As a boy born in the late seventies, I grew up watching martial arts movies. From Jackie Chan classics like Drunken Master to karate cheese like American Ninja, I knew them all practically by heart, and their tropes and story arcs left their palm-shaped prints on my gaming behavior. I lived out the fiery fantasies that were so inspired, first in the garden with friends and in the woods behind the house, and later in computer games.
At first I was fascinated by beat ’em ups like Double Dragon, but I realized early on that behind all the strong-man-gets-the-girl attitude there were always surprisingly thin games. Why the genre with the gradually died out is no real mystery today. Since I’d skipped the SNES at the time, it was Tekken that seemed to cater to the adolescent martial arts lover in me, including a Jackie Chan and a Bruce Lee derivative. In general: How dynamic it all looked when you saw it for the first time – and in terms of long-term motivation, it looked promising.
A search that will come to an end after 30 years
But nothing really worked out with us. Starting out from Tekken, I kept trying other floggers, Street Fighter first, Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur – but somehow I never really got warmed up with it. Not least because I was just bad at this kind of duel and the fun stopped at the latest when I was consistently hit by friends. Over the years, however, I also noticed something else: the classic fighting game did not reflect what fascinated me about martial arts, because these chronically teased adolescents were not fascinated by martial arts itself, only the films about it, the imagination, so skillfully to be strong and defensive like Chan, Norris or, if it absolutely has to be, also Dudikoff.
Where Tekken and Co. made you feel like you had a certain mastery in fighting, I wasn’t interested in the competition. Instead, I loved the romanticized image of the lone warrior who had internalized Far Eastern secrets and was looking for a game in which my gaming instincts would allow me to feel like a badass. And this is where Sifu from Sloclap comes into play, not 20 years too late. That goes a step back to the Double Dragon-like Brawler and at first glance has a few solutions for the genre-inherent problem of the rather low-flying demand up its sleeve.
As far as I can see from the communication of the studio and the gameplay videos, Sifu is also the classic kung-fu revenge story, in which you are supposed to beat up five gang bosses in their own levels. However, the game is designed from the outset so that you play it as often as possible – and over time you get so good at it that it looks like the coolest martial arts movie you’ve ever seen.
The Benjamin Button of Fortune
The twist is that you visibly age a few years every time you lose a screen life – that’s your ticking clock, so to speak, although you don’t automatically get weaker too. On the contrary. You are only trading some of your health for strength, so you become more aggressively more powerful. So little by little you will become an ossified but feared Kung Fu master as you learn more and more tricks and become stronger. We’ll have to see how much that does for the game now. However, Slocap says that Sifu should not be easy, and if you can see the time passing by in bringing the retribution to an end visually, that is certainly helpful.
At the same time, over time you will unlock more and more of the more than 150 moves that Sloclap developed together with a Pak-Mei master, and which you apply in all directions against the enemies who often surround you. You also use brute finishers and earn different perks between the levels just for this run. If one or the other of these sounds like roguelite, it is certainly no coincidence, although Sloclap (‘Absolver’) emphasized several times that the levels and fights were all designed and composed by hand. Still, the game should play a little differently over and over again. Not only because your catalog of moves is developing, but because the opponents who have mastered as many moves as you can, depending on your performance, outgrow themselves and then become a kind of mini-boss – or even surrender.
With time and the runs you will get to know the levels better, get information about abbreviations and know how to use the environment optimally. Because it is also very interactive. And here we come to the crucial point, which leads to the fact that you get stuck after the first look at Sifu. In addition to the dim, pastel look, what is particularly impressive is the precision and force with which fists and feet meet bodies or bodies crash into walls.
Sifu whets the appetite for an Eastern evening
This is something that fighting games from Tekken to Street Fighter never conveyed to me particularly well, because not only the punches, but also the reactions to them always had to be exactly the same if the tournament-compatible and timed fighting system was not to fall apart. So far I haven’t been able to lay my hands on Sifu myself, but it hurts to watch. How the hit reactions take into account the force and position of the blows or kicks, how the camera wobbles or tilts accordingly, has a satisfying effect in a way that I have seldom seen before.
The way the main character can flexibly include the environment or objects lying around in the fights is exactly the kind of karate film nonsense that I’ve often missed when I played games against a martial arts background. At the same time, I have to break a lance for Sleeping Dogs at this point, which only had the disadvantage that a pretty mediocre open world game depended on its snappy fighting system. If you take only one thing with you from this article, it is that the Sifu is excellent at communicating its contacts. In a game of full contact combat, I guess that’s not entirely unimportant.
In addition, there seems to be a lot of depth in the fights. Dodging, blocking and parrying seem incredibly important. At the same time, one can be grateful to the camera, which obviously works with a keen eye for powerful settings, for being able to clearly see every single slap in the face, every knee under the breastbone and every tilted enemy elbow. It is – if I am not mistaken and the last game by Sloclap, Absolver, was a sign – a martial arts game with a claim that is nevertheless aimed at beautiful players.
In the end, that’s what was so cool about the ’80s martial arts bugger movies: Their heroes made difficult things look easy. Combining spectacle and playful depth is the game design equivalent of the Van Damme balancing act – Sifu seems to have it.
Sifu will be released on February 22, 2022 for PS4, PS5 and PC.