My first hands-on with an early demo build of Sifu ahead of its February 8, 2022 release confirmed one thing that had been on my mind ever since the very first reveal trailer: that yes, Sifu’s combat is as fun to play as it is to just look and marvel at. It’s just as precise, fluid, impactful, and dynamic as the trailers have portrayed. Its combat is structured similarly to the Batman Arkham games, Sleeping Dogs, and several other games of that ilk, but it became apparent within just seconds after throwing my first couple of punches, kicks, and perfectly timed blocks and counter attacks that there’s a certain authenticity to Sifu’s Kung Fu that feels unprecedented in this space.
The demo that I got to play covered the Club level, which was a fairly small chunk of gameplay that – once I knew what I was doing – could be completed in just about 12-15 minutes. But I found myself so absorbed that I’ve been continuously coming back to it in my spare time, and at this point, I’ve dumped a little over six hours into just this small slice of Sifu.
Much of that time was spent learning the ins and outs of Sifu’s combat, which definitely has its roots in the Batman Arkham school of that one vs many, strike/counter/takedown style of combat. But from those roots, it sprouts in a completely different direction. For one, Sifu’s battles are exceptionally difficult by design. Enemies don’t give off warning signs above their head or flash different colors to let you know when they’re about to attack, the parry window on most enemy strikes is extremely tight, and they will often parry your own strikes, rarely letting you land more than two to three hits in quick succession without stunning them first.
Enemies are so tough because you’re expected to die several times in any given run through of Sifu. In fact, dying is actually one of the main ways you’re able to become stronger. When you lose all of your health, your death counter will increase by one, and you’ll be able to spend your earned EXP on new moves and upgrades. You’ll then be able to revive right where you keeled over and get back into the fight. But revival comes at a cost: time. When you revive you’ll actually age up by whatever your death counter is at. So if your death counter is at 5, and you’re 37 years old, when you revive, you’ll suddenly be 42. The next time you die, you’ll be 48. Then 55, and so on. Defeating certain tough enemies will allow you to reduce your death counter, but you can’t turn back the clock.
The more you age, the more frail you become, with your health bar shrinking every 10 years. But with age also comes experience, and so every time your life bar diminishes, you’ll also deal more damage. Your age is also tracked via a pendant with five medallions, with one medallion breaking every 10 years. This pendant also is what is used to purchase upgrades, with each medallion having four to five upgrades attached to it. Once a medallion breaks though, those upgrades are no longer achievable for that run, and once you run out of medallions on your pendant, it’s game over, and you’ll have to restart from the beginning.
One really important thing to note about Sifu’s combat is that it’s very defensive-oriented. Most enemies you’ll need to open up by making them miss. To that end, you have actually have a total of four unique options when it comes to defense, each with their own specific use: you can guard, parry, sway, or dodge. Guarding requires no timing but is governed by a meter that fills every time you block a strike, and leaves you defenseless when it’s maxed out; parrying requires the strictest of timing and can only be used on certain strikes, but it completely stops an opponent’s combo dead in its tracks and leaves them dizzy; swaying requires slightly less precise timing than a parry and sometimes gives you an opening for a counter attack, but doesn’t stop an enemy’s combo like a parry does; and dodging simply lets you back dash or side step out of the way without giving you any sort of counter attack advantage.
The best part of Sifu’s combat, though, is how much you’re able to use the environment as a weapon. Dizzy enemies can be thrown in any direction, and the throw is context-sensitive depending on where you’re throwing them. Throw an enemy near a balcony and you’ll just hurl them right over; throw them near a waist or chest high wall and you’ll smash their face into it; throw them in the direction of a glass barricade and they’ll stagger a bit before crashing through it. Wooden partitions can be broken and their pieces can be used as weapons, ottomans can be slid across the ground to knock bad guys off their feet, bottles can be flung straight off a table into a thug’s face; and you can smoothly scale walls or hop over obstacles to get the jump on a foe.
Smooth is the key word here. Almost everything in Sifu just feels silky smooth. The way strikes seamlessly flow into throws, the way your character slips a punch and then effortlessly throws a counter strike without resetting to any sort of neutral stance, the way every character reacts to getting hit – it’s all just some of the most impressive martial arts motion capture I’ve ever seen. The only thing that’s not smooth is the performance, which suffered significant slowdown whenever my character transitioned into a new area. Thankfully it never affected my ability to play, but it’s still something that I hope gets ironed out in the final release.
There are still some big questions that remain regarding how Sifu’s roguelite progression holds up over the course of a full game as opposed to just a single level, but as far as the core combat is concerned, Sifu is shaping up to be just as special as it looks. We’ll find out how the full game fares when it comes out on 2/8/22.
Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on twitter @JurassicRabbit