I’ve been hands-on with Sifu, a beat ‘em up action-adventure game by Absolver developers Sloclap. My hands weren’t exactly “on”, but more “around”, actually. That’s one thing I learned from my time with this kung-fu caper. To keep my fists flowing, I needed to be patient, and not mash the buttons. Seriously, slap those buttons with zero thought and you’re dead.
Death in Sifu means you age, and if you die lots, you age faster. Hit 70 and you won’t be rising from the dirt again. Instead, you'll have to start your quest for vengeance over from the beginning. While it can be tempting to cling onto your youth for this reason alone, I actually liked growing old, with my beard and my harder-hitting attacks. Not only do you develop a relationship with your body in Sifu, but your trips to the afterlife also help you master its myriad of moves. Sifu really does get better with age.
My preview build dropped me into the first half of the second chapter, with no intro and little context. I was simply a clean-cut twenty-year-old in a small apartment block, which acted as a sort of hub space. Here, I could access a training area and view a board filled with investigative notes on acquaintances past and present. By the desk overlooking a sweeping cityscape, I could enter “The Club”.
My mission? Look for a bloke called Sean. No idea why, but he’d clearly wronged me and I needed to root him out of his little nightclub hidey-hole. You start proceedings in a dodgy back-alley, with a neon sight pointing to the club’s entrance. Disheveled fellas in tank tops lean against walls lined with peeling posters and graffiti. Initially, I thought Sifu was going for a slight Hitman vibe, in the way I could approach the bouncer and maybe talk him into letting me pass. He was like, “What do you want?”, and I was presented with two dialogue options: question him about mysterious Sean or provoke him with a tetchy “None of your business”. In either case, it led to a fight, and I quickly learned that clubbers preferred talking with their fists. In this preview build, at least, Sifu cares more for kung-fu than it does character development.
The good news, though, is the kung-fu absolutely rules. To put it simply, The Club is effectively a series of arenas with enemies hankering for a smackdown. You don’t waltz around questioning people or spend time inhaling the smell of cigarettes and vodka. You enter dancehalls and bars and lounge areas and turn their inhabitants into pulp. On the surfce, fighting in Sifu is fairly simple. Both you and your enemy sport health bars and stagger meters. Land a hit on your enemy and you’ll dent both of them. Much like Sekiro, the stagger bar is the most important of the two. Parrying attacks with a well-timed block will cause it to shuffle upwards and landing subsequent blows while they’re caught off guard goes a long way too. Break the bar and they’ll enter a vulnerable state where you can execute a fancy finishing move. Think a succession of skull-rocking jabs, a kick to the abs, then a careful guide of the enemy's head into nearby concrete.
I found it’s always best to assert dominance early, as you don’t get anywhere in Sifu by sitting back and being defensive. But you also can’t go too overboard. You have to be patient and learn not to mash. I liked that you don’t need to master specific combos to look cool or win important battles. So long as you pick the right time to unleash some fists of fury, your random mixture of button presses will always generate a string of snazzy smacks.
All the fights I sampled were bangers too. You’ll slide over sofas in a lounge area, busting nasties over the head with bottles. At one point you plunge into a cage fight and ruin the bets of the blokes watching their subjects from above. One of my favourites was a two-on-one tango against a couple of barmaids. They warned me the way ahead was shut, so naturally I ignored them. They then proceeded to finish scrubbing their glasses clean, hop over the counter, and explain the situation again, only with a combination of swift kicks and jabs. It’s an effortlessly stylish and wonderfully fluid sequence of encounters.
At the start of the level I was a youthful gent with a strict shaving regimen. Having died a bunch in my fight through the club, I ended my preview as a 50-something karate king with a dazzling beard and grey hair. As I mentioned above, death in Sifu isn’t the end. In fact, it’s a new beginning. After every defeat, you get another chance at life, but you’ll have aged a bit. Thing is, the more you die in succession, the faster you age. Hit 70 and you’ll have to restart the mission from scratch.
What’s neat is that each time you die, you can stick EXP earned from defeated enemies into this magical necklace filled with unlockable abilities. Things like new moves that let you slash enemies with knives or swing staves with increased vigor, to slinging items from the ground in a pinch. And as you grow beardy, your health bar lowers but your damage increases to compensate. In many ways, you morph into a glass cannon. You develop this relationship with your creaking body, where you understand its limits. One misstep and you’re dead, but boy do you hit hard. It really does make you feel like an ailing kung-fu master.
On my first couple of playthroughs, I really enjoyed growing old and feeling this physical sense of mastery. Not only that, but it added this element of tension to proceedings. I found I performed better with the pressure. My nine lives were up and I simply couldn’t let that lady’s leg-sweep get me, otherwise I’d finally plunge into the game over void.
But as I gave the preview build a final few whirls and became more adept in my roundhousery, I swung the other way; I clung onto youth. I had this desire to stay young and almost roleplay as this cocky upstart who could lay the beatdown on all these punks. No matter if I didn’t hit as hard, it felt great to replay each scenario having learned from my previous lives as Mr. Wrinkles.
It all came to a head in the final boss of the build, who’s a tough cookie with a headband on and no top: two clear indications he means business and is likely very good at martial arts. Sure, I'd aged a bit going in, but I was still quite young, and I was desperate to prove to this guy that I could beat him at a similar time in our lives.
Whether Sifu will be able to maintain this momentum throughout the rest of the game remains to be seen, of course, but based on what I played it's shaping up to be a great kung-fu saga, with stylish combat and electric boss fights. More than that, though, its interesting aging system makes you both appreciate growing older and staying youthful. I also never did find Sean, so I'd like to rectify that one day. Maybe give him a quick handshake or stick him in a chokehold. Whatever works.
I won't have to wait too long for the opportunity as Sifu launches on February 8th 2022 (that's a few weeks earlier than its original release date of February 22nd) via the Epic Games Store.