Sloclap that came out for PC and PlayStation platforms earlier this month. There were times when it brought on a level of vexation that made me worry about my blood pressure. But the visceral satisfaction of not just a victory, but a victory earned, is what will likely make Sifu one of my most memorable gaming experiences of the year.

Sloclap’s sophomore outing is an upgrade in quality and mainstream appeal compared to the studio’s first title, the 2017 open-world online action RPG Absolver (which I also adored). Sifu strips away Absolver’s Dark Souls–esque approach to building a versatile martial arts adventure character and replaces it with an unusual, not-really-roguelike structure. Steeped in the tough love that fight master Pai Mei showed while training the Bride, it’s a relentless but rewarding game that for me, at least, transcends two sources of frustration and finds the sweet spot between quitting and catharsis.

Sifu is set in an unspecified Chinese city, where a group of five assassins assault a martial arts school and slaughter its students. The lead attacker, Yang, is a former student of the school, and he demands information from its sifu (“master” or “teacher” in Cantonese). When his former mentor refuses to comply, Yang orders one of his accomplices to kill the sifu’s child (à la Sub-Zero and Scorpion), but the child is revived with the aid of a magical talisman. Living beats dying any day, but the talisman comes with a catch: Every time it’s used to resurrect someone, the survivor will experience accelerated aging.

Most of Sifu’s action takes place eight years after these events when the child has grown into an accomplished, 20-year-old martial artist. Naturally, the martial artist is determined to hunt down each of the fighters responsible for the attack, culminating in a showdown with Yang that will reveal the ringleader’s hidden motivation for murdering his former master. The player’s job is to keep this vengeful martial artist alive while dealing out damage to their enemies. However, the talisman’s catch comes into play: The age of the character increases the more times you die. Die once, and you’ll age one year. Die for a fifth time, and you’ll be five years older the next time you return. As you rapidly age, white hair and wrinkles start to show, but the consequences aren’t just cosmetic. With each passing decade, your strength increases while your health bar gets shorter, rendering you more powerful but also more vulnerable. If you die after age 70, you’re forced to restart the level at the age you were when you began it.

Sloclap’s greatest achievement is an unsurpassed fulfillment of gamers’ martial arts power fantasies. At its best, the game gives the player the feeling of being the protagonist of classic martial arts films like The Raid or Rumble in the Bronx. Your character fights their way through five winding levels, engaging in cinematic brawls inspired by Pak Mei kung fu. The highlight is the combat system’s attention to detail—particularly its responsiveness to the environment. Any time you take down or knock out an enemy, your location in the level and the objects in your vicinity can dictate how you deliver a final blow. If you and an enemy are up against a table, you can smash their head into it, which doubles them over and allows you to kick them in the face at waist height. Or you can casually kick an ottoman across a room to make an enemy trip just as they’re about to punch you. This kind of choreography offers a level of satisfaction that is unparalleled in any other beat ’em up I’ve played.

Sifu includes more than 150 unique attacks, and the tools and techniques available are both engrossing and daunting. The sheer number of defensive tactics is overwhelming, and the finer points of parrying, blocking, or avoiding enemy attacks are almost immediately lost on the player and only (very) slowly reinforced over time. It’s easy to revel in the dopamine rush that arrives when you string together a combination of blows that ends with a brutal, flashy finisher. It’s not nearly as easy to make those combos happen routinely or to stay alive long enough to complete a level.

The demanding timing and coordination required when outnumbered by enemies, sometimes 10 to one, quickly becomes the core of Sifu’s steep learning curve. You will die a lot, which might be the biggest obstacle standing between Sifu and a large audience. (A lasting large audience, at least; half a million copies of Sifu sold within a few days of its release.) A lot of folks will want to quit, and I won’t blame them.

Some games are grueling to incentivize the player to master the tools at their command, but Sifu fights dirtier than that. Its approach to death and resurrection presents as great a challenge as its enemies, and it stacks a second layer of potential irritation on top of the first. As you progress through the game’s five beautifully rendered levels, you start each one at the same age where you ended the previous one, which means there’s no making up for earlier errors. In my initial playthrough, I didn’t beat the first boss until I was in my 50s, and I got stuck restarting the subsequent level at too advanced an age to make it much further. To move forward, I had to go back to the opening level, as Sifu painfully forced me to master its challenges. Memorize that time to dodge. Learn how to read those punches. See the pattern. Begin to believe, Neo!

