Sifu: The First Preview

If there’s one thing that developer Sloclap has shown that they have a unique mastery over in the world of video games, it’s martial arts. If 2017’s hand-to-hand-combat-focused open-world RPG, Absolver wasn’t a convincing enough case, their upcoming beat-em-up, Sifu, certainly aims to prove that few do kung-fu better than the Paris based studio. After getting a 30-minute developer-driven demo, I’d find it hard to argue against the point.

Sifu is a game that’s obviously inspired by classic Asian martial arts movies, with its laser focus on being a single outnumbered martial artist facing off against a group of thugs and goons and scraping by not only with your skill, but also your environmental awareness and ingenuity. I know what you’re thinking: “But Mitchell, that’s like… every beat-em-up or action game.” But it’s different here, and it comes down to a couple of key things.

For one, Sifu’s martial arts combat is smooth as butter. Not only are the animations super fluid, but the way strikes flow naturally into parries, which can then transition seamlessly into grabs and throws, perfectly mimics the style of a classic kung-fu movie. Even more importantly, though, is the role that the environment plays in combat, which we’ll get to in a bit.

Sifu's martial arts combat is smooth as butter.

On a fundamental level, Sifu’s combat very quickly brings to mind the Batman Arkham games and most specifically, Sleeping Dogs, but there are some key differences. For one, at its core is a structure meter that governs both your own and your opponents’ ability to block. By continuously landing attacks, you’ll deplete their structure meter, eventually opening them up to a takedown or execution. The same is true for you as well. Block too often, and your meter will decrease until eventually your guard is opened up. You can parry by timing a block just as an opponent strikes, which will stun and open them up for strikes or a directional throw. You can throw enemies into walls, down stairs, through guardrails, over railings, and so on and so forth, making it a vital technique. There’s also a focus gauge that allows you to slow down time and target specific body parts that each cause a different effect when hit.

There’s a ton of destructibility in play as well. In one part, the player was picked up and slammed through a partition, which then allowed him to pick up a wooden piece of it and use it as a weapon. Bottles can also be picked up and thrown, and even objects on the floor like ottomans can be kicked towards enemies to knock them off their feet. Despite it being a developer-led hands-off demonstration, the combat still managed to have a very improvised look to it, with the player having multiple options to deal with enemies at any time.

What really struck me the most about the combat, though, was how contextual and reactive everything was. By positioning himself next to a counter and luring the enemy in, the player was able to dodge a strike, and then slam the enemy’s head into the counter for a quick knockout; pieces of furniture will get destroyed as combatants get knocked through them; bad guys will either surrender as you take out their friends, or become enraged and become even more dangerous when they’re the last one left. I saw a lot of fighting over the course of the demonstration, and yet every scrap had a unique feel to it thanks to the unique placements of objects, hazards, and how the player was able to turn a bad situation around by using the environment to their advantage.

The demonstration also touched briefly upon unlockable skills and upgrades, which can be purchased from shrines, but what’s interesting is that your upgrades and skills are lost upon death, which almost moves Sifu into a roguelite territory. But I wouldn’t go that far, as the randomization elements that are key to that genre don’t seem to be present in Sifu. There is, however, that element of single-run progression versus permanent progression. Instead of spreading your points out and buying a bunch of skills to help you in your current run, you could instead opt to pool the points into one skill and work towards unlocking it as a permanent upgrade that persists on all future runs. It’s an interesting choice and I’m curious to see how else the roguelike elements manifest and develop over the course of the game.

I was impressed by virtually everything I saw of Sifu. The combat looks exquisite, the roguelite elements are intriguing, and the ways in which it brings to mind classic asian martial arts movies should be exciting to any fan of the genre. Sifu releases on February 22, 2022 for PS4/PS5 and PC.

Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on twitter @JurassicRabbit