Published on May 28th, 2022 | by Richard Banks
Sifu PS5 Review
Summary: A wonderfully difficult beat-'em-up that puts the player at the forefront of their very own martial arts epic.
Sifu pulls no punches with its refreshing take on the roguelike genre. With tight combat and inventive level design, Sifu boasts one of the best martial arts experiences available from a video game in years – even with its punishing difficulty.
Hitting familiar beats to, well, every martial arts film ever, Sifu starts with your nameless protagonist witnessing the murder of your father at the hands of a group of disgraced students. After a cool intro mocked up as a training montage, your now grown-up Kung-Fu hero thrusts themselves into a tale of revenge as they vow to kill off the gang that murdered their father years before. The overall story is pretty generic, but thanks to titbits of information hidden throughout each map, the world soon becomes easy to sink into as you explore the criminal underworld where your enemies hide.
But it’s Sifu’s unique roguelike system that really sets it apart from its contemporaries. Rather than dying upon defeat, your protagonist wakes up a year older, starting out as a 20-year-old spritely fighting champion, going all the way up to one last life at the ripe old age of 70. Several ‘deaths’ in a row leads you to age up quicker, but taking out enemies reduces the number of years you lose upon defeat. It’s imperative to stay as young as possible for as long as possible, as each area needs clearing in one lifetime – get to that last life at 70 and die, and any surviving bosses escape their fate, meaning you have to start again from the top. In another nice touch, as you age, your stamina pool shrinks but your character puts out more damage, reflecting the protagonist undergoing the ageing process whilst furthering their stance as a martial arts champion.
Ageing up isn’t all negative, though, as it also allows you to redeem well-earned experience points, unlocking new moves and stats that make run-throughs easier. Some of these buffs aren’t immediately noticeable, like minor stat changes, but some of the more impressive – and expensive – unlockable moves become almost necessary, especially in later fights. Gaining the ability to grab enemy weapons mid-air, for example, can mean the difference between a cheap death and pulling off an impressive combat counter-attack if timed right. Likewise, the deadly Raining Strikes combo can put an enemy out of business for the vital few seconds it takes you to gain the upper hand. While, as standard, these unlock reset each run, many of these can be permanently unlocked for a hefty fee, helping future runs lean to your favour.
And you’ll need all the help you get. Sifu is hard, and success is really a mixture of trial, error, and more than a pinch of luck. It’s possible to get good at Sifu, and those used to pulling off successful combos in the beat-’em-ups of old will find much of Sifu easy to grasp, but mastering it will take hours of practice. Much of the combat revolves around tapping two buttons to link together attacks, with the rest of the controller reserved for dodging and blocking. It’s incredibly fast-paced stuff – and with multiple assailants surrounding you – Sifu can sometimes be overwhelming. From one direction, a foot sweeps across the floor, begging to bring you to the ground, while at the same time, a bottle sails its way from across the room, vying for my face. After a quick recovery, multiple punches come rolling in from a quick-footed fighter – all whilst a heavily built foot soldier threatens to throw you across the room, provided you don’t roll away in time.
But for all these tiring encounters, this intense pacing really works for Sifu, and with a little perseverance, I found I (sort of) mastered the art of fast-paced Kung-Fu. I felt like I was taking part in a Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee movie, and these high octane battles helped the game’s 15 or so hours of runtime feel fresh and engaging throughout.
It also helps that the five environments your protagonists work through are full of nifty tricks to help you fight off the endless stream of bad guys. Walls can be vaulted over, enemies can be slammed into tables and thrown downstairs, and bats, sticks and bottles can be picked up and used as crowd control. While these environmental hazards can, naturally, be used against you, successfully linking a combo attack and then launching an enemy into a sideboard feels incredibly slick and, most importantly, satisfying.
And while five environments may sound light on content, these all come with hidden pathways, alternative routes and their own individual themes, making them all a joy to explore. The areas also feature some outstanding set pieces, like an early scene that turns the screen sideways, forcing you lay waste to a series of enemies in the tight confines of a corridor. Another early dance floor scene lets you lay waste to a gang of angry clubbers while drum and bass thumps away in the background. Again, the whole thing feels ripped from the screen of an abrasive Kung-Fu flick and honestly, it really, really works.
Adding further layers to Sifu’s deceptively simple combat is a focus meter that builds up following successful encounters, allowing you to pull off increasingly impressive moves. A quick slo-mo scene leads to the option to land a deadly foot sweep or a dazing punch to the eye, and these extra-powerful moves can make the difference between life and death – especially during boss battles.
The ultimate goal in Sifu is to hunt down the protagonists sworn enemies, but finding them leads to intense battles with the game’s strongest enemies. The five leaders of the gang that killed your father all have their own shtick, from the one-armed, rope dark-wielding “CEO” to the “The Artist” with her deadly staff – but most importantly, they all offer an intense and unique battle that perfectly represents everything that makes Sifu so compelling. Employing all the tactics you’ve picked up throughout each level is imperative, as is learning how each boss moves and acts in order to defeat them.
And really, that’s the simple pleasure of Sifu. It’s not an easy process getting to the end, nor is it always fair, but what it is is absolutely satisfying, exciting stuff. Finally nailing a difficult combo or shaving off a vital handful of years in a run inspires you to better your performance elsewhere in the game and the final, dizzyingly exciting battle after several dud runs makes for one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve had in some time.
As with the best PS5 games, Sifu makes full use of the Dualsense’s delicious haptic feedback, and you can feel every punch, kick and snap as you fight your way through downtown China. The light resistance on the triggers during a fight, the patter of rain gently rumbling the controller as you move through the streets – it’s a fine example of the Dualsense used to its full potential. The game otherwise runs smoothly on PS5, but it’s worth sacrificing a little graphic potency for the silky smooth running of performance mode.
The future looks bright for Sifu. A recent roadmap detailed free updates coming to the game over the next year, culminating in a new Arena mode this winter, meaning more Sifu is just around the corner. Boasting one of the best single-player experiences in years and some of the tightest gameplay in a beat-’em-up ever, Sifu is one of the most engaging adventures on offer for the PS5.