This experience was equal parts infuriating and exhilarating. Before finishing the game, the jury was still out on whether it was worth the trouble. But eventually, something unlocked in me that made me realize what the punishing process was all about.

I had committed myself to beating the game’s second level—which has made most players swear off Sifu—at no more than 30 years old, which seemed achievable when I finally finished the first level at the age of 23. By the skin of my teeth, and with only a handful of additional deaths behind me, I eventually made it through Level 2 at the age of 30 after using the knowledge and skill I’d acquired to decimate a few dozen enemies and a boss whose attack patterns I had learned to read and anticipate. But when I was presented with the option to run the next gauntlet, I chose not to advance. Instead, I said, “I know I can do better and beat this younger than 30,” and I immediately began the level again.

This is what makes Sifu’s pleasures undeniable for me, despite the accompanying pain. It imparts a sense of determination that I can’t recall ever feeling before. I don’t just want to beat it; I want to master it by expertly wielding every ability and tool it provides. Once I accepted that internal, personal progress, the game started singing to me.

When the game’s combat clicks, its flow is unmatched, but not every facet of Sifu is special. At the beginning of the game, Sloclap conveys the murder of your character’s father and teacher in a sequence that cleverly dispenses plot via gameplay and setting. This dreamlike training montage, in which the playable protagonist envisions exacting revenge, is an affecting illustration of the arduous skill acquisition that awaits you in your quest for revenge. Unfortunately both the narrative (and even more noticeably, the voice acting) take a nosedive in quality as you make your way through the game. Some observers have also taken issue with aspects of the white, French developers’ portrayal of an Asian culture.

Enemies in Sifu constantly spout flatly delivered and repetitive one-liners as they either taunt you or marvel at your ability to bash their comrades’ heads into walls. You may want to turn off the voice-over entirely after hearing an emotionless “Any regrets now?” for the umpteenth time after being punched in the face. From an ambiance standpoint, the game’s best assets are its poppy art and music direction, which make for some aesthetically pleasing set pieces. That’s especially important because unlike most roguelikes/lites, Sifu doesn’t randomize or procedurally generate the player’s path through its levels; you’ll be fighting in the same places at the same times, though you can unlock little clues, keys, and shortcuts to make them easier to traverse. However, with all the care lavished on the game’s environments and score, there’s a missed opportunity for NPCs to make quips about the protagonist’s advancing age. An occasional comment like “Aren’t you a little old for this club?” would have added a little levity and variety.

Some players understandably see Sifu’s unforgiving structure as the game getting in its own way and unnecessarily limiting its audience. A prominent thread of recent gaming discourse has centered on the idea of certain games prioritizing difficulty instead of offering the option of an easy mode or even an invincible mode. The main point in favor of a wider range of difficulties is enhanced accessibility for players with disabilities and for those who don’t have countless hours to sink into studying complex combos and memorizing enemy routines. The fetishization of difficulty among a contingent of gamers has fostered an exclusionary “Git Gud” philosophy that espouses the idea that the will of the developers is sacrosanct, that games need not meet players on their own terms, and that challenging titles like Dark Souls, Nioh, or the upcoming Elden Ring actually aren’t too hard for players who take the time to master their mechanics and simply “git gud.”

Developers have increasingly pushed back against that attitude; even Elden Ring’s creator says it can be finished more easily than its spiritual predecessors. Sloclap reportedly patched Sifu during the review period to make it a little less difficult, and the developers recently committed to making accessibility improvements and adding difficulty modes, somewhat walking back their previous stance (and prompting a predictable backlash from self-styled hardcore players).

What makes me mostly celebrate Sifu’s difficulty is that it comes in a concentrated dose. Someone who knows the game backward and forward can complete it in well under an hour, and the average play time for the main story is slightly less than 10 hours, nowhere near the 30-plus hours of a Dark Souls game. Sifu is also uncompromising, but its smaller scope makes for a more manageable challenge.

Sifu’s singular genius is perfecting the infuriating. Few other games have as high a barrier to entry, but few other games offer such fulfillment in finding yourself in a groove of punches and kicks. This outing from Sloclap is best suited to the more dedicated beat ’em up fans, or at least those willing to accept some suffering and rage-quitting in exchange for a sublime payoff—the gaming equivalent of a runner’s high that mercifully and euphorically kicks in midway through a marathon. If you think you might be among them, then whatever you do, don’t quit. And don’t die.