Sifu (Switch) Review

I know kung-fu.

Sloclap, developer of Sifu and Absolver, have already started to build a profile of what to expect when starting one of their games. Snappy hand-to-hand combat that’s accentuated by a loud thud for each punch or kick landed. Complex combat systems mated with a world where difficult enemies start from the get-go. Distinct styles that are consistent throughout the experience. Absorber is the foundation for what has become Sifu – a single player 3rd person brawler with a modern-day, China backdropped revenge story.

You, Lee, are the child son of Sifu – martial artist master who has been betrayed and murdered by former pupil Yang and his four co-conspirators. Once you’re pulled from hiding, one of them slits your throat and a talisman saves you from death. This magical golden talisman can revive the dead at the cost of years of aging. Years later when Lee turns twenty, he sets out on a mission to avenge his father. The story is compelling enough to keep you engaged thanks to a strong core plot and good performances by several voice cast members.

Lee has been training for this day, and it shows. The low attack, high attack, parry/dodge, and run all work in concert – to succeed, you need to integrate the entire toolkit given and be quick to adjust when hitting a wall. A focus meter that fills through successfully defeating enemies lets you slow the action and choose special stun attacks that can start turning the tide in your favor. A healthy number of weapons littered throughout that are fun toys to pummel people with.

Sifu’s structurally sound combat is back-ended by progression systems that give it its own distinct flavor. Totems placed in different spots along the game offer upgrades that can be paid via experience points, score points, or how many lives you’ve used at that point. These include things like how much you get healed after a successful takedown of an enemy, weapon durability, and how quickly your focus meter regenerates. Experience points can be spent to add additional combat moves, including special ones tied to weapons. Each has an unlock cost for use during that specific run, afterward it can be unlocked for five times the cost (broken down into five separate, zero interest payments!).

This feeds directly into the most unique feature – the lives system. Rather than a number count, lives are built throughout the main character’s age. Starting at twenty, each death ticks up your age, increasing your attack power but reducing your health bar. Each loss of life results in a larger span of life, with the first death going just from twenty to twenty one, and subsequent ones increasing until you’re passing decades. A cool added wrinkle is that as Lee ages, his appearance does to coincide with it. There are ways to reduce that total death counter, but they are limited. Through five levels, each notes the age you die at, which is where you start the following level. If you go back, replay the level, and complete it with a younger age, the next level will start with that number. This is a run-based game: you’ll be working to drive-down that starting age so the next level has an improved starting point.

That life system tied to some brutally difficult enemies makes for a steep learning curve. Each enemy’s attacks have a wind-up to plan a counter against, but the movements are so sharp that it can be challenging to time your parry or dodges with accuracy. The enemies capitalize quickly on that first hit, chaining together punches and kicks that get you stuck in a combo until Lee drops to the floor. Completing finisher moves on them gives-back some health, but it takes several to refill the life bar, and when they connect it’s devastating to your health, especially if getting caught in the middle of a mob. Another sticking point is occasional dips in framerate in gameplay. While it’s mostly constrained to walking along between skirmishes, there were a few times where it chugged in the middle of a large mob. It’s a rare occurrence, but in a game where there’s a tight window to keep your offense flowing, those few times acted as a brick wall. Mercifully, there’s an easy mode that retains this difficult combat but gives a much larger life bar and changes the lives system to one life lost per death. If the experience sounds too daunting in normal mode, this will give you some crutches that can let you experience the core of what makes SIFU’s combat great.

All of this is draped in a style that’s distinctly its own. The music has tonal changes for each level that have accents/crescendos during particularly cinematic moments and bosses. Those thematic moments are cinematic moments, clearly inspired by popular cinema. One trick they use especially well is shifting the perspective from behind-the-back to a pulled-out side view through a hallway. Another one is a dark room with a few brightly colored illuminated walls that pop and tint everything in a tonally bright light. Unsurprisingly, there have been some visual compromises for the Nintendo Switch version that are more apparent in areas where the lighting and environment are more naturally visible, but it’s not offensively so and those more movie-like moments hide that beautifully.

Let me be clear – Sifu is a beat-em-up that is going to challenge you. Structurally its aim is to throw you in the fire to either temper your steel or melt. The Easy mode is a welcome reprieve, giving several more lifeboats before letting your drown, but even that has the ethos of “you will be testing your limits”. But if ready to climb that mountain, players will be rewarded with some of the most refreshing hand-to-hand combat out there with inspired stylistic flair. If you enjoy the struggle, SIFU is in the upper echelon of video game fighting.