Beat-em-up was one of the favorite game genres of the ’90s. “Final Fight”, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, “Golden Ax” – these games were short in terms of story but long in quarterly gameplay. Players make their way through armies of thugs, and even if their skills are poor, they can finish the arcade game with enough money.
With the advent of consoles, the popularity of beat-em-up has faded, but every now and then comes a project that reminds fans of what they love about the genre. The most recent example is Sloughlap’s “Sifu,” a tale of revenge in a cruel martial arts.
Like those rhythmic beats, setup is simple. A gang of fighters is attacking and killing Sifu or the master of a martial arts school. Players take on the role of his only child – the hero can be male or female – who witnesses death and is also killed in its wake. This is what the Kung Fu Guild believes in, but what they didn’t know was that the kid had a magical spell that revives the hero at the cost of lifespan.
Age as a mechanism of play
If a martial artist dies, she will come back to life but she will be a year older than that. This is one of the main hooks that Sloclap offers with “Sifu”. This means that players’ lives are limited by how good they are in combat. If they continue to die, aging accelerates rapidly. Falling into battle costs one year, crashing again costs two, and dying a third time costs three.
Failures accumulate quickly and the champion eventually aging in a matter of minutes. Just as in real life, age comes with trade-offs. Players max health decreases but their damage output increases. This means that as players get older, defensive maneuvers like blocking and dribbling become more important to preserving the little lives they have.
With five levels of fierce enemies, players will have a hard time achieving this revenge. At first, they will die a lot as they acclimate to Sifu’s complex combat system. Players have light and heavy attacks, dodge and block, but Sloclap’s layers in mechanics reward experts who can read and block opponents’ attacks. “Sifu” is a hit game that equals precision in which players memorize combos and discover tactics to counter swarming mobs. (Pro tip: Don’t get cornered.)
Working for the perfect race
Success will not come overnight and the campaign will benefit from many games. If players finish The Squats at the age of 36, they will move on to the next level at that age. If they can complete this part of the task at the age of 62, they will begin the museum chapter in the same year of age. With death approaching past the age of 70, entering the later levels as an older fighter is very difficult.
Fortunately, players can replay stages and with a better sense of combat, they can finish a level with the fewest deaths. Instead of starting the next chapter in his 30s, an experienced player can turn 21 when visiting the club, tear up the stage and head to the next one better.
These mechanisms make “Sifu” frustratingly difficult. It’s almost like trying to pass Final Fight on an arcade budget of $2. One of the savings features is that players can earn experience points and use them to unlock additional moves. Moreover, players will discover shrines where they can upgrade their hero depending on their gameplay. These perks have different requirements but cater to styles that focus on survival, weapons, or calculated focus attacks.
Unfortunately, most of the character’s progress is erased after the player’s final death while running. The only skills players keep are those that are permanently unlocked, but they cost a lot of XP. Players have to grind to unlock everything. This element and the acronyms in “Sifu” add a slight sinister aspect to the Beat-em-up genre.
The blending works well and gives the project a modern feel complemented by elegant visuals. “Sifu” has had Asian cinema up its sleeve with references to the films “Old Boy” and Bruce Lee.
Although “Sifu” looks attractive, it is not the most accessible game. Players face a steep learning curve like El Capitan and this combined with unforgiving difficulty. The game’s camera does no favors, players dodge and move around the rooms, the action sometimes obscured which leads to frustrating deaths.
But despite the intimidating challenge, “Sifu” is just as rewarding as other challenging games this year like “Elden Ring”. It’s a title that will test players’ patience and determination, and it will take the discipline of a martial arts master to unleash the potential in this adventure.
3½ stars out of 4
program: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC