Sifu is a Sharp, but Uncomfortable Action Movie

Round One: Fight!

Sifu does not care about you. It will kick your teeth in, spit on you, and watch you scramble as foes serenade you with a symphony of shit-talk. It is an arduous journey; there is no grinding for better equipment, cheesing bosses, or lowering the difficulty. To survive, you must get better at anticipating what punches Sifu throws at you and when, or else you will be lost in a flurry of fists.

I didn’t think I would complete Sifu in time for this review. But somehow I did. I love how it is a perfect simulation of every close-quarters fight scene of one versus 100, as if it were straight out of an action movie. Except instead of an army of clumsy grunts waiting their turn to fight the protagonist as they do on the big screen, foes in Sifu are throwing hands non-stop.

It’s mechanically ambitious, tough, and overwhelming, and you have to accept its rules to have fun. But when it’s going, damn is it going: you’ll try to land a punch on someone when another enemy throws a bottle at you from across the room and knocks you dizzy. As your screen finally clears up, a beefy bodyguard runs Mach 10 towards you, hankering to land a suplex. From start to finish, Sifu impresses with combat systems that flow to make even the most inconsequential fights feel like a climactic cinematic spectacle.

While I like Sifu‘s gameplay a lot, I’ve also been deeply unimpressed with its setting and aesthetic. The protagonist and (almost) all other characters are Chinese — but as pointed out by Features Editor Khee Hoon Chan at The Gamer, the Parisian development team at Sloclap is almost entirely white (other than composer Howie Lee) and has no connection to the cultures they’ve dedicated their whole game to. Now, I’m not Asian. I don’t go here. But seeing white people rip other cultures as wallpaper for their creations, no matter how much research is done, is cringy. I’m here for representation, but I’m also a believer that you should write what you know. If Sloclap wanted to tell a Chinese story based in China, they should’ve hired more Chinese staffers to help with writing, development, and production.

While playing through Sifu, it’s hard not to think about its development team being white. It frustrates me because from a gameplay perspective, Sifu is phenomenal. But for the life of me, I don’t understand why this group of people chose to tell this story. There were myriad other avenues available.

Sifu

Sifu opens up with a group of martial artists betraying your father and murdering him in front of you. They then attempt to kill you, a small child, but you miraculously survive. From that traumatic moment on, you plot your revenge on each and every one of them. Fast forward years later, you’re a young adult living in a hideout with a corkboard of your mortal enemies, and it’s time to hunt. This plot set-up is very safe and generic, and only gets interesting once you fight through all of the bosses twice (which takes many hours). Its most fascinating aspect is the corkboard, which is a lore bible that helps tie the characters together and connect the world. There’s a mysterious door locked in one early zone, and you only get the key by fighting some tanky enemies and checking a guest room in the last level. When you unlock those secrets, they flesh out the meaningless revenge plot line into a better, more tragic navigation of loss and closure.

Your first rodeo is getting through a sketchy area called “The Squats” to kill The Botanist, the drug dealer who slashed your throat years ago. This is where Sifu introduces its basic Kung Fu combos, the Jade Dragon statues that allow you to upgrade abilities with experience, and the magical pendant that lets you cheat death during fights. Each time you die, the trinket increases its Death Counter. When you rise again, your deaths are added onto your age. It’s an integral part of your playthrough, for you have to manage your age wisely to finish Sifu. You start at 20 years old, but if you fumble enough, you eventually reach your 70s, forcing you to die and restart a level. Sifu’s difficulty kicks in when you realize it expects you to complete it within one lifetime — a feat that feels impossible when you beat the first boss and realize you are already a senior.

Sifu

Initially, I couldn’t tell if I sucked at Sifu or if its systems were just sloppy and unresponsive. After learning how to properly play, it became obvious it was deeply challenging. To play well, you desperately have to learn how to parry, avoid, and dodge, or else you will continuously die. Similar to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you and your opponents have a structure meter. If you parry enough attacks, you break your enemy’s structure and open them up for an easy takedown. Sifu doesn’t explain these systems or their uses all too well but it hands you the tools to learn them, encouraging a novel playstyle that rewards the curious and dedicated.

With some of the most refined hand-to-hand combat I’ve seen in a game of recent memory, Sifu is a fighter gem with a medley of cutting-edge mechanics. But I didn’t enjoy the constant internal fight I had to engage in while playing. Its aesthetics and storytelling make for surface-level cultural tourism that is uncomfortable the whole way through. The video games industry is overwhelmingly white — while on-screen representation is improving, we have to demand for better diversity among the creators behind the screen. The stories of people of color deserve to be told — and we deserve to be the ones telling them